Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Stuff that makes the papers

With any luck, this will be my first entry off BostonNow, who invited me to a couple of meetings which were get-togethers with Boston's blogging community. At the second, I saw juts how tiny the space allocated to bloggers would be, especially me since all I do - bizarre serials aside - is review movies. We're talking a little one-inch square with a note to find more on their website. And I don't think I'll get that very often, since I'm not on any press lists, and thus only see films early enough to have a review up in time when I've seen a festival screening, a Brattle eye-opener or stumbled onto a word-of-mouth one. To top it all off, I seldom write full reviews of the big-name films I see because I can't give seven paragraphs to everything and feel I can be a little more useful to eFilmCritic by reviewing movies they have no reviews or just a few reviews for. Since they get me into festivals, I don't see any harm in being useful.

Maybe this week will be a good one for being able to get into the paper; I saw Knocked Up at the beginning of May and Severance back in October at the BFFF. Not that much will change if it does, but I'm sure I'll look more successful with my name on some dead trees.

Knocked Up

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 May 2007 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (Preview)

Before The 40 Year Old Virgin, Judd Apatow was probably best known as the creator of two TV series much-beloved by those who saw them (Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared). These were not envelope-pushing shows, in fact leaning far more toward the sentimental than the outrageous. This is arguably why Virgin and Knocked Up are so good - network television demands the creation of characters you want to be around, and that's a skill he carries over to his R-rated comedies.

Getting to like Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is easy - she's beautiful, friendly, patient, helpful and humble. She lives in her sister Debbie's guest house, works behind the scenes at the E! cable channel, and she and Debbie (Leslie Mann) go out to celebrate when Alison is told they want her on camera. It's there that she meets Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), a good natured stoner-slacker who shares a house with similarly-inclined friends, who vaguely intend to start a website where people can look up when a given actress appears naked in movies. Their drunken one-night stand leads to the title condition, and over the next nine months they try to figure out what kind of family they will become. Making it a frightening prospect is that their model - Debbie, her husband Pete (Paul Rudd), and their two kids - is falling apart before their eyes.

One of the things that makes Knocked Up more interesting than the typical romantic comedy is that it sets up a situation where it might not wind up a romantic comedy. The morning-after conversation that Alison and Ben have doesn't just make them appear different while illustrating actual unexpected chemistry; it demonstrates in no uncertain terms how Ben is not good enough for Alison, and isn't really motivated to improve himself. As much as he likes her and she likes him, our expectations and desires, along with Alison's, are a little more modest: Just let Ben get it together enough to be helpful during the pregnancy and a good weekend dad after.

Full review at EFC (or at least, it will be once the embargo period is over).

Spider-Man 3

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2007 at Regal Fenway #12 (First-run)

Disappointing sequels come in threes, or at least "Part IIIs", this summer. Spider-Man 3 is the best of this May's three third installments, but it's also the most disappointing, since I expect more from Sam Raimi and since it has the best predecessors. The irony is that what got Raimi a lot of praise for his first Spider-movie - a story that focuses solidly on Peter Parker as a character rather than empty spectacle - is this movie's biggest weakness; there sometimes seemed to be too much story and not enough fighting supervillains.

What's frustrating is that there are plenty of bits that are really good ideas. Sam and Ivan Raimi and Spider-Man 2 writer Alvin Sargent have distilled the Venom/Black Costume story down to its essence, and hooked it to a well-meaning story of forgiveness. He actually shows us an upbeat, happy Mary Jane for a while. And I half-suspect that it won't be his last outing with the character, as has been widely reported, because he kind of has to do more with Bryce Dallas Howard, James Cromwell, and Dylan Baker as Gwen Stacy, her father, and Professor Curt Connors.

Also: Bruce Campbell with a French accent is hilarious. Why that guy never caught on in the mainstream, I don't know.

Shrek the Third

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 May 2007 at AMC Boston Common #8 (First-run) (Digital)

The third Shrek, though, is just sort of lifeless. I think part of the trouble is that, by the third movie, we know and like Shrek, Donkey, and company too much, and having them be rude or crude in a fairy tale setting is no longer surprising enough to be really funny. I suspect that they've been toned down a little as well, since they're now highly merchandised franchise material. Cameron Diaz's Fiona certainly has. Rupert Everett's Prince Charming, alas, is still not nearly as amusing a villain as John Malkovich's Faarquad.

What is unexpected, and thus kind of funny, is King Arthur as a whiny high school kid, especially the moment when he's told that he's the next king and basically tells the rest of the kids to suck it - even if the whole high school thing is yet another "just like contemporary America... only in another time period!" deal. And I think I would have really enjoyed more of the princesses, especially the catty, bitchy Snow White; the fairy tale princess seems like a nice, ripe target for satire, and this movie wasn't quite mean enough for long enough.

28 Weeks Later

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 May 2007 at Regal Fenway #6 (First-run)

Wow, has it really been five-plus years since both the original 28 Days Later and the only other feature by the sequel's director, Juan Carlos Fresndillo? Hard to believe, and I didn't even realize this was from the maker of Intacto until the topic came up during the Brattle's Grindhouse Panel. That at least gives 28 Weeks Later a nice pedigree, and it's got a good cast, too - I'm always up to see Rose Byrne in something, for instance.

It's a pretty good horror movie. Like most horror sequels, it's basically a repetition of its predecessor - escape from fast-moving zombies, only to find that the military is arguably the bigger threat. It's a slicker, more tech-savvy take on the idea, and the central character conflict is solid: A family ripped apart by distrust, and the rage-infected father being the biggest recurring threat to fleeing kids. It makes the U.S. military look a little stupid and a little vicious, while Days just had the soldiers as desperate. But overall, it works pretty well.

One thing I'd have loved to see them play with - and if by some extraordinary unlikely sequence of events, I got to write 28 Months Later, I certainly would tackle it - is the idea that an entire G-7 nation has basically been wiped out, and now all that property has passed into the hands of a group of expatriots and people who happened to be on vacation. And, heck, I don't think it's ever been mentioned what happened to the royal family. There's got to be an interesting story to be built out of that set of circumstances.

Black Book (Zwartboek)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 May 2007 at Arlington Capitol #1 (Second-run)

Paul Verhoven is ruthless. This has always been the case, of course, but it's intriguing to me that at an age when many would be retiring, or perhaps becoming overcome by sentiment, Verhoven has gone and made a provocative picture about a subject that many talented directors would be content to present simply. There have been many films about the resistance during World War II, but few where the Nazi commander can come out looking pretty good.

It's a testament to Verhoven's skill that this statement doesn't seem ridiculous. The resistance is such a morally gray place, and one where the treatment of Jews like Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is given short shrift compared to that of the Christian Dutch, that it's no wonder she starts to feel something for the SS commander she's assigned to spy on, intimately if necessary: He, at least, seldom lies to her or treats her like she's not wanted. Fortunately, he's got a far more repugnant colleague and seems willing to negotiate, but it's a really fantastic depiction of just how much up can become down and vice versa in the espionage world.

Verhoven also delivers the brutal action that's to be expected, based upon his work in America, sometimes crossing the line between being unflinching and just excessive: On the one hand, I think a scene where Rachel has a gigantic vat of excrement poured on her is too much, but it's also an act of degradation that is hard to rationalize away, and something that egregious might be necessary, since a two-hour movie can't quite communicate the constant, long-term pressure that the character is under. Verhoven also does a fantastic job of subverting expectations based on genre conventions; I've got to agree with what fellow EFC writer Peter Sobczynski wrote in his review: As much as telling the story in flashback initially looks like it may destroy suspense, it winds up serving as a nastily ironic comment on the genre and history. Good show.

Pirates of the Caribean: At World's End

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 May 2007 at Regal Fenway #12 (First-run)

To give Pirates 3 its due, it's at least a letdown in the way that Spider-Man 3 is, as opposed to Shrek 3: It has ambitions and wild ideas that get away from it. As with the Raimis, Jerry Bruckheimer's team of Gore Verbinski, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio have a story they want to tell, and if they make a bit of a hash of it, at least they're not just filling time because these movies make their corporate masters a lot of money like the Shrek guys.

They do, however, fall victim to one of the problems with Shrek 3, big-time: They've made their characters too cuddly. It's not just Johnny Depp's flamboyant, foppish Jack Sparrow - good luck finding a pirate in this movie who truly comes off as a bad guy. In the first movie, Geoffery Rush's Captain Barbossa was a monster, literally - a betraying, murdering thief who turned into a skeleton in the moonlight. Resurrected here for no better reason than being a popular character, he's not quite comic relief, but he's certainly less than he was. Bill Nighy's Davy Jones has been given a tragic backstory as well, and Chow Yun-fat's character (whom we don't see nearly enough of) quickly displays nobility. All we're left with for a villain is a bland seventeenth-century corporate stooge who apparently has the British Navy at his beck and call. I'm not exactly convinced that surrounded by murderers, rapists, and thieves, the British East India Tea Company is the best we could do for bad guys.

That is hardly the only bad decision that Elliot & Rossio (two of my favorites) make; in fact, I'm hard pressed to think of a single minute of this long movie that really made sense. And I don't mean that it was difficult to tell what was going on; just that at no point did it ever seem like anyone made well-motivated decisions. All the excitement and danger of the supernatural present in the first has been drained away as such things as ghosts and resurrections become commonplace, and the idea of giving Sparrow imaginary friends to talk to gets annoying fast. It also smacks of trying too hard to please ("if one Johnny Depp is fun, three will just be awesome!"). And as much as I loved Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann in this movie, I can't help but notice that she rather falls up the ranks as it goes on, as opposed to climbing.

Credit for trying rather than coasting, though. At least I felt like the people involved were trying to entertain me, rather than just take my money.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Catching up to... A month ago.

Some of these films, especially All Through The Night and probably Wristcutters, will be getting full reviews now that I've finished up with the Independent Film Festival of Boston, but a lot of them have slipped far enough out the back of my head that I can't properly give details. The only ones where I'm off HBS/EFC's rating by more than a whole star are Shooter and Diggers, and life's too short to spend too much more time thinking about Shooter, anyway.

The Lookout

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2007 at AMC Boston Common #11 (First-run)

Writers don't generally get fan clubs in Hollywood, so Scott Frank's name probably isn't as familiar as it should be. That's a real shame, because he's contributed to some films that I've liked a lot - Dead Again, Out of Sight, Minority Report, and Get Shorty. The man can flat-out write, and he shows some real skills in the director's chair, too.

One thing I really liked was the way he simultaneously subverted and fulfilled my expectations - based upon that list of credits and the title, I expected something more straightforwardly focused on the crime/caper aspects of it. Instead, for the first two or three acts, it's an examination of Joshua Gordon-Leavitt's character, both in terms of how the process he uses to make in through the day, living with a certain amount of brain damage, and how it feels to have been a Big Deal in high school but now the recipient of pity and charity. Godon-Leavitt is great, and he's supported by a cast full of people I like: Jeff Bridges, Isla Fisher, Bruce McGill.

And it makes the last act, where we finally do get to see the crimes and double-crosses in action, extra delicious: Here's a guy who can't keep tasks in order without notes, and who has trouble with short-term memory, trying to outwit a gang of crooks who know his witness. It's an extra level of suspense when things are up in the air and it makes every little victory especially sweet..

Meet The Robinsons

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2007 at Regal Fenway #10 (First-run) (Digital 3-D)

I'll admit - not a movie that particularly appealed to me at first sight (the initial trailers were, if I recall my reaction correctly, awful). But I'm a sucker for animation and 3-D besides, so I went. Despite the slight headache I had which the 3-D glasses didn't help with. And the sucker won me over.

Seeing John Lasseter's name in the opening credits helped perk things up a little - if he had some input, then it was probably at least a step up from the at-best mediocre job Disney's non-Pixar animated features had been lately. Then it gave me fun banter between its young characters that was neither a string of pop culture references or insults. Then it did some time travel and gave me a retro-futuristic world on a par with Robots without leaning too hard on the "retro". I liked the sign that said "Todayland" outside a shot that looked like Disney World's Tomorrowland. I liked that it didn't deliver quite the time-travel twist I was expecting. I liked the change to a landscape both post-apocalyptic and whimsical. I liked ending it on a quote from Walt Disney.

This doesn't all add up to a great, Pixar-quality film - but it's better than anything Disney has done by itself in a long, long time. It looks like they might finally getting things right again in the House of Mouse.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 April 2007 at AMC Boston Common #12 (First-run)

There is a lot to love in Grindhouse. It's also easy to forgive its faults, because the movie is clearly a labor of love for everybody involved. Only Rodriguez, I think, really goes overboard - Planet Terror could have been even more fun if he hadn't been trying to crap up the picture with digital faux-wear and just looked at it as a chance to make a seventy-minute balls-out action movie. Although maybe with fewer balls actually out. That was gross.

I think he had the best fake trailer of the bunch, too - "Machete" was a riot, although I don't know if the actual film in pre-production can deliver on the insanity promised by that clip. My next-favorite was "Werewolf Women of the SS", which was out of step with the rest but still damn amusing - the Nicolas Cage cameo worked for me even though it turned a lot of folks off. Conversely, I wasn't quite as amused by "Don't" as some; I could see the joke it was grasping for but not quite reaching. "Thanksgiving" was good at being in bad taste.

"Death Proof" was the jewel, though, and I loved it. I liked the opening half that seems more than a little like padding, but authentically so - many grindhouse pictures did a lot of nothing before getting to the good stuff, and Tarantino's nothing is at least enjoyable to watch and listen to. It also goes on long enough that when he kills his characters, it's something that maybe angers the audience a little as well as establishing the killer's bona fides.

Then he gives us Zoe Bell, and makes it perfectly clear to even the folks who didn't see Double Dare just how cool this stuntwoman is. He name-drops Vanishing Point before giving us a pair of fantastic car chases. Note that all the digital crapification to simulate an old, beat-up print is gone during these scenes - Tarantino wants us to have a good look at what's going on. Normally, when someone is holding onto the hood of a speeding car, they're grabbing the wipers or the back side of the hood, face planted in the windshield so that they can easily be doubled with any shots of the face from inside so that the speeding background can be added with rear projection or matte work. Not the deal with Zoe; she's flying all over the place and giving us a real good look at the fear on her face at eighty miles an hour.

I also love how Tarantino shreds the slasher mystique; although Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike is set up to look cool and fearsome, his attack on Zoe and her friends displays just how pathetic and cowardly he and his ilk are. They only attack people weaker than them, generally after their good and stoned and/or drunk, on terrain they've scouted and made, well, death-proof. When Mike tries to tackle women as competent as these, he's really screwed.

All Through the Night

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2007 at The Brattle Theatre (World War II)

When this movie was made, America hadn't quite gotten involved in WWII - not officially, that is. A wacky caper comedy seems like an odd choice if the aim is propaganda, and it's unlikely many people would have their opinions swayed by this film. As it turns out, Pearl Harbor was attacked about a week after this film's premiere, and that obviously prompted a lot more calls for action than a funny Bogart flick ever could.

In the movie, Bogart plays Alfred "Gloves" Donahue, a friendly neighborhood racketeer who buys candy for kids, loves his mother (Jane Darwell), and doesn't seem to be involved in anything much worse than gambling. He's got no interest in the wars in Europe or Asia or, really, anything in the paper aside from the sports pages. What he does care about is that his favorite baker (Ludwig Stossel) didn't deliver his cheesecake in the morning. Ma has a bad feeling about it, so he investigates, only to find the baker dead. His only lead is Leda Hamilton (Kaaren Verne), a nightclub singer who has ties to Franz Ebbing (Conrad Veidt), whose auction house and toy factories are actually a front for Nazi saboteurs!

The story is, at a basic level, more than a little ridiculous, and the execution is more than a bit silly, too: There's a running gag about Gloves's newlywed driver Barney (Frank McHugh) continually trying to break away from the action to consummate his marriage. The obligatory scene in a nightclub where the title song is sung comes early, and a climactic scene where Gloves and his buddy Sunshine (William Demarest) infiltrate a gathering of Nazi spies is played for broad comedy. It seems a bit incongruous now, but you know what? In 1941, these people weren't the Greatest Generation yet; there was no reason to be overly sentimental. All Through the Night's politics aren't sophisticated - far from it - but it avoids easy soapboxing: It doesn't demonize all German immigrants, and it doesn't have a big moment where Gloves waxes poetic on how he should have been more concerned about more than the sports scores, but from now on... That's the message the film is trying to send, along with how America can make quick work of the Nazis once they set their minds to it, but it doesn't quite just come out and say it.

Full review at HBS.

The Hoax

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 April 2007 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (First-run)

I'm no fan of Richard Gere, as a rule, but he does have the occasional good performance in him. Here, it's in the service of a story I've seen references to before, most notably in Orson Welles's F For Fake. The whole idea of faking Howard Hughes's autobiography actually does fall believably into the category of "so crazy it just might work", and it's fascinating to watch the steps that the participants took to make it happen.

I particularly like Alfred Molina as Gere's researcher friend/partner; as good as Gere is at playing the charismatic schemer who can convince people who should know better that his hogwash is the truth, Molina's character is often the lynchpin on which the scheme depends. It's always a race to see whether he'll break before the enterprise is taken down by the hubris of its leader.


* * (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2007 at Regal Fenway #6 (First-run)

I was reminded, while watching this movie, of why I didn't particularly like Tom Clancy's last non-licensed book: They're stories that try to justify their violence with moral outrage, but they go too far. They answer blood with blood so enthusiastically that they halfway convince the audience that the supposed heroes are monsters too. Shooter ends with a bloodbath the audience has already been specifically told won't change anything, and as such feels more like an act of sadism than catharsis.

Ticks me off, because I like this kind of detail-laden thriller. I wonder how much more I'd like it if it starred someone other than Mark Wahlberg, who's a complete blank here. I wish Kate Mara, whom I'd liked a lot on Jack & Bobby and 24, was given better material for her first starring role. And I wish I'd been able to come out of the end feeling a rush, rather than somewhat dirty.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2007 at AMC Boston Common #7 (First-run)

You put Ryan Gosling, Anthony Hopkins, David Strathairn, and Rosamund Pike in a crime film together, the result should be more interesting than this. It really should.

Hot Fuzz

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2007 at AMC Boston Common #2 (First-run)

Throughout most of this movie, I have to admit, I didn't quite feel the love. It was funny, all right, but not quite Shaun of the Dead funny, and certainly not Spaced funny. And then Simon Pegg flies through the air to kick a granny in the face and I completely lose it.

Pegg's Nicholas Angel becomes more than a bit of a cartoon character at this point, but I don't mind, because the rest of the movie is one funny big-action set piece after another. It just assaults the audience with funny bits, more than making up for any perceived slowness in the middle, when Timothy Dalton is arguably carrying the movie with his hilariously suspicious behavior.

This, folks, is how a parody film should be done - fully aware of the genre's silliness but willing to overcome them even as it mocks. Hot Fuzz is a funny movie, but Simon Pegg and Nick Frost aren't just placeholders to work the jokes around; we care what happens to them, specifically.

Wristcutters: A Love Story

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2007 at The Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

I talked to the local rep theater's programmer the day after it ran Wristcutters: A Love Story, and he was glad to hear that at least some of us in the audience liked it, and weren't just clapping to be polite to the special guest. He'd been trying to book the movie for about a year, and had loved it himself, but recognized that he was drawn to this type of dark romantic fantasy than a general audience might be.

The idea is extremely high-concept: There's a purgatory, we're told, where the souls of suicides wind up, and in a cruel irony, it's just like the world they left, only worse: It's impossible to smile, there's nothing other than the cast-off and lost objects of the living world to be found, there aren't any stars in the sky. Zia (Patrick Fugit) works in a pizzeria there, and is just passing his days until he finds out that his girlfriend Desiree (Leslie Bibb) also killed herself. He enlists the help of his friend Eugene (Shea Whigham) - who has a car, ableit one with a black hole under the passenger's seat) - to look for her. While on the road, they'll pick up Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), a hitch-hiker who thinks she's in the wrong place, and find two very different settlements - a commune run by a friendly sort named Kneller (Tom Waits), and a cult compound run by a would-be Messiah (Will Arnett).

Wristcutters is a road movie, one whose afterlife setting hearkens back to one of the original great road stories, Dante's Divine Comedy. There's also a certain element of The Wizard of Oz in Mikal's quest to find the P.I.C.s (People in Charge) and somehow get back home. Writer/director Goran Dukic doesn't hew too close to those influences, though, nor to the story he adapts (Etgar Keret's "Kneller's Happy Campers"). In some ways, he's not that ambitious: He just wants to illustrate that suicide doesn't solve anything, the same issues will persist whether one is alive or not, and that the possibility of happiness and purpose exists even when they seem impossible.

Full review at HBS.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2007 at The Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Diggers is a nice little movie with a pretty decent cast, and I bet that it's peppered with memories from writer Ken Marino's childhood. It's a fairly well-done working man's drama that will resonate with a big chunk of its audience, and even those that don't love it will at least like it.

The diggers of the title are Long Island clammers, and in 1976 things weren't going so well for the individual clamdigger whose family had been doing it for generations: Money is tight, yields are down, and a corporation has purchased exclusive rights to the best waters. It's little wonder Hunt (Paul Rudd) is only doing it because he's known little else; he certainly doesn't want to die on his boat like his father just has. It's a harsh blow to Hunt and his sister Gina (Maura Tierney), but life goes on. For Hunt, that means taking Polaroids of the man-made landscape and meeting Zoey (Lauren Ambrose), a pretty summer resident. For Gina, it's making a connection with Hunt's friend Jack (Ron Eldard) when he comes to help her with repairs on her now-empty house. Then there's Lozo (Ken Marino), whose wife Julie (Sarah Paulson) tells him she is pregnant again just as vandals rip the motor from his boat.

It's easy to be cynical about having seen every bit of this movie before, especially since there aren't that many new twists to it. The corporation is bad in principle and callous in action, Hunt's father will have always gruffly said he should leave photography to the photographers but keep one of his son's pictures for Hunt to find after the old man's death, and a blow-up is almost inevitable once Hunt makes the discover that Jack is sleeping with a thirty-six year-old woman who is perfectly capable of making of making her own decisions. That's all expected, and there's nothing particularly wrong with doing what's expected, if it does that well.

Full review at HBS.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2007 at Regal Fenway #7 (First-run)

Vacancy is a pretty darn good horror movie, serial-killer category. It does just about everything I might want it to do right from the moment that it kics off with opening credits that draw the audience in. I like the director (he did Kontroll); I like the cast (Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, Frank Whaley). I like the straightforward story, both in terms of the couple that can only see the worst in each other rediscovering what they love and the relatively uncomplicated nature of the suspense plot. And I really like how the audience is encouraged to think along with the characters: We see everything they see, so we hunt around the screen for the same clues and try to figure out the safe path out of the hotel.

It's also short, which is fine - you really don't need more than eighty minutes or so for a horror movie. Even with that economy, though, it manages to feel a little slow on the ramp-up. I know that the idea is to get the audience thinking "enough with the bickering already!", but it may do that a little too well. And it's got no really new twists to it, substituting solid execution for innovation.

But that's okay. It's a darn good example of its genre, benefitting greatly from all the talent involved.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2007 Closing Night: Brooklyn Rules

Michael Corrente is kind of upset by the state of film production and distribution in America right now, and it's tough to really blame him - he put a lot of work into Brooklyn Rules only to likely see it have a brief blip of a theatrical release in a couple of weeks before heading to video. The thing is that, despite his protests before and after, it really isn't much more than another "coming of age in a rough neighborhood" story. It's better than average, but there's no denying that the audience had seen it in one iteration or another.

One thing that struck me odd - and showed me just how ignorant I am about film as an industry - was Corrente talking about how he turned down offers from other festivals because they weren't offering what IFFB was. It made me kind of curious what festival conditions would cause a filmmaker to refuse to have their film there - did South by Southwest refuse to fly him out to Texas and put him up in a hotel? Did some other festival say they could only screen it on video, or on some screen significantly smaller than the big room at the Coolidge (he did rant about multiplexes at one point). Maybe they were only interested if Alec Baldwin showed up. I dunno. I can't think of any situation where, if I had made a movie, I'd be picky about what festivals show it.

Anyway, that's a wrap on the IFFB. My folks are in town this weekend for Matt's college graduation, but after that I'll try and get reviews of the rest of these things up.

Brooklyn Rules

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2007 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Three pre-teen kids find the body of a murdered man in the prologue of Brooklyn Rules, which could be the start of an interesting mystery. Instead, it's mainly a method for one character to get a dog and another to get a gun. We've all heard the saw about introducing a gun in the first act, we know what almost has to come, so it's a matter of keeping us entertained in the meantime.

The film does all right on account. The kids we see in 1974 grow up to be Michael (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Carmine (Scott Caan), and Bobby (Jerry Ferrara). Michael kept the gun, but he's a pre-law student at Columbia University now, while Carmine is the one who has fallen into the orbit of neighborhood mob boss Caesar (Alec Baldwin). Bobby kept the beagle, and has grown up to be a sweet but not too bright young man trying to earn enough money to marry his longtime girlfriend Amy (Monica Keena). There's a new girl in Michael's life, too, a classmate (Mena Suvari) from Connecticut who find the rough around the edges Michael edgy but, of course, doesn't fully understand the kind of world he lives in.

It's familiar, but director Michael Corrente and his cast are doing better than going through the motions. The boys are mainly collections of easily-identifiable characteristics - Carmine's vain, Bobby's cheap - but Terence Winter gives them fun smartass dialog to bounce off each other and the cast whips it back and forth in a way that makes it genuinely sound like old friends busting on each other without malice. Too often, this sort of interaction sounds like nastiness under the guise of it being good-natured ribbing. Some of the voice-over bits given to Michael are a little wonky - for every great line like Michael's description of how his ability to bullshit and complete lack of scruples will make him an excellent lawyer, there's a cliché'd bit about how everyone from the neighborhood has a soft spot for Sinatra.

Full review at HBS.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2007 Monday: Rumbo a las Grandes Ligas

There had been rumors going around that David Ortiz would make an appearance at this film's premiere, but that didn't happen. There was a little wave of disappointment in the audience, but it had never been more than a rumor. I don't feel inclined to begrudge a major leaguer a full day off when the schedule gives him one.

Not a bad little movie, although there's an argument to be made that it's a little too upbeat - the Dominican is a poor country with a lot of kids looking to baseball as a means to succeed - and there just aren't that many job openings for major league baseball players. But it is a film about the steps taken to get there, less than an hour long, so there's just not as much emphasis on the kids who don't make it.

One thing I found interesting was that the producers were unusually open when asked the distribution question - usually they give a vaguely evasive "we're talking to a number of groups" sort of thing, but here they actually said they were talking to ESPN Deportes, hoping to air this fall.

Today's plan: Brooklyn Rules (only thing playing)

Rumbo a las Grandes Ligas (Road to the Big Leagues)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2007 at the Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

I think the Dominican Republic exports more sugar than it does baseball players, although you might guess otherwise by looking at a typical Major League roster: That small country on a Caribbean island is probably the best represented relative to its population, and there's good reason: The entire country is crazy for the game, and the lack of many better opportunities available serves as a powerful motivator.

Rather than follow one would-be ballplayer as he makes his way through the system, director Jared Goodman takes cross-section: There's a twelve-year-old who hones his skills playing vidilla (a game that involves hitting a bottle cap with a broomstick) during the hours when he can't play in an organized league and idolizes Red Sox star David Ortiz, a seventeen-year-old who after failing a tryout for the San Diego Padres dedicates himself to improving himself for the scouts' next trip through a month later, the young men in the New York Mets' Dominican baseball academy, and, of course, major leaguers Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero . There's also a cautionary tale of a player who became persona non grata with professional baseball after discrepancies were found in his birth records.

Juan Cabrera, the teenager initially rejected by the Padres, will likely make the strongest impression on the audience as the film follows him over a couple of months. His story follows the traditional narrative arc structure the closest, with initial hardship, efforts made to overcome it, and a conclusion of sorts. He's a likable kid, lacking the cockiness of many of the other participants, and otherwise very focused. When Ortiz says that Cabrera reminds him of a young Alex Rodriguez, he doesn't let it go to his head but uses it as a reason to work harder. Even if we don't know if he'll succeed by the end of the movie - Rumbo was shot in early 2006, and even if signed, he'll probably spend a few years working his way up the ladder - we've got a stake in it.

Full review at HBS.