Wednesday, April 29, 2009

IFFB 2009 Day Three: Johny Cash at Folsom Prison, In The Loop, and Pontypool

Given a chance for a do-over, I'd probably trade Johnny Cash for Kim Jong-Il, at least for the festival. Well, I probably would in real life, if it meant Johnny Cash alive and playing music as opposed to Kim Jong-Il alive and presiding over North Korea like some sort of dynastic communist cult leader. The Cash doc wasn't bad, but it's already on video, sort of (included with the deluxe CD of Live at Folsom Prison.

In the Loop was a ton of fun, and I imagine it would be even more so for those who've seen Ianucci's BBC series The Thick of It. Certainly, I'm going to have to find out if that's available here in Region 1 (apparently not. Disappointing). Ianucci had a pretty entertaining Q&A, making the first of the roughly fifty prison references I heard over the course of the festival about the Liberty Hotel.

Pontypool was also quite entertaining, and not just to the guys I know with a Canadian film fetish. It is a sign of how I not only drink, but generally don't go places where people are drinking, that I failed to recognize that the producers were drunk off their asses during the Q&A. I basically need to see someone sober for comparison purposes, because for all I know these guys were just excitable.

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Johnny Cash never did time, but his name will forever be associated with California's Folsom State Prison; a great song and a great album will do that. The Folsom Prison concert is a definitive moment in Cash's career, but as with all events, that moment has a lead-up and a postscript, as well as import to people beyond Johnny Cash. To call Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison the untold story of the concert would be overstating the case, but it is an interesting telling of what went on around it.

There's not necessarily a great deal said about Johnny Cash that fans don't already know and others wouldn't have learned from recent biographical film Walk the Line, but it is interesting to see it presented (compared to that movie) in less obvious service to a romantic or redemptive storyline. A fair amount comes from Cash himself, in a voiceover taken from a 1990s radio interview. He talks about his time in Germany transcribing Russian Morse code with a bit of pride, and describes his first prison show as being in the middle of a downpour at a prison rodeo. We also get some nifty insights into the writing of "Folsom Prison Blues" from the surviving musicians, including how the melody was "adapted" from "Crescent City Blues" by Gordon Jenkins.

Cash and his band weren't the only people in the room, of course, and we get a number of stories from the audience. There's a guard by the name of Jim Brown, as well as a pair of inmates. Millard Dedmond doesn't seem to have any particular connection to Johnny Cash aside from having been in the audience, but Glen Sherley attracts Cash's attention. Cash sees a kindred spirit in Serley - the filmmakers take pains to show that their initial creative processes are very similar - and playing a song written by the inmate during the concert, later going to bat for him with the penal system and giving him a place on the tour when he's released. We also hear from Merle Haggard, a country and western star who, as he points out, had lived what Cash sang about.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

In the Loop

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

In the Loop is sharp satire, likely sharp enough to draw blood whenever it makes the attempt. Given how divisive politics have become, that's probably enough to put off those who align themselves with the targets being skewered, which is sort of a shame, as I suspect many of them might enjoy its constant barrage of mean humor.

The film opens with the Prime Minister's Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), flipping his lid because a government minister said that a situation in the Middle East escalating to war was "unforeseeable", a dangerously absolute phrase at the best of times and likely soon to be off-message. He calls this Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) on the carpet and tries to squelch it, but Foster just proceeds to make things worse every time he opens his mouth, especially in a meeting with American Undersecretary Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy). A paper written by her assistant, Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky), which states that the benefits of war are far outstripped by the risks and costs, has started to circulate within the US State Department, much to the chagrin of Clarke's boss, Linton Barwick (David Rasche). Tucker tasks Foster and his new assistant Toby Wright (Chris Addison) with damage control, but these things are tricky.

The plot is tangled - the above description does not include James Gandolfini as an American general who, having seen war, is none to keen to see any more, or that Weld and Wright met in college/university, or an absurd subplot featuring Steve Coogan about a crumbling wall in Foster's home district. That is how it should be, of course - even though we often visualize government as a top-down hierarchy, it is a complex web where the links and relationships between people are often more personal than ideological, and what those people do is often strangely disconnected from their stated purpose. Director Armando Ianucci and his co-writers do a good job of making their story feel more complex than it actually is: They avoid unnecessary details that would further complicate matters and do a good job of making sure the audience understands what they need to without slowing down the pace.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival of Boston After Dark)

Pontypool is adapted from a small part of the novel Pontypool Changes Everything - according to the producers taking part in the Q&A, a tiny part. Paragraphs, supposedly. That's actually a really nifty idea - zoom in a large-scale story to find one that is just as big to the people caught up in it.

This is the story from the perspective of Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a radio announcer who has the morning shift on a low-power station operating out of the basement of a church in Pontypool, Ontario. It's a stripped-down operation, with just producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and technician Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) in the studio with him, and Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) calling in with traffic updates. Mazzy's a pro but it's boring most of the time, so he jumps at the opportunity to talk about something more exciting when reports start trickling in at a riot in and around a local doctor's office - a riot that turns out to be something out of a George Romero movie.

Pontypool has two somewhat unique features, one executed very well and one more of a mixed bag. The excellent one is the way that, once Mazzy arrives at the station, the camera never looks outside. Everything we know about the situation out there comes from callers and news reports, and even those are often filtered in that they're Laurel Ann reading from the wire rather than first-hand. This gives writer Tony Burgess and director Bruce McDonald time to let us get to make the first half of the movie about Mazzy and his ego without the audience feeling either like we're waiting for something to happen or that he's a one-dimensional jerk for thinking of his career despite immediate danger. What's going on is real and scary but not yet immediately so, so we can wait a while for this to turn into a siege movie. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of giving us a personal stake in what's going on with Ken Loney, even though he never actually appears on screen.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

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