Monday, May 11, 2009

IFFB 2009 Day Five: Herb and Dorothy, Helen, Unmistaken Child, and The Escapist

I was looking forward to all the movies I saw on the festival's last day in Somerville, but I was looking to something else, too. Dinner.

Good food is wasted on me, but I love a good burger more than just about everything else. And while I'm not yet willing to put The Boston Burger Company in the same category as Bartley's or Mr. Steer, it had one thing that made my mouth water.

That would be "The King". A burger with bacon, peanut butter, and fried bananas. I'm pretty sure the one I had had cheese as well. So, basically, we're talking about everything that makes eating pleasurable under one bun. I had to have a regular burger on Saturday to make sure that we were talking about a good foundation, in order to figure out whether this was actually the greatest thing ever, or a case of the whole not being the sum of its parts.

I think I may be falling on the side of greatest thing ever. Now I've just got to figure out how to get it right at home.

Herb and Dorothy

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Herbert and Dorothy Vogel are a treasure, and most people will likely decide that's the case just from hearing about the couple, without the need for a movie to convince them. They're a working-class couple that managed to become a fixture in the New York City art scene and amass a staggering collection, and as such it's very easy to fall in love with just the idea of them. It's nice that Megumi Sasaki's film assures us that the reality is as charming as the legend.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel met in 1960; he was a postal worker who had dropped out of high school, she a librarian who had moved to the city from Elmira. They fell in love and were married a year later, and while Herb had never hidden his interest in art, it wasn't until they went to the National Gallery on their honeymoon that Dorothy saw the full extent of his enthusiasm. She came to share it, and soon they were taking classes together. Creating art wasn't their thing, but they loved being around art and artists, and in 1965 they bought their first Sol Lewitt piece. Others followed, mostly minimal and conceptual; their only rules were that the art had to be affordable and had to fit in their apartment.

That apartment is a frightening wonder; it's not just crammed with art - and make no mistake, crammed is the right word. Nearly every possible bit of surface area has something hanging on it, sometimes with a blanket over it to protect it from the elements, but there are boxes filling other spaces and art stacked under the bed. There are also aquariums and terrariums for their fish and turtles, and cats as well. By necessity or design, Sasaki makes it seem even more cramped, with many of the interviews with Herb and Dorothy conducted around their tiny kitchen table, which is really only big enough for one and also has the couple's television and internet appliance - it's as if the artwork is pushing their living space into that tiny area.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.


* * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

I'd like to think I'm generous when reviewing and rating movies: If I enjoy a movie while watching it, but it loses something on later examination, I make sure to emphasize that this doesn't undo the initial good time. If it rises in my estimation upon reflection, that's a positive too. Although Helen falls into the latter category, I'm sad to say that the way it came together in my head afterward isn't quite enough for me to recommend it.

Though Helen is named for one girl, it opens with another, as we watch Joy Thompson separate from a group of friends, cross a park, and then continue off-screen. She's off in the distance throughout this shot, then there's a cut to her eye-catching yellow jacket lying on the ground, and she's missing. The police plan to film a reconstruction to air on television, and wind up recruiting another student at the college, Helen (Annie Townsend), to stand in for her. She's about the same size and coloration, and she's encouraged to speak to Joy's parents (Sandie Malia and Denis Jobling) and boyfriend Danny (Danny Groenland) for tips. Helen being a lonely girl - she lives in a group home and works at a hotel when other teenagers are hanging out with friends - she finds herself gravitating toward Danny and the Thompsons.

And there you have something perilously close to the whole story. It's not a bad framework for a film, actually, but it seems like there should be something more. This could be the first act of a thriller, for instance, and even if only one in ten of the scripts that go that route would be any good, it's worth a shot. Even if that wasn't where filmmakers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy wanted to go, they could have taken this weird situation and worked it somehow. Instead, we get the occasional baby step toward something dramatic happening, but for the most part, the movie remains passive. Indeed, there are multiple scenes of Helen just lying on the ground where Joy's jacket was found, just thinking or maybe trying to form some connection to the other girl for the re-enactment we never see filmed.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

Unmistaken Child

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Unmistaken Child is an example of my favorite sort of documentary, the fly-on-the-wall film that looks and feels like a narrative feature. It tells its story by marshaling extraordinary access and patience, rather than cutting cutting away to various talking heads and bits of archive footage. What makes it an especially intriguing film, though, is a caption in the early going that suggests that the audience not take it at face value.

It's not the opening description of Buddhist monk Geshe Lama Konchog, who died recently at the age of 84. He was notable for spending 26 years in a cavern retreat, pondering spiritual matters. Nor is it the description of rinpoches, which means "the precious ones", reincarnated masters whom the other monks seek out. In the case of "Geshe-la", the man charged with finding his reincarnation will be Tenzin Zopa, who served as the passed masters heart disciple for twenty-one years, and whose quest will take him to the Tsim Valley on the border of Nepal and Tibet until he finds baby Tenzin Ngodrop.

The line that makes this all so intriguing comes just after we've been told that young Tenzin Zopa was the master's close companion for the last two decades of their lives: "Tenzin feels terribly alone."

Without this line, or with it merely implied, Unmistaken Child would still be an intriguing documentary. It follows Tenzin Zopa as he goes through the process of searching for the child, from consulting with Tagri Rinpoche, the senior relic master, and an astrological center in Taiwan. We see Zopa return to his home village and traverse great distances on foot, asking if there are children of the right age and examining them to see if they show the signs of being the reincarnated Geshe-la. There's the test in front of other lamas, encounters with the Dalai Lama, and more. There is just enough captioning to fill us in on background or religious details that might not be obvious, and Tenzin Zopa is a genial protagonist, charmingly full of self-doubt about his suitability for the task ahead. Director Nati Baratz shows us the process with clarity; one can come out of the film learning a lot.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

The Escapist

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

It's a terrible pun with which to lead off a review of a jailbreak movie, but in this case it is literally true: The Escapist hits the ground running.

The movie kicks off with the sound of alarms competing with Benjamin Wallfisch's exhilarating score, as four cons scramble to remove a grate from the floor and dive in, while a fifth - lifer Frank Perry (Brian Cox), brings up the rear, obviously injured. The film then jumps back in time, showing us how this came to be. Perry was, if not a model prisoner, no trouble-maker, until he gets word that his daughter has been hospitalized. Not allowed to see her, he hatches a plan to escape - just him, boxer Lenny Drake (Joseph Fiennes), and near-release Brodie (Liam Cunningham), who knows the sewer systems they'll be traversing. It, as these things always do, gets more complicated when Frank gets a new cellmate, Lacey (Dominic Cooper). Sociopath Tony (Steven Mackintosh) has taken a fancy to Lacey, which is bad enough, but Tony's brother is Rizza (Damian Lewis), the crime kingpin who has his fingers in everything that goes on inside. Avoiding his attention means making a deal with Viv Batista (Seu Jorge), the incarcerated chemist who keeps the jail's drug trade going.

Director Rupert Wyatt and co-writer Daniel Hardy divide their time between between the jail and the tunnels, and while that may seem like it may drain the prison scenes of some of their suspense, it's actually a pretty great set-up. The story being told inside the prison is one kind of story, about Frank confronting his decisions to go along when he could stand up, and while the escape is not empty action scenes, it's long enough and different enough that the movie might have seemed to undergo a big shift midway through if the same scenes had been arranged in the obvious chronological order. This way, the two halves of the story can each stand somewhat separately, and the first half does a nice job of holding back just how the second winds up with the set-up it has until something close to the last minute.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

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