Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Sunday, Indie Sunday: The New Year Parade and (Untitled)

Ha! I'd totally forgotten what the eye-opener was for this week when I tried writing them down in the book both to remember for when I had to put a TWIT post together and when I tried to use it as documentation for the Watch-a-thon.

And, yes, I am once again participating in the Brattle's Movie Watch-a-thon. This blog should have been a great way to keep track, but, well... Anyway, donations can be made at my FirstGiving page. As of now (12:01-ish, 1 December), the tallies are:

5 @ the Brattle, 4 of them eye-openers;
24 elsewhere;
2 screening nights for the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival selection comittee.

Brattle movies count double, the screenings maybe don't count at all, depending on how generous one feels.

The New Year Parade

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye-Opener)

The glib description of The New Year Parade is that divorce is hard on everybody - not just parents and children, but everyone else caught up in it, including the parade orchestras. Fortunately, the movie itself isn't glib, just honest and extraordinarily well-made, given how truly independent this independent movie is.

It opens with television coverage of Philadelphia's Mummers Parade, a New Year tradition where various musical clubs march and are scored on their performances. The South Philadelphia String Orchestra didn't do so well this year, but that's not all that's on the minds of some members - Mike MacDougal (Andrew Conway) is bothered by the fact that he didn't see his daughter Kat (Jennifer Welsh) in the crowd at the usual place, although his son Jack (Greg Lyons), also a member of the orchestra, tells him that's hardly surprising, since their mother Lisa (MaryAnn McDonald) wouldn't want to come, considering the separation. It sets the next year up as a struggle, not just for the band, but for the MacDougals.

Divorce sucks. It is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, to be avoided at all costs - by the time a couple gets to where the MacDougals are, it may be the best thing they can do. Still, nobody enjoys the process, and director Tom Quinn has put together a series of scenes that capture how helpless and angry the whole thing makes a person feel, as well as how it skews even seemingly unconnected things. I can't personally look at any particular scene and say, yes, I've been there - everyone's experience is different; I was away at school and missed much of the everyday tension when my parents split - but there's not a single one that doesn't feel genuine.

That is, in large part, due to the excellent performances by the cast. The acting is doubly impressive when you consider that many of the cast members had no previous acting experience, and may not do anything else. Take Jennifer Welsh, who is fantastic as as Kat; this movie is the teenager's debut, and she has since gone to college to major in sculpture and perhaps become a high-school art teacher. She's completely genuine, whether because of that or in spite of it. Part of it is because much of what we see is her doing things, rather than talking about them, but she doesn't ever over-emote when given dialog or a scene that is about showing how Kat feels. Similarly, MaryAnn McDonald had no experience, and while she winds up with the smallest part of the four family members, she gets the job done.

Andrew Conway and Greg Lyons, meanwhile, were already performers of different sorts - Conway a tango dancer and instructor, Lyons a musician - so it's a bit less of a surprise when they impress. Lyons is particularly good, looking maybe a little older than his character's twenty-five years (or how young working-class men actually look, outside of Hollywood), capturing the character's passive-aggressive vibe beautifully: He's going to be the good son, and maybe he doesn't even realize that he's trying to show who has the moral high ground. He makes Jack very much Mike's son in that way; Conway manages to give Mike a well-realized combination of pent-up aggression and desire to do right by his family. He's great in the scene where he seems to snap; he's a little scary, enough to make us a little nervous around him even though all indications are that he hasn't done anything wrong.

That's the family drama part of the movie, which generally takes the forefront, with the scenes of the band preparing for the next Mummers Parade providing background. Quinn uses it well; it never threatens to overtake the MacDougals' story, and serves as a nice reflection of it, as the tension between father and son start to form cracks in the band. It provides an interesting and unique background, though, and Quinn has obtained excellent access. During the last act, with New Year's approaching, Quinn blurs the line between narrative and documentary footage, showing the preparation.

To be totally honest, there were moments when I might have liked to see more of that; it's unique and interesting. But they're just brief moments, where we want more, which in no way detracts from what the movie is offering us.

Also at HBS.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run)

It is easy to make fun of the art world, especially those on the edge (or fringe, depending on how you feel about it). It's a little harder to do it well; just because something is mockable doesn't mean that the mockery is funny. What (Untitled) does that's kind of impressive is to make sport of its eccentric artists while still maintaining some sort of appreciation for them.

Two of these artists are brothers. Josh Jacobs (Eion Bailey) is commercially successful; his works are soothing circle-filled images that hang nicely on lobby walls and in medical practices. His brother Adrian (Adam Goldberg) is a musician whose compositions are harsh and atonal, mostly using unusual sounds, although he has a regular clarinet (Lucy Punch). The date Josh brings to one of Adrian's sparsely-attended performances is Madeline Gray (Marley Shelton), a pretty gallery owner who, unlike nearly everyone else, seems to get what Adrian is going for, and invites him to perform at her gallery, where she's having a new show for Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones), whose work combines absurdity and taxidermy.

Director Jonathan Parker and co-writer Catherine DiNapoli get in a great deal of jokes at their characters' expense, and they are generally pretty good ones. A lot of them are familiar: There's the collector (Zak Orth) who seems to be trying to buy respectability without having any sort of actual taste, and the minimalist (Ptolemy Slocum) whose work is so minimal and manner so affected that he must be pulling off some sort of scam. Barko's works are pure frozen slapstick, while Adrian is deadpan earnest; there is no doubt that he has carefully considered every jarring sound, with that seriousness and disdain for musical convention bleeding over into various disastrous day jobs. Madeline's outfits are bizarre but perhaps calculatedly so. Parker hits the sweet spot with it, though - he doesn't aim to gross the audience out or make them uncomfortable, just get a laugh from how weird it is.

For all the movie is getting laughs at this stuff, though, it's not dismissive. Orth's and Slocum's characters are kind of sad and ridiculous, but there's a certain awkwardness to each of them that engenders a bit of our sympathy. Adrian gets to explain atonal music in a way that makes a certain amount of sense. There's pathos to how Josh wants both commercial success and respect. And Madeline is sometimes delightfully tricky to get a read on; there's a clearly mercenary side to her, but she also seems genuinely excited by art. For a movie that makes hay out of how silly the art world can seem to insiders and outsiders alike, (Untitled) has a fair amount of respect for them.

In some ways, that either holds the movie back or makes it hard to classify. It seldom misses when riffing on the avant garde types, but it takes its characters just seriously enough that it sometimes goes a while between jokes. It dabbles in several potential romantic triangles, but never really commits to making one the main thing to drive the story. I don't mind that, really - it means that (Untitled) doesn't give us whiplash going from comedy to melodrama and back, and lets us believe that what we're seeing go on is exaggerated but not to the point of being unrecognizable.

That atmosphere is sold by a cast that hits the balance Parker is trying to strike between weird and likeable. Marley Shelton manages to be the target of jokes without Madeline (mostly) coming off as a either ditz or ice queen. Adam Goldberg works his deadpan drawl to excellent effect; he sells a lot of silly scenes by playing them completely straight. Vinnie Jones works against type, playing a pretentious artist rather than a guy who could explode at any second. Eion Bailey makes Josh a little shallow and oblivious without being pushy about it. Lucy Punch, meanwhile, is adorable and quite frequently manages to serve as the movie's straight man without ever seeming like she doesn't belong among the crazy artists. And I wish Parker and DiNapoli had given Ben Hammer a bigger role - he shows up in one scene toward the end and absolutely owns it as Adrian's musical idol.

(Untitled) is a lot like its characters - kind of silly, but basically nice, despite eccentricities. Maybe it could have been sharper satire, but that could have easily backfired, resulting in something not nearly as enjoyable as this movie.

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