Thursday, September 23, 2010

Boston Film Festival 2010 Day 03: It's Kind of a Funny Story, Nice Guy Johnny

I missed the second day of BFF (including a couple movies I really wanted to see) to go to my brother Matt's bachelor party, which started out at the Mohegan Sun casino in CT and finished with a rare-seeming win for the Red Sox at Fenway Park. I didn't gamble while at the casino, because I took way too much math (specifically, probability) in high school and college to even consider it.

That carried over to seeing movies on Sunday night. I bought tickets for these ahead of time, because although I was pretty sure that the weekday films would be easy enough to get walk-ups, these might be a different story - especially once @BostonFreeFilms started posting free passes for It's Kind of a Funny story. I arrived early enough that I might have gotten a seat from standing in the "rush" line, but $10 isn't a bad price to pay for a little certainty. Of course, finding out that anyone who came to see Funny Story would be allowed to stay for the second did give me a bit of a "why did I drop $20" feeling. But, as I said, I don't gamble.

Obligatory photos of people who were there:

It's Kind of a Funny Story writer/directors Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden

For a while, Boden & Fleck were pretty strongly associated with IFFBoston, working as volunteers/staff or having a film - documentary or narrative, feature or short - in the festival for every year (this year, Boden edited Children of Invention). Last year, Sony acquired Sugar early, but it played at Kendall Square soon enough afterward with them in attendance that it felt like an extension of the festival; this year, the release pattern for Funny Story led to it playing at BFF, which was kind of weird.

They're still some of the most pleasant folks you'll find to do a Q&A with. Their genuine enthusiasm for the material and their collaborators comes across, and it was interesting to hear Anna talk about how they really wanted to make use of effects, animation, and the like to visualize what is going on in their main character's head even as Ryan mentions how shooting the opening scene was kind of boring for him. It could come across as disappointment, but doesn't, and it's also a useful reminder of how even shots we take for granted today are very technical.

Nice Guy Johnny actress Kerry Bishé, writer/director/actor Edward Burns, and festival director Robin Dawson

I've got less to say about this one. Ed Burns has been doing this for a while, and as I say in the review, I admire his dedication, even though he doesn't come across as a really outstanding writer/director. I think he'd like to be Woody Allen, and is trying to set up his career in a similar way, but he's got skill rather than genius. This was another Q&A with a fair amount of students in attendance, and as such took the inevitable "pick up a camera and start shooting, since you can do amazing things with digital now and while theatrical distribution is almost impossible, video and on-demand give you a lot of options if you can keep costs down" route.

As much as I love film, it is amazing how digital has evolved in the aughts - Lucas was doing something really radical when he shot parts of The Phantom Menace digitally before announcing that the remaining two Star Wars films would be shot that way, and now cameras like the Red One are all over indie cinema, and it has made distribution much less of a crippling expense - when I was working in a Worcester movie theater, I was told a single print cost $8K, which means the prints for even a platform release for something like Nice Guy Johnny would not just increase its budget, but multiply it.. I think Funny Story is the only film at the BFF that was screened on 35mm film; everything else was a digital projection of some sort or another.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

The title of It's Kind of Funny Story is its own review. It's just a matter of where you want to put the emphasis. It's got enough jokes and amusing moments to qualify as a "funny story", but plays things so safe that "kind of" might sum it up better. That's a shame, and a surprise, considering how engrossing the previous two features from the team of Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson and Sugar) are.

As the film opens, 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is about ready to throw himself off a bridge. He's not a victim of abuse or anything; at worst his mother (Lauren Graham) is a bit nervous and his father (Jim Gaffigan) has high expectations. He's on medication for depression, and his best friend Aaron (Thomas Mann) is dating Nia (Zoe Kravitz), the girl he adores. Instead, he goes to a psychiatric hospital and checks himself in for observation - not realizing that (1) the juvenile ward is shut down for renovations, so he'll be with the adults, and (2) it's a minimum five day stay. So he's going to be spending the better part of a week with people who have come much closer to killing themselves than he has - notably Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who pretends to be a doctor to sneak outside, and Noelle (Emma Roberts), the other teenager on the floor.

Funny Story is an easy movie to like, in large part because Fleck, Boden, and the cast do a respectable job of creating a cast of characters that are able to sell a joke without seeming to treat mental illness in an excessively cavalier manner (disclaimer: I have never had to deal with such matters directly). Craig's family and friends are exaggerated, but for the most part manage to balance being funny with showing genuine concern while also having difficulty relating to him; they're flawed but generally likable characters performed well. The patients are by and large confused and frustrated by how their brains just won't send the correct signals, and while some like Matthew Maher's Humble seem a little more zany than troubled, others like Craig's Egyptian roommate Muqtada (Bernard White) are agonizingly paralyzed.

Full review at EFC.

Nice Guy Johnny

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2010 at the Stuart Street Playhouse (Boston Film Festival 2010)

As much as I hate the bilious broadcasts that pass for sports talk radio here in the Northeast, I kind of doubt that Oakland, California, is laid back enough that a host who goes by "Nice Guy Johnny" would fly, even in the overnight slot - and that's before hearing the bland commentary he's dispensing as the movie opens. Now, Nice Guy Johnny the movie isn't going to rise and fall based on the authenticity of the similarly-named radio show, but what we see and hear is telling nonetheless - mainly, that friendly but shallow responses to artificial dilemmas are on tap.

The host of the "Nice Guy Johnny" show is Johnny Rizzo (Matt Bush), a transplanted New Yorker about to turn twenty-five, at which time he has promised fiancée Claire (Anna Wood) that, if he wasn't making $50,000/year, he would take a sensible job - and her father has just lined one up for him, as a supervisor at a company that makes cardboard boxes back East. He's less than enthusiastic. When he arrives back home and meets his Uncle Terry (writer/director Ed Burns), the bartender is openly dismissive, wondering why he's still with Claire anyway, and invites Johnny to join him on a weekend trip to the Hamptons. There, Terry and one of his girlfriends immediately try to set him up with her tennis instructor, Brooke (Kerry Bishé), who also thinks it is a dreadful idea. And, since she's a cute, athletic, outspoken sports fan, is probably perfect for him. But he's engaged, and made a promise, and is a man of his word...

That Brooke is more or less Johnny's ideal match while it's hard to see how he and Claire have tolerated each other for three years is simplistic, sure, but it's not necessarily a terrible thing to set up such a clear differentiation. It's disappointing, though, that Burns isn't willing to simply let them represent the opposing values of risk and security. No, Claire has to be a domineering, distrustful shrew. Similarly, the description of Johnny being nice to a fault is accurate, and it makes him a bit dull, while Uncle Terry is just as absurdly dishonest.

Full review at EFC.

1 comment:

Ligaya said...

It should be noted that "It's Kind of a Funny Story" is the title of the Young Adult book by Ned Vizzini based on his 16 year old suicidal experience & self-hospitalization. And that "funny" has many meanings, in this case the least of which is funny-ha-ha, more like funny-odd, funny-unexpected, funny-weird, funny-ironic, etc.

Somehow, most critics jump to the first meaning, which might be understandable, if the press/promo materials didn't mention that the movie was based on Vizzini's YA novel - which they do.