Monday, May 14, 2012

Independent Film Festival Boston 2012.07 (Tuesday 1 May 2012): Paul Williams Still Alive and Rubberneck

Ah, the Tuesday of IFFBoston. The "showcase day", when the festival shows two movies that aren't deemed to be opening/closing night material but are worthy of being shown without alternative screenings. During the three previous years, a different venue got this day (the ICA in 2009-2010, with a tendency toward documentaries on the creative process; the Stuart Street Playhouse last year, in what amounted to the venue's swan song); this year, it was at the Coolidge, although upstairs rather than in the main theater.

IMAG0092, Paul Williams Still Alive director Stephen Kessler at the Coolidge Corner Theatre for IFFBoston 2012
See? "Cooldige" behind Paul Williams Still Alive director Stephen Kessler.

This was kind of an interesting Q&A, if only because it occasionally made me wonder whether Kessler completely recognized what film he was making. He mentioned at one point that Paul saw it as a film about recovery, but the expression he gave indicated that he really didn't see it that way. Talking with my friend Beth afterward, though, she sort of had the idea (which I, admittedly, run with in the review) that it was less about Paul's recovery then Stephen's, with Paul as the counselor who eventually weans him off low self-esteem and fantasies. It's perhaps an unusual take, and from the way he talked about working with his editors (who had to convince him to put himself into the movie), it almost seems to have made it into the movie completely as subtext.

Or at least, it sounds that way from the way he talked about it. I doubt that one can make a movie that holds together that well by accident, especially since that seems to be such a major theme. Maybe he, much like Paul, doesn't really want to talk about himself, and so downplays that.

There were, of course, the inevitable questions about whether Paul is working on anything, leading to the much-repeated news that he's collaborating on something with Daft Punk, which should be interesting, if nothing else. And whether they still hang out together, which led to this:

IMAG0093, Paul Williams Still Alive director Stephen Kessler phones Paul Williams during the Q&A

Mr. Williams seemed surprised by the call, but really, you'd have to think this was inevitable.

(Yeah, I know that photo looks worse. I have no idea why the Coolidge uses those red lights during the Q&As other than maybe wanting only the official photographers with huge flashes to have usable pictures. I have no idea how that first one came out well.)

After that, a quick trip to the lobby before it was time for Rubberneck:

IMAG0094, Cast & Crew of Rubberneck, Coolidge Corner Theatre, IFFBoston 2012
Cast & Crew of Rubberneck, with writer/director/star Alex Karpovsky holding the mic.

As you might expect for a movie shot and set in Boston with a ton of local actors and crew had a lot of guests.

I kind of wish I liked it more. I saw what I think is Karpovsky's first feature, The Hole Story, at the same festival (in the same room!) about seven years ago, and while he's got access to some better equipment and has improved technically in many ways, I think that in some ways, Rubberneck is weaker in part because it's more sound. The Hole Story wound up losing the plot but had Alex playing a main character that was something of an individual, while there's nothing terribly odd or illogical about what happens in Rubberneck (by true-crime standards), but it winds up very generic.

And with that, it was time to get home and sleep fast before work and the last day of the festival.

Paul Williams Still Alive

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2012, digital)

It's okay to look at the title of Paul Williams Still Alive and have a reaction somewhere between dismissal and dread. Documentaries about musicians who have faded into obscurity in part due to substance abuse are so common that festivals might as well list them as their own program. This one, at least, finds a couple of ways to present things differently, although the results are a somewhat mixed bag.

It's easy to be wary of these differences from the start, when director Stephen Kessler's description of Williams's career as a singer/songwriter/celebrity in the 1970s focuses just as much on how he viewed it as an awkward kid in New York as it does on Williams's actual work, if not more so. For all that he was a huge fan, Kessler assumed (as many did) that Williams had died sometime in the 1980s, only to learn of the man doing an appearance at a screening of Phantom of the Paradise (the truly bizarre 1974 Brian De Palma update of The Phantom of the Opera in which Williams played the villain as well as writing the songs) in Winnipeg. Once there, Kessler asks permission to tag along and make a documentary on Williams's life and career, although Williams often proves to be a reluctant subject.

Paul Williams Still Alive won't necessarily be disappointing to those looking for a straightforward biography, but there's a lot of Stephen Kessler in the movie, even if he does not always appear on camera all that much. It's a balance that the movie quite often struggles with; having an idea of just how intrusive and annoying having someone chronicle your life can be makes Williams's clear annoyance at various points funny as opposed to really uncomfortable, but Kessler lays it on rather thick at times. The filmmaker's initial fannish excitement at hanging out with Williams the way he'd dreamed of doing as a kid giving way to the discovery of a real human being rather than just a celebrity persona eventually becomes the actual story the movie tells. There are a lot of times, especially toward the start, when many in the audience will wish for Kessler to fade into the background because he's not what they came to see, and even when he starts to feel more integral, that first impression can be hard to shake.

Full review at EFC.


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2012, digital)

It doesn't happen very often, but Rubberneck is almost too simple to classify. It's got characteristics of both a thriller and an indie drama of the character-study variety, but the only thing that seems unique about it is the setting, which doesn't contribute much to making the action interesting.

One night after a research laboratory's holiday party, scientists Paul (Alex Karpovsky) and Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman) hook up. That's enough for Danielle, but eight months later, Paul is still hung up. Kathy (Dakota Shepard), the girl he sees on occasion, bears a strong resemblance to Danielle, who finds herself attracted to new hire Chris (Dennis Staroselsky), not aware of just what sort of issues Paul has had since he and sister Linda (Amanda Good Hennessey) were abandoned by their mother.

Simplicity can be a fine thing for a movie like this; it would be easy for Karpovsky (who also directs) and co-writer Garth Donovan to pile subplots and twists on top of their story, but they opt not to. If there were more to that story, that would be admirable, but Rubberneck is so straightforward that some sort of digression might be welcome. Instead, it follows an uninspiringly logical outline, maybe not quite predictable but seldom surprising, with one thing leading to another without any sort of random event that might make the audience reconsider what is going on.

Full review at EFC.

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