Monday, March 29, 2010

City Island

“The script is very cleverly put together with a lot of humanity and comedic situations that are all rooted in a sense of truth,” said Andy Garcia about City Island in a Boston Herald interview.

Well, just because he’s got talent as an actor doesn’t mean he’s any good at judging scripts.

City Island is the most contrived, sit com-y movie I’ve seen in a long time, and the closest thing to an old-fashioned Movie of the Week since Extraordinary Measures. (Are the movies in theaters getting more middle-of-the road and formulaic as the movies on TV get less so?) That’s not to say I hated it. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it, though I would have liked it better if it hadn’t tried so hard to win my love. I just didn’t respect it in the morning.

A few of the set pieces are funny – a rant by Alan Arkin as an irascible acting coach may be worth the price of admission if you’re an Arkin fan, and Garcia does a Brando impression that made me laugh, though that was probably largely because it was a surprise in a movie full of tediously telegraphed comings and goings.

City Island plays like a series of scenes from the acting class Garcia’s character, Vince Rizzo, sneaks off to. A prison guard (or corrections officer, as he keeps telling people) embarrassed by his own yen for acting, Vince tells his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) that he’s playing poker whenever he heads off to class. That’s just one of this overstuffed movie’s many secrets, since its capital-T Theme is how everyone in the family is hiding at least one big secret from everyone else.

Unfortunately, just about all we get to know about each character is his or her secret life, so the secrets can get old after a while – especially Vince’s teenage son’s obsession with an obese neighbor. That seems sexual at first but then goes oddly cozy, running out of steam way before we see the last of it. An extended tangent about Vince and his acting partner, Molly (Emily Mortimer, who needs to stop working the wounded-doe act so hard) also goes on too long. In fact, that whole character felt superfluous to me, though I guess she’s supposed to be the catalyst who gets everyone else to spill their secrets.

But how many catalysts does one movie need, and wasn’t that what Tony Nardello (Steven Strait) was there for? Well, that and taking off his shirt so we can bask in the golden hills and valleys of his improbably buff torso.

See, Tony is Vince’s son, only Vince walked out Tony’s mom before the boy was born and never looked back, so they’ve never met and Tony doesn’t know Vince is his father. But Tony shows up one day in Vince’s jail, so Vince takes him home to serve out the rest of his sentence in his custody. Coincidences like that are much of what passes for plot in this manic movie. Wacky encounters and shouting matches are most of the rest of it, giving City Island the feel of a Feydeau farce that wants to be a serious family drama.

Margulies straddles the movie’s split personality gracefully, making Joyce sympathetic and too tough to be laughable, though we chortle affectionately at her easily wounded pride. Strait maintains his dignity too, making Tony an observant man with unfathomed depths. But most of the actors – including Garcia’s daughter, Dominik García-Lorido, who plays his daughter in the movie – either overplay their parts or get drowned out by all the noise.

There’s plenty of potential in the notion of a palooka from the Bronx who’s secretly an artist—Woody Allen and Chazz Palmintieri made it sing in Bullets Over Broadway—but Garcia has too much patrician and too little comedian in his DNA to put it over. Straining visibly to establish blue-collar cred, he gets upstaged by his own accent when he says things like “A-oh! A-oh!” or “friendth.”

That’s supposed to be a Bronx accent, in case you were wondering. The island of the title, described as “a fishing village in the Bronx,” is one of the best things about the movie, nicely used as a setting if a tad overworked as a metaphor. It’s a treat to spend time in a photogenic part of New York that you rarely see on film – though the filmmakers revert to cliché when they get to Manhattan, sending Vince and Molly to the self-consciously fabulous Empire Diner for a bite to eat. They also put the two on the Roosevelt Island tram and boardwalk, then in a beautiful high-end restaurant, for some outrageously romantic-looking evenings, though the two aren’t falling in love.

Or are we supposed to think they are?

A-oh, a-oh! I’m supposed ta cay-uh?

Monday, March 22, 2010

SXSW 2010: The Last Day

Like Jodie Foster, Dakota Fanning has been the real deal from the time she was a kid, giving mediocre stuff like The Cat in the Hat and Man on Fire a jolt of emotional authenticity. In The Runaways, she does something even more impressive: bringing Kristen Stewart back from the dead. Stewart gives the best performance of her career as Joan Jett, head of the groundbreaking '70s all-girl rock band for which the movie is named. Fanning plays Cherie Currie, the band's rebellious 15-year-old lead singer—and Jett's sometime lover.

Based on Currie's autobiography, helmed by music video director Floria Sigismondi (this is her first feature), and closely supervised by Currie and Jett, who executive produced the picture, The Runaways captures the naïvete, excitement, and raw energy of a pair of young women (the rest of the group remains way in the background) as they get a taste of la vida loca.

The film announces its female-centric point of view in the first scene, as a big glop of menstrual blood from Currie's first period hits the ground before our eyes. That unblinkingly realistic tone is maintained throughout, giving the girls the respect they deserve, but didn't always get at the time.

If you think it was hard being a female rocker in America in the '70s, try being a musician of pretty much any sort in contemporary Iran. That's the message of Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, the latest movie from the great Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi. Ghobadi's earlier films, A Time for Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly, and Marooned in Iraq, are documentary-style features (he likes to cast nonprofessional actors as themselves or people like themselves, telling stories that are, as a title at the start of Persian Cats informs us, "based on real events, locations, and people") about the struggles of rural Kurds in the Kurdish territory that overlaps Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. His latest is a radical departure, giving us a vivacious, thoroughly contemporary tour of the underground music scene in Tehran.

Two young musicians, Negar and Ashkan, are trying to get to London to perform. Getting the gig was the easy part. Now they have to piece together a band to replace musicians who have fled the country getting black market visas or passports for everyone and buying one of the musicians out of his obligation to serve in the army. It's all very dangerous, very expensive, and very precarious, and they never know who they can trust.

The two put their faith in a hyperactive fixer named Nader, who becomes their—and our—guide through beautiful old streets and into secret rehearsal and performance spaces as Negar and Ashkan audition a wide variety of musicians. Some of the music sounds so innocuous it's hard to wrap your head around the fact that it's banned, but many songs have overtly political lyrics. As we see these gentle souls forced into becoming outlaws, songs urging people to get past "the fences around your mind" or bemoaning the way the system treats people like "trash" take on deeper meaning. So does the plaintive tune Negar sings at the end, a list of things the singer wants. They're all simple, basic pleasures, but by then you know how unattainable they are for her.

Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham). Winner of the best narrative feature award at this year's SXSW, Tiny Furniture is a wittily written, beautifully photographed, deftly acted tale of a 23-year-old young woman adrift in what she calls "a post-graduate delirium." After graduating college and getting dumped by her boyfriend, Aura (played by writer-director Lena Dunham) tries to take refuge in her family's airy Tribeca loft, along with her aloof artist mother and disdainful teenage sister. Everyone's always judging everyone else and nobody shows much mercy in this emotionally honest slice of life.

Dunham gives a remarkably vanity-free performance as an average-looking woman who's capable of looking pretty but comes off as dumpy most of the time. Kindhearted and friendly but a little low on self-esteem, Aura keeps getting into masochistic relationships with narcissistic, entitled people who don't give a damn about her.

Her family sometimes seems the most callous of all, but the relationships between Aura and her mother and sister—played by Dunham's own mother and sister—turn out to be refreshingly realistic and complex. The movie covers a lot of ground in its deceptively meandering way, including the petty humiliations of low-wage work, the dubious benefits of being famous on YouTube, and the rapidly shifting loyalties of early-20s friendships (Jemima Kirke and Merritt Wever are excellent as Aura's childhood and college best friends, respectively).

For more about this smart and likeable coming-of-age comedy, check out David Carr's informative piece in Friday's New York Times about Dunham and how she got the movie made.

Harry Brown (Daniel Barber). It's not as if Clint Eastwood has a monopoly on aging vigilantes, or Michael Caine couldn't give him a run for his money. But not in this vehicle, which never gets out of first gear.

You know you're in trouble when a movie starts with a pair of young thugs getting high in an underpass and terrorizing a young mother as she pushes her baby in a stroller, but even that melodrama pales next to the drug-and-sex lair our Harry (Caine) uncovers when he decides to clean the bad element out of his housing project. The scene he encounters is so over the top it plays like a parody, and the lame wannabe taglines he lobs at his prey don't help.

Emily Mortimer is wildly miscast as the cop who sees truths the system can't handle, staring like a scared rabbit playing dead whenever she comes face to face with the criminals she's supposed to be containing. The lugubriously slow pace, labored metaphors (a half-finished chess game? Really?) and dutiful foreshadowing are annoying. So is the grit-glamorizing, green-tinted cinematography. (This is the kind of movie that lovingly frames two men just so in a dirty bathroom mirror, lingering on the decay.)

What really lost me was Harry's lack of street smarts. You'd never catch Clint getting falling-down drunk in a bar and flashing a bunch of cash, especially if he knew one of the neighborhood thugs was in there. But then, Harry Brown doesn't belong in the same league as geezer-revenge movies like Unforgiven or Gran Torino. Shoot, it even makes Blood Work look good.

Written for The House Next Door

Thursday, March 18, 2010

SXSW 2010: The Lost Day

SXSW has been great in general, but things went more south than south by southwest yesterday afternoon, and I didn't manage to see a single movie. I blame the SXSW music festival, which has just started and is jamming up all the streets downtown and making a competitive sport out of the search for a parking space. But that's not the whole story, of course.

I'd always planned on a slow movie day Wednesday, figuring I'd need a break by then. So I really didn't mind when I got up too late to write my blog post for Slant before the noonish screening I'd been planning to go to. Instead, I headed up South Congress, stopping for some nachos and a couple of Shiner Bocks at El Gallo, and did a little shopping for Mexican tchotchkes at Tesoros. Then I sat in the sun in Threadgill's courtyard and listened to a couple of bands who were part of the free SXSW bill (ironically, one was from Brooklyn, though I never would have seen them if I'd stayed in NYC.)

Every time I come back I head for Threadgill's, since it's one of the few places I know that still feels like the Austin I fell in love with in 1977. There was a big dog there yesterday, and a kid with a furry hat with ears on it, and lots of cowboy boots and long-haired men with fuck-you messages on their T-shirts and pretty women in snug blue jeans. Better yet, James McMurtry was inside, doing a short but potent set that wasn't supposed to be free but was for me, since the waitress never hassled me about eating or drinking anything. Someone even came over and brought me a chair to sit in -- sweet.

But then I went back to my room to try to nap off a headache I just couldn't shake (I thought it was the unaccustomed afternoon beer and sunshine, but it turned out to be caffeine withdrawal), and I woke up like Alice, in a twisted new reality. Only mine was no wonderland; it was Austin colonized by the trendy part of SXSW.

The lines for the film festival were worse than usual this year, at least for me (there's no special treatment for press any more, wah wah), so I've gotten used to showing up at least 45 minutes early -- more like an hour, if the movie's in one of the small theaters or if it's likely to be really popular. I thought I was cutting it close when I left for my evening movie, but I'd forgotten about the extra traffic, not to mention all those damned horses in the road that force traffic to inch along for blocks in a single direction, like cows to the slaughter.

I was listening to KUT's live coverage of a SXSW showcase at Stubb's, hoping they'd get to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings before I had to park, but they were just about to take the stage when I finally found a space, got out of my car, and scurried to the Ritz for James Franco's movie about the making of Saturday Night Live.

Only, by the time I got there, I was about 6 spaces too far back to get in.


Well, Stubbs was just a couple blocks away. Maybe I could just go hear the Dap-Kings live. I headed over to the wrong door, found out my film badge would get me in (cool!), went to the right door, and saw the line to get in. It had to be at least an hour long, maybe more if nobody inside left for a while.

Damn and double damn.

Sixth Street depresses me when it's all jammed up like this. It looks to me like Bourbon Street, which I've always hated, not the Sixth Street of my memory, a dive-y strip of pawnshops and tattoo parlors (and these were the days before middle-class kids got tattoos) and the original Antone's. I know I'm sounding like a grumpy old fart, but hey, that's how I felt. So I got back in my car, catching the last half of the Dap-Kings while I extricated myself from downtown and headed up to Kerbey Lane Cafe.

I felt a lot better after a call to my husband, a late dinner, and a little time with the current Chronicle, which seems to put out a new issue every couple hours during the music part of the festival, but oddly, it was the drive back to the hotel that finally put me right. I meandered for a while, passing old haunts like the Dobie Theater, the Hole in the Wall, and the house where the Texas Observer used to be when I was their movie reviewer (there's an "office space for rent" sign in front of it now, which felt a little strange). Just driving around was soothing, I realized -- something I'd forgotten, after three years as a car-free New Yorker. Especially here. Like Bob Wills said, there's something about those miles and miles of Texas....

Someone in one of the lines I was in this week asked if I still have friends in Austin. I have precious few, I told her, but that doesn't bother me much when I'm here, because Austin itself is a friend of mine.

P.S. In case you're wondering, I shot the pictures a few years ago, when I was in town for another SXSW film festival.

SXSW 2010: Day Four

SXSW's film festival officially ended last night (though the films continue to play just as often for a few days, for those of us who haven't seen our fill yet) and the music festival started today. Watching the mole people of the movie world get replaced by sleeker, more stylish, generally younger musicians and A&R types makes me think of a very clever bumper (one of those short films that precedes each movie to let you know it's part of the festival) for this year's festival. This one, which is by SXSW staffer Joe Nicolosi, shows a bright-eyed young woman who heads into the woods "to get some exercise" and has to fight off one horror-movie monster after another. As she's about to go down, the final supertitles say something like: "Stay indoors. Watch movies."

SXSW always has a strong lineup of documentaries, and The People vs. George Lucas is one of this year's best. Smart, funny, and often impassioned, it's entertaining even when it's just exploring the filmmaker's relationship with his rebellious army of fans. But what really hooked me were its insights into why this battle matters to the noncombatants. Some points are hammered away at too often, and the Stars Wars-style "episodes" the doc is divided into work better as a joke than an organizing principle. I could have done with a little less footage of talking heads too. But those talking heads sure can talk. Their vivid language, self-aware humor, strong emotions, and intelligent observations won me over, as did the generous sampling of impressively creative or endearingly amateurish fan edits and the footage of fans, often surrounded by merchandise or putting their own stamp on the Star Wars myth. I particularly liked a couple of guys dressed as Elvis, one of whom was also a storm trooper while the other was a Jedi. Now, that's participatory fandom.

Director Alexandre O. Philippe and his editor deftly explain the love/hate relationship so many of his fans have with Lucas, making it clear enough that someone who knows nothing about Lucas or his movies could easily follow. They also explore the faceoff between Lucas and his fans as an early skirmish in the battle for control of our popular culture, as we move from a gatekeeper-controlled model to a more participatory one.

Non-famous fans, book authors, bloggers, academics, and a lot of professional geeks weigh in, explaining how Lucas "unlocked a generation's imagination" and invited Star Wars fans to reinterpret his fantasy world—to play in his sandbox, as one interviewee puts it—like nobody before him, partly by marketing it with an unprecedented deluge of action figures and costumes and light sabers and such. He also encouraged the fan edits that play with or off his movies, even holding a contest for them.

Then he reneged on that invitation, as the fans see it, by re-editing "their" Star Wars on its 20th anniversary and coming out with prequels and sequels they deemed unworthy of the original. That leads to some interesting questions, like whether a movie is ever actually done, who has the right to alter a piece of artwork once it has become part of our shared culture, and how artists must adapt to remain popular or even relevant in this new environment. And is Lucas, our canary in the mine for this new way of making and marketing movies, a fat-cat master exploiter, a great artist martyred by a venal culture, a geeky child hiding from a world that doesn't understand him, or all of the above?

Beijing Taxi (Miao Wang). Director Miao Wang grew up in Beijing but left in 1990. In 2006, she started going back with her camera to film the city as it prepared for and hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. Looking for "a portrait of the city, but also of three characters who represent the ordinary people of Beijing," she recruited three cab drivers and filmed the city mostly through their eyes, as they drove and went about the rest of their lives. The result is Beijing Taxi, an unfocused but occasionally enlightening documentary.

The ghosts of Zhao Dayong's Ghost Town—not to mention Jia Zhangke's Still Life, The World, and 24 City, Hou Hsiao Hsien's Three Times, and Yung Chang's Up the Yangtze—haunt this movie for me, since they all either told me more than Beijing Taxi about how life is changing in China, told individual stories that resonated more, or both.
Wang doesn't delve very deeply into her subjects' lives. She doesn't always set things up clearly or ask follow-up questions either, which leaves too many questions unanswered. Why did so many shops get less business instead of more from the Olympics, for instance? And why does one of the cabbies worry about going without insurance? Doesn't China have nationalized health insurance?

We never get close enough to her cabbies to really care about them as individuals, though we sense their impressive ability to adapt to their ever-changing economic and political system. And after a while, all that footage of skyscrapers, cyclists, soldiers, and other sights shot through the car windows starts to feel like dailies for a movie that hasn't yet been made.

The Canal Street Madam (Cameron Yates.) The Canal Street Madam plays a little like Grey Gardens, only this time the mom runs a whorehouse and her daughter is one of the whores. Director Cameron Yates says he made the movie because he "always wanted to make a humanistic story about sex workers." He found a good subject in Jeanette Maier, a longtime prostitute and madam whose mother helped run her business and whose daughter worked there for a while—until the house was closed down by the FBI.

Maier is no saint. Quick to cry for herself but slow to recognize the pain she inflicts on others, she provided for her kids financially but neglected them emotionally, according to her daughter Monica. Not surprisingly, they struggle to cope with life: One son is in prison and the other is a drifting drug addict when the movie begins, and though Monica seems to have gotten her life together, she started turning tricks at the age of 15 or 16. "Just like she was given certain tools, she laid those tools into my hand," she says of her mother.

Directors of documentaries like this have a choice to make: focus on their subject's faults, creating a portrait of a fascinating but flawed human being, or take a nonjudgmental stance, using their subjects as a window into a world. Yates chose the second path, seeming to take Maier's frequent self-justifications at face value. Maybe for that reason, he gets great access. He's there for some key moments, like when Maier watches news reports about other madams releasing their client lists—something she is always threatening to do—or when she gets her son out of prison. (The son doesn't say much on the ride home, maybe because he doesn't love being on camera as much as his mama does.)

Yates's use of footage from before he met Jeanette is spottier. He culls revealing audio from "thousands of hours" of FBI wiretaps, but he relies too much on a single home video the Maiers shot in 1989, showing the same few scenes so often I could probably recreate them shot for shot. Still, he makes his point, showing us Maier saying, "Sex between two consensual adults should not be a crime" enough that that you recognize and remember it. That's Jeanette Maier's motto, and it's a good one.

RWritten for The House Next Door

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

SXSW 2010: Day Three

You might think a full-length feature about MacGruber, Will Forte's bumbling '80s action hero, would feel at least an hour too long. After all, even Steven Carrell couldn't lift his lumbering feature about Maxwell Smart, the '60s version of MacGruber, off the ground.
Maybe he needed Jorma Taccone at the controls.

Saturday Night Live actor/writer/director Taccone, one of the three guys who does those funny videos with Andy Samberg (he also shot a lot of the MacGruber shorts for SNL and is the man behind a MacGruber Pepsi ad for the Super Bowl), has great sense of comic timing and a deep and gleeful knowledge of comedy conventions and pop-culture icons. In the Q&A after the film, he revealed that he loves late-'80s/early-'90s action movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon and Rambo 3 ("not one or two or four—though four is pretty great too"), and that he and his cast intended their movie to be more of a comic tribute than a spoof.

You probably have to love those movies to embrace this one fully, but for those of us who do, it makes for a wildly entertaining night at the movies. Action movie clichés, like the way people keep telling MacGruber, "I thought you were dead!," are given just the right emphasis. You laugh at the dick jokes and gay jokes too, partly because they're cathartic, surfacing and then blowing up all the unacknowledged homoerotic machismo that fuels those movies, but also because Forte does blustery incompetence so well and the editors always know just where to cut. And Michael Bay has taken things so far that you pretty much have to chase your bad guy off a cliff, fire two big guns at him as he goes down, and reduce him to a blackened hole in the ground at the bottom of a canyon if you're going for laughs. This movie also has the funniest sex scene since the South Park movie with the puppets.

The filmmakers play well with regular MacGruber features too, like his mullet and cherry-red muscle car and the feathered Farrah hairdo and atrocious singing of his girlfriend Vicki (Kristen Wiig), constantly finding new ways to make them funny, the way Mike Myers did with Austin Powers. Wiig gives, as always, a great supporting performance (her take on trying to respond to dictation from an earbud, a classic addition to that particular shtick, is even funnier for taking place in a hushed, Starbucks-like coffee shop). The non-SNL straight men in the cast obviously relish their shot at being funny, mostly by doing just what they do in their serious parts: Ryan Philippe as the guy's guy who's a natural leader, Powers Boothe as the basso profundo alpha male, and Val Kilmer as the dangerously crazy bad guy.

Add in some slapstick and the infinite depths of MacGruber's incompetence and you have a smartly funny movie that uses all of Hollywood's lavish resources and conventions to get you to laugh at Hollywood's excesses and conventions. Though the filmmakers were still putting the finishing touches on MacGruber when they showed it here, Taccone said they wouldn't change much. The crowd at the Paramount cheered that news.

Winter's Bone (Debra Granik). "I had trouble thinking people could come in from New York and make an authentic movie about the Ozarks, but I have to say they did it," said Marideth Sisco in the Q&A after Winter's Bone. Sisco, who lives near the hardscrabble Missouri country where the movie was filmed ("just east of Forsyth, in country that hasn't changed in 150 years. And neither have the people," she said), was discovered by the filmmakers at a singing practice and appears in the film, singing haunting old songs at a family celebration. She's not the only local person in the movie; just about all the extras were from the area, she said, and so were some of the actors with speaking roles, including the girl and boy who play Ree's siblings.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a stoic 17-year-old who takes care of those kids and her mentally ill mother, her grit and quiet competence just barely keeping the ramshackle roof over their heads. Then her father skips out on a bond, leaving the house as collateral. Ree heads out to find him, confronting her frightening family and even more frightening neighbors until she gets to the truth. Her grim odyssey turns up some horrible secrets, but the real subject of this beautifully shot, painfully real-feeling movie is the strictly observed code of behavior, feral ferocity, and grinding poverty of life in the Ozarks, and the ways the people there have been helping and hurting each other for generations. It's also about the meth that makes men like Ree's daddy even more dangerous than they already were.

Director and co-scripter Debra Granik based her film on a book by Daniel Woodrell. Sisco says they both got it just right, and I have no reason to doubt her.

Medium Cool: 3 (not so) Shorts (Spike Jonze, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and Holden Abigail Osborne). Not surprisingly, Spike Jonze's I'm Here, a gravely sweet robot love story, was the highlight of this program, but all three of these longish short films are heartfelt, multilayered, and memorable. Nothing much moves in the boxy metal heads worn by the actors in Jonze's film except the eyes and mouths, but that turns out to be all he needs to flesh out a delicately minimalistic, emotionally resonant ode to life and the transcendent beauty of gaining and losing yourself through love. Jonze even works in a kind of truncated music video, giving us a glimpse of songwriter Aska Matsumiya as she sings the movie's lovely theme song.

Successful Alcoholics, which was written by T.J. Miller and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, seesaws between comedy and tragedy without losing its balance. Its stars are two successful professionals who are in love—with each other and with blackout drinking. The most interesting parts of the movie are the scenes that give the boozing its due, as the two talk about how drinking makes boring people bearable or slip out of sticky situations by saying things you might wish you were uninhibited enough to say to a cop or a boss or coworker.

Holden Abigail Osborne's Solitary/Release is an intriguing and original mix of fiction and nonfiction that contains some of the best documentary footage I've seen here this year. Osborne went home to Kansas City to support her family after her troubled brother, Zach, got jailed for shoplifting. A grad student at NYU's film school, she took her camera with her, since "I always wanted to make a documentary about him."

The documentary part of the movie, which makes up the first half, does a masterful job of introducing us to Zach and his dilemma with minimal supertitles and no voiceover narration. Osborne's observant camera catches Zach and his supportive family at telling moments, and economically edited snippets of conversation reveal that he's trying to manage a mental disorder of some kind that has gone undiagnosed so far, causing this seemingly thoughtful man and his loving family a lot of pain.

Then the film switches to a whole different look and feel as Zach, now played by James Franco, tries to detox in the woods with his dad (played by Zach's actual father, who's an actor). Angelic lighting and slightly blurred backgrounds make it feel as if the real story shown in the first part is being replayed as a Hollywood movie. So do melodramatic elements, like the shouting matches between Zach and his father and the heavy chain he chops off his leg with an axe.

Osborne says she based the fiction segment on an idea of hers that she wrote to her father and brother in a letter about a year before she shot the movie, when Zach was struggling with his addiction and she thought the only solution would be for the two of them to go out in the woods together. She never sent the letter, since her brother was arrested before she got a chance, but she wanted to capture that earlier, wilder stage of his life in her movie.

Inventive choices like that are one of the things I love about film festivals like this one. You never know when you'll catch a filmmaker trying something new, and that kind of creative thinking can make a movie more interesting even if it doesn't quite work.

Written for The House Next Door

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

SXSW 2010: Day Two

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson. Whenever the great documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The New Americans) has a new doc, he shows it at SXSW, and it's always one of the festival highlights for me. This year's world-premiere screening of No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson was no exception. The 90-minute doc was shot as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series (it will air on April 13), in which 30 directors each tell a story about an athlete "that really resonates for them personally," as James put it at the screening. The films are about sports, but — at least in the ones he's seen so far—always as "an avenue to something else."

As told by James and his crew, Iverson's story is a great American tragedy, a harrowing look into the gaping racial fault line that runs through America in general and Hampton, Virginia, in particular. The city is the filmmaker's hometown as well as the ballplayer's; James even played basketball there in high school, his father lettered there in three sports, and his mother still lives there.

Without those strong roots in the community, he said at the screening, he could never have made this film — and even so, he had to work hard to get most of his subjects to talk to him, since they didn't want to re-expose rifts they have worked hard to paper over. But in the end, he got a good sampling of the community on film, including people who coached or otherwise mentored Iverson, community leaders and lawyers who supported him after his arrest, reporters who covered the case, retired policemen and other community officials, and a few people who thought he got what he deserved. Almost all are frank and articulate about what they thought and felt about his arrest 17 years ago — and still do, just as strongly.

Iverson himself never talked to the filmmakers, so they piece together their portrait from archival footage and what others say about him. He comes off as a soft-eyed, soft-spoken, proud, easily wounded, and incredibly gifted young man with an iron will. "Go to a hardware store, pick up the smallest nail in there, and try to bend it. You can't. It's tough. That's Allen Iverson," says one man who knew Iverson as a boy.

It also seems clear that his sense of responsibility comes from the street. (Loyal to family and friends but suspicious of institutions, he essentially raised himself and his two younger siblings for several years while his young single mother was addicted to drugs, often skipping school to take care of family obligations.) That street code has not served him well as a professional athlete. Iverson was the NBA's first draft pick in 1996, but his habit of abruptly quitting teams and his reputation for not being a team player or listening to coaches has kept him from the kind of stardom achieved by Michael Jordan (who we see Iverson outplaying in one thrilling clip.)

As James asks in the voiceover that guides the narrative, "Barely six-feet tall, is Allen Iverson, pound for pound, the best basketball player ever? he a thug in basketball shorts?" People convinced he was a thug made sure he and three of his African-American friends were arrested and charged with felony crimes as adults when they got into a brawl with some white kids at a bowling alley (none of the white kids were charged with anything). That incident, which led to Iverson's doing time and then being expelled from high school, was a turning point for him—and for the town of Hampton, whose black churches and community leaders rallied behind the jailed boys and, as one community leader recounts, very nearly rose up in rebellion.

Time and again, James returns to the image of that beautiful young man in handcuffs, being led to and shoved into the back of a police van. It's an eloquent illustration of what one of the organizers who he interviews said at the time: "The plantation of the 21st century is the penitentiary."

Animated Shorts. Free from the laws of gravity, the geography of the natural world, and the personalities, charisma, physical appearance, and chi of live actors, animation provides about as clear a window as you can get into a filmmaker's imagination and perceptions. Some of the animators at this year's SXSW use their art to focus on familiar situations or emotions, while others want to create new worlds or play around with some of the components of our own. A couple are after nothing less than spiritual transcendence.

The Polish Language, an Irish filmmaker's tribute to Polish poets, is a dreamily seductive concrete poem of a movie, creating visual metaphors for phrases chosen from poems in "this sonorous, consonant tongue," and The Orange is an original take on origin theories, tracing the journey of an orange that ruled the world for a while (the orange always glows, often against a black-and-white background)—until the narrator buys and eats it.

One Square Mile of Earth, a very funny tour of a gay bar with stops to eavesdrop on some familiar types, is fun to look at. One character looks like a cross between Peter Lorre and a rabbit; another has a long, horsey face with lips you just can't stop watching. It's even more fun to listen to, with lines like: "I think before you can call yourself an artist, you have to complete one project."

This year's entry by Bill Plympton, The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Burger, is as alive and dryly funny as all his work, with its vibrating lines, vibrant colors, and clearly motivated—and often quixotically deluded—characters. The star this time is a determined little calf, who pumps iron and runs away from her horrified mother to try to live her dream of becoming one of those happy burgers she sees on a billboard.

A couple of the animated shorts were disappointingly literal-minded, though they made their points. Bygone Behemoth, a heavy-handed metaphor about Hollywood, shows an aged movie monster surrounded by his posters at home, reading depressing news in Variety about the death of his cronies and the rise of CGI characters. And Poppy, a tale of two WWI soldiers from New Zealand behind enemy lines in France who find a baby with her dead parents and save it at their own peril, is the kind of story that works better when you hear it from someone who experienced it (as director James Cunningham did from his great-grandfather) than if you see it on film, where it feels sentimental and contrived. This also felt like a misfire as an animated movie; I think it might have worked better in live action. The characters look startlingly real in long and medium shots, but their heads look like chiseled plastic, giving them a GI Joe feel in close-up. The best thing about a film is the expressions on the soldiers' faces, thanks to the performance-capture technology the filmmakers used. So why not just show us the actors? Bygone Behemoth would like to know.

Written for The House Next Door

SXSW 2010: Day One

I first became aware of filmmaking brothers Jay and Mark Duplass when I saw their feature The Puffy Chair at South by Southwest '05. The brothers are SXSW favorites, and though that may be partly because they're local talent (they went to film school at the University of Texas), it's not the main reason. Their funny, truthful character studies, which respect all their characters without putting any on a pedestal, fit right into the festival's laidback yet professional vibe.

In Cyrus, John C. Reilly plays John, a man whose new romance with what appears to be the perfect woman (Marisa Tomei) is threatened by her diabolically passive-aggressive son (Jonah Hill), who wants to keep her all to himself. The three are funny and touching, and the kind-eyed Catherine Keener is wonderfully wry, as always, as John's ex-wife, who's patiently weaning him from emotional dependence seven years after their divorce.

Cyrus is their first studio-funded movie, but the brothers were determined not to lose the intimate working style that has served them so well all these years. In a Q&A after the screening, Mark said their rule was to "treat every scene like a nude scene," allowing only essential personnel on the set in order to avoid crowding it with the extra crew that tend to dampen the creative spirit of multi-million-dollar movies.

Read the rest on Slant Magazine's blog.

South by Southwest 2010: Mmmmovies

I've been in Austin since Saturday at the South by Southwest film festival. I love this town. Before I met my Texas-averse but otherwise most excellent husband, I lived here three different times, since I kept moving back here whenever I had no compelling reason to be anywhere else. I love New York too, so no complaints about my life now, but it's always a treat to come back to Austin, especially to wallow in movies all day at the festival.

This year for the first time, I'm writing at the end of every day about the movies I've seen for The House Next Door, the blog for Slant Magazine. I'll start posting links to those posts here, in case you want to see what I'm up to.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

By Elise Nakhnikian

High expectations can ruin a perfectly acceptable movie, which may be why I was disappointed by Tim Burton’s visually interesting but overly derivative Alice in Wonderland.

An homage/sequel to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, this Alice picks up about a decade after the others left off. Nineteen years old and about to be engaged to an upper-class twit, Alice escapes a formal garden party to follow the White Rabbit down another hole, winding up back in Underland (one of the film’s more original conceits is that Alice had been misremembering the name all that time) and a new set of adventures.

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton has said she wanted to empower Alice by making her the opposite of a well-bred, passive Victorian girl. Boy, does she ever. This Alice even goes to war, killing the dragon-like Jabberwocky to break the Red Queen’s stranglehold on Underland.

I’m all for empowered women and girls, but this Alice feels too programmed. A role model with a capital R, she’s stubbornly one-dimensional even in 3-D.

The original Alice was much more strong-minded, for all her dreamy passivity. As she – and we – wandered through the trippy world she had fallen into, she accepted whatever she encountered with a kind of Zen equanimity, but she was no patsy. She always knew her own mind, and so did the readers that accompanied her.

I suspect that that loss of self-confidence, which happens to so many girls in adolescence, is part of the point Woolverton wants to make, but she never manages to illuminate Alice’s inner life. Mia Wasikowska, who as spiky and vulnerable as a rosebush as a gifted and guarded teen in HBO’s In Treatment, tries hard to give Alice the same transparency she brought to that character, but we rarely get past her scowls or smiles here to share what’s in her head. When we do, it’s usually because Alice is literally voicing her thoughts, a clunky device that slows down several scenes, including an already badly paced battle that's supposed to be the climax.

Alice’s opacity can’t be blamed entirely on the flatfooted script, since the camera never adopts her point of view either. Burton films Alice the same way he does everyone else in the movie, either admiring her doll-like beauty or emphasizing her freakish size as she keeps shrinking and growing.

The other characters from the book, originally so mysterious and powerful or genuinely eccentric, are mostly shrunken down to mere curiosities. One exception is the nicely matched pair of queens.

Ann Hathaway’s suspiciously saccharine White Queen is a parody of a Disney princess, gliding about in a cloud of self-adoration. As her older sister, the evil Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter delivers the movie’s most nuanced portrayal, giving us a petulant tyrant who sees herself as a misunderstood victim. She’s also one of its most successful blends of live action and computer-generated imagery, her grotesquely oversized head demanding your attention whenever she’s onscreen.

Johnny Depp looks great as the Mad Hatter, painted and wigged like a gorgeous ventriloquist’s puppet. His manic, unstable energy and the adoring gaze he fixes on Alice (yes, this Alice even has a love interest) are indelible too, but his spotty Scottish accent doesn’t help us get a fix on his character, who ultimately feels more like a plot device than a person.

But this is, after all, a Tim Burton joint. Burton’s Underland is dripping with atmosphere, dark, mostly decrepit, sometimes scary but always interesting to look at, and it contains some truly wonderful things.

There’s a darkly funny bit with the Red Queen’s terrorized frog courtiers, and the hookah-smoking caterpillar looms out of a cloud of smoke with a nice mix of menace and mentorship. He sounds even better than he looks, since Alan Rickman’s lugubrious, honeyed voice fits him to a T.

The 3-D, which was added in post-production rather than being shot with expensive special cameras, hurts more than it helps, looking downright clumsy in the early scenes in England, where the trees behind Alice sometimes look like a projected backdrop. But it adds to the oddness of Underland, and there are a couple of times when that hokey device of having things seem to float or thrust out into the audience is used nicely.

Burton’s set, like Woolverton’s script, samples liberally from other fantasies, especially The Wizard of Oz. That’s no sin, of course, but I’d expected more originality from a movie that takes its title from one of the most creative children’s books ever written.

Carroll’s books were all about the journey and the strange creatures and concepts Alice meets along the way. Burton’s film is more focused on the destination, which is by definition less interesting – especially when everyone’s rushing toward yet another armed battle. But if you don’t go in expecting too much, there’s plenty to enjoy along the way.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ghost Writer

By Elise Nakhnikian

Like its title character, an unnamed man hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of a retired British prime minister, Roman Polanski’s latest film is a bit of a ghost itself, fading away in front of our eyes.

The ghost writer is another of Ewan McGregor’s quietly angst-ridden antiheroes, a man more used to watching others than to being watched. When he’s tapped to rewrite a bland memoir ghostwritten for retired prime minister Adam Lang, (Pierce Brosnan), it looks like he’s come into some luck at last. “Two hundred and fifty thousand for one month’s work on a manuscript that’s already written!” burbles his agent.

But that elation barely lasts an hour before things go south. People threaten the writer, the prime minister gets testy when questioned, and the bunker-like atmosphere at the PM’s luxe beach house gets so tense that our man starts to wonder about the ghost who wrote the first draft – and lost the job when he washed up dead on the beach.

Soon he’s using all his investigative skills to find out what his predecessor learned about Lang’s past that might have gotten him killed. When the PM is accused of war crimes by a political rival, the writer’s rush to get the book done on a tight deadline turns even more urgent.

Robert Harris, who wrote the book the movie is based on and cowrote the screenplay with Polanski, used Tony Blair as a model for Lang, a charmer who followed the U.S. president into Iraq. The crime he’s accused of is colluding with the CIA to hand over suspected terrorists to be tortured and killed, and the explanation given for why he did so plays into our most cynical – or maybe realistic – notions about the real motives behind the wars that politicians pump up with such flowery speeches. There’s a certain grim satisfaction in that for those of us who never believed the reasons our government gave for occupying Iraq.

In the Loop, another fictional exploration of what got Britain into Iraq, took that ball and ran it into the end zone, but Ghost Writer runs out of juice.

Alexandre Desplat’s scratchy-sounding, agitated score has to do too much of the work of creating a sense of dread, infusing color into several scenes where not much else is happening. The dense sense of suspense and mystery established early on just fades away, turning into a wispy series of chase scenes and talky confrontations. Even the big reveal at the end has been hinted at so broadly in advance that it – or anyhow its method of discovery – feels anticlimactic.

There are a few nice riffs on American culture and politics, like the writer’s painfully quaint hotel, with its self-consciously costumed desk clerk, or the sanctimonious ad he finds on the Internet for a Halliburton-like global conglomerate. I felt Polanski’s hand there, but not in enough other places.

The main exception is the lead character’s sense of claustrophobic entrapment, something most of Polanski’s protagonists share – presumably with him as well as each other. (For those who don’t know, Polanski grew up in the Warsaw ghetto in WWII, and his mother was killed in the Holocaust. He has also done time under the bell jar of fame, first after his second wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family and then again after his own arrest on charges of sexual assault and subsequent trial. He was arrested again on that charge last year, decades after fleeing the U.S. in mid-trial, and he edited the film while under house arrest.)

The writer’s growing sense of isolation and nerve-shot vulnerability is the most vivid thing in the movie. Inside Lang’s luxurious prison of a house, too many people with too many agendas keep bumping up against each other, galvanized every so often by one of the ceaseless news reports on the charges against the ex-pol. There’s no relief outside either. The relentless rain paints the streets the same gray as the concrete walls of Lang’s home, and the island’s thick foliage turns roads into tunnels.

It’s all very artfully done – even a mediocre Polanski movie has a lot going for it. But in the end, Ghost Writer’s whole world feels like Lang’s house: handsome but cold, and a bit underfurnished.