Posted: June 29th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I normally review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. I feel a bit under the weather, so no similar movies this time. But don’t fret – you wouldn’t want to see a movie like this one.
While watching $9.99, the new stop-motion feature playing at E Street, I thought of the Uncannyy Valley. Fans of 30 Rock will recall the Valley as the place where humanoid characters reach an uncomfortable middle ground between abstraction and realism. Such a phenomenon applies to $9.99, a collection of vignettes based on the work of Israeli writer Etgar Keret. The characters are off-kilter but not necessarily interesting, and the characters definitely exist in the Valley. There are fleeting moments of interesting visuals, yet the movie never gels into a watchable whole.
Keret focuses on a Sydney apartment building in which tenets look for meaning in their lives. A homeless man threatens suicide if a random passerby does not provide a dollar for a cup of coffee. A repo man begins a passionate affair with a fashion model who requires much more than simple physical pleasure. There are also more innocent residents – a boy forms an unlikely attachment with his piggy bank, and a teenager discovers the path to happiness in a mail-order guide (guess the asking price). Meanwhile the homeless man turns out to be an angel, and now harasses the tenet who denied him charity. At first the stories develop in ordinary ways. Then things take a turn for the absurd – I won’t reveal the twists, except to say that the characters are ready to make unusual sacrifices.
Because of the Uncanny Valley, I always felt distant from the action. The claymation is neither expressive nor beautiful. Unlike Nick Park‘s wonderful Wallace and Gromit movies, the characters of $9.99 move inelegantly, and there are times where you can even see the wrinkles in the figures. With the exception of Geoffrey Rush as the homeless angel, the actors bring little wit or emotion to their performances. All the stories reach some conclusion about the search for happiness (e.g., you won’t find answers for $9.99), yet Keret offers little that’s new or interesting. The ambitions of Keret and his director Tatia Rosenthal are perhaps better suited to a web series.
$9.99 will not capture the audience’s imagination, especially since most animated nowadays efforts are far more colorful and engaging. The movie is not worth your time, and even at a running time of 78 minutes, it feels a little tedious. Oh, and I forgot the mention the sex scenes. Two characters fuck in a way that’s perfectly ordinary – there’s plenty of clay nudity. I found myself oddly angry at the sight of solid clay breasts. I wonder what the director was thinking. There’s no way such a scene could be construed as erotic, and after a few seconds, my aversion became so strong I craved the closing credits. Now I only wish Frank from 30 Rock could sit Rosenthal down and tell her what it’s like.
Posted: June 22nd, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
I sometimes forget that a compelling subject does not necessarily promise a great documentary. In the hands of a skilled filmmaker, a great documentary can be made with scraps of footage and some insightful interviews. Over the weekend I saw a pair of somewhat similar movies that sounded great on paper, yet lacked the punch promised by their premise.
With Blood Trail, director Richard Parry makes no attempt to hide his influences. When not in the middle of a war zone, photographer Robert King wanders Tennessee hunting deer (get it?). King spent the past fifteen years in dangerous cities: Sarajevo, Grozny, and Baghdad. Using footage from King’s cameraman colleague, Parry demonstrates how war coverage changes a man.
The earliest scenes are best – as a young ambitious photographer, King is an easily likable guy. He earnestly tries to fit in, and laughs at the squalor in which he lives. By the time he makes his way to Chechnya, the naïve ambitions gave way to cynicism and a self-destructive lifestyle. Not surprisingly, the photos dramatically improve. While there is never a real sense of danger, one gets some sense of how the job hardens King. In a fantastic sequence, he pauses to photograph a mutilated corpse and ponders the best possible shot. In spite of great moments, Blood Trail does not add to a cohesive whole. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the Baghdad sequences are downright boring precisely because soldiers deny King access to the action. Parry’s insights are nothing new, and the deer hunting sequences barely hold the narrative together. The documentary does crystallize the temperament and lifestyle wartime journalists must embrace, yet its impact pales in comparison to King’s fantastic photography.
Before the beginning of Dancing with the Devil, a representative of Silverdocs promised thrilling action to an eager audience. The first shot sets the tone – dramatic music plays while the camera swoops over the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Police raid a drug den, and the rata-tat of gunfire is not far away. In the aftermath, director Jon Blair introduces us to a few key players. There is Pastor Dione, a former drug runner who now attempts to broker peace between dealers and civilians. Then there is Spiderman, a drug lord who has found God. He and the pastor reach a deal. If Spiderman’s underlings make a mistake, they no longer pay with their lives, and now only get beaten and left in the Pastor’s care. As residents of the slum rebuild, the cops plan their next raid.
The opening sequence set my expectations high. I thought Dancing with the Devil would be a real-life version of City of God, brimming with excitement and excellent camerawork. Much to my chagrin, the movie devolves into a series of interviews, and the action quickly dies down. The hoods talk about their desire to reform the slum, and note only the police cause violence. The director may have unprecedented access to the slums, but I can’t help but feel he squandered an opportunity. He relies on his subjects to talk about their lives, and does not show us what they experience. The best scenes involve the Pastor discussing his strategy, and how he uses religion to reform the area. On the other hand, we barely hear of police work or the everyday drug operation. The focus on the human element is too strong, and while Spiderman is a surprising character, I found myself yearning for more probing material.
Posted: June 18th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
I always thought the label “Angriest Man in the World,” given to former Winnebago salesman Jack Rebney, was a little unfair. OK, the guy definitely loses his cool in the profanity-laced outtakes that have become an internet sensation. Yet if cameras were rolling as I attempted to assemble a piece of furniture or when I played a particularly difficult video game, my reaction would be similarly profane (and not as funny). The like-minded Ben Steinbauer, director of Winnebago Man, approaches Rebney with a mix of curiosity and sympathy. The documentary stalls during its middle section, but its triumphant conclusion may help the feature become a festival favorite.
Out of love for the viral video, Steinbauer embarks on a search for Rebney. Along the way, he worries he might find a shell of a man – after all, Star Wars Kid sought psychiatric care and eventually sued those who posted the video online. The two eventually meet, and surprise one another. Rebney speaks with the cadence of an old-time newscaster, and despite his advancing age, still has a sharp mind. The rest of the movie is a battle between Rebney and Steinbauer, in which the young director tries to push the old curmudgeon out of his shell.
The movie has plenty of laughs – Rebney curses unlike anyone I’ve heard, and provides some one-liners that rival the best of the Winnebago Man clips. Amidst the jokes and verbal abuse, there is an old man whose temperament may mask deep loneliness. Perhaps he sees the viral video as a metaphor for lost opportunities. Rebney is skeptical of the documentary, and is at one point so crotchety that he almost loses the audience. I’d rather not reveal how the story develops, except to say I was surprised by a man most famous for saying “My mind is a piece of shit this morning.”
After the screening, Steinbauer took some questions. We were in for a pleasant surprise: Steinbauer called Rebney on speaker phone, and both men briefly spoke with the audience. An eager young girl asked whether Rebney has seen the movie, and Rebney spoke of his affection for Steinbauer and the film. He even asked us do to him a kindness. As a longtime fan, it was a pleasure, even if the conversation lacked an f-bomb.
Check in tomorrow when I (hopefully) have plenty to say about cat ladies and philosopher kings.
Posted: June 18th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
On Statehood’s website last night, it was announced that Clark Sabine succumbed to cancer. Band mates posted the following message:
We are deeply saddened to tell you that Clark passed away on Tuesday evening at a hospice in Arlington, VA. He was first diagnosed with melanoma in February of 2008, and after a series of surgeries and treatments, we thought he was in the clear. In the fall the cancer returned and spread to other parts of his body. Experimental treatments were in the works, but we needed chemotherapy to shrink some of the tumors before beginning this treatment. In May, we found out that the chemo was not working and that the condition was terminal. Clark was 33 years old.
As a band, we had 10 songs in line for a second Statehood record, and we’ll talk about where we go with that in weeks to come. While Clark was in hospice care, he did some additional tracking with our friends Nikhil and Jason, and we listened to newer recordings to sort out details in the songs. Music was insanely important to Clark, and it gave him comfort to keep working on songwriting until the end.
Playing in a band with Clark was extraordinary and something to look forward to week in and week out. Often at practice we’d be laughing until we couldn’t breathe from Clark’s wild sense of humor and adventure. Anyone who knew him, even in passing, knows exactly what we mean. To say that he will be missed is an absurd understatement.
Thank you to everyone who gave Clark and the band support through these trying times. We will come back with more information as soon as we have it.
Posted: June 10th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
During the bailout last September, I was a little freaked out. I remember reading about the billions of dollars the government would spend, and furiously refreshing Firefox so I could watch the Dow plummet. As the months continued and payroll employment dropped, I found myself laughing at the bad news with my economist co-workers. High unemployment isn’t exactly funny, yet chuckles are preferable over omnipresent anxiety. Sheila Callaghan’s Fever/Dream, now at Wooly Mammoth, similarly understands how the working world can be one sick joke. Her play, a wild update of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño, is very funny, combining broad sight gags with sharp one-liners. Amidst all the jokes and original sets, there is an intriguing message about corporate responsibility, and a suggestion that our generation could give Big Business a friendlier face.
Callaghan replaces 17th century Poland with the Basil Corporation. Company president Bill Basil’s health is quickly deteriorating, so he contemplates the idea of handing the business over to his son, Segis. Segis had the unfortunate luck of being born on Black Monday – coupled with the fact that his mom died during childbirth, Bill thought it best for Segis to live in the building’s basement, chained to a desk. Segis only interacts with Fred, Bill’s dutiful-but-ornery office manager. Bill’s plan is simplicity itself. He will see how Segis runs the company, and if the son’s performance is not to the father’s satisfaction, the company will belong to power couple Stella Strong and Aston Martin.
Meanwhile Rose the bike messenger and her spazzy friend Claire have a parcel for Aston, one that will bring down the company. Before the two women complete their corporate sabotage, Fred hires them both, and Claire becomes a successful temp. Even though Rose puts her plan on hold, Segis inadvertently ruins the family business. He takes cold-hearted business metaphors a little too literally, so he finds himself back in the basement. Fred suggests Segis’ tenure as president was all a dream, yet the young man isn’t entirely convinced.
At first, it seems the characters simply embody the familiar caricatures of the business world. We have the competent Type-A career woman, boot-licking Yes Men, and the distant leader who ponders his legacy. There is even a chorus of hipster mid-level executives. When the play begins, the performances seem over-the-top, and the actors are a little too broadly comic. As the story continues, however, all the actors demonstrate exquisite timing, and even the most absurd character takes on a human dimension. Fred (ably played by Michael Willis) has a peculiar grasp of language, and describes his hobby with dizzying verbal dexterity. Kate Eastwood Norris, who blew me away as Lady Macbeth in last year’s Folger production, excels as a wound-up shrew who easily dispatches masculine authority. With her nasal voice, Jessica Frances Dukes’ Claire quickly became an audience favorite, especially during her more “serious” tirades. As Basil’s new president, Daniel Eichner easily embodies the despot run amok, and each new gag proves more absurd than the last. Still, the cast is at their best when everyone takes the stage and the tone gets manic. They are all at ease with one another, and though the performances are finely tuned, it’s clear they are having fun.
In addition to the rich comic acting, the innovative production keeps the audience on their toes. It looks deceptively simple – the sharp, distorted lines of expressionistic buildings dominate the stage and give it depth. But then the floor slides open, revealing Segis’ basement prison. Meals drop form the ceiling, and as Segis eats the meager strands of spaghetti, he quickly sets the play’s tone. Later we watch actors react to a text message conversation as panes of glass illuminate the exchanges. It’s not just the video elements that are inventive – accountants and hipsters indulge in a dance-off, and there is even time for a hallucinogenic musical number. Callaghan and director Howard Shalwitz clearly swing for the fences, and I can’t help but be thankful for their nervy risks.
With all these whacked-out ideas, I have no doubt that Fever/Dream bears little similarity to its centuries-old inspiration. But honestly, who cares? I can’t remember the last time a play made me laugh so hard. Leaving the theater, my friend and I found ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of memorable one-liners. Between the chuckles and belly laughs, the dialog is surprisingly layered, and gives the audience plenty to think about. Callaghan’s modern interpretation has a cautiously optimistic viewpoint. Under new management, the Basil corporation promises to terminate the older, more inhumane way of conducting business. And the complex relationships contain ideas on familial responsibility, the nature of women in the workforce, as well as the more dubious aspects of nepotism. Like Rock’n’Roll a few months back, multiple viewings might offer further insight. Even if you ignore its thematic depth, Fever/Dream is about as funny as the sharpest Hollywood comedy, and far more rewarding.
by Sheila Callaghan
directed by Howard Shalwitz
June 1 – June 28th, 2009
featuring company members Jessica Frances Dukes, Kimberly Gilbert, Kate Eastwood Norris and Michael Willis, with Daniel Eichner, Drew Eshelman, and KenYatta Rogers
Posted: June 8th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
Enlighten Up! uses a broad approach to ask a deeply personal question. Director Kate Churchill wants to know whether yoga can help someone find happiness. Her method is not exactly scientific – she focuses on a single person, and his experience may differ wildly from yours or mine. Nonetheless, by looking at a myriad of ways one engages with yoga, she offers the novice a decent idea of what the practice entails. The warm, open personalities of all involved keep the movie from becoming too tedious. Still, I can’t help but think that in the hands of a more thoughtful director, the final product would have been far more probing.
Churchill begins by talking about herself. She’s been diligently practicing yoga for seven years, and has become wary of its growing popularity. Yoga indeed is a billion dollar industry, and some seem to overlook its introspective Eastern roots. The director only wonders whether yoga has any transformative power, so she begins a experiment. She finds Nick, an unemployed journalist in his late twenties. Nick never practiced yoga, and does not think he is particularly spiritual. Nonetheless, he agrees to be Churchill’s guinea pig, so she follows him around for six months as he does yoga every day. He visits studios in New York, California, and Hawaii. All the while Nick openly talks about his progress, and Churchill becomes increasingly frustrated. He shows no discernible change, and she thinks her guinea pig does not take the project seriously. Finally, the two travel to India, where Nick meets holy men who provide spiritual counsel.
The movie would not work without Nick. He is thoughtful and funny. More importantly, he’s capable of articulating his thought process, and is open to even the nuttiest yogi. With his background as a journalist, he’s not too intimidated by yoga’s spiritual leaders, and asks tough questions. Nick runs into his share of new age nut jobs, the kind of caricatures that will never convince a skeptic. Churchill directs these scenes and others with a somewhat manipulative style. Sometimes it’s all too clear she’s editing an interview so it conforms to Nick’s self-discovery narrative. Also, she does not trust the material to be interesting on its own, and even inserts cheesy sound effects to help things along. Not surprisingly, the movie only takes off once Nick reaches India. Maybe it’s the effect of the country itself, but suddenly Nick’s friendly skepticism gives way to something more profound. He begins a minor identity crisis, and even Churchill herself feels overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience. These scenes are the most interesting precisely because Churchill films with intimacy and genuine curiosity. It’s a shame the movie’s first half is not as engaging as its second.
I’ve always been a little bit curious about yoga, and whether these elaborate contortions accomplish what the zealots promise. Nick provides me with the answer I still suspect to be true. He ultimately concludes that yoga does improve him physically, but not in any other dimension of his life. After all, even the most renowned yogis provide surprisingly practical advice, and do not necessarily advocate physical exercise. Ultimately, if you are receptive to the subject, you’ll find Enlighten Up! mostly entertaining, and sometimes insightful. You may want to learn more, even if you don’t rush to the nearest studio and pick up a mat.
Here are other intriguing movies in which Americans grapple with foreign cultures:
Barcelona. We here at BYT unabashedly love Whit Stillman, the sardonic writer/director who specializes in young upper-crust characters, and while Barcelona is his weakest effort, it’s also his most visually striking. Ted (Taylor Nichols) is a neurotic WASP working in Barcelona. Like the character he played in Metropolitan, Ted likes to think of human interaction in the most abstract way possible – often to his detriment. Soon Ted gets an unexpected visitor: Fred (Chris Eigeman), his Naval officer cousin. Fred takes himself marginally less seriously but has his share of hang-ups – he loathes anti-Americanism, which is rampant in Spain. These two butt heads with the locals, often in amusing crude ways. Of course, they spend much of their time courting women, who prove to be frustratingly elusive (Mira Sorvino, still relatively unknown, is incredibly sexy as Marta). There is a backdrop of political strife throughout Barcelona, yet Stillman sharply focuses on his characters, and how they seem utterly incapable of any true connection. The plot is threadbare and few characters develop in any discernible way. As with all his movies, the real star is the dialog, which is witty and erudite, if not a little superficial. If you’re anything like me, you’ll relish the opportunity to watch good-looking people talk silly things in an amusing way.
The Razor’s Edge. I first became aware of this adaptation in the most unlikely of places – The Comedy Central Roast of Chevy Chase. In his hilariously scathing roast, Stephen Colbert discussed Chase’s lack of ambition, calling it refreshing in comparison to Bill Murray “who famously overreached in The Razor’s Edge.” Having read the Maugham novel and wanting to judge for myself, I quickly put the movie at the top of my Netflix queue. Man, Colbert wasn’t kidding. Murray plays Larry, a young rich man with a strong upbringing. After being traumatized by WWI, he returns back to the states and abandons his earlier ambitions, much to the chagrin of his family and fiancée. Larry lives as an expat in Europe, and eventually moves onto India, where he continues his search for meaning. Murray plays the character with his typical deadpan approach. Clearly the tragedies of Larry’s life had a deep effect on him, and Murray makes it so that he’s impenetrable. Yes, we see some of his WWI experiences, yet they do not seem particularly harrowing, and Murray’s deeply introspective performance only exacerbates ourconfusion. As a result, he deflates any emotional impact. Some of the best characters, such as a rich uncle (Denholm Elliott) and the novel’s narrator, are respectively glossed over and written out of the screenplay. Despite some great moments (such as the uncle’s death scene), the production feels uneven overall. It’s a shame, really – I could see this adaptation serve is a turn-off for the book.
Outsourced. Josh Hamilton is as affable as any actor working right now, so he’s the perfect choice for this fish-out-of-water comedy. He plays Todd, a successful salesman who finds out he’s lost his job to outsourcing. To make matters worse, he must travel to India and train his replacement team. He has trouble adapting to the lifestyle, and the locals have trouble understanding his slang. He tells them their job is to sell “Kitsch to redneck schmucks,” and they stare dumbfounded. Rather unexpectedly, Todd meets Asha (Ayesha Dharker), a lovely young woman. Too bad an arranged marriage gets in the way of their budding romance. Director John Jeffcoat goes for gentle laughs – none of the comedy is dirty, and the chuckles are plentiful. There is a recurring joke that all the Indians mispronounce “Todd” as “toad.” Amidst the humor, India really does change Todd. Funny how a documentary like Enlighten Up! tries so earnestly to demonstrate the power of a country, and a lighthearted romantic comedy like Outsourced accomplishes the same with relatively little effort. It goes to show how strong screenplay and genuine chemistry have real power. Outsourced is not the best comedy you’ll see, or even one the most romantic, but I guarantee you’ll remember it fondly.