Monday, April 27, 2009

Beeswax - Big Fan - Pontypool [IFFBoston – Day 3]

Friday night featured the most ambitious, least sensible plan of the festival: Catch a 7pm film, Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax, at the Brattle in Harvard Square and shoot over to the Somerville for the 9:15 screening of Robert Siegel’s Big Fan. When you’re planning out your film festival schedule a week or two in advance it’s easy to do so with rose colored glasses and see a 25 minute window as more than enough time to travel two T stops. But as you stand in line for your first movie it hits you, you’re on film festival time now – which is only slightly more reliable than a bus schedule on a Sunday night.

FRIDAY

Beeswax (Dir. Andrew Bujalski)

So needless to say, I didn’t catch the ending to Bujalski’s latest, a sweet and often very funny film about two rather adorable sisters in Austin, one of whom co-owns a small boutique shop and happens to be paraplegic. The film falls squarely in Bujalski’s modus operandi (lingering scenes, dialog that tends to trail off) but still manages to feel refreshing for a few reasons. Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) is the sister with the store and the wheelchair and it’s apparent from the early going that the fact she’s a paraplegic is only going to be a small detail. The big detail is that she has to navigate through some tricky legal and relationship terrain to successfully hold on to her store as her business partner is looking to get out of their contract. On paper it sounds like some boring movie crafted by the Small Business Association, and maybe if the person trying to hold onto their dream wasn’t paraplegic it might not resonate as much, but this seemingly mundane plot actually does make for an interesting story. What’s even more remarkable is the amount of humor that’s in Beeswax. Bujalski’s always had humor in his films, often of the awkward variety – one of my favorite kinds – but I don’t recall his films causing me to laugh out loud quite as much as I did in the first 90% of this one. A lot of these laughs came from the surprising performance of another director with a film at the fest this year, Alex Karpovsky. He plays a soon to be lawyer who’s had a romantic history with both sisters and find himself drawn back into their lives. His reply to news of one of the sister’s old classmate and boyfriend’s suicide, “Maybe if you were a better girlfriend he would have lived longer,” has so far gotten the loudest sustained laugh from any audience thus far at the fest. I’m looking forward to catching up with the last 15 or so minutes of Beeswax the next chance I get.

Big Fan (Dir. Robert Siegel)

Saying that Big Fan will probably go down as the biggest disappointment of the festival doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a horrible movie, it’s more a reminder to me that I should try harder to keep my expectations is check. I’ll continue to defend The Wrestler long after the buzz on that film drifts off into the ethers, but I won’t be surprised if Big Fan’s reception causes some re-evaluation of Siegel’s first script. With Big Fan being Siegel’s first directorial effort, there’s no doubt going to be many people wondering what this material would have turned into in the hands of someone like Darren Aronofsky (I still get eager to launch into rants about how good and under appreciated I think his directing is on that one). But ultimately you have to look at Big Fan and take it on its own merits and while there are a handful of funny to great scenes, it’s another film that seems stretched too thin to properly work as a feature. There’s something tonally off as well. Like I said, I love awkward comedy, not knowing whether to laugh or cringe, and there’s a fair amount of that sort of thing going on in Big Fan, but it’s all played broadly and with little consideration for anything resembling subtlety.

Patton Oswalt plays Paul (From Long Island), a New York Giants super-fan and garage toll booth employee who spends his days coming up with monologues to deliver over the phone to a late night sports radio show. For a couple minutes a night he can shine (at least in the eyes of his one friend who listens, dutifully enraptured) while the rest of his days he’s regularly beaten down by his cartoonish family and taunted by Philadelphia Eagles fans. Eventually, and unfortunately, he stumbles upon an opportunity to meet his favorite player on the Giants and it nearly kills him. There’s an interesting avenue that gets left more or less unexplored, about how and why his character is matter-of-factly happy about his existence living with his depressed/depressing mother and working his degrading job. He tells his mother as much, but it still feels like the only reason he doesn’t want a better job and a chance to leave home is because it’s his brother that’s making the offer. I can understand why someone would stay at a job that requires little effort, but it felt like there was a window here to seriously explore the man-child phenomena that continues to pop up in movies that was left closed. I think there’s a larger reason to why there’s a generation of people out there who refuse to grow up and I’d be happy if for once it wasn’t just played for laughs.

The film tries to juggle the absurdity of Paul’s situation, devoted so much to a team that he doesn’t want to let almost getting killed by one of the team’s players derail the season, with the sadness that a life this narrow looks like. In the end it doesn’t hit either tone very squarely and it gets bogged down with repetitive scenes that felt like they were there to pad the movie out to feature length. It’s too bad because the story is a good one to serve as a character study, only it doesn’t study the characters much at all.

Pontypool (Dir. Bruce McDonald)

Closing out Friday night was a midnight showing of Bruce McDonald’s latest experiment, Pontypool - a weird hybrid of Talk Radio, War of the Worlds and Night of the Living Dead. A grizzled talk radio host (think Don Imus if he was cool) played by Stephen McHattie, who still seems to be one DNA strand and an intense moment away from morphing into Lance Henriksen, is at the mic on a night when the townspeople all seem to be turning into a pack of rabid animals. Zombie plague? In keeping with tradition, the zed word is never spoken, and the real reason is even more ridiculous than the dead coming back to life.

McHattie nails the role -- his voice is a thing of pure beauty, oozing testosterone, and even serves as a driving force in the movie. He really holds the movie together when its hinges start rattling in the second half and the explanations start to get in the way of things. And the movie does hold together. As McHattie, the producer and their tiny basement radio station start to come under siege and the weird emergency messages start popping up and they try to get a hold on what exactly is going on, the movie grabs you, smacks you around and leaves you in a stupor before you can get to distracted by some of the more goofy elements. It's a good, solid, suspenseful horror film - effective close-ups, editing and use of their one room location. Even with the bizarro story elements (stuff that I'm sure reads better in Tony Burgess' original book) it's the best kind of midnight movie - fast paced, funny with some inventive scares and gore. Pontypool is the kind of movie that can keep midnight movies alive. . I already have a soft spot for McDonald – sometimes when I think about the words “independent film”, Highway 61 will be the first film to pop into my head – so I was a little predisposed at the idea of him taking on a horror movie but McDonald exceeded my expectations. Well done.

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