Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Blood Sweat & Cheers - That Evening Sun - The Escapist [IFFBoston Day - 5]

Blood, Sweat & Cheers (Dir. Al Ward)

I wasn't expecting much from the cheerleading documentary Blood, Sweat & Cheers, but I was hoping for more than the glorified home movie that we got.  I'm not sure what camera was used to shoot this, but I believe I might have one gathering dust in my closet.  And the grainy lo-def video wouldn't even be a problem if there was any sort of ambition going on.  I understand why it was shown at IFFBoston - I grew up next door to Burlington (the Massachusetts town where the bulk of the film takes place), it's about a half hour drive from Boston and who doesn't like to hear about hometown heroes?  But the film is entirely too in the pocket of it's subject, the Burlington Pop Warner Junior Midget cheerleading team.  It's not a boring subject, the team is one of the most decorated in the country and there's an innate drama involved with this sort of competition - similar to the pressure placed on the young girls of the gymnastics circuit.  If the film had any sort of perspective or anything interesting to say besides, hey check out these talented girls, it could have risen above the feature length recruitment film that it is.

That Evening Sun (Dir. Scott Teams)

There's no question that at this point in his career, Hal Holbrook is a national treasure -- a living legend that still has a few surprises up his sleeve.  Unfortunately, in That Evening Sun we're watching him go through the paces of a fairly routine grumpy old man story with Holbrook trying to hold on to his farm house.  Let's put it this way, watching a still ripped Clint Eastwood scaring some punks of his lawn with a shotgun carries a higher level of entertainment than Holbrook annoying a punk with his mangy dog and walking stick.  

That's not to say he doesn't have couple rousing I'm-80-I-can-do-what-I-want scenes, but they're nothing out of the ordinary. The best moments are when we're simply able to hang out with Holbrook and his old bud Barry Corbin as they reminisce and conspire.  Corbin has aged more than you might think since his days as a retired astronaut on Northern Exposure but wrinkles and grey hairs suit him like the frayed pair of overalls he sports in each scene he's in.  I would gladly sit through two hours hanging out with these two guys as they talk about trucks, dogs, lawns and big butted old girlfriends.  But towards the end of That Evening Sun, the longer it went on, the less interested I was in the Reader's Digest story about a man and his house.  The performances and direction are all sufficient if not great, if only the story had a little more bite to it.

The Escapist (Dir. Rupert Wyatt)

The story goes that writer/director Rupert Wyatt got in a bit of a row with Brian Cox one night which caused Wyatt to hole up and create The Escapist - a movie to let Brian Cox shine.  And for the most part this is a successful project - Brian Cox does indeed shine and it's the kind of film that really allows its actors to loose themselves in their creations.  Cox plays a long time convict looking to make a break for it.  He uses the respect and knowledge he's gained with his age and time spent navigating the politics of their prison society.  To accomplish his escape he enlists two fellow convicts - Liam Cunningham and a completely unrecognizable Joseph Feinnes (hard to believe that the thuggish fighter seen here is the same guy from Shakespeare in Love).  But as it turns out it is indeed tough to keep a secret in prison and before long more people are being enlisted to keep the plan afloat.

As seems to be the trend these days, any heist, break-out or plot hatching film can't be told in a straight forward manner and so The Escapist has its timeline sliced and diced with moments of the break-out mixed in with the events and scheming leading up to the event.  I'm not positive that this technique helps the film -- in the end it makes more sense but by the time that reason comes along you may be more than a little disappointed.  One of the unique joys of the break-out film, as with the heist film, is the build up and release.  In The Escapist you're plunged right into the break-out from the beginning and then you're in starts and fits throughout the rest.  These cut-aways to the action can help pull you out of the odd dull moment but the story should be strong enough that the scheming and plotting draws you in and can hold its own until the fireworks start.  I love watching the claustrophobic intricacies of prison life on film - was a big fan of Oz - and the scenes taking place before the break-out are great in The Escapist.  I would have liked to see scenes of the wheels turning in Brian Cox's head and watching his jump through hoops to keep his plan from falling off the rails them stand on their own and allow the suspense to brew.

In the final moments of the film, featuring a great tete a tete between Cox and a superbly creepy Damian Lewis, the flash forward/flash back technique gets a light shed on it but in this case it's not a good thing.  The question mark that had been hanging over the film since the first scene gets the one answer you were really hoping wasn't going to be the case.  It isn't a deal breaker, it's just unfortunate and turns the movie on its head.  Sometimes that can be a good thing, but when you liked the movie just fine the way it was it feels like a slight betrayal.  But as a testament to the great performances and direction, it still turns out to be one of the best films of the fest.

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