Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Reflecting Skin

Dir. Philip Ridley

Viewed: From the Couch

About ten years ago I was able to spend some time living down the street from one of the better video stores I've ever come across. Having worked at a couple of video stores in the early and mid 90s, I always appreciate a good one and felt at home spending spare time browsing the aisles looking for treasure. So it was at Northampton's Pleasant Street Video that I stumbled across this peculiar film, The Reflective Skin. It was the cover that did it for me -- an odd looking boy with a harpoon across his lap and the jaws of some large fish mounted ominously behind him -- very gothic and creepy looking. And the title is one that promises you the film is going to be anything but dumb. In the early and mid 90s I was absorbing films at a rate that I doubt I will ever match, so I didn't take much for me to bring a movie home with me. Ah yes, the 90s, when independent film had yet to succumb to a sissy-pants formula and your evening's entertainment could be determined by a good video cover. Those were indeed the days.

Until today, that cover and name were the only things I remembered about the film aside from a gruesome suicide that ended with a burning gas station and some images of a boy running through across a large open field with a big blue sky overhead. I remember lying on my bed and putting the film on, but earlier that evening a guy stopped by the house and sold me some mushrooms for that following afternoon's planned trip to the mall to watch Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Well, a good portion of those magical mushrooms were consumed that night and The Reflective Skin was used as a means to chill out, as the kids like to say. That would be the last I'd thought about the film until a few weeks ago when I was turned on to the excellent blog that the folks behind the upcoming Where the Wild Things Are are running. They made reference to the film Paperhouse -- another film I hadn't thought about since 10 years ago. But this one I do remember as I used to have a copy of it on one of those 8 hour vcr tapes along with three or four other films. Paperhouse also features young kids, a fire and shots of rolling hills and big skies -- but it wasn't the film I had watched that night up in the attic bedroom. No... That was some movie with a different creepy kid on the cover... Something Skin? Thanks should go to, IMDb, for cracking another mystery and helping this old man's fuzzy memories become a whole lot clearer.

As it turns out, The Reflecting Skin doesn't lie in complete obscurity, only next to it. The writer/director Philip Ridley also wrote The Krays, a memorable, well received, violent British gangster film that I also had on one of those 8 hour tapes when I was in high school -- meaning it got a fair amount of play on cable back in the day. Both films came out in 1990 and that seemed to be the year for Philip Ridley. Since then he's only written two other films, one of which he directed. But from the sound of his bio he may have been keeping busy writing novels and plays. The film also features the a young Viggo Mortensen in his first starring role, so I'm sure his fan club holds the film in high regard.

The real star is 9 year old Seth Dove, played by newcomer Jeremy Cooper. The film opens up on Seth and his two buddies playing a prank on their neighbor, a creepy (everyone in this film is creepy, by the way) widow whom Seth becomes convinced is a vampire, by filling a big toad with air by sticking a straw up its rear end and shooting it with a slingshot, causing the neighbor lady to get a face full of frog guts. Yeah, that old gag. The seems to take place in the 50's when young scamps with slingshots cause mischief and give their neighbors headaches. But Dennis the Menace this is not. And Seth's parents are no Ozzie and Harriet. They run a gas station out in the middle of nowhere, a job his mother seems to detest as she is first seen in the middle of a fit over being unable to escape the smell of gasoline. Seth remarks early on that all he has to do is look at his mom and she'll break down crying. His father isn't much better off, he's a meek shell of a man, but at least he's kind to Seth and doesn't force water down his throat until he pisses himself like his mom does.

There are a fair amount of odd juxtapositions going on in The Reflecting Skin. You're never told here exactly in the US the film is taking place but by the amount of dusty, flat terrain and the amber waves of grain you get the impression that we're not far away from the badlands (the movie was filmed in Alberta, Canada). Yet water plays a major theme in the film. Seth's father is always going on about the importance of water (lest he "turn into dust"), his brother is in the military stationed on an island in the Pacific, the creepy widow's house (her name is Dolphin Blue, naturally) is where we find that harpoon and those jaws, the first murder victim is found floating in water -- and in the film's most bizarre scene a couple of chirping ladies walk by Seth carrying a dead seagull. All of the four elements play an important role in the film but the mysteries are all tied in some way or another to water.

When Seth discovers one of his friends floating in his family's pool of drinking water, the sheriff's deputy immediately starts pointing a finger at Seth's father. It turns out there was an incident with a young boy some years ago and the threat of this secret getting out is too much for him to bear. Seth watched as his father takes his own life in a gruesome and destructive manner involving a gas pump and a stubborn book of matches. But the murders don't stop after his death and when Seth's brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) comes home things don't get any better for his family. Soon Seth's other friend shows up dead by the side of the road and because the one-eyed, one handed sheriff was so sure it was Seth's father, the only solution the townspeople can accept is that he's somehow still alive.

Any hopes for Cameron being the clear-headed salvation for the family are immediately dashed as he tosses the American flag that greets him into the dirt and quickly pushes Seth aside in an effort to keep miserable company with Dolphin Blue. Viggo is particularly heart-breaking in his portrayal of the cold, unsympathetic brother. Cameron is just as lonely as everyone else in the town and, as the story goes, finding personal relief is more important than the problems of some stupid 9 year old. Even if that 9 year old might know who's killing the kids in town. Cameron's obliviousness reaches great absurdity when he gets annoyed with Seth's insistence and asks him, "Why aren't you off playing with your friends?" To which Seth responds quite matter-of-factly, "All my friends are dead." Just another day at the little house on the prairie.

The film could easily be looked at as a disturbing rebuttal to the warm fuzzies of The Little House on the Prairie. Surely that show was given exposure overseas in the 1980s and The Reflecting Skin could very well be the British response. It's always interesting to see Americana from a contemporary European point of view, but the Dove family may as well live on Mars. It's in this bizarro world that the film works - if it were shooting for Eugene O'Neil the film would be laughable. Instead, it goes for the kind of dark and violent America you see in David Lynch's work (Roth reprotedly described his movie as "Blue Velvet with children") and even (gulp) Tideland. In fact, the power of a child's innocence as a coping mechanism is as much at the heart of The Reflecting Skin as it is Gilliam's far more off-putting and unfocused Tideland. There's a particularly cutting moment following the suicide of Seth's father. The gas station is ablaze and we're looking down upon Seth in the glow of the fire and a smile starts to form on his face as he becomes enchanted by the glowing embers flying through the night like lightning bugs.  And in an effort to make the movie seem somewhat accessible (it is, I swear!) I won't get into the fetus Seth adopts like a precious handed down toy doll.

The Reflecting Skin isn't a movie with broad appeal. I'm sure certain people will decide they'd rather see something else at about the five minute mark when the lady gets sprayed with frog guts. But the film is not overly bleak or insistent with it's dark subject matter, it's actually quite poetic. A lot of this is due to having the always remarkable Dick Pope behind the camera. If there's anyone who knows how to make dark material approachable it's the guy who's shot two decade's worth of Mike Leigh films. But I don't think Pope has ever shot a movie quite like this one. It's a rare opportunity to see him work outside of the U.K. and he makes the fields, skies and frosty breath of Alberta, Canada a wonder to behold. Equal parts attractively dreamy and foreboding, The Reflecting Skin is a lost treasure of early 90's cinematic weirdness. If you give it a chance it's a strangely affecting film, far more personal that you would expect and one that sticks with you.

Great trailer below, but beware there are some big spoilers in there.

And someone's gone and put all of Viggo's scenes on youtube...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Samedi the Deafness, by Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball's Samedi the Deafness begins with a man's agonizing death and ends with the possible conflagration of the country. In between, there are some low moments.

The novel's reluctant hero, James Sim, discovers the dying man and through a series of either bizarre coincidences or contrived deceptions finds himself at a country house that serves as the base of a revolutionary plot to overthrow the government. Or, maybe it is just a mental hospital. Or both. There are many many more plot twists along the way, including several serial liars, a few mistaken identities, one seriously dysfunctional family, and what seems like a dozen people named Grieve (including the most important Grieve, whom James falls in love with, but who is not to be confused with her twin Lara, and who is actually called Lily Violet, but whom James meets as Leonora Loft).

In trying to figure out just what is happening at the compound (which was a mental hospital at some point, and so contains endless floors, rooms and hiding places) our protagonist is of little help and even more confused than the reader. It is a nice irony, since James is a professional mnemonist, and can therefore commit to instant memory everything he sees and reads (a sort of learned eidetic, or photographic, memory). His occupation raises just one of many interesting questions posed by Samedi: What good is a perfect memory if you have no way to tell if what you learn is true or false? Can you learn a lie?

As James navigates his absurdist universe, it is difficult to tell how much of his predicament is personal, and how much is circumstantial. Aside from a few flashback to our hero's childhood, when he escaped to the woods with his imaginary friend (a pet owl named Ansilon), his biography and personality are mysteries. Kafka gets mentioned twice in the book's blurbs (along with Lewis Carroll, David Lynch, Hitchcock, Ian Flemming, Graham Greene, and Gogol!), and it's not too difficult to see Ball's James as another K., caught up in a mysterious world of arbitrary decisions, empty of logic and reason. More Castle than Trial, Samedi drops a cipher of a character into a very strange world, and leaves both its central character and the reader to figure it out.

Figuring out the mystery - for those who like that sort of thing, this is not your book - is made more difficult by a rigid style that relies heavily on contradiction, interruption, and non sequitors. James seems easily distracted, and his attention drifts maddeningly while important information is being revealed. Even the writing itself is fractured, with an extra line of space between each paragraph, compound sentences split into two paragraphs, and several odd figures (they look like clothespins) marking out each new section.

The idea behind all this would seem to be that we are very very confused people in general, and that without a lot of cheating - ignoring stuff we don't like, lying to ourselves - this is what the world would look like. Or maybe this is what the world has become when so many people lie to themselves and others, and we just don't know it because we are such good liars. The compound at the center of the novel, independent of its possible use as a radical headquarters, was after all founded on the idea that lying could be eliminated through a set of strict rules, like forcing people to wait 15 seconds before speaking, or relying on notes. The thought was that the demands of communication placed unbearable pressures on people, causing them to constantly make up their responses. Through conditioning, they could learn the simple act of thinking before speaking.

There is a notable lack of modern communication in Samedi, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the entirety of the communication in the novel is either personal or in the form of notes. There are many random encounters in hallways, and the written communication is staggering - not just the manifesto that's been written by the compound's founder, but also the complex series of notes that James receives, either slipped under the door or placed in his pillowcase. Indeed, there are notes that summarize other notes, texts hidden in plain sight, and reference to a probability theorist (invented, of course) from the fourteenth century who wrote his masterpiece in the margins of Bibles and which went unnoticed for nearly seven hundred years.

To say that older forms of communications allows us better access to truth would be a vast imposition of my own thoughts onto Samedi, but it would be interesting to consider the message. The people who practice this form of "thinking before speaking," after all, may be behind a series of suicides and a plot to unleash a major attack on the American population. Though the group certainly has their sinister aspects, by the end of the novel James seems more interested in the girl than in foiling the devious plot. Maybe it's because he believes the conspiracy is a fait accompli, but it's also possible that after exhausting the powers of reason and logic to try to save the country, he decided it was better to cut through all the bullshit and follow his heart.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Limits of Control

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Viewed: From the Balcony

I think it's reasonable to call Jim Jarmusch's latest film a test of the viewer's patience. It may sound odd to say that I don't really mean this as an insult or to cast a negative light on the film. In fact, I found Jarmusch's quiet, deliberate, repetitive pace nearly transcendent. Nearly. And it wasn't the inactivity or lack of a real script that causes the film to miss the mark for me. I honestly feel that the tipping point is Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, his skewed eye in this case, being at odds with Jarmusch's pinpoint contemplative story -- what there is of a story anyway. In the end, you're left with a film that's much more interesting as a subject of post-film debate than it is to actually watch.

We follow long time Jarmusch collaborator Isaach De Bankolé as he goes through the day to day routine of his job. It just so happens that he's an assassin of sorts. This entails flying to Spain and picking up tiny messages in matchboxes from one person to the next until he finds his target. But more than that, it entails a daily regimen of tai chi, espresso, abstinence and singular doses of fine art. I'm sure there's a back story to De Bankolé character, and I'd be fine with that story remaining a mystery, if only we were allowed catch a glimmer of character behind his shiny suits and stoic expressions. It's quite perverse in a way (most of the film is in one way or another), how Jarmusch designed this exercise in minimalism around one of the most expressive actors in the business. The film is set-up in a similar way to Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes. Each morning De Bankolé wakes up, exercises, goes to the museum, get's some coffee and meets someone with a new matchbox containing an encrypted message. The film could be described as four one-sided conversations over coffee tied together by trips to the museum and tai chi. Even more perverse is that the "conversations" (De Bankolé rarely says more than one word to the people he meets) are all variations on a theme -- everyone's saying the same thing, just using different words.

What dialog there is revolves around the cellular (or Molecules, as one character goes by in the credits) memory of the instrument, the role of bohemians in the art world and the reflection meaning more than the source -- but what it all adds up to is fuzzy and untenable. I enjoyed the idea of Bankolé being as much an instrument as the classic acoustic guitar that changes hands throughout the film. There is a sense that his routines, his shiny suits and his deflective demeanor are all in place to prevent his surroundings from influencing him. And of course, the film makes an attempt to show us that, try as he might, he is affected by his job and his surroundings and the people he meets. De Bankolé has such a fascinating face that it's a pleasure to watch even when it's doing nothing -- or softening as it tends to do as the film progresses. The more obvious signs that his environment is creeping into him is watching his suits soften from shiny blue to earth tones. But aside form a few interesting ideas spouted form eccentric characters, what is it -- is it the flamenco interlude that finally cracked his wall? Is it the ominously coincidental paintings that he returns to -- do they reflect upon his life in a way that causes him to open up? Do all these things come across in the film as less than meaningful, therefore making his adventure rather boring? Yes and no.

What really both helps and hinders the film is Christopher Doyle's cinematography and the music of Japanese drone maestros, Boris. Doyle has been working magic with his cameras for years, perhaps hitting his apex early on with his work for Wong Kar Wai - especially In the Mood For Love. He's amazing with colors and movement (two of the last words I would use to associate with Jim Jarmusch) and can make just about any setting look like art. He does some great stuff with the tiny, graffiti tagged sidewalks of Spain and manages to take the discussion of cellular memory to the level of the buildings and apartments we come across. Unfortunately, and this may be the reason even die hard Jarmusch fan’s may be left cold by The Limits of Control, the film feels more like an uneasy collaboration between Jarmusch and Doyle than it does a Jarmusch film – I’m just not convinced that the two were operating on the same wavelength. (Actually, after watching the documentary In the Mood For Doyle, I doubt anyone else on the planet is really on the same wavelength as Doyle.) The films of Jim Jarmusch have never been briskly paced, they’ve all taken their own sweet time to sprawl out, but usually the photography is stubbornly inert, forcing the moments and extremely limited when it comes to inserts and similar edits, always preferring the long, fixed take. Something about handheld cameras and a Jim Jarmusch story just doesn’t sit will with me and there’s a fair amount of Christopher Doyle calling attention to himself in this film when we’d normally just be relaxing in the moment with Jarmusch’s characters.

The handling of music in the film, on the other hand, remains one of Jarmusch’s strongest talents. If it weren’t for the perfectly timed intrusions of Boris’ growling guitars and overall menace, the film could very well slip by a viewer like a whisper in the wind. What drama the film is able to summon up from its matchbox sized, encrypted story is due in large part to the rumble created by Boris. If The Limits of Control achieves only one cinematic footnote it most likely will end up being the realization of Boris’ potential as epic soundtrack music.

A movie this perverse in its minutiae can’t go down as a complete failure (more fiasco, really). It’s been a few days since I’ve watched the film and it’s still a lot of fun to think about – which is strange since it really wasn’t all that fun to watch. The movie has some great photography, even if the style doesn’t quite suit the film, great music and if it wasn’t for the fact that Jim Jarmusch only makes two or three movies a decade the film would probably be an agreeably thought provoking film. Instead it’s a frustratingly thought provoking film.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

Dir. Steven Soderbergh

Viewed: From the Balcony

[A very special 'thank you' is order to Prof. Kelikian and the Film and Visual Media Studies Program of Brandeis for this screening.]

Director Steven Soderbergh hasn't just made a film starring adult film actress Sasha Grey, he's gone and based a movie around Sasha Grey. But there's very little sex and only a brief glimpse of nudity in the film. What there's a lot of is conversations about relaionships and money and where the two shall meet. Sasha Grey dosen't play a porn star in The Girlfriend Experience, she plays a high-end call girl, the kind that offers the title experience: conversation over diner, a movie, even hanging around for a morning-after breakfast. The film likes to linger in these moments and spend the rest of the time lingering on the question, can a girl who gives the best girlfriend experience around actually have a functional relationship?

Sasha Grey does a better-than-you'd-think/not-as-great-as-you'd-hope job with her role and you have to wonder if there'd be a better performance if she weren't basically playing herself. There's a kind of disconnected cool to her throughout most of the film and in an odd way it works and jibes with the film's voyeur feel. The camera sits back at a distance in many scenes and lets the talking speak for itself, so to speak. The rest of whatever magic there may be is done in the editing room. The timeline is spliced up, leaving you spending the majority of the running time wondering where the pieces fall into place. If you were hoping that the film might give you something else besides figuring out chronology, it's slim pickins. There's a lot of rumbling about the economic crisis, and Grey works some angles to try and improve her own career by getting a better webpage. One of the best scenes in the film involves a business meeting between Grey and film critic Glenn Kenny, who plays a popular online escort critic willing to give Grey a favorable review if she does him a favor or two. The scene is mostly one long take and Kenny is wonderfully sleezy and makes the encounter a memorably uncomfortable one.

It's a funny highlight in a film that is otherwise interesting primarily for its experimental efforts that approach a skewed Dogme 95 sensibility. But like most cinematic exeriments, some of it works and some of it falls flat -- unfortunately the stuff that falls flat here comes off as indulgent and boring. At its best it's a unique day-in-the-life look at a woman trying to find meaning in a life that's filled with artifice. At its worst it's a luke warm hodgepodge clumsily trying to seem relevant and meaningful. A killer final scene has you leaving the film on a high note and you wish more scenes would do such a great job at showing us the marriage of sex and money and its imperial value in modern society. Or something like that.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Party Down

The world of catering and the world of D-list Hollywood are two things I have no familiarity with but when these two worlds are brought together in Party Down, it feels all too painfully authentic.  Would-be actors, a writer with 4 half finished novels (and some sci-fi screenplays he'd like to tell you about) and a struggling stand-up comedienne are among those forced to serve the upper-class of Los Angeles under the watch of Ron Donald and his Party Down catering company.  Ken Marino (of The State and his underrated 2006 film Diggers) plays Ron, a reformed partier who is now endearingly serious about his job, and makes him an instant addition to the list of great bosses of television.  Ron just wants to get good marks on the feedback card at the end of the night and tries his best to keep his employees from getting in the way of this happening, even if sometimes, like in the episode "California College Conservatives Union Caucus" when he's found rubbing dirt and setting fire to a US flag (he had his reasons) by the young Republicans awaiting Gov. Schwarzenegger's arrival, he's the cause of the calamity.

Party Down has a perfect set up.  Each episode takes place at a new function, ranging from a sweet 16 to a porn awards after party.  I can't imagine why the idea hasn't been used before.  It's one that provides the opportunity for an endless string of guest stars without it feeling forced.  So far we've had the hilarity brought by a horny pot smoking Ed Begley Jr., a creepy Steven Webber with an eye scar and a foul mouthed JK Simmons. Also, It's being a show on Starz means that it's a shortened season of 10 episodes, which means it's filler free.  In short, it's a perfect formula.

Marino shares the spotlight with Adam Scott, who's ostensibly the star of the show.  He's shows up to Party Down in the first episode having swallowed his pride after a failed attempt at being an actor (though he did spout a successful catch phrase in a beer commercial which looks to forever haunt him).  Scott is kind of a "that guy" he's shown up in countless TV shows and had small parts in a number of popular films but in Party Down he charms you in a casual way that his other roles have not allowed for.  He's immediately drawn to a co-worker played by the lovely Lizzy Caplan, the struggling stand-up when she's not slinging deurves, and their relationship is very much in the Pam-Jim mold.  There's a lot of enjoyment to be had from watching them tiptoe around all the landmines found in the early going and testing the waters of a relationship.  There's a moment in the 3rd or 4th episode when Caplan is trying to figure out what to do with her career and Scott asks her if she wants his advice and without a moments pause she says, No.  It's a funny moment, she says it with a bit of a wink but it's also sincere and kinda heartbreaking, as is most of what Scott goes through in the series.

Like most great shows, it's the supporting cast that sets it apart from the rest and raises the show to excellence.  Here we have Martin Starr, Jane Lynch and Ryan Hansen.  If you don't know who Martin Starr and Jane Lynch are, then it's possible you may be comedy adverse and should just move on.  Starr plays the writer, a fan of "hard sci-fi" and the worst kind of geek, the bitter kind.  And as such, he's unwanted in just about every situation and the one who hates his job the most.

Lynch, on the other hand, seemingly loves the job.  She's the one team player in the bunch, the one that finds fun in mingling with the upper crust, even if it is in a white shirt with a pink bow tie and a tray of finger food.  She's the one member of Party Down at peace with having her shot at Hollywood behind her and happy to pass on any advice she can to her co-workers -- to the point where it can be overbearing.

Ryan Hansen is more of an unknown quantity unless, like me, you were a fan of Veronica Mars.  Hansen proves good on his work as Dick Casablancas and turns out to still be terrifically funny and also capable of playing the nice guy instead of the smarmy creep.  In fact, a lot of Party Down's pedigree comes from Veronica Mars.  Hansen, Marino and Scott all had roles on the show in one form or another and one of the co-creator/writers is Rob Thomas, Veronica's creator and show-runner.  Paul Rudd, a Veronica guest star on it's last season, also has a behind the scenes hand in the show.  All of this is a way of me saying, yes Party Down is great, but if you missed out on Veronica Mars, you really missed out on one of the top 10 TV shows of the decade so do yourself a favor, pick up some DVDs and do something about that.

Party Down is on Fridays on Starz.  You, like me, may not have Starz -- but you can watch it on Netflix Watch Instantly if you have a computer (which you do) or a Roku (which I do and love give me money Netflix). There's two more episodes to go, so now's is an ideal time to do what I did last weekend and get yourself caught up.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Missing Person

Dir: Noah Buschel
Viewed From: The Balcony

What to do with the detective story? The literary rediscovery of American and European pulp fictions had to do with figuring out how authors and directors could smuggle sex, drugs and violence into the the culture, but that aspect seems pretty tame in the twenty-first century. It's news now when a movie (like say Wendy and Lucy) doesn't include the big three, and anyone watching more than twenty minutes of network advertising will be bombarded with enough vice to ensure a few weeks at the Sunday confessional. Conversely, pulp has become passe, with decidedly non-subversive writers like Michael Chabon, David Eggers, and Nick Hornby beating the genre into submission.

So, what's a good crime story to do? The answer, as I found out in watching The Missing Person, is to (mostly) remove the seedier aspects and focus on the existential dilemma. Sure our protagonist John Rosow (Michael Shannon) is an alcoholic living on the margins of society, and sure he knows when to flash the cash to an informant, and sure the guy's suit is rumpled, but aside from the necessary conventions, director Noah Buschel eschews the rest of the package. There is booze (and Shannon makes a great drunk), but nothing extraordinary; there is some awkward sex (a very game Margaret Colin), but it's overshadowed by a sweet dose of true love; and while there is violence, it's almost comical.

In place of pulp, Buschel gives us real characters, with full and intricate backgrounds. Not only do we of course learn more about Rosow as he pursues what seems like his first case in decades, but we also come to learn about the man he is tracking down, a possible pedophile named Harold Fulmer (Frank Wood). In a sense, the movie is pursuing both characters - the more they try to flee from their pasts the more the audience learns. And aside from a sadly underutilized Amy Ryan,* the remaining characters are also given some depth, none more so than ingeniously named (if you're a baseball fan) Hero Furillo (John Ventimiglia).

*The only explanations for why Ryan is even in the movie must be her status as producer and the desire to add another name on the poster. It's a role a director's daughter could have played. Very disappointed.

The "chase" itself plays out very slowly, and Buschel seems well versed in the classic Hollywood films from the 70s - especially The Conversation (see above image)- from his lazy jazz score to the opening title sequence to the the way he is content to let the camera linger over scenes. There are a few lapses where the direction seems unintentionally aimless (like an odd scene where Rosow meets a few FBI agents), but for the most part it works. It's very serious stuff depicted in a very serious way, yet it has a great playfulness with the topic and is, at times, hilarious. If anything, he seems most indebted to early, pre-critical darling, Eastwood.

To step outside film, however, The Missing Person plays most like a combination between early Paul Auster and Don Delillo's Falling Man. The genius of Auster was to merge (or maybe, completely subsume) the crime novel into the existential novel, and use the missing person story to question just what the heck it is that we are doing in our time on the planet. Without giving away too much, Fulmer's "escape" would look very strange to most people, given the life he was able to lead. Why did he give it up? If that life wasn't good enough, what is? In comparison to Rosow, whose descent into isolation is given sufficient psychological determination, Fulmer's move forces us to ask the bigger questions. We can look at Rosow (or the countless number of private dicks who came before him) as outsiders or loners, but when the Fulmers of the world start going AWOL, we might be in trouble.

This all may seem like a lot for a 30-year old writer/director, and it's possible that charismatic actors like Shannon and Wood (the latter of whom it's impossible not to stare at) added more depth to the story, but I have a feeling that Buschel is - for all his embrace of the possibility of an alternate existence - the real thing.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

World's Greatest Dad [IFFBoston Closing Night]

Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait

Whenever I stumble upon a good dark comedy, I'm cheered up for a number of reasons. I'm always happy to be reassured that there are people out there with a sick sense of humor not afraid to alienate some people in the pursuit of a laugh. And if we're just talking about the good ones, there's usually some meaty reason behind the darkness - a satirical message that elevates the film into the kind of material worthy of discussion and dissection. This leads to a tip of the hat to the investors and talent out there that are willing to make a picture with even less of a chance to make back their money than usual. Let me know if you can point your finger at a dark comedy that became a box office sensation, because even when Heathers came out in 1989 it was largely ignored until it came out on home video. I point to Heathers not only because in the last 20 or so years (holy crap!) I can't think of a better example of a well done, nasty dark comedy that has been so widely embraced by a generation but also because World's Greatest Dad bears more than a passing resemblance to it. But hey, it has been 20 years (what the-?!) now and after letting World's Greatest Dad play around in my head for a while now, I have nothing but appreciation for Bobcat Goldthwait and his own pitch black look at assholes turning into angels and life after a death in the high school world.

What shouldn't come as too much of a surprise is that when called upon, and given the right material, Robin Williams can be oddly affecting. Like all great clowns there's a vulnerability too him that, when called up to the surface, can quickly disarm even the most jaded of audience members. He's made a career of being the spazzy hairball prone to talking in a funny voice but when you see him in boring films like The Night Listener or Insomnia, you can sense that he's primed to enter into a Bill Murray phase if he could just grab the right material or make better judgement calls. He comes damn close to getting that perfect role in World's Greatest Dad. He stars as a failed writer and single father who teaches a high school poetry class and wonders if he should take one last shot at writing glory. On top of his lack of success with getting published, his son is a crass degenerate, his girlfriend doesn't want to go public with their relationship and no one even wants to take his class - and those that do don't take it the least bit seriously. He almost looses it early on during a lunch break when a popular teacher and romantic rival announces that he got published in The New Yorker. Then, just as Williams is about to take the next step in his relationship with his skittish girlfriend, his son pulls a Michael Hutchence. In an effort to save himself and his son from embarrassment, he alters the scene to make it look a suicide - going so far as to write a devastating suicide note which, when leaked to the public, transforms his despicable son into a brooding hero. Yeah, it's that kind of comedy.

Robin Williams deserves a fair amount of credit for making this dark path a fun one to travel -- he's our rock, however unstable that rock may be -- but what sets the movie apart is Bobcat Goldthwait. He doesn't have much in the way of visual flair but his sensibility is singular. In creating a story about a floundering writer who comes to peace with life through his son's accidental death, Goldthwait has made one hell of a funny movie but even more surprising is how honest and personal it feels. Things turn even darker, and funny, as Williams begins to compose an entire imaginary journal of his dead son's emo musings that becomes a big hit at the high school and lands him on an Oprah-type show. Suddenly it's not just the high school that thinks his ignorant, piggish son was actually an intelligent, soulful person; and once publishers start talking about allowing him to publish his own work if he allows them to publish the fake journal, it becomes a countdown to how long he can keep the lie going before he unravels. There's a running joke of his dead son's picture haunting him at every turn (see pic). It's a ridiculous photograph of the kid and its absurdity gives the joke an amazing longevity. Each time you see it you think, that has to be the last time I'll laugh at that picture - but it is always perfectly timed and it makes you feel like his son is in on the joke, laughing along and even getting a kick out of his father's dilemma from beyond the grave.

Williams does great work with the exasperated, soul crushing scenes (especially during the talk show segment) where he's holding on by the thinnest of threads while the world refuses to cut him a break. It's in other scenes where he tends to come off as a little uncomfortable with the roll. This could have to do with me simply having slight problems buying Williams in the doting, shy father role or his character simply being given little opportunity in the story to feel comfortable, but from the sound of how the production went, I have a feeling Williams could use stronger direction than Goldthwait was willing or able to give. From what he said during the Q&A after the film, Goldthwait and Williams had a collaborative experience on the film - sometimes working their way through a scene by letting Williams try different things to figure out what works for him and the story and how it should play. The film carries that uncertainty with it -- it takes a bit of time for it to find a comfortable tone, but once the very bad mistake happens it never looks back and escalates to some of the funniest scenes in recent memory. The climactic scene with teachers and students (and one jaw dropper of a cameo) gathered together to witness the inevitable unraveling is a better, more satisfying pay-off than you could hope for.

There aren't many unique and meaningful comedic voices in cinema today but, however odd it may sound, Bobcat Goldthwait is one of those voices. His movies are personal, they have a vision and although they are dark, they never stray into being mean spirited. In a way, he's just as approachable as Judd Apatow. While Robin Williams has lost much of his audience draw over the years, I think Goldthwait is one bankable star away from breaking big. When that day comes I'll be a happy man because that means we'll be one step closer to Shakes the Clown 2 -- that film needs a decent budget.

Friday, May 1, 2009

IFFBoston 2009 Awards

We're still decompressing from 2009's Independent Film Festival of Boston, which wrapped up on a high note this past Tuesday with Bobcat Goldwaith's World's Greatest Dad (review to follow shortly).  We have a couple better-late-than-never posts in the works to wrap things up, but in the meantime let's take a look at the awards.  I had to smile at the mention of Lollipop Man and Shooting Beauty winning the Best Marketing award.  The folks behind those films were really out in force during the festival -- I couldn't avoid the guys in the crossing guard outfits and ended up with more than one  handout and free ticket offer for Shooting Beauty.  

Congrats to all. Much like last year I managed to catch very little of what ended up going home with a prize.  Children of Invention, Beeswax (really need to see the last 15 minutes of that one) and Still Walking (that's one purty website) made off with the narrative feature awards with Crude, Unmistaken Child and Shooting Beauty for the documentaries.  But here at RFC, I'm declaring BEST WORST MOVIE my winner for tops of IFFBoston '09. Hilarious, touching, filled with unforgettable characters, Best Worst Movie has it all. In honor of this, follow the link to enjoy this brand new trailer. Read on for the rest of the festival award results:

The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston (IFFBoston) came to a close on Tuesday night after enjoying record attendance of over 25,000 people. Roughly 100 guest filmmakers and celebrities were in attendance at the festival including directors Rian Johnson, Doug Pray, Ondi Timoner, Robert Siegel, Cory McAbee, Bobcat Goldthwait, Armando Iannucci and actors Brian Cox, Kevin Corrigan, Hal Holbrook, Dixie Carter, Chris Cooper, as well as other luminaries such as Bobby Farrelly and Red Sox pitching legend Luis Tiant.

Films were shown in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville over a total of 8 screens.

The jury and audience award prizes have been announced and are as follows:
Narrative Feature:

Grand Jury Prize Winner: CHILDREN OF INVENTION directed by Tze Chun

Special Jury Prize Winner: BEESWAX directed by Andrew Bujalski

Audience Award Winner: STILL WALKING directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

Documentary Feature:

Grand Jury Prize Winner: CRUDE directed by Joe Berlinger

Special Jury Prize Winner: UNMISTAKEN CHILD directed by Nati Baratz

Audience Award Winner: SHOOTING BEAUTY directed by George Kachadorian

Honorable Mention: THE WAY WE GET BY directed by Aron Gaudet

Short Film:

Grand Jury Prize Winner: INSTEAD OF ABRACADABRA directed by Patrik Eklund

Special Jury Prize Winner: I AM SO PROUD OF YOU directed by Don Hertzfeldt

Audience Award Winner: SHORT TERM 12 directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

The Narrative Feature Jury was comprised of actor Tom Noonan, the Starz Denver Film Festivals’ Britta Erickson, and Variety/Indiewire film critic Michael Jones. The Documentary Feature Jury was comprised of Seth Gordon (The King of Kong), Susannah Ludwig (Stolen), and Josh Koury (We Are Wizards). The Short Film Jury was comprised of James Strouse (Grace Is Gone), Tom Quinn (The New Year Parade), and actress Alison Folland (To Die For, All Over Me).

Prizes included a year’s worth of free travel courtesy of JetBlue Airways (presented to Tze Chun, Children of Invention), 5 days free rental of the Red Camera (presented to Joe Berlinger, Crude) courtesy of FilmStar Rentals, and $3000 worth of color correction courtesy of National Boston (presented to Aron Gaudet, The Way We Get By).

A Best Marketing Award was also presented for the third year in a row at the festival. The 2009 award was a tie between Michael Axelgaard for the short film LOLLIPOP MAN and George Kachadorian for the documentary SHOOTING BEAUTY. Michael Axelgaard was presented with a set of Rock Band 2 courtesy of Harmonix, while George Kachadorian was presented with an iPod Nano courtesy of Tech Superpowers.

More information on the festival will be available shortly on the festival website at .