A Quick Report on My Sanity

I suffer from cine-vertigo.

As of 6pm tonight the PFF/CF will have been going on for exactly a week. By my count, and that’s including the gobs of screeners I imbibed prior to opening night, I’ve seen 63 movies. (And mind you, I was watching other films, too.) For the last month far too many of my days have been dedicated to three to six movies, watched in one battering ram of cinema. The above image sums up my demeanor quite nicely. Also, I look like Jimmy Stewart.

So, my wholly unprofessional self-diagnosed report on my sanity is this: crumbling but still plucky. I feel the burn, and I sense the wall right in front of me. And yet, intelligent designer as my witness, I will push through it. Also, I’ve officially begun walking out of unpromising movies, so that should make things easier. But if you spot me, please give me a hug.

In the meantime, let’s all take a seventh inning stretch, relax and enjoy the dulcet tones of Ian Anderson’s mightily-wielded flute:

Oh, and go see Summer Hours tonight at 7:15 at Ritz 5. It be rad.


April 2, 2009 at 8:11 pm 2 comments

Film Fest Picks and Such for Thursday, April 2

According to a John Hodgman tweet, today is Canada’s April Fool’s Day. Act accordingly.

The King of Ping Pong As we recently learned from the freakishly beloved vampire teen pic Let the Right One In, Sweden is no place to grow up. A secular alternative to that one — and, coincidentally, not nearly as effective — Jens Jonsson’s snow-covered dramedy zeroes in on a hopelessly deadpan fat kid (Jerry Johansson) who lords his mad skills with ping pong over all. Jonsson avoids a lot of the clichés of the genre and goes in some unexpected directions; Johansson’s jock brother, as it turns out, gets along quite well with him, for one. However — and I do so tire of typing this sentiment — what starts out nicely balanced between comedy and drama goes full tilt boogie into the latter category in the second half. Come on, people. Is this really so hard? Grade: C+ 2:15pm, Ritz East.

The Burning Plain The theme of my festival coverage: if it’s really, unmistakably terrible, take the higher road and don’t dwell. And while Guillermo Arriaga — the screenwriter behind Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel — is respected by many, he’s quite the opposite in the circles in which I travel. No, sir, we don’t like his pointlessly puréed up plays with time, nor his facile commentary on how we’re all interconnected in this global village of ours. Having broken up with Alejandro González Iñárritu, who directed the three mentioned above, he now brings us his vision unencumbered by another major creative voice. And, well…it’s basically sad — Arriaga running on empty, beating a dead horse, whatever the metaphor you prefer. Charlize Theron is a miserable woman who bangs just about anyone. Meanwhile Kim Bassinger is having an affair with a noble Mexican (Joaquin de Almeida), much to the consternation of her daughter who kind of looks like a young Charlize Theron. How are these connected? Are they even taking place in the same decade? And will Arriaga seriously withhold the painfully obvious truth till into the second hour? I know people who bailed early; a twisted sense of professional obligation kept me sitting tight, only to be rewarded with a finale that barely qualifies as trite. But already, I’ve said too much. Dude, your shit is tired. Grade: C- 7pm, Prince Music Theater.

Zift Like Landscape #2, Javor Gardev’s Bulgarian retro-noir is a metaphor for some Eastern European beef — notably life post-WWII — whose complexities will likely sail over most Americans’ heads. But the first half-hour of this mean B&W number maintains a surreal, mordant tone, with a bulletheaded anti-hero (Zachary Baharov) being released from a falsely-accused stint in jail, and encountering even more rot and decay. But Gardev can’t sustain the balance for very long, and the film quickly tumbles into tedious plotting and retro-misogyny. Nice start, though. Grade: C+ 9:30pm, Ritz East.

Kassim the Dream Show Ugandan war child-turned-World Champion boxer Kassim “The Dream” Ouma today, happy. Show Ugandan war child-turned-World Champion Kassim “The Dream” Ouma when he was a war child, unhappy. Repeat ad naus. Ouma’s story is indeed incredible. Thing is, I’ve just basically told you the story, and Kief Davidson’s film doesn’t delve much deeper than asking “Isn’t it just insane that this kid went from killing people to beating them up?” Yes. And? To which Davidson has frankly got nothing. Grade: C 9;30pm, I-House.

Previously Reviewed

Unseen So Far But Looks Notable (Possibly)

  • I have it on good faith that Old Partner, a South Korean doc about an old man and his donkey, is very good and not pure ick. 12:15pm, Ritz East.
  • More Eastern European miserablism! The Tour, financed by Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, brings a darkly comic look at an acting troupe who wind up on the front lines of Bosnia’s civil war. Whoops! 4:30pm, Ritz 5.
  • Another entry from what is apparently a Mexican New Wave (see also: I’m Going to Explode, Lake Tahoe, the upcoming Sin Nombre), The Desert Within finds a father circa the 1928 Mexican revolution so religiously fanatic he places his family’s life in jeopardy, all to build a church in the desert. 4:45pm, Ritz East.
  • Iran’s Loose Rope follows the exploits of two men instructed to take an injured and persnickety cow to a Tehran market. And what exploits, presumably. 7:15pm, Ritz East.
  • Perversely scheduled during the day’s final slot, Terence Davies’ doc-cinepoem Of Time and the City (trailer above) summons up post-WWII Liverpool with the aid of photos, songs, old radio shows and whatever else he can get his hands on. This is Davies first film since the rather good The House of Mirth; the exceedingly respected filmmaker also brought you The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives. 9:30pm, Ritz East.

April 2, 2009 at 2:58 pm 2 comments

Reviews: Jeremy Renner Helps Invent Talking Bottle Openers and Disarms Bombs, Plus Boring Families and Boring Nazi Ghosts


You find out all kinds of unexpected things at film festivals; that’s the byproduct of having films from all over the globe, including countries you rarely hear from, cinematically, like Slovenia or Peru. For instance, I’m sure you never thought you’d see a film centered around the invention of those beer bottle openers that make funny noises. Is there seriously even a story there? Well, yes…and no. In the Amerindie Lightbulb (C), Dallas Roberts (Joshua) and star of the day Jeremy Renner (see The Hurt Locker, below) play two get-rich-quick schemers trying to devise the next big novelty product. That eventually becomes said noise-maker, the creation of which involved much false starts with other, lesser products, a harsh lesson in corporate thievery, plus some last-minute, major technical screw-ups. It also, however, apparently involved the guy played by Roberts being sad that his wife left him and other personal stuff about which, frankly, No One Cares. Luckily, Lightbulb has some terrific actors, including comic actor Richard Kind perversely cast as an amoral slick-talker. Unfortunately it’s frequently a technical disaster, with some awful post-dubbing, clumsy video and weird post-production fix-ups that speed certain shots up to the point where you almost think you’re watching Benny Hill. (Plays again: Sun., April 5, 7:30pm, Prince Music Theater.)

All Inclusive

The title of the Chilean comedy All Inclusive (C) refers to the nature of the Mexican seaside resort patronized by the film’s dysfunctional family. But wouldn’t you know it’s a double meaning, referring to the very nearly unsightly familial reunion hoe-down that eats up the final reel. Not that it had much to live up to. The five family members go off on their own to learn mundane life lessons: the supposedly dying paterfamilias improbably scores with a local Cuban hottie; one daughter tries to mack on the wife of a hotel owner; and the horny, pimple-faced son gets his IM groove on. As the dad Jesús Ochoa has a shumbling, sadsack mien that’s fairly appealing, but this is a cookie cutter family weepie.

The Hurt Locker

Happily, the day perked up — before plummeting back down to the dregs — with The Hurt Locker (B+), the insanely well-liked Iraq bomb squad saga from Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break, and formerly Mrs. James Cameron). Following a bomb disposal unit made of star defuser Jeremy Renner and subordinates Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, Bigelow’s nail-biter takes us from one almost sadistically tense and disarmingly calm set piece to the next, the best finding them pinned down in the desert for an endless snipe-off. A far more successful bid for the art house than her 2000 drama The Weight of Water — and not coincidentally because it indulges in her skill with genre thrills — it’s also not too far from Hollywood. Though played with a disarming (so to speak) calmness, Renner’s character is a hot shot, cocky cowboy type right out of an ‘80s action movie, while his relationship with Mackie occasionally threatens to come close to the homoerotic tension that makes Point Break such a hoot. But Bigelow takes her main inspiration from The Wages of Fear, complete with a couple out-of-nowhere deaths and a palpable feeling of hopelessness. The Hurt Locker is better when mid-suspense scene than it is as a character study, but its portrait of war as addiction — as per the Chris Hedges quote that opens the film — is palpable still. (Shows again: today, 2pm, Ritz 5. Also opens theatrically in June.)

God's Forgotten Town

Apparently not good enough for the Danger After Dark section, the Spanish God’s Forgotten Town (C-) is an utterly rote ghost story, so dull and (eventually) earnest it can’t even get a charge out of the spirits being dead Nazis. Part of the Final Solution or no, these have to be the lamest ghosts ever: their idea of spooking is smashing pots on the floor and — I still can’t believe this happened — blowing out a lighter when someone’s trying to light a ciggie. I really ought to have bailed; my early instincts were right. In fact, I’ve decided to start chanelling Malcolm Gladwell and bail when I’m very sure things aren’t going to improve. Having recently entering a new decade on this planet, I’ve realized life really is too short. (Plays again: Fri., April 3, 2:45pm, Ritz East and Sun., April 5, 9;15pm, Ritz East.)

April 2, 2009 at 2:24 pm 2 comments

Interview: Tyson director James Toback

James Toback, right of Iron Mike

Director James Toback (above, center) has only one indisputable classic under his belt: the anguished 1978 character study Fingers, starring Harvey Keitel as a man torn between being a pianist and a loan shark for his father. The rest of his career has been about polarizing audiences like few other filmmakers. From the studio-hijacked The Pick-Up Artist (1987) — his first of many collaborations with Robert Downey, Jr. — to Two Girls and a Guy, Black and White, Harvard Man and When Will I Be Loved, Toback’s films tend to be unwieldy and unpredictable, in both the good and bad sense, as though he was just throwing a party for his many famous friends (which, in a way, he is). Among those pals is Mike Tyson, who in Black and White memorably put a beat-down on RDJ after his character hit on him at a party. Iron Mike is the sole — and I mean sole — focus of Toback’s latest film, Tyson — an unapologetically sympathetic documentary featuring what amounts to Tyson’s view of himself (and his take on certain, ahem, legally questionable segments of his career). PW very briefly sat down to speak with Toback while he showed Tyson at this here film festival.

You’ve been friends with Mike Tyson for over twenty years. How did your perception of him change while making Tyson?

“I was not aware of the degree to which fear was the ongoing trigger to al of his behavior — that he was carrying around this sensitive, self-assured, easily-humilated kid who couldn’t handle things after awhile. As a result he was fearful all the time. And he consciously looked to immerse himself in his fear. While boxing he would infect his opponent with this fear through his eyes, so that all of a sudden the opponent would be the one who was afraid of him. All that was new to me, and fascinating not only in and of itself but to the degree to which he experienced it.”

What do you say to those who criticize the film’s lack of objectivity?

“Well, it’s not intended to be an objective portrait, or a dialectical movie. It is intended to be a self-portrait of Mike Tyson, orchestrated and presented by me. There’s no pretense that this is the guaranteed truth. There’s no ‘I was there, I saw everything and he’s right and I’m telling you that he’s right and demand that you believe he’s right.’ I’m simply saying, ‘Here is Mike Tyson as he sees himself to be.’ That, to me, is a far more interesting movie to see than a movie where twenty people are telling different versions of the same story.

“And ultimately, who cares? What I’m interested in is the dynamic of his personality. There’s a reason Mike Tyson came from nowhere to become the greatest fighter in the world twice. It’s not just that he was strong. It was his character, his will, his intelligence, his discipline, his personality. So why would you want to have someone with such such complexity and substance share screentime with people who are infinitely less interesting? I’m just saying, here’s a human being who’s one of the most famous people in the world about whom people have all sorts of views, and here’s his view of himself. That was always in my mind to do it that way. I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t even want to see the other movie.”

This is your first documentary. In what ways is it different doing a documentary than doing a fiction film?

“It was, in a way, more fun, because I could sort of luxuriate in the control of the circumstances and not have that fractured ADD sense when you’re making a larger movie. You’re always asking yourself if you should be doing that, are you giving enough focus to that, and so forth. On the other hand, it was much more nerve-wracking because I had no idea where I was going with it. So when we got in the editing room there was every possibility that it would never come together. A lot of movies don’t come together when you have them written and you shoot them exactly as they’ve been written. And when you see the finished movie, you say, ‘How did that happen?’ Fortunately I have never had that happen. But look at the number of movies with scripts done as written, and you think, ‘Why didn’t they fix this stuff? Look at this shit.’ So you never know until it’s done. When you start from where I was starting, anything was possible. I could have had a first cut and could have been in total fucking shock and said, ‘What am I going to do?’ But I’m excited by stuff like that. Rather than that be a reason not to do something, that makes me eager to do it — the fact that there’s a potential for disaster.”

Tyson will return to Philadelphia for a theatrical release sometime in May. My capsule review is here.

April 1, 2009 at 6:04 pm Leave a comment

Today, Apparently, is Jeremy Renner Day at the PFF/CF: Picks for April Fool’s Day

Jury Duty

Despite the holiday, I am not kidding about any of these. They all suck or are merely okay.

Jury Duty Jean-Pierre Darroussin, whose subtle work have been highlights of films like Cold Water and Red Lights, lends a whole heaping lot of credibility to Edouard Niermans’ sledgehammer subtle look at race relations in ‘60s France. Darroussin plays a middle aged white guy who, in the opening scene, attempts to rape then kills a young woman in a barn. Not only does her Algerian lover gets the blame but, in a silly turn of events, Darroussin himself winds up on the jury. Does he speak up? No, but he doesn’t want the innocent kid to get the shaft. But Jury Duty – its original title, Le Septième Juré (The Seventh Juror), reworked to sound like a Pauly Shore movie why? – isn’t interested in Camusesque existentialism as much as hoary plot twists, each more risible than the last. Grade: C 4:45pm, Prince Music Theater.

Food, Inc. Fast Food Nation scribe Eric Schlosser is all over this documentary on the food industry — both a sign that filmmaker Robert Kenner is on the right track but also that we’ve done this before. Despite casting a net further than the fast food biz, Kenner comes to most of the same conclusions as Schlosser and offers up little other information. Worthwhile but redundant. Grade: B- 4:45pm, I-House.

Wages of Spin There’s a priceless doc to be made of the original, Philly-based incarnation of American Bandstand, and despite the sometimes distracting amateurism of Shawn Swords’ doc — a cheesy “’50s” score, subpar video, even worse sound work, a crippling minimum of photos — the opening stretch serves as a worthwhile evocation of a time and place. But once villain Dick Clark enters the scene, Spin turns into a haphazard hit piece, and one that barely hits its mark. Just about everyone has nasty things to say about Clark, who the film alleges to have engaged in payola and other nasty business. But all Swords can get is hearsay and he takes his subjects’ claims at their word, with no further research. Clark appears for exactly five seconds at the end to say he won’t discuss the allegations. Case closed, eh? Grade: C 6:45pm, I-House.

Previously Reviewed

Unseen So Far But Of Note (Possibly)

  • Majid Majidi, he of such Iranian kiddie movies as Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise, returns with The Song of Sparrows, one of those city-bad/country-great movies, this time about an ostrich farmer. 12:15pm, Ritz East.
  • As alluded to in the title, this is the day with two films starring Jeremy Renner, the quite awesome, though so far fairly obscure, budding thesp of Dahmer, North Country, Twelve and Holding and The Assassination of Jesse James Yada Yada. First up is Lightbulb, in which he and Dallas Roberts (Joshua) play schemers out for a get-rich-quick idea. 2:30pm, Ritz East.
  • Renner also headlines The Hurt Locker, the exceedingly well-liked Iraq War bomb squad movie from Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break). Almost no one doesn’t like this film, nor denies that it’s unbelievably tense. I mean, check out that trailer, above. Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce also pop up…briefly. 7pm, Prince Music Theater.
  • Blind Loves is a four-part doc on blind people in Slovakia. Woot. 9:15pm, I-House.

April 1, 2009 at 1:09 pm Leave a comment

Reviews: Both an Iranian Woman and Rachel Weisz Rap and Sonny Liston Gets No Budget

The Glass House

By now, seeing disadvantaged Iranian women on a movie screen is old hat; at least half of the country’s cinema that makes it to America concerns that very topic. (Incidentally, please rent Offside.) It’s not often that you see a more hope-filled, though far more detailed and scary, view, let alone the real deal. Hamid Rahmanian’s doc The Glass House (B) trails around a series of shockingly independent women eking out a living in Tehran on their own, albeit one that involves a hefty amount of struggle with no possible end in sight. One girl is trying to break through in the rap scene; another is flitting from one temporary marriage (a curious Iranian mainstay for those who want the benefits but don’t want to commit) to another; on the very bottom is a young girl who’s in and out of rehab due to the fact that her drug business mom hooked her on drugs at a very early age. Rahmanian mostly trails them, fly-on-the-wall style, with the occasional on-screen clarification, and the result is as moving and harrowing as you’d expect.

Phantom PunchThere are some movies that are so sad, so feeble in how little they achieve at what they set out to do, and so not in need of being kicked when they’re already writhing on the floor in agony, that it’s sometimes best just to leave well alone and walk away. That, in essence, is my review of Phantom Punch (C-), Robert Townsend’s attempt at a standard Sonny Liston biopic on a shoestring budget starring Ving Rhames, who’s sometimes double the age he’s supposed to be playing. Okay, I’ll stop. Let’s just nod politely and move on.

The Brothers Bloom

Though it also played Toronto in the fall, The Brothers Bloom (B), Rian Johnson’s splashy follow-up to his terrific high school noir Brick, was bumped from a Christmas release to this summer. That’s too bad: seeing it after Duplicity robs it of some novelty, namely that both films manage to locate — I’m struggling to find a way to not put this nauseatingly — the heart in the everyone-fucks-eachother genre. Duplicity just happens to do it better — seriously, everyone’s wrong, this movie’s awesome — while in Bloom its novel and fairly moving presentation of the effect con arting has on the soul is rammed down our throat a bit too much. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play lifelong conmen, with Brody as the sadsack, lovelorn one sick of never being able to trust anyone. Enter new mark Rachel Weisz, an uber-wealthy agoraphobe freak dwelling in Jersey’s only Euro-looking estate whom Brody struggles not to fall for while fleecing. Like Duplicity the mega-twists and caterwauls are mere fronts; there’s an emotional undercurrent that’s unmistakable throughout. Unlike Duplicity, Bloom is a heckuva lot goofier, or more accurately Wes Andersonesque; Weisz “collects” hobbies (accordion playing, chainsaw juggling, rapping) while third wheel Rinku Kikuchi (Babel) only speaks three words, among them “Campari.” But the seriousness tempers the quirk and vice versa. And besides, there’s not a funnier performance in awhile than Weisz’s; dig her lengthy, multipart awkward reaction early on to being told she looks nice.

(By the way, perhaps you’ve noticed everything I’ve seen I’ve awarded no higher than a B. And not only that, but I usually go with the B-/C+ area. Yes, I’ve noticed this, too. And I assure you it’s not me. Okay, maybe a little. But in any case, such middle-of-the-road-ness is a whole lot worse for me than it is for you.)

April 1, 2009 at 5:24 am Leave a comment

Go See (or Don’t!) These Fest Films: Tuesday, March 31

Boy Interrupted Considering it’s a documentary about a mentally ill teen who killed himself that’s been made by the kid’s parents, you’d expect Boy Interrupted to be infinitely too personal — moving, yes, but still therapy-made-public and in need of some distance. I’m still not entirely convinced it didn’t need a third party behind the lens, but it’s nowhere near something like Nicole Conn’s unsightly and self-aggrandizing “doc” little man (not the Wayans comedy, though possibly worse), about her and her partner’s struggles with a grossly premature baby. Hart Perry, who lensed Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, U.S.A., collaborated with his documentarian wife Dana on this evocation of their dead son, who jumped out of a window at 15 after an entire life of suicidal behavior and experiments with various meds. Despite the filial connection, Boy Interrupted often does feel like it’s been made by someone else: when interviewed, the Perrys speak soberly and (mostly) without tears. They seek not pity but explanation and their film’s portrait of trying to medicate the mentally ill manages to balance the personal with the universal. Grade: B 7:15pm, Ritz East.

The Girl From Monaco

The Girl From Monaco Slightly more inventive than your usual wad of French fluff, this breezy number from Anne Fontaine (How I Killed My Father) unites a middle-aged barrister (Fabrice Luchini), his stiff Arab bodyguard (Days of Glory’s Roschdy Zem) and a bubble-brained hotcha weather girl (Louise Bourgoin) in an almost-love triangle in scenic Monaco. Things don’t quite work out the way you’d expect, and the three leads are spirited. But it’s still, you know, fluff. Grade: B- 9:15pm, Ritz East.

Cuttin’ Da Mustard Judging from his IMDb page, Mustard maker Reed R. McCants is going by experience with this fitfully amusing comedy about a troupe of out-of-work actors, led by Tropic Thunder‘s Brandon T. Jackson, who try to mount a production at a Queens theater. There’s a couple decent, if Hollywood Shuffle-derived yuks about black actors doing Menace II Society monologues in Shakespeare class and whatnot, but the jokes are too light and the semi-autobiography too earnest. Grade: C+ 9:30pm, I-House.


Able From Philadelphia-based filmmakers but filmed in Germany with a German cast speaking English, Marc Robert’s apocalyptic horror gets kudos for abstraction. There’s no exposition — it just opens up with a virus of so-far-unknown intent already having decimated Berlin, and with a small group of people filmed in an unclear manner that nearly out-obscures Fernando Meirelles’ busy work on last year’s Blindness. Long as everything is unclear, Able is a creepy-crawly mood piece filled with striking images; soon as anyone speaks, or does anything, it immediately crumbles. Grade: C+ 9:30pm, Ritz East.

Previously Reviewed

Unseen So Far But Of Note (Maybe)

  • From The Syrian Bride‘s Eran Riklis comes Lemon Tree, another look at Israeli-Palestinian relations, this one starring The Visitor‘s great Hiam Abbass. 2:15pm, Ritz 5.
  • The awkwardly titled 4bia is a Thai omnibus of four short horror films, including one from the guy who made the crossdressing sports comedy Iron Ladies. 4:45pm, The Bridge.
  • Speaking of Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend’s latest is Phantom Punch, a Sonny Liston biopic starring Ving Rhames. 7pm, Prince Music Theater.
  • One more screening of The Brothers Bloom, Rian Johnson’s quirky follow-up to Brick that isn’t getting much love but which I stubbornly believe will be secretly awesome. With Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz and much conman shenanigans. 9:15pm, Prince Music Theater.

March 31, 2009 at 3:42 pm 2 comments

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