Broken Mirror

Random Musings on Politics and Entertainment

"The mirror... it's broken."
"Yes, I know. I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel."

-C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik in The Apartment

Monday, May 07, 2007

New Blog

I have started up a new blog that will focus exclusively on film criticism. It will have full length movie reviews with some film festival coverage and perhaps some interviews as well. I'll still keep this one up as a more personal blog, with snippets of stuff every now and then.

Link to the new blog: Tracking Shots

Monday, April 30, 2007

Atlanta Film Festival: Day Nine

After some major disappointments over the past few days, it was nice to wrap up the festival with a nice trio of films that could not possibly be more different.

Up first was MONTCLAIR, which tells a typical indie story about thirtysomething adults living in the small suburban town of Montclair. Nothing new about the plot but I like the filmmakers decision to mix in the story with footage of actual Montclair residents. The individual stories are fairly basic stuff: Jay and Amy struggle when Jay's work demands get in the way fo their future family planning, Suzanne and Joel have difficulty connecting during her pregnancy, Vaclav hides behind his reclusive nature to cover up an old tragedy, and Bruce is a divorced slacker with dreams of being a comedian. These stories certainly don't burst off the page, but the director tells it with so much empathy and the actors (for the most part) invest so much warmth in their characters that it becomes hard to resist. The standout performance comes from Jeremy Schwartz as Vaclav, a character that threatens to become a stereotype but instead becomes the most winning performance in the film. Interesting trivia note: Bruce is played by Bruce Sinofsky, co-director of acclaimed documentaries BROTHER'S KEEPER and PARADISE LOST.

And next we have BLOOD CAR. This is the movie that led to a pitiful protest by a right winger who stole the festival blimp. It was one of the most anticipated films of the festival, and the buzz during the sold out screening was palpable. Thankfully the movie delivers. BLOOD CAR is set in the future, at a time when gas prices are so high that people refuse to drive. (The first laugh comes when the opening narrator tells us this is only two weeks in the future.) Vegan kindergarten teacher Archie Andrews has plans to make a car that runs on wheat grass, but during an accident eventually discovers that his engine runs on human blood. Sure the political analogy is absurdly direct, but this is actually a solid movie that keeps a consistent comic tone throughout and fits right into the grind house style that Tarantino and Rodriguez just recently paid tribute. The film loses some momentum toward the end as Archie goes off the deep end and director Alex Orr starts using spastic camera movements to convey this. Sure the technique makes sense, but it's not very funny. Other than that, this is a hilarious film that is every bit as crazy as its title suggests. Catch it at a festival near you, because I doubt it will get released, or if it does it will be severely edited. The cut I saw will definitely get an NC-17.

My festival week closed on a strong note with Jeffrey Blitz's ROCKET SCIENCE. Blitz burst onto the scene with SPELLBOUND, a superb documentary about the national spelling bee. Once again, Blitz tells the story of kids with offbeat personalities that participate in school competitions. The only difference is that this one is a fiction film. ROCKET SCIENCE follows Hal Hefner, a kid with a stuttering problem who decides to join the debate team and falls for his teammate. This seems like a typical three act underdog sports drama, and the first act certainly plays out that way. But Blitz has a few surprises in store for us. What's great about this film is that Blitz keeps you guessing every step of the way. At almost every point of the narrative, he avoids doing the obvious and ends up with a real original. The film is certainly quirky, especially with regards to the supporting characters, but in his first fictional film Blitz shows a good talent for making sure that quirkiness never threatens to overpower the film. The only problem is some contrivances with the events in the 3rd act, especially a scene with a cello that is left dangling the rest of the movie. Despite that, this is a smart, funny, and winning fiction debut for Jeffrey Blitz.

Atlanta Film Festival: Day Eight

Great news to start off the day. My favorite film of the festival, GREAT WORLD OF SOUND, has been announced as the Grand Jury Prize Winner and will get an encore screening on closing night.

Bad news: I was unable to see RESERVATIONS or LA VIE EN ROSE, both films I had been anticipating. Also, the films I did get to see were not very good.

The first was AMERICAN FUGITIVE: THE TRUTH ABOUT HASSAN, a fairly stale documentary that talks about David Belfield, a man wanted for murdering an associate of the Shah of Iran in 1980. He immediately fled to Iran where he remained in hiding until 2001. That was when Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Mahkmalbaf cast him in his film KANDAHAR. The American press picked up on his appearance, and director Jean-Daniel Lafond travelled to Iran to interview the man now known as Hassan Abdulrahman. This is certainly a very interesting subject for a documentary and that carries the film a long way. Hassan is a very interesting and intriguing person, and is very candid in the interview segments. Unfortunately the film is very dry, rarely rising above the level of a decent episode of Dateline NBC. The moments that stand out the best are when the filmmaker interviews Hassan's family and the victim's brother. This is the only time the film explores the human effects of the murder. The rest of it is just a series of scenes where Hassan and others spout off on American foreign policy in the Middle East. There's nothing wrong with that, but such a unique subject deserved a more original treatment.

The next film was THE INSURGENTS, a film so bad that I was infuriated that I had arranged my festival schedule so I could see both it and BLOOD CAR. THE INSURGENTS is about a group of left wing radicals who plot to blow up a building. The group is led by Robert, a college professor played by John Shea. He recruits the group, which we see develop through a non-chronological narrative structure. These scenes are pretty painful to sit through, particularly when Robert indoctrinates Hana. As played by seemingly medicated Juliette Marquis, Hana comes across as a very stupid woman who is easily manipulated by Robert, and when she spouts off political stuff it comes off as something she's memorized. Mary Stuart Masterson shows up as a government operative who has a past with Robert. Given the ending, her character is supposed to have some importance to the story, but she only appears in a handful of scenes and Masterson seems pretty bored. The connections between the characters that are supposed to set up the ending do not come across at all during the film. Writer-Director Scott Dacko is particularly terrible with actors, unable to even coax decent performances from veterans Masterson and Shea. His (award winning, he will tell you) screenplay contains some pretty awful dialogue and lame attempts at political debate. This is one of the worst films I saw at the festival.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Atlanta Film Festival: Day Seven

After the misery of yesterday, it was nice to see three decent films today. First up was ELECTION DAY, a documentary that followed various individuals during the presidential election in 2004. Among the stories followed are an ex-convict voting for the first time; an elections supervisor checking up on various precints; a racially charged sherriff's race in Florida; and an international rights group noting several flaws with the process. The film takes an interesting look at the process, showing how small mistakes can cause problems for tons of voters. Director Katy Chevigny is an experienced documentary filmmaker, and this film comes off with much more technical precision than your average festival doc. She clearly has an agenda, as this film takes a leftist view most of the way, which is certainly not a problem when you can back it up. Chevigny weaves the several stories together expertly, leading to one of my favorite moments. A right wing precint captain is interviewed and denigrates the voting problems in 2000 by blaming the voters and suggesting if you can't work the machine then maybe you shouldn't be voting in the first place. Hilariously, a few scenes later we witness the Republican elections supervisor having trouble with a sample ballot, declaring it a malfunctioning ballot until the Democratic poll watcher shows him how to properly work it. The strongest part of the film was the sherriff's race in Gadsden County, FL. In a town that is 70% black, they haven't had a black sherriff since the 1800's. We don't really hear much about the race, but Chevigny gives us a good view of how important it is to the community and as the night wears on the results are very close, providing us with suspense in a film where we didn't expect it. While everyone else is focused on a nasty Presidential election, these citizens are determined to make an important change in their local community. I would have preferred a documentary that followed only this race, but this one will have to do.

PRETTY IN THE FACE is certainly the lowest budget film I saw at this year's festival. Writer-Director Nate Meyer also handled the cinematography, production, and editing duties. Most of it was shot on a handheld camera leading to very distracting shaky photography, and the sound was inaudible for most of the scenes. However, Meyer has an interesting story to tell and for the most part he does a good job in getting it across with his financial limitations. The film is about 26 year old Maggie and 14 year old Daniel. Both have very low self-esteem and get constantly crushed by other characters throughout the course of the film. Maggie must deal with her live in boyfriend's cheating, while overweight Daniel is embarassed by his extremely overweight mother. When Daniel's mother falls ill, Maggie agrees to watch over Daniel while his mom is in the hospital and both begin to bond over their shared grief. For a film with such a low budget, the cast was surprisingly good. As Maggie, Meagan Moses gave a beautifully reserved performance, reaching moments of inner depth that most Hollywood actresses couldn't hope to approach. It's a strong debut that powers the film through the poor technical work. Meyer's ending is a bit weak, as the solutions for each of the characters is fairly simplistic, particularly for Daniel's mother. Still it's an interesting piece of work that should make a good run at the festival circuit, and hopefully someone will give Meyer some money for his next film.

The last film I saw today was the sold out screening of LAST DAYS OF LEFT EYE, a documentary that follows the last few days of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes' life. Working with her family, the director utilizes footage that Lopes shot herself while on a spiritual cleansing trip to Honduras. For such an emotional subject, the doc at first seems pretty straightforward, chronicling the path of her career by hitting all the major stuff (notably the Andre Rison house burning incident). It actually feels right at home in the hands of VH1, who produced the film. However, the film is unique because of the bittersweet structure of the events. During the retreat, Lisa talked openly about many of the events in her life and career, and the film uses these segments to have e=her narrate her own life story, using archival footage to supplement her own discussions of each moment. This gives the film the bittersweet feel of a person narrating their life story after their own death. This is mixed in with footage of the retreat, showing Lisa's connection to a doctor that sells natural remedies, her charitable work, frank discussion of her fears, and taking us right up to the moment of the tragic accident. At times the film threatens to approach the level of a True Hollywood Story episode, but the sensitive material is mostly produced with class. If anything, the film relies too much on outside footage, when it's the Lopes footage that really captures her strong spirit and unique personality.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Atlanta Film Festival: Day Six

I had to skip Monday's screenings due to work commitments, but had a pretty busy Tuesday at the festival. Unfortunately, it was not a good day, as most of the films stunk it up, displaying the kinds of flaws that would scare most people away from a festival.

The first film was PARK, which shows what happens when twelve very different individuals all go to a remote location in Los Angeles. There are various reasons for the trip, some have gone for suicide, some have gone for sex, some have gone to skip work. Some of them eventually cross paths as the day goes on and each reaches their own epiphany by film's end. This is one of those comedies that goes overboard trying to be quirky and ends up being annoying. The entire film is played as a joke, even the suicide, and there's no reason to care about any of these people. The director is thoroughly incompetent, with awful musical montages and a ridiculously banal ending for each of the characters. The ensemble cast is mostly awful, with William Baldwin achiveing a level of annoyance that surpasses even his previous accomplishments. This will probably get an unceremonious DVD release soon, but skip it and instead watch previous fest hit ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, which shows how quirky can be done.

A film I had been looking forward to was KAMP KATRINA, a documentary about a unique charity effort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A New Orleans 9th Ward resident known as Ms. Pearl opens up her backyard to 14 homeless individuals. They erect tents and have access to electricity and running water. There are rules, including the prohibition of alcohol or drugs (but curiously a pregnant woman may smoke), but these eventually get broken and relief support in the city begins to break down. The film is well intentioned, but the filmmakers just don't have the skill to tell the story correctly. With 14 people in the backyard, they're only able to really let us get to know two of them, a married couple with a baby on the way but a crack and alcohol addiction getting in the way. One by one, people leave the camp for various reasons, but it's hard to care about people you haven't really met. Ms. Pearl and her husband are very interesting personalities, but we only learn a little about them, most of it is in reaction to the efforts in their backyward. This film needed either more focus on them or to get inside some of the other tents and let us know about these sad, desperate people.

Thankfully the day brightened up considerably with GREAT WORLD OF SOUND, a very entertaining effort from Craig Zobel, a former associate of David Gordon Green, who made a smashing debut at the 1999 festival with GEORGE WASHINGTON. Zobel's film is about Martin (Pat Healy), a man who takes a job for a record company as a talent scout. He teams up with cocky, energetic Clarence (Kene Holiday) and travels the country looking for the next great talent, but eventually learns they may be part of a scam. We are treated to a series of hilariously bad audition scenes as the pair have to sit through some really awful nonsense. These scenes threaten to become repetitive, but Zobel is able to keep them lively and varied enough to prevent that from happening. As opposed to cynical and self-conscious indies such as ALL THE DAYS BEFORE TOMORROW or PARK, Zobel's film is filled with nothing but pure, unadulterated love for his story and characters. Zobel doesn't use any filmmaking tricks to show you how clever he is. Instead, he fills every frame of this film with a low-key sensitivity that rings true, from the opening shot of a record being painted gold to the way Martin is moved by a young girl's rendition of a "New National Anthem". He's found a memorable duo in Healy and Holiday, who create a natural chemistry as a mismatched pair of friends. GREAT WORLD OF SOUND is exactly the type of memorable indie film you look for at a film festival.

SOMEBODIES was a popular sold out showing (twice) at the festival. It was filmed in Athens, Georgia and contains plenty of local talent. It's a comedy about a college student in Athens and his offbeat friends and family. The film borders on the offensive, as all of the characters fit into tired stereotypes. If a racist was going to make a film about black people, then I imagine this would be close to it. Except that the film also fails to contain one positive white character. All are portrayed as one-dimensional buffoons wuthout any sense of dignity. The film features almost every stereotype in the book and treats everything on a comic level including the death of a major character that plays like an SNL skit, but then suddenly asks us to care. This is all pretty bad, but I should note that there is some funny material in here. There are some amusing comic situations, such as a scene where the main character's girlfriend wants to re-enact her favorite scene from MONSTER'S BALL. This has been picked up by BET as a regular television series, which will probably only strengthen Aaron McGruder's complaints about the network. Can't wait for the first Boondocks cartoon that talks about this show.

Unfortunately the night had to close out with one more stinker. THE ELEPHANT KING is a fairly generic film for something appearing in the World View series. It's about a shy, depressed young man who goes to Thailand to persuade his brother to return to the states, but he eventually gets caught up in the Thai nightlife to the point where he wishes to stay. This is like so many other movies where a character travels to a foreign land and finds romance with a native woman, but intrigue and violence eventually get in the way. Worst of all is the elephant of the title actually does appear. I mean, they actually own an elephant, who spends time with them at the pool. See above re: cynical, self-conscious indies. It's not a poorly made film on a technical level and Tate Ellington is decent in the lead role, but it lacks imagination throughout. Ellen Burstyn is in the film as the mother, but she is relegated to a series of repetitive phone scenes where she cries and begs her sons to return. If there were a new reality show called "Who Will Waste Ellen Burstyn's Talents the Most?" then writer-director Seth Grossman is sure to go pretty deep in the competition.

Atlanta Film Festival: Day Four

Big news at the festival. Some idiot stole the Atlanta Film Festival blimp to protest the screening of BLOOD CAR and posted the video on YouTube. He said he would only return the blimp if the festival would drop Blood Car from the program. The result:BLOOD CAR has now sold out its Friday screening and is well on the way to selling out its Thursday screening and the blimp has recently been returned. This really just shows that conservatives are terrible at protesting. Stick to talk radio, fellas.

The only film I saw today was DRIFTING ELEGANT, based on a play by Stephen Belber (who also wrote the play and screenplays for THE LARAMIE PROJECT and TAPE). The film deals with race relations in a post-9/11 world, telling the story of an unhappy white married couple, their African-American businessman friend, and an Arab-American who has just been released from jail after his rape conviction was overturned. It's easy to see that this was originally theatrical production, as most of the film takes place in a few small spaces. Director Amy Glazer's idea of translating this to a film is bridging the scenes with shots of the city, speeding up the frame to show cars whizzing by. There are also constant flashbacks that show the relationship between one of the characters and the rape victim. Neither of these add to the film very much, so Glazer should have probably stuck with the claustrophobic atmosphere of confined locations. The film is also thematically problematic. As we witness racial tensions heat up throughout the course of the film, what's really at stake is a white couple's marriage. There are a few other flaws, including a stupid ending, but the film does have some good material, with pretty strong dialogue and a surprisingly solid cast of unknowns.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Atlanta Film Festival: Day Three

ALL THE DAYS BEFORE TOMORROW is a drama about the evolving relationship of two twentysomething friends who clearly want more from each other, but allow complications to prevent any romance. The film boasts some good scenery (using easy shots of the Grand Canyon), but is a complete mess in so many ways. The worst aspect of the film are surreal black and white dream segments where Richard Roundtree shows up as El Doctor, a character that gives advice to the male lead. These scenes are completely unnecessary and feel like a bad student film. The main romance is obviously inspired by Linklater's BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET but the main difference is that the characters in this film are incessantly annoying and we could care less what happens to their relationship much less spend 100 minutes listening to them yap about it.

The day gets back on track with THIRD MONDAY IN OCTOBER, a very entertaining documentary about middle school students campaigning for student class president. Director Vanessa Roth follows races in four different schools across the country, and for the most part comes up with some very exciting elections to watch. There is deceit, unfairness, heated emotions, and even a recount. These elections took place in 2004 and Roth attempts to present the Bush-Kerry election as a backdrop, but does not really spend enough time with that to be successful. The quality and structure are both very basic. You won't confuse this with the technical excellence a Kirby Dick or Errol Morris doc. Still, it avoids the problem of MAD HOT BALLROOM which failed to really capture the stories of individual kids. Several of these students do stand out, particularly Kayla Bacon and her rivals at Inman middle school.

The last film I saw today was AWAY FROM HER, Sarah Polley's impressive directorial debut. It tells the story of an older married couple (Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie) and how they deal with separation when she is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She is sent to a permanent care facility, and her husband must deal with loneliness and grief, especially when he finally visits her and she not only barely remembers him but has turned her affections to another patient. It is an accomplished debut for a director so young, and the cast is very strong. Julie Christie is sure to be a part of the Oscar race, but it would be a shame if Pinsent doesn't get his due recognition for his powerful and heartbreaking performance. There are a few faults, including a stupid scene involving mention of the Iraq war, but for the most part Polley stays on track, telling an honest and mature story about love and loss.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Atlanta Film Festival: Day Two

I skipped this year's opener Last Days of Left Eye because I plan to see it later in the week. I also skipped the secret screening at 11pm, mainly because I didn't have the guts to try it. They were very tight lipped about the film and I just wasn't willing to take the chance of wasting my money on what could have been a miserable film. However, the two films I did see today got my festival week off to a strong start.

THE TV SET (Jake Kasdan) is a comedy about a TV writer (David Duchovny) trying to get a pilot picked up by a network, but continually finds himself butting heads with a nasty airheaded network executive (Sigourney Weaver). This is a funny comedy with several knowing jabs at Hollywood, and will probably be funniest to those familiar with how the industry works. Duchovny pulls off an amusing slow burn throughout the movie, Weaver is over the top but hilariously demented, and it's a pleasure to see Lindsey Sloane (from another TV industry spoof GROSSE PONTE). The film loses its way with an unnecessary subplot involving a British executive and his homesick wife (Lucy Davis whose considerable talents are completely wasted.) and the abrupt ending., but it's still a pleasantly entertaining comedy.

KING OF KONG (Seth Gordon) is another in a long line of recent documentaries that follow the quirky contestants of unique competitions. Previous entries in this genre include the brilliant SPELLBOUND and the not quite as brilliant MAD HOT BALLROOM and WORD WARS. Gordon's follows a couple of people dedicated to setting the world record on the classic arcade game DONKEY KONG. The film surprisingly becomes rather one sided, although Gordon does have video evidence to support this. Still, he piles it on a bit high to make his favored subject look like a saint, eventhough we see him with some questionable parenting skills early on in the film. The most interesting personality in the film is Walter Day, a man who dedicated his life to classic video games and set up a central organization to judge and verify high scores for all video games. I would have preferred it followed him a bit more than the two competitiors.

In the Land of Women

Before the Atlanta Film Festival started, I decided to check out In the Land of Women, an interesting film starring Adam Brody, Meg Ryan, and Kristen Stewart. The film comes from Jonathan Kasdan, son of Lawrence and brother to Jake Kasdan (whose film The TV Set I saw directly after), and it shares his father's focus on character development. Kasdan is patient and spends time developing his three leads, for the most part refusing to let standard plot devices dictate things. Unfortunately the film has a few flaws, include some poorly conceived supporting characters and subplots that were mysteriously dropped. It still works mainly due to strong performances. Brody and Ryan are both terrific and surprisingly develop strong chemistry together. The revelation is Kristen Stewart whose astonishing screen presence will certainly lead to big things in the future.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Atlanta Film Festival

It's time again for the Atlanta Film Festival. This year will be the 31st edition and has some promising entries. While not one of the most prestigious festivals by any means, Atlanta has put together some very fine lineups in the past. Great films I've seen in the past include Getting to Know You, Lovely & Amazing, George Washington, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and Twist of Faith. They've also shown notable films such as Hustle & Flow, Run Lola Run, and Lilya 4-Ever before they broke it big on the indie scene. Among notable films showing up this year are Last Days of Left Eye, a documentary that edits together footage by the late R&B star herself; The TV Set, a hollywood insider comedy featuring David Duchovny and Sigourney Weaver; Away From Her, a film directed by none other than Sarah Polley and starring Julie Christie in a bittersweet story about Alzheimer's; Rocket Science, the fiction debut of acclaimed documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz; and Fay Grim, featuring Parker Posey in Hal Hartley's followup to Henry Fool.

I'll be posting a day by day summary of the films that I see, and then later do full reviews for each of them. I plan to see all the movies mentioned above except for Fay Grim. There will be about 10 or so additional movies that I will check out, including Blood Car, featuring the now grown up Anna Chlumsky (My Girl) in a story about a car that runs on human blood. How can I pass that up?

For those interested in the festival check out

It's About Time

After seeing a series of well received flms that I did not like one bit (The Illusionist, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Blades of Glory, Disturbia), the world finally starts to make sense again. I saw Grindhouse and The Host, and both are as good as advertised, although The Host loses its way at the ending. I also finally saw Borat, which is as extremely disturbing as it is funny. It's amazing how much people will reveal about themselves in front of a camera.

I have linked to my review of The Host, and reviews for Grindhouse and Borat are forthcoming.