THE TIME WE KILLED
A prize winner at both the Berlin and TriBeCa film festivals, Jennifer Todd Reeves' The Time We Killed is your quintessential indie festival movie: ponderous, pretentious and elliptical, shot in grainy black and white on video and 16mm film. It stars Lisa Jarnot as Robin, a reclusive Brooklyn writer who hasn't left her apartment for months. As Robin works on a new novel, visited only by her sister, June (Reeves), and a neighbor, Reeves gives us glimpses into Robin's disturbed subconscious.
The film is driven by Jarnot's narration, sometimes straightforward but just as often oblique. Robin describes, in a curiously flat tone, her status as a hermit, her fear of interacting with others, and her tumultuous childhood, including a suicide attempt. At other times, the narration is fragments of poetry or of Robin's novel, or her muddled reflections of past lovers and friends, jumbled with washed-out images of landscapes, naked bodies, people that may or may not be figures from Robin's past.
Reeves' TriBeCa prize was for Best New York Film, and she does at times embody a claustrophobic, big-city isolation. Her ruminations on 9/11 and Iraq are both insightful and frustrating, out of place among the poetic reflections on childhood, friendship and sexuality.
For all of her supposed tortured genius, Robin comes off as self-indulgent and petulant, refusing to leave her apartment, yet provided with everything she needs by an accommodating sister whom Robin treats horribly. Robin bemoans the reactions to 9/11 and the drive to war, but does nothing about them. She's the perfect spoiled, intellectual brat, never wanting for anything but whining just the same.
Some of Reeves' images are beautiful, though, and as a cinematic poem, the film almost works at times. But without a protagonist you can understand or empathize with, all of the pretty moments add up to a hollow and dissatisfying whole.
FIVE EASY PIECES
In Five Easy Pieces (1970), Jack Nicholson stars as Robert Dupea, a former concert pianist turned oil-rig worker, having completely lost hope, faith, or both. He lives a kind of half-life, dating a not-too-bright waitress (Karen Black) who fancies herself the next Tammy Wynette. He drifts, drinking too much beer, bowling, working among the dust and grime, and facing little catastrophes like a pregnant girlfriend and dying father. Returning home gives him another taste of what might have been but—as directed by Bob Rafelson and written by Adrien Joyce (really Carole Eastman)—the film doesn't care if Dupea finds himself again. Rather, it's interested in the notions of passing time and roads not taken.
Mitchellville is one of those films that remains inscrutable up to and beyond its very end, but even if it's never quite clear what writer-director John D. Harkrider is trying to get across, the way he conveys it is enough to make the film worthwhile.
Lawyer Gabriel Williamson (Harkrider) is up for partner at his prestigious firm, and as part of his promotion, he has to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. In the presence of a therapist, Gabriel details his lush dream world, in which he's married to the girl (Anna Lodej Pergola) who lived next door when he was a child, takes flute lessons from a jazz legend (Herb Lovelle), and uncovers a conspiracy at his firm that involves the titular town, where decades ago, the firm illegally seized land from poor blacks, including the family of Gabriel's flute instructor.
The more Gabriel talks to the therapist, the harder it becomes for us to distinguish his dream world from the real one.
Gabriel's detailed dream seems to stem from guilt over a childhood trauma, but Harkrider doesn't clearly connect the dots for us. But, as hard as it is to figure out exactly what he's trying to say, he still has made a visually sumptuous film, with achingly beautiful cinematography and set design that bring out the marvelous in the mundane.
He also gives a strong and emotional performance as Gabriel, augmented by Lovelle's portrayal of an aging musician. Harkrider spent years as a lawyer to be able to finance Mitchellville on his own, and his love and care comes through in every frame.
THE TALENT GIVEN US
The Talent Given Us is exactly the kind of film you hope to find at a film festival. First-time writer-director Andrew Wagner financed the film himself for $30,000, employing his own family as the main cast and shooting on digital video. Yet he's managed to make a gem of a film, a warm, funny and often touching character study that doesn't break any new ground, but covers familiar family dynamics in an entertaining and insightful way.
Wagner's parents, Allen and Judy Wagner, play Allen and Judy Wagner, an aging New York City couple who've lost the spark in their marriage and their lives. Seeking to reconnect with son Andrew (the director himself, actually in a very small role), they set out to drive from New York to Los Angeles, along with daughters Maggie (Maggie Wagner), a struggling actress who still lives close to home, and Emily (Emily Wagner), a semi-successful actress who lives near her brother in LA and has a recurring role on ER (much as does the real Emily Wagner).
As the family treks across the country, they fight and bond, and as in any good road movie, emerge at their destination in many ways changed people. Allen, who's in declining health, and Judy, frustrated with her husband's past infidelity, undergo the greatest emotional journey, but Emily, caught up in the empty culture of Hollywood, has her share of revelations, as well.
Wagner gets top-notch performances from his entire family. I wondered how much of what ended up on screen came from Wagner's script and how much might have been genuine family interaction, but no matter, the result feels true and natural.
Wagner does a good job mixing comedy and drama. Anyone who's had to spend time cooped up with family will find plenty to laugh at and plenty to identify with in The Talent Given Us, and finding that in a little movie at a film festival is a singularly pleasant feeling.
It's not easy to make a convincing science fiction film on a shoestring budget. Most sci-fi movies are big-budget, special effects-filled extravaganzas, and creating a real sense of the fantastic is hard without elaborate sets and computer graphics. So, if nothing else, writer-director Michael Ferris Gibson should be commended for the world he constructs in Numb, a mostly believable dystopian future effectively evoked with costuming and sets.
Unfortunately the film is not as fully realized as the world in which it's set. For nearly a half hour, we are disoriented, watching Claire (Jennifer West Savitch) wander the empty landscape of Yerba City, where the only inhabitants are zoned out on a drug called the Drip.
Claire's meanderings, shot in stark black-and-white, are intercut with vibrant color flashbacks of her life, living happily with an older man who may be her father or her lover. Eventually, Gibson starts filling in the story, as Claire encounters Miles (Dominik Overstreet), a security guard and the only other person around not addicted to Drip. He offers to help her find the man she seeks, but ultimately only leads her further into despair.
Gibson hints at the causes of his desolate future, but never explores what brought society to this point. Instead, he relies mostly on atmosphere, with a non-linear storytelling style and long stretches without dialogue. His film recalls sci-fi art pieces like George Lucas' THX 1138 and Andrei Tarkovsky's classic Solaris, but all its hints and moods never add up to anything satisfying. With Claire as the film's only real character, Savitch carries nearly all of the emotional weight effectively, but she remains an enigma to the end, and it's hard to care about her quest when we're not even sure what she's looking for.
While it's refreshing to see sci-fi that doesn't emphasize action over introspection, Numb goes too far in the other direction, replacing explosions with arty stares into the middle distance.
Originally, D.E.B.S. was an 11-minute short film that amused Sundance audiences with its parody of the Charlie's Angels she-spy genre. This version adds 80 minutes and abandons most of the parody in favor of an ill-advised attempt at being the actual article.
D.E.B.S. is a secret organization of female super-spies recruited through a test hidden within the SAT. The story follows a squad of D.E.B.S. living in a sorority-like house together, and who are occasionally sent out in their private-school-girl outfits to battle evildoers. Lucy Diamond (a charismatic Jordana Brewster) is just such an evildoer. She's also a lesbian, which complicates matters when agent Amy (Sara Foster) discovers she has romantic feelings for her—feelings that she must tediously conceal from her fellow squad members.
D.E.B.S.'s biggest problem is that aside from the lesbian twist, the story and jokes are unoriginal. We've already seen a tumultuous relationship between criminal and law enforcer in Out of Sight. The less fortunate of us already saw seemingly average school kids lead adventurous double-lives in the Agent Cody Banks movies. And D.E.B.S.'s few genre-parodying jokes would have seemed fresher had Austin Powers' Dr. Evil not been talking about his days in "Evil Medical School" as far back as 1997.
Some of the throwaway jokes are the most effective. At one point, the D.E.B.S. president mentions one of Lucy's failed crimes was an attempt to sink Australia. Later, in Lucy's lair, viewers may notice a globe in the background with an X drawn over the land down under.
D.E.B.S. could save time for anyone dying to see Charlie's Angels and Austin Powers, but the whole would be less than the sum of its parts. The worst thing is that some of those parts didn't add up to much in the first place.
UNTIL THE NIGHT
Lately, my job as a film critic has been more like that of a coal-mine canary. I go in first to suffer and die so everyone else is warned it isn't safe. Thus, it's a special treat when I get to break the news to the world that I have seen brilliant, new talent.
Until the Night is an intensely moody character study about two people who have grown disillusioned with their lives and relationships. Kathleen Robertson is superb as Elizabeth, a woman struggling to stay optimistic about her failing marriage to Daniel (Michael T. Weiss). Meanwhile, Robert (Norman Reedus), a failed writer and sometimes photographer, descends into alcoholism in the waning days of his relationship with Mina (Missy Crider).
Over 40 minutes pass before Elizabeth and Robert meet, giving Hatanaka plenty of time to build atmosphere. When they finally meet, we feel the promise of salvation, even though both we and them know the affair is doomed. Above all, Elizabeth needs and wants stability, and Robert is anything but that. Robert, on the other hand, is addicted to wanting what he doesn't have. Once he has Elizabeth, he'll go back to leaving countless messages on model Karina's (Sarah Lassez) answering machine.
At times, Until the Night feels repetitive. There are too many similar scenes of Elizabeth fighting with her husband or Robert annoying his girlfriend. But even when these scenes fail to advance the characters' development, they never spoil the gloriously oppressive mood. Yasu Tanida should be commended for his claustrophobic cinematography.
Until the Night is an organic experience. Nothing seems plotted or purposefully intertwined. Reedus and Robertson's virtuoso performances create true people. This is a brilliant first film for Hatanaka. May there be many more.
Marmalade has a lot in common with its subject: the fashion model. It doesn't have a whole lot of depth, but it's still pleasant to watch.
At the age of 29, cover girl Kim (former model Jill Sorensen, who also wrote the screenplay) is already over the hill. After being sent home from a photo shoot for "looking tired," and getting snubbed by her agent, Kim tries to coax her boyfriend (Michael T. Weiss) to move to Connecticut with her to start a family. When he dodges her request several times, she breaks up with him to get his attention. The breakup, which he accepts all too readily, ends up sticking, and Kim is forced to adjust to a new life.
The "learning to cope" storyline is straightforward and doesn't offer a hook we haven't seen before, but individual scenes still offer up plenty of laughs. Kim's misadventures in seeking employment and new love are the highlights of the film. A scene in which the director of a commercial for feminine hygiene products asks Kim to play the mother of a model only two years younger is hilarious while also feeling depressingly realistic. And several of her blind dates, including a sex addict who swears he's committed to abstinence and a guy who's last name unfortunately sounds like a venereal disease, come close to stealing the show.
There are times when Marmalade tries to venture too far into dramatic territory. Scenes having to do with Kim's recently deceased mother feel out of place and exist only to force us to feel even more sorry for her. While we certainly sympathize with Kim in her various predicaments, it's difficult to pity her too much. After all, she's the one who insulted the photographer who sent her home, instigated her breakup, and squandered the fortune that she had made. Luckily, these melodramatic moments are few and far between.
The film does lack focus from time to time. Various subplots involving Kim's friend and her boyfriend and their trials and tribulations with jealousy, pregnancy and film financing wind up feeling like part of an entirely different movie. But, they also feel like part of a funny, entirely different movie.
Ultimately, Marmalade winds up being entertaining enough. And as romantic comedies go, that's not half bad.
Yet another highly stylized drug movie, Malachance is less about taking drugs than the consequences of selling them. It's an American film, helmed by Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo, whose influences include Aki Kaurismaki, who in turn is admired by Jim Jarmusch. This may help account for the movie's unusual sensibilities, but this is not a terribly original story.
Mika (James Ransone) makes a living as a drug runner in New Orleans. His boss is an eccentric man who may be harboring delusions of a singing career. Understandably, Mika wants out of this situation. Not to mention that the ominously named Ramirez twins are looking for him. Why is it always twins in these movies? Perhaps Naranjo is poking fun at his own sub-genre.
In voice-over, Mika tells us how dreary his existence has become. He feels as if his life is going nowhere, an endless repetition. He tells himself each time he makes a delivery that it will be his last, but we all know better. Meanwhile, his two oddball friends, Ringo (Brandon Quinn) and Sal (Greg Wayne), seem to want in on his gig.
Through a sequence of events that would be considered strange outside of this movie, Mika escapes to Coney Island with a stolen identity. There he slowly begins building a new life, getting something resembling a honest job, and even meeting people to whom he can relate. If some are still a little weird, well, that's just New York. But just when Mika seems to be living the life he's always wanted, he learns what we have known all along: you can't escape your past.
Naranjo has constructed an intriguing mix, with film noir themes intersecting offbeat comedy. As a director, he brings energy and odd angles to his composition, and he's an intelligent filmmaker who is on the right track. A voice as unique as his deserves a less derivative story.
There is a crucial pivot point amid The Notebook's stunningly retro sentimentality, when bus passenger Ryan Gosling glimpses beauty Rachel McAdams, the love of his life he thought he'd lost forever, ambling by on the street, and you just know nothing in this universe will deny this Love For The Ages.
A pure '40s-throwback, Hollywood-hokum moment, the movie's 217th at that point, and the one that finally crushed my cynical, modern-moviegoer resistance. Try watching this Hallmark card come to life, framed within Robert Fraisse's breathtakingly voluptuous cinematography, and resist being reduced to a blubbering softie. Director Nick Cassavetes' savvy approach is that rather than steer clear of every romantic convention, he piles them high and deep until you cave in to his lovers' fairy tale soaked in soap suds.
With their story told in flashbacks, Gosling and McAdams (Mean Girls) are young lovers who meet in their teens in a more innocent America, and are reunited after World War II. And, as revealed midway through and easily guessed from the beginning, James Garner and the director's mom, Gena Rowlands, are their elderly, nursing home-bound selves, with Garner reading to Rowlands from a notebook/diary, hoping to revive her blotted-out memories of their storied romance.
This could have been pure celluloid goo, but Cassavetes has the courage of his convictions to go balls-out on the hearts and strings. Sentimentality in the brutal Age of Tarantino isn't a crime. Slip it into an otherwise sharp-edged story and it's a breach of the trust a filmmaker establishes with an audience. But make it your raison d'etre and remain true to that exaggerated narrative tone and it's a valid choice, an homage to that wonderful Hollywood heritage of dreamy escapism.
Gosling and McAdams are a made-to-cheer-for couple in the frisky grip of youth. Seasoned pros Garner and Rowlands deftly essay the sunset years, and Joan Allen, Sam Shepard and James Marsden provide stellar support.
Let your brain rule and The Notebook is sappy nonsense. Let your heart override and it's the sweet, sometimes bittersweet, stuff of dreams.
Riding high on the crest of its Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Primer arrived at CineVegas with a lot of buzz. It has a reputation for polarizing audiences, and has been compared to Darren Aronofksy's Pi and Christopher Nolan's Memento. It's a lot of fuss over nothing.
Like arty thrillers Pi and Memento, Primer is an exercise in style, with one of those puzzle-plots to twist your brain. If the film has anything going for it, it's writer-director Shane Carruth's distinct visuals: it's probably the most technically impressive movie I've seen at the festival.
But where Aronofsky and Nolan ask interesting questions and engage us to follow them into the labyrinth of their worlds, Carruth pushes us away. He's not content showing us how intelligent his movie is, he also must tell us. An endless string of techno-babble is flung at us, which starts out as merely frustrating, but soon becomes outright repellent. After a while, we just stop caring.
It would help if we had more appealing characters as our tour guides. Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth again) are driven entrepreneurs who like to fiddle with engineering equipment in their garage. We never learn exactly what their latest invention is, but it produces some interesting side effects. At first, their passion and discovery is infectious, but soon their friends and family begin to suffer and we realize these are very narcissistic people.
What ensues is part science fiction and part thriller, all under the guise of clever filmmaking. Carruth is counting on audiences to make the assumption that since his movie is essentially about an intellectual journey, it must in fact be an intellectual movie. But just because you make a film about intelligence, it doesn't necessarily mean the film has any.
Birds will do it. Bees will do it. Even educated fleas will do it. If only the box office could fall in love with De-Lovely, the delightful and delicious impressionistic musical biography of peerless composer Cole Porter. But since teen boys aren't likely to flock to this exquisitely crafted chronicle of a witty bisexual composer of American standards from generations ago—despite cameos by contemporary crooners Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette—De-Lovely will have to settle for adoration from the rest of us.
Kevin Kline is outstanding, portraying Porter over a 40-year span. Touching and gruff as the elderly genius, Kline is even more astonishing at essaying Porter in his youth with authenticity. The surprise is Ashley Judd as Linda Lee Porter, Cole's devoted wife, muse and (mostly) tolerant observer of his gay flings, anchoring De-Lovely with a retro grace.
Scored with more than 30 Porter classics, director Irwin Winkler and screenwriter Jay Cocks supply the electric current that carries scenes along, as Porter's triumphs in cabaret, Hollywood and Broadway engagingly unfold, along with the horse-riding accident that crippled him, the dalliances that fulfilled him and the love that sustained him. And Porter's delightful melodies and delicious wordplay are more entertaining than any conventional script. But at the core is Cole and Linda's unconventional love that transcends physical intimacy, even as Cole indulges his expansive sexual urges.
Besides Crow and Morissette, Cole tunes are crooned by such admirers as Natalie Cole, Elvis Costello and Diana Krall, all briefly stealing camera time, as well as Kline's barely in-tune renditions, re-creating the composer's own charmingly tinny pipes.
Financially, De-Lovely will never challenge Chicago or Moulin Rouge. Artistically, it's de-loveliest one of the bunch.