HUSTLE & FLOW (R) (3.5 stars)
Terrence Dashon Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning
Directed by Craig Brewer
Brewer walks a fine line in his writing and directing debut, following a Memphis pimp named DJay (Howard) who has ambitions of becoming a rapper. Hustle & Flow will probably endure endless comparisons to another rise-of-a-rapper film, 8 Mile, but in both its nuances and structure, Brewer's is the better film. It's not easy to make DJay both a believable street hustler and a sympathetic character we want to root for; although at times Brewer veers too far in either direction, for the most part he delivers a balanced portrait, aided greatly by Howard's charismatic performance.
DJay is adrift in life, pimping out white girl Nola (Manning) and loudmouthed stripper Lex (Paula Jai Parker), until he discovers that famous hometown rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris) is coming back to town. Energized by an encounter with former classmate Key (Anderson), who has become a respectable middle-class guy and owns his own recording equipment, DJay sets out on a quest to make his own music and put it in the hands of Skinny Black when he comes back for a party.
Although the rags-to-riches story is at times as predictable as 8 Mile, it boasts a much more authentic vibe than the Eminem flick. Brewer doesn't shy away from some of the more unsavory aspects of the pimp life—DJay often treats his hos with disdain, although he never gets violent with them, and Lex is taking care of an illegitimate child, while former streetwalker Shug (Taraji P. Henson) is laid up pregnant with her own.
At the same time, DJay is a kinder, gentler pimp, eventually doing the right thing in most instances, which makes us all the more inclined to root for his success. Howard, who had memorable supporting turns in Crash and Ray, is mesmerizing as DJay, and makes even his less-than-admirable moments seem forgivable. It helps, too, that the music DJay and his collaborators create is genuinely catchy and good. Far too many movies about "great" musicians have them playing second-rate music.
As magnetic as Howard is, it's Henson in her small part as a timid, scared woman afforded a chance to sing backup on DJay's demo who steals the show. She gives one of the best supporting performances of the year, effortlessly selling Shug's terror at carrying a baby whose father she doesn't even know and her joy at hearing her own voice on record. Hustle & Flow ends with a little too much overwrought tension, and it borders on hokey at times, but in all those little moments, it's a perfect groove.
HOLIDAY DREAMING (NR) (2.5 stars)
Tony Yang, Hung-sheng Huang, Chun-ning Chang
Directed by Fu-chun Hsu
8:30 p.m., Saturday, June 18
First-time filmmaker Fu-chun Hsu tells the story of two Taiwanese friends, Guei and A-zhou, who are about to finish their mandatory stint in the Chinese military and are sent off to find a comrade who's gone AWOL.
Yet, this curious road picture detours to focus on A-zhou's friendship with Hsin-hsin, a girl he went to elementary school with and is determined to track down. Unexpectedly, he finds her living in a psychiatric ward; it's never explained what's wrong with her but her delusional states suggest schizophrenia.
A-zhou springs his friend and spins ever more elaborate fantasies to communicate with her. He poses as a fish she's just caught; when she insists on catching a late-night bus that isn't coming, he moves the bus-stop sign back to their camp, knowing she will dutifully follow.
More than half of the movie was shot without a script, and Holiday Dreaming has both the strengths and limitations of that free-form approach. On the one hand, the cast breathe spontaneous real life into their characters. Yet the film, which runs just 100 minutes, often has a slow-moving, aimless rhythm.
Eventually, some semblance of plot intrudes—quick and unsatisfying—but we are left with A-zhou's touching devotion to Hsin-hsin, his indefatigable energy in making her happy, and those brief moments where her lucidity makes for an even more beguiling fantasy.
DEALING WITH IT: SHORTS 1 (NR) (3.5 stars)
There are less expensive ways to tell a newspaper-stealing neighbor off than to make him the star of your own short film, but if the film in question is John Rose's Neighbors, none may be more effective. In this bitingly funny true tale, Rose makes his thieving New York neighbor a virtual captive of a camcorder as he browbeats him into a confession.
The other shorts in this collection are equally, gleefully misanthropic: Don Hertzfeldt's lovely animated film, The Meaning of Life, gives us a mini-course in the evolution of human and extraterrestrial obnoxiousness. In Brad Barnes' Choked, Anslem Richardson gives a riveting performance as a CPR instructor caught in the cross fire of some malicious preteens. Jay Duplass' The Intervention has an outstanding performance from Steve Zissis as a fellow bullied out of the closet by his friends.
Cult Life, directed by Lawrence Herman, takes us to the desert for a round of brainwashing. In Pancho's Pizza, directed by Jake Hoffman, a bighearted delivery guy gets dumped on by our whole shallow society. But in the unforgettable The Big Empty, from writer-directors J. Lisa Chang and Newton Thomas Sigel, Selma Blair's interior world proves to be very deep indeed.
TRONA (NR) (1.5 stars)
David Nordstrom, Libby Hux, Lee Lynch
Directed by David Fenster
FOXY AND THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLD (NR) (4 stars)
David Zellner, Foxy Zellner
Directed by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner
Trona writer-director-producer-editor David Fenster likely added one more hyphenate—"ulcer sufferer"—to his title after the disastrous U.S. premiere screening of his film Sunday. About 25 minutes into his seemingly never-ending, 63-minute-long experimental film, vintage Vegas big-band music began accidentally playing through the speakers for about two loud, painful minutes. If that's the bad news, the good news is only about two lines of dialogue were missed, since there's little talking in Trona. To add insult to ulcer, 20 minutes later, the houselights turned on and stayed on for another couple of minutes, making it difficult to see any of the images onscreen. All in all, Fenster pretty much experienced the worst, most stomach-churning nightmare for any filmmaker—the poor guy.
But at least that's something to write about. Without the accidents, there's just not much to say about the ponderous, pseudo-existential trek that is Trona. Its experimental nature makes it hard to critique for boring you to death by piling reading scene upon sitting scene upon cooking scene—trembling already at its foundation, the walking scene—or to hold it accountable for its many, many plot holes. Why does the movie start as a narrative about a man flying home to his wife, and then abruptly strand him in the desert without explanation? Why doesn't he ever ask how this happened or where he is? Why is he not allowed any sexual fulfillment? Perhaps these questions were all answered during the big-band outburst, but more likely Trona is just a movie that's weird for the sake of being weird.
The highlight was the preceding short, Foxy and the Weight of the World, which shares the final moments of a loathsome man's life as he gives tearful, nearly indiscernible (and therefore, subtitled) advice to his beloved dog, Foxy. It is humorous and even touching, and set a standard Trona unfortunately couldn't meet.
FIREFLY (NR) (2 stars)
Lindsay Hinman, Chris Marcy, Devon Jorlett, Pete Marcy
Directed by Pete Marcy
About halfway through Firefly, we're introduced to a character with psychic abilities. He regularly wakes up to find he's scrawled a series of seemingly unrelated words on a notepad, but eventually these notes all interconnect in some future event. The whole film works much the same way. There are several mundane and unrelated subplots, but eventually a twist ties them all together. And though it's somewhat satisfying to see how everything connects by the end, for the bulk of the film's running time, we're looking at an uninteresting laundry list of nonsense.
The ending's revelation is a flashback explaining what happened to three people who have blacked out a portion of Halloween. Brandt (Chris Marcy) woke the next morning, floating in a river, Susan (Hinman) may or may not have been raped, and Del (Pete Marcy) is haunted by nightmares of some crime he's committed. With the help of a spastic clairvoyant, the three amnesiacs ultimately discover how they connect to one another, but in the meantime, we're forced to watch episodes of their daily lives, all of which are less than compelling. The ending twist is pretty wild, and some viewers may be unwilling to accept it, but even those who are willing may find themselves fairly bored getting there.
RED DOORS (NR) (3 stars)
Tzi Ma, Jacqueline Kim, Elaine Kao
Directed by Georgia Lee
When the father of a Chinese-American family has a midlife crisis upon retirement, it coincides with his three daughters each coming to their own significant crossroads in life. Oldest daughter Samantha (played by Independent Spirit Award nominee Kim of Charlotte Sometimes) crosses paths with an old boyfriend and has second thoughts about her impending wedding ceremony. Middle daughter Julie has a fling with a lesbian movie star, while youngest daughter Katie (Kathy Shao-Lin Lee, the director's younger sister) is involved in an increasingly explosive war with the boy next door.
Oh, and the father tries vainly to kill himself, like, "30, maybe 40 times." Then he runs away and joins a monastery.
Writer-director Lee (making her feature debut) presents the absurdities and eccentricities of the family in a straightforward manner, making for both humor and pathos. The story is more slice-of-life than linear narrative, and while it won't necessarily take you anyplace new, the semiautobiographical script is charming, honest and heartfelt. Lee served as Martin Scorsese's apprentice on Gangs of New York, and this film marks the beginning of a promising career.
IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER (NR) (3.5 stars)
Jeremy Sisto, Christopher Jaymes, Matt Keeslar
Directed by Christopher Jaymes
People tend to deal with grief differently. Some people get high on ecstasy, some people sleep with their father's mistress, and some people deliver a eulogy in the form of a happy song titled, "Daddy's Dead." Chris (Jaymes), Jeremy (Sisto) and Matt (Keeslar)—the three grieving brothers of In Memory of My Father—do all of the above when mourning their self-centered pop, a legendary Hollywood producer. The three brats are really no better than their dearly departed dad, and they show off some of their worst inherited traits during their father's wake.
In Memory of My Father is ultimately pointless: No one learns anything; nothing changes. In the end, the film is just about bad people behaving badly, and yet it's surprisingly entertaining. The frequently hilarious dialogue has a loose, improvisational feel that makes the entire movie seem far more realistic than it is, and Jaymes' tight direction and constant intercutting of scenes moves the film along at a brisk pace. The performances are great all around, particularly the drugged-out antics of Jeremy and Eric (Eric Michael Cole). It may not be the most profound or realistic film, but it's a hell of a lot more fun than you'd expect from watching despicable people at a funeral.
THE ARISTOCRATS (NR) (4 stars)
Jason Alexander, Lewis Black, George Carlin, Gilbert Gottfried
Directed by Paul Provenza
You wouldn't expect a single joke to be able to carry an 86-minute movie, even if that movie starred Rob Schneider, but that's exactly what director Paul Provenza gets out of his documentary, The Aristocrats, an oral history of one of the most famous jokes in comedy that also serves as the most effective deconstruction of the art of stand-up since the Jerry Seinfeld documentary, Comedian.
The joke, known as "the Aristocrats," is a simple gag that's been around since the vaudeville days, although no one knows its specific origin. The allure of the joke is not in its meager punch line, but rather in the setup, which affords each teller the chance to improvise the most outrageous, vile, offensive scenarios possible, a challenge handily met by every one of the dozens of comics interviewed by Provenza and partner Penn Jillette.
Shot in a simple, straightforward style on digital video, The Aristocrats allows each of its subjects to riff on the central joke, sometimes telling their own version, sometimes explicating bits of the joke, almost always leading into some sort of insight into the way comedians think and the process by which they create their material. Unlike Comedian, which had great insight into personal angst but not as much actual comedy, The Aristocrats is side-splittingly funny, and such oft-maligned figures as Gilbert Gottfried, Bob Saget and Howie Mandel get in some of the funniest, rawest lines.
Just when you think there's no possible new angle Provenza can present on the central joke, he has it told by a mime, or as a card trick, or as an animated short by the creators of South Park. Almost everyone featured in the film is hilarious and incredibly enthusiastic about the prospect of dissecting the legendary joke.
Provenza's filmmaking technique is primitive at best, but the film is most effective when he just plants the camera in one place and lets his subjects talk. The few attempts at flashy visuals fall flat, but the real strength of the craft is in the editing, as Provenza and editor Emery Emery (you read right) string together footage from scores of interviews into a seamless product that actually tells a coherent story even while recycling that one old joke. It's funny and it makes you think; isn't that the definition of a good joke?
OUT IN LEFT FIELD: AREA 52 SHORTS (NR) (2.5 stars)
Jaffe Zinn's Bliss tells the story of a bright but disenchanted high school student who sulks through life in his rural Idaho hometown, a monotonous riff on teenage angst that ambles along without really arriving anywhere.
Visually amusing at first but soon repetitive, Cosmetic Emergency is a free-flowing collage that criticizes the current trend of cosmetic surgery by vandalizing works of art and sampling sound-bites from the news. Supporting the argument that cosmetic surgery is evil is a soundtrack of obscure bands with lyrics that say so.
A frank and sometimes unsettling look at solitude and madness, Exoticore feels more like a slice of an unfinished feature film than it does a completed short film. Issaka Sawadogo creates an aggressively interesting character who could easily sustain 90 more minutes of screen time.
Real audio of Baltimore Orioles now-ex-manager Earl Weaver answering each of interviewer Tom Marr's questions in a string of carefree profanities makes up Manager's Corner. Unlike a Robert Smigel Fun with Real Audio short, where the audio is funny only when placed in a newly animated context, the audio here works just fine on its own. The animation, consisting of two talking photocopied heads with swirling, unrelated backgrounds, plays an unfortunately small part in the success of this short.
By far the most entertaining short in this series, Oh My God jokingly demands that Texas reform its death penalty after an innocent half-wit is sentenced to the electric chair for murders he didn't commit. Since it basically uses just two lines of dialogue—"Oh my God!" and "How did this happen?!"—it could be the most quotable movie since Napoleon Dynamite.
Cory Arcangel photographs his television screen as Simon and Garfunkel perform "The Sound of Silence" in Sans Simon, and every time songwriter Paul Simon is onscreen, he covers him with his hands. If this was a cat using his paws to cover Paul, this would be a strong contender for America's Funniest Home Videos. But this is just a juvenile time-waster.
A sluggish, cryptic comedy that's short on laughs, The Year of the Scapegoat basically takes a Night of the Living Dead-type script and replaces "zombies" with "Chinese." Sounds funnier on paper.
9 SONGS (NR) (2 stars)
Kieran O'Brien, Margo Stilley
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
For years, filmmakers have been flirting with including actual, nonsimulated sex in mainstream films, often with much hype and little payoff. The recent documentary Inside Deep Throat revealed that the director of the classic porn film expected its success to lead to an integration of adult and mainstream movies, but that never happened. Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs makes a good case for why: It's as full of explicit, real sex as any porn film, but it's as tedious and ponderous and poorly lit as your average, boring art movie.
Other filmmakers who've included graphic sex in mainstream films have almost always done so in movies that are about sex, and Winterbottom does the same. Perhaps that's the problem: Rather than simply adding sex to the tableau of human experience depicted on film, movies that go the distance with sexuality feel the need to make it the centerpiece of their story. 9 Songs goes even further, eschewing all but the barest outline of a story; Deep Throat itself had a more involved plot.
The film follows the relationship between Londoner Matt (O'Brien) and American expatriate Lisa (Stilley), who meet at a concert and subsequently have lots and lots of sex. The long, often tedious and repetitive sex scenes are interspersed with the occasional inane conversation and framed by Matt's narration as he reflects back on the relationship from an expedition to Antarctica. When Matt and Lisa aren't having sex or discussing their dinner plans, they're at concerts featuring indie rock bands such as Franz Ferdinand, the Von Bondies and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, performing the nine songs of the title.
Almost as notable as the explicit sex is Winterbottom's decision to include each song in its entirety as essentially undiluted concert footage. If the sex is shocking at first and ultimately boring, the performances are just boring, shot at bad angles with worse lighting, worthwhile neither as concert footage nor as a tool to advance the thin plot. Musically, there's some good stuff, but if you're not a fan of this particular genre of quirky rock, you're not likely to find anything to enjoy.
Winterbottom, whose eclectic career includes period pieces, science fiction and political drama, gets credit for pushing boundaries with his film, but unfortunately in doing so, he throws out story, character and even visual coherence. The end result is a lot of panting, moaning and rocking that leaves its audience cold.
RIZE (PG-13) (4 stars)
Tommy the Clown
Directed by David LaChapelle
Clowning, krumping and stripper-dancing don't sound like things you'd recommend your kids do to stay out of trouble. But it turns out these blossoming forms of modern dance might be the best way to redirect the aggressive energies of frustrated ghetto youth into something positive. At first, it seems like a naïve, unrealistic solution to street violence. That is, until you see the first group of kids krump in front of David LaChapelle's attentive camera. These kids aren't simply dancing; they're exorcising demons.
LaChapelle, whose famous photographs have always been full of life and color, is able to draw that same vibrant beauty from some of the grittiest parking lots in South Central LA as he chronicles the rise and differentiation of the underground dance. Clowning, which begins as a simple birthday party dance activity, quickly evolves into a program to keep young children away from violence. LaChapelle presents clowning, and its far more spastic but equally beautiful counterpart, krumping, as powerful cultural forces and makes you believe it. Rize is visually astounding, fascinating, and even packs an emotional punch as you get to know the dancers and their struggles, and their discovery of the healing power of dance.
ABOUT LOVE (NR) (4 stars)
Chen Bo-lin, Mavis Fan, Misaki Ito
Directed by Ten Shimoyama, Yee Chih-Yen, Zhang Yibai
In Chinese and Japanese with English subtitles
These three poetic short films from Japan and China dramatize the search not only for love, but for an international language in which to express it. The first finds its Rosetta Stone in art; the second, in humor; the third, in ... Spanish.
In the stylish Tokyo, directed by Ten Shimoyama, an aspiring Chinese comic artist named Yao is lonely and adrift in Japan: He can't speak the language, but worse, he can't draw a line. Then he spots a beautiful Japanese painter, Michiko, and comes alive with inspiration, leaving small portraits of her all across the city for her to find. The second film, Yee Chih-Yen's Taipei, finds Tecchan, a Japanese man with little command of Chinese, at the beck and call of the mercurial Ah Si, who enlists him to cure her broken heart. A bit of slapstick and wordplay proves just the right medicine. Shanghai, heartbreakingly directed by Zhang Yibai, follows a Japanese student, Shuhei, to mainland China, where he gets a postcard from his girlfriend back home: She's moved to Barcelona and is no longer his girlfriend. A young Chinese girl, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Shuhei but doesn't know how to tell him until, inspired by the postcard, she finds the words: "Te quiero."
THE OUTSIDER (NR) (3 stars)
Woody Allen, Robert Downey Jr., Neve Campbell, James Toback
Directed by Nicholas Jarecki
Little more than a glorified DVD extra, Jarecki's documentary on maverick filmmaker Toback follows the writer-director as he makes his 2004 film, When Will I Be Loved. Jarecki switches between documenting Toback's struggle to film his sexually explicit drama in a mere 12 days and talking to a number of Toback's friends, associates and admirers (including Woody Allen, Robert Downey Jr., Roger Ebert and Barry Levinson) about what makes the filmmaker tick.
Toback, an imposing, opinionated loudmouth with a penchant for gambling, is a perfect subject for a documentary, and he always has something outrageous or provocative to say. Jarecki includes ample clips from Toback's underground classics (Fingers, The Pick-Up Artist, Two Girls and a Guy) and grabs the audience's attention by opening with a montage of sex scenes from Toback films (every Toback film, we learn, is about sex and gambling).
The production values are incredibly low, though, and Jarecki shoots with the casual disregard for style of someone creating home movies about their really weird uncle. The film suffers, too, from being feature-length, and drags as Toback moves from filming to editing to searching for distribution on When Will I Be Loved. Still, The Outsider is an interesting look at an underappreciated filmmaker, and definitely ought to be included on the special-edition DVD of his next movie.
LITTLE ATHENS (NR) (2 stars)
Shawn Hatosy, Jorge Garcia, Jill Ritchie, Michelle Horn
Directed by Tom Zuber
A tedious, pretentious and overwrought ensemble drama, Little Athens aspires to both the sprawling heights of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia and the hipster cachet of Doug Liman's Go in its presentation of interconnected tales featuring disaffected, twentysomething losers. Director and co-writer Zuber achieves neither, instead ending up with a mind-numbing stew of unlikable characters saying and doing stupid things without much in the way of humor or dramatic tension.
Zuber's film is populated with up-and-coming young actors, but either because of the muddled script or Zuber's insufficient direction, none of them reaches even the heights of their previous work in TV shows and second-rate mainstream comedies. The entire final third of the movie is shot in a hazy darkness that is perhaps supposed to suggest uncertainty and danger but just makes you think that Zuber forgot to pay the lighting department.
There's no plot to Little Athens, just a day in the lives of several layabouts, all of whom end up at a house party where, predictably, their relationship problems, drug deals and potentially violent rivalries all climax. Much like its characters, the film is aimless and annoying, and doesn't end up anywhere interesting.
RADIANT (NR) (3 stars)
James Cable, Jim Covault, Sandy Fish, Matthew Tompkins
Directed by Steve Mahone
A scientist named Teller Blackpool has attempted to create a virus to cure all viruses; a handful of mysteriously ill (though, as it happens, physically hearty) folks visit his desert laboratory in hope of a miracle; the feds find out about it and hunt them down like dogs. As they flee, the sick people get infected with the latest batch of Blackpool's virus. Stopping at an old barn, they pick up Blackpool's vivisectionist, a pathologically shy young man named Ed (James Cable), who tells them that previous batches of the virus have had rather alarming effects on his subjects. Ed is our narrator and essentially talks us through the film, gluing its arresting images of desert landscapes and suffering protagonists into a collage that is flawed but always fascinating.
Ed has plenty of interesting insights on both science (our blood, he says, recapitulates the ancient waters in which life took shape) and psychology (the soldiers hunting him are ghost agents of the frightened, insular self he is trying to flee). But neither the story nor its ideas require so much verbiage. There is real beauty in this thoughtful film; if there were more silence, we could think about it all the more.
BUY IT NOW (NR) (2.5 stars)
Chelsea Logan, Rosemarie Dewitt, Chris McCann
Directed by Antonio Campos
Buy It Now is really two films in one: The first, a pseudo-documentary about 16-year-old New Yorker Chelsea Magan (Chelsea Logan) who puts her virginity up for sale on eBay, is a stunning, moving and brilliantly acted portrait of the empty and sad lives of teenage girls in America. The second half, though, almost completely undercuts the power of the first half, as writer-director Antonio Campos abandons his fake realism for a more conventional narrative, telling the exact same story with Logan once again in the lead, and filling in many of the blanks that the documentary half left to the imagination.
What's so impressive about the film's first half is the way it conveys so much in the elided moments when Chelsea isn't using her video camera to record everything she does. Logan's raw and striking performance captures the intensity of teen life so well that at first it's easy to fall for the conceit that the film is real. But the second half replaces raw emotion with clichéd speeches and heavy-handed performances, especially from Chris McCann as the man who buys Chelsea's virginity. As a 30-minute short film, Buy It Now is a masterpiece; as a feature, it's a frustrating failure.
TURNING GREEN (NR) (3 stars)
Timothy Hutton, Alessandro Nivola, Colm Meany
Directed by Michael Aimette, John G. Hofmann
The audience laughed all throughout the world-premiere screening of Turning Green, but it was possibly just Festival Forgiveness—a film festival phenomenon where people react exceptionally favorably to material that, outside of that environment, they'd otherwise overlook completely. After all, with the filmmakers sitting right there next to you, it would be rude not to laugh at scenes that aimed to be funny, even if they are only sort of funny.
Turning Green follows James, an American-born, chronically masturbating and malcontent 16-year-old (an Everyteen) stuck living with his clueless aunts in 1979 Ireland, as he sells porno magazines on the black market (magazines that contained nudity were illegal in Ireland at the time) in order to return home with his younger, lisping brother.
Slow-paced, half-sarcastic and half-serious, Turning Green wants to have the weight of The Graduate, in which Benjamin Braddock is rudderless after college, but also wants expository fantasy scenes where a pinup girl from a dirty magazine urges James to keep his hustle going. The first time she calls to him from the pages of the magazine and plants the idea to sell porn to like-minded Irish, he's half-asleep in bed, so it's sort of acceptable in this otherwise magic-less movie. But when she returns as a spirit in the sky to encourage him to keep hope alive—and he's fully awake—it's sort of ridiculous and undermining. It's hard to take a character's existential confusion seriously when he's consciously taking advice from a spectral masturbation muse.
In the end the whole movie just ends up being one big "sort-of": sort-of likable characters in sort-of entertaining scenarios, doing and/or saying sort-of funny things.
CHARLIE'S PARTY (NR) (3.5 stars)
Sabrina Lloyd, Mark Dold, Eron Otcasek, Ashway Lawver, Alissia Miller
Directed by Catherine Cahn
Charlie is a week away from the big 3-0. And like most people on the verge of hitting the triple-decade mark, she decides to deal with her anguish by throwing a provocative, partner-swapping sex party with her closest friends. Thus is set in motion a series of conflicts revolving around whether the couples will partake in the evening of carnal delight, as the deadline grows ever nearer.
When Charlie's Party is at its best, it plays like the last 15 minutes of The Big Chill stretched to feature length, with plenty of witty and incisive banter. But it does take a while to get there. As we're introduced to the marital troubles of Sarah (Lloyd) and Tom (Dold), and the twisted perspective of Charlie (Miller) and her boy toy, Dylan (Chris Tardio), we must endure several awkward scenes with obvious dialogue, flat jokes, exposition-heavy monologues and pointless montages. But once the party starts, the wicked zingers begin to fly and the laughs are even punctuated by a few insightful observations about the nature of relationships between men and women ... and women and women ... and men and men. Quite a provocative party indeed.
SPICEBUSH (NR) (0 stars)
Pleas Everson, Matilda Washington, Decarrio Couley
Directed by Kevin Jerome Everson
1 p.m., Thursday, June 16
This vaguely experimental feature documents the lives of two truck drivers who deliver furniture to schools. If that sounds exciting, wait till I tell you the rest. We also get the school principal, the saleswoman at the furniture store and an anonymous little girl who wanders around aimlessly.
This is all loosely tied together by a theme of working-class black America, though the narrative is fragmented into 17 pointless chapters. In between, we get static shots of more nameless people carrying on with their monotonous tasks, some unrelated TV footage, and director Everson's obsession with fade-ins and fade-outs. We don't even get dialogue until Chapter Three.
Perhaps some of this would mean something if we were offered some sort of explanation as to who these people are and why we should spend 70 laborious minutes vainly trying to get to know them. Instead, the only information we are given are facts about the state insects of Ohio and Mississippi (the Spicebush Swallowtail is a butterfly). This humorless presentation would at least be harmless—if it weren't purportedly about an important subject.
MURDERBALL (R) (3.5 stars)
Keith Cavill, Joe Soares, Mark Zupan
Directed by Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
"I'm in a wheelchair. This sucks." So says Keith Cavill, a quadriplegic who lost the use of his legs and much of the use of his hands in a motocross accident and is just attempting to adjust to life out of rehab. It's the closest to self-pity that anyone in the entertaining documentary Murderball ever comes. The film follows quadriplegics who engage in the titular sport, more commonly known as wheelchair rugby. In specially modified chairs, the disabled athletes compete in a rough, full-contact game played on a basketball court. They're as physical and as boisterous as any other athletes, talking trash and indulging in rivalries.
Directors Rubin and Shapiro don't patronize their subjects or their audience, portraying the players realistically and sympathetically but without kid gloves. They delve into such touchy subjects as the sexuality of quadriplegics and the guilt of one man who was responsible for his friend's confinement to a wheelchair. Mostly though, the film is exuberant and exciting, and Rubin and Shapiro have done a good job of finding charismatic subjects.
They luck out, too, by stumbling onto a rivalry worthy of any good sports movie. Former USA Paralympic team player Joe Soares, cut from the squad, defects to the Canadian team as head coach, and the two countries engage in a tense, close game at the 2002 World Championships in Sweden. Soares and his team win by a nose, setting up a grudge match at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.
Rubin and Shapiro perhaps spend a little too much time with the competitive, sometimes abrasive Soares, especially since some of the Team USA players who get less screen time appear just as interesting. Their other star is USA player Zupan, whose complex relationship with the friend whose drunk driving caused his injuries is fascinating and a bit underplayed.
Murderball is so eager to show quadriplegics living normal lives that it could be accused of downplaying the hardships that go along with such injuries, but given how often we've seen disabled people struggling to get by, the opposite portrayal is refreshing. Whenever things get too upbeat, Rubin and Shapiro can always cut to the struggling Cavill, although by film's end, even he seems about to change his life with the transformative power of rugby.
5TH WORLD (NR) (2 stars)
Livandrea Knoki, Sheldon Silentwalker, Ernest Tsosie III
Directed by Blackhorse Lowe
GOODNIGHT IRENE (NR) (3 stars)
Casey Camp-Horinek, Jon Proudstar, Robert A. Guthrie
Directed by Sterlin Harjo
Two young Navajo hitchhike through the American Southwest, falling in love along the way. Leisurely paced, 5th World belongs to the Richard Linklater school of filmmaking, where characters have actual conversations and things happen at the speed of rural life, instead of being edited like a music video. Real love takes time and doesn't happen just because a screenwriter types it.
Like the more focused short film that precedes it, Blackhorse Lowe's debut feature is in part about cultural heritage, or lack thereof, amongst younger generations. It's also about pop culture, or "sex, Simpsons and movies," as the director puts it. As they wander through Monument Valley, our two protagonists are just as likely to talk about John Ford as tribal history.
When not dealing with technical issues (rough editing and poor sound), the film is gorgeous to look at, the camera falling in love with the natural landscape as much as the actors. Lowe also manages some wonderfully spontaneous and romantic moments, but moments are all he manages. Like many filmmakers working on their first feature-length project, he has his share of narrative problems. The story doesn't progress so much as stumble, with setup, conflict and resolution severely lacking, and a final act that betrays the audience's trust and leaves them wandering in the desert.
Goodnight Irene shows a day in the life of two young Seminole men and an older woman who get to know each other while spending a day in the waiting room at a medical clinic. It has an open-ended finale but it's more satisfying than the conclusion to the feature that follows, thanks in no small part to engaging turns by the three leads.
LOSING GROUND (NR) (2.5 stars)
Eileen O'Connell, Kendall Pigg, Matthew Mark Meyer
Directed by Bryan Wizemann
With its single setting, small cast of characters and dialogue-driven story, it's no surprise that Bryan Wizemann's Losing Ground is based on a stage play by the writer-director. The film takes place in a low-rent Las Vegas bar over the course of one evening, as a group of mostly pathetic losers throw away their money on video poker. Wizemann is clearly out to expose the evils of gambling, as each one of his characters has clear emotional problems that are tied to their obvious addictions to video poker. Only the bartender and a single patron who breezes in and out are exempt from the black hole of computerized card playing, and the bartender has plenty of his own problems.
Losing Ground has all the hallmarks of a low-budget first feature, including painful earnestness, shaky acting and strident moralizing. At the same time, Wizemann shows a confidence with the camera in knowing when to leave it in place to let his actors breathe, and when to move it in close to capture the intensity of a heated scene. There are moments of real insight in some of the meaty monologues, but those are buried in a clichéd, overwrought drama.
STANDING STILL (NR) (2 stars)
Jon Abrahams, Aaron Stanford, Mena Suvari, Melissa Sagemiller
Directed by Matthew Cole Weiss
It'd be nice to say that Standing Still, the first film from the Vegas-based production company Insomnia Entertainment, is a great piece of filmmaking that heralds the arrival of major talent from Sin City. It'd be nice, even, to say that Standing Still is a formulaic but entertaining mainstream film that will find success with middle-of-the-road moviegoers. Unfortunately, I can't say either of those things about Standing Still which, given its lack of distribution even a year after its completion, is likely to go down as neither an artistically nor commercially successful first venture.
Trying hard to be The Big Chill for a new generation, Standing Still follows several friends reuniting for the wedding of two of their group. Although it boasts a number of telegenic young stars, some of whom (James Van Der Beek and Mena Suvari in particular) turn in strong performances, the film remains an ill-defined mishmash of clichés, with poorly sketched characters and leaden dialogue.
Like American Wedding with fewer poop jokes and more self-serious speeches about where people are headed in life, Standing Still doesn't even manage enough cheap laughs to qualify for anything other than quick straight-to-video oblivion.
SELF-MEDICATED (NR) (3.5 stars)
Diane Venora, Monty Lapica, Michael Bowen
Directed by Monty Lapica
A powerful debut from writer-actor-director Monty Lapica. Based on his own experiences as a Las Vegas teen, Lapica plays Andrew, a smart and talented high-schooler whose life has come undone after the death of his father. Smoking pot, drinking, and pulling juvenile pranks (shooting paintballs at tourists on the Strip being the most amusing), Andrew is indifferently throwing his life away. His pill-popping mother, played by Diane Venora, sends him packing to a juvenile lockdown facility, her last hope for helping her son.
In all films about therapy, there comes a moment when the central character must hit rock bottom and recognize the extent of his own problems before any sort of healing can come. What Lapica does so nicely with Self-Medicated is delay that moment time and time again. Every time you think Andrew is going to crack, he brazenly denies the world his pain. When it finally comes, it's well-earned.
Lapica handles himself well wearing all three hats, and his cast gives him solid support. The too-little-seen Venora is superb as the mom, and Greg Germann, so smarmy in his role on Ally McBeal, plays straight as a counselor trying to help.
ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (R) (2 stars)
Ellen Geer, John Hawkes, Brad William Henke
Directed by Miranda July
Me and You and Everyone We Know, the debut feature from performance artist Miranda July, can be summed up pretty well in one specific moment: Asked how he hurt his bandaged hand, shoe salesman Richard (John Hawkes) answers, with complete sincerity, "I was trying to save my own life." Such heavy, mannered pronouncements are commonplace throughout July's pretentious, self-involved film, exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to come off the indie-movie assembly line at the Sundance Institute, where July developed the script.
The dialogue is so contrived, the characters so self-consciously quirky that Me and You often feels like a parody of an indie movie. It attempts to find beauty and profundity in the mundane, with cabdriver and aspiring performance artist Christine (July) gleaning meaningful insights about life from a goldfish in a plastic bag that falls off the roof of an SUV. It's the kind of movie that has a preteen girl who collects housewares in a hope chest to use as a dowry, a 6-year-old boy who talks about poop in online sex-chat rooms and a sad-sack shoe salesman who sets his hand on fire to "save his own life," none of whom ever come across as anything more than figments of July's own narcissistic imagination.
Me and You is a plotless musing on several unhappy people, including the aforementioned shoe salesman and cabdriver-performance artist, who engage in a sort of awkward courtship that is undoubtedly meant to be charming but is mostly just off-putting (the same could be said of the movie as a whole). There are also a pair of teenage girls engaged in a psychosexual game with one of Richard's co-workers, and Richard's two sons, both of whom spend way too much time online. July consistently mistakes awkwardness for insight; no one in the film has anything close to a normal social interaction with another person.
Not one of the situations remotely resembles real life or even a particularly illuminating analogue thereof. July makes an effort to deflate some of the pretentiousness by mocking the snobbery of the director of an art gallery where Christine is trying to show her work, but when it's impossible to tell the difference between the mock-pretentious statements of the director and the theoretically profound statements of the characters, it's obvious that July has gotten entirely lost in her own pretensions.
VEGAS BABY (NR) (1 star)
Kal Penn, Jonathan Bennett, Donald Faison, Charlie Talbert, Aaron Himelstein
Directed by Eric Bernt
The second offering from local production company Insomnia Entertainment is so insipid, strained and painfully unfunny that it makes the company's first film, Standing Still, seem like a masterpiece by comparison. Vegas Baby is a feature-length commercial for fun in Las Vegas and for its corporate underwriters, including the Golden Nugget (under the auspices of former owners Tim Poster and Tom Breitling) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It's even got the requisite pointless Oscar Goodman cameo.
The setup is straight out of a "What happens here, stays here" commercial: Five guys from Chicago head to Vegas for a bachelor party, and high jinks involving porn stars, sacks of money and ultimate fighters ensue. The movie is full of one-joke scenes that go on for what seem like hours—rampant homophobia, nonsensical plot twists and tons of fake breasts. The jokes are repetitive and not funny, the characters are caricatures, and the story is meandering and pointless.
It's also sad that a hometown production company is selling this juvenile, superficial and inaccurate view of Vegas to the world; that is, assuming anyone outside of CineVegas ever bothers to see it.
LOST VEGAS: THE LOUNGE ERA (NR) (3.5 stars)
Directed by Tim Onosko
Lost Vegas examines an often-overlooked part of the old Vegas mythos. Rather than focusing on Elvis Presley or the Rat Pack, this documentary takes a look at the names that sat on the bottom of the marquees from the '50s to the '70s: the lounge acts. So we hear of the rise and fall of such performers as Sonny King, Blackie Hunt, Freddie Bell, and even Nevada Lt. Governor Lorraine Hunt, who used to sing in Jerry Colonna's nightclub act.
It's interesting to see how the meteoric rise of the lounge acts helped Las Vegas' transformation from desert hole to destination resort, and the former lounge stars are still hilarious in their interviews. Unfortunately, there isn't any footage of their shows in action during their heyday, which the film compensates for by showcasing their talents at a modern venue.
The film is heavy on nostalgia. At one point, comic Peter Anthony even drives around Vegas, describing where old casinos used to stand. But despite the melancholy that comes with everyone's eventual mourning of the lost era, Gus Mancuso of the Mary Kaye Trio points out that when he first came to Vegas in the '50s, the entertainers there told him that he'd missed the glory days, too.
LAST DAYS (R) (2.5 stars)
Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant takes the template of his last film, 2003's Elephant, and applies it to the death of Kurt Cobain in his new Last Days. Like Elephant, Last Days uses incredibly long takes, often static shots, long stretches with no dialogue, a nonlinear story structure and an emphasis on the mind-numbingly mundane to trace the events leading up to a famous tragedy. In Elephant, it was the shootings at Columbine High School. In Last Days, it's Cobain's suicide. Each film is a fictionalized account of its subject, but it's clear that Van Sant wants to use his elliptical, minimalist style to say something about the significant events of our time.
The problem with Last Days—and to a lesser extent, Elephant—is that Van Sant's primary mode of saying something is saying nothing. Last Days follows rock star Blake (Michael Pitt), a Cobain stand-in who spends a few days (it's not clear exactly how many) puttering around his Seattle estate in a stupor, wandering through the woods behind his property mumbling to himself, lying half-conscious on floors, occasionally playing a bit of music or talking to the freeloading friends staying with him. Pitt chokes out only a handful of lines that aren't mumbles in the entire film, and his fair-weather friends are little more than sketches of the same kind of hanger-on you see in every rock 'n' roll movie.
Like Elephant, Last Days is shot in a square-aspect ratio that's the shape of a TV screen, not a movie screen, which gives it a certain claustrophobic feel. Cinematographer Harris Savides, who is rapidly becoming one of the best in his field—he shot both Elephant and Van Sant's previous film, Gerry, as well as Jonathan Glazer's Birth and David Fincher's The Game—not only uses the odd screen size to great effect, but also creates some of the most stunning images set to film this year, and gives Van Sant's long, lingering, sometimes uncomfortable takes a reason for existing. Savides shoots both the beautiful old house and the surrounding woods with vibrant colors and a painterly eye; with its penchant for quiet, Last Days might almost work better as a silent film.
The look isn't enough, though, to excuse Van Sant's disregard for character development, plot and dialogue. In the end, it isn't necessary to show 90 minutes of nothing happening to get across the idea that tragedy usually arises out of the mundane.
INSIDE OUT (NR) (2 stars)
Eriq La Salle, Steven Weber, Russell Wong, Nia Peeples
Directed by David Ogden
Inside Out is one of those "sinister things lurking beneath suburbia" movies, and if there's one thing the world could do without, it's more of those movies. If writer-director David Ogden had told an interesting story, his use of suburban clichés (the movie opens with synchronized SUVs pulling out of driveways) might have been forgivable. But his psychological thriller is confusing and unsatisfying, held together only by some good performances by underrated TV veterans.
The placid world of peaceful suburbanites just outside LA is shattered by the arrival of the mysterious Dr. Peoples (former ER star Eriq La Salle) on a quiet neighborhood street. Peoples dresses strangely, mows his lawn in the middle of the night, and may or may not be keeping a woman captive in his basement. All of this activity piques the interest of airline pilot Norman (Steven Weber), his wife Maria (Nia Peeples), his buddy Frank (Russell Wong) and the rest of the neighbors.
Ogden builds suspense haphazardly, but La Salle excels at playing creepy and mysterious, and Weber does a good job as the seemingly stable family man who slowly becomes unhinged (essentially the same role he played in the mini-series version of The Shining). But it's not enough to save the film from a weak ending that leaves tons of loose ends, and an overall tone that's far more obtuse than intriguing.
Homeland Security: Nevada Filmmaking Shorts (NR) (2.5 stars)
A hit-and-miss grab bag of six local films. The most effective is Leo Las Vegas, from director Wolfgang Muchow, about a second-tier lounge singer (John Fiore) who reunites with an important woman from his past (Steffanie Pitt). As Leo warms himself up before a show, he moves from timidity to a roaring intensity before dropping into a state just this side of deep regret. It's nicely reminiscent of DeNiro's old man LaMotta in Raging Bull, and sucks us into the drama that follows.
Also good is Spotlighting, a documentary by Josh Diamond and Justin Lin that profiles a never-quite-made-it Filipino lounge act that's been playing in Vegas (and throughout North America) for more than 30 years. The band mixes covers with comedy, and their genial personalities makes you wish they'd have broken big.
The Cutting Club is an amusing documentary about local hair stylist Neil Scarzotti. Director Craig Champion nicely captures Vegas with his on-the-edge-of-kitsch visual styleeven if we suspect when it's done that Scarzotti actually isn't all that interesting. Cleaning Up Matters has an intriguing premisethe psychology of a crime-scene cleanerbut lacks the emotional intelligence to do much with it.
The weakest of the lot are The Cactus That Looked Like a Man and Brave and Stupid: Game Over. The first is a wannabe wry but way-off tale of a city slicker who goes in search of a friend in the west and finds a salt-taffy chewing serial killer instead. The second is an extremely unfunny cops comedyboth look like the work of college kids playing director for the first time.
Major Dilemma: Shorts 2 (NR) (3.5 stars)
Two hilariously demented comedies, a powerful docudrama about Mexican immigrants and a lesbian film noir are bookended by two portentous right-to-die stories in this second collection of short films, grouped under the nominal heading Major Dilemma.
You'd have a hard time finding a more amusing film at CineVegas than The 4th, a lighthearted tale of three men with delusions of grandeur training for a 4-X-100 relay race who won't be stopped by the glaring fact that they're one runner short. This is followed by Murray Hill, which follows the absurd antics of Bob. Bob has a lot of problems, the least of which is losing his wedding ring.
The pinnacle of the collection is Victoria Para Chino, which takes the audience on a claustrophobic ride inside a truck carrying 80 Mexican immigrants to Houston, a destination they will never reach. This poignant true story abandons politics in order to examine the human side of a hot-button issue.
Among Thieves and The Youth in Us show the flip side of such an approach, with some heavy-handed moralizing that isn't limited to the assisted suicides that culminate the plot of each film. The former features some fine acting, while the latter contains some exquisite art direction, and all six films show more professionalism and technical polish than many of the features at this year's fest.
A seventh film, The Raftman's Razor, was scratched from the first screening because of an error in shipping but is promised to be included in the second screening.
THE DEVIL'S REJECTS (R) (3 stars)
Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe
Directed by Rob Zombie
The great thing about Rob Zombie's 2003 directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses, was how effective it was in its simplicity. Zombie took his love of low-budget, 1970s horror films and channeled it into a gore-fest that followed the oldest plot in the horror book: A group of attractive young people get lost on a back road somewhere and stumble into a haven for homicidal weirdos. Much killing ensues. Corpses had no character development and no extraneous plot threads, and achieved a sort of strange poetry in its long, dialogue-free stretch at the end as the lone survivor attempted to elude the killers.
The problem with Zombie's Corpses sequel, The Devil's Rejects, is that he's needlessly overburdened it with plot and stabs at creating a backstory for his characters, and all that maneuvering leaves less time for violence and destroys the simplicity of the original concept. Instead of sending a new batch of naïve, nubile young things to the slaughter at the hands of his homicidal family, Zombie puts the family, including clown-faced dad, Capt. Spaulding (Sid Haig); hottie daughter, Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie, the director's wife) and angry son, Otis (Bill Moseley); on the run from the cops who've raided their compound and captured the family matriarch (Leslie Easterbrook, replacing Karen Black).
This means we get a lot of dialogue among the three family members, and not a lot of killing. There is a long sequence in the middle that finds the family holding a traveling band of country musicians hostage in a motel, but mostly the movie is about a single-minded sheriff (William Forsythe) and his pursuit of the family. Zombie still knows exactly how to make his movie look like one of the '70s exploitation classics, with liberal doses of freeze frames, wipes and mustaches, plus one hell of a kickin' '70s soundtrack.
But the kaleidoscopic fun-house atmosphere of Corpses is gone, replaced by a more gritty, less inventive approach. Although Zombie is still a master of gore and manages to stage a couple of suitably nasty set pieces, after two movies he's clearly gotten all he's going to get out of the '70s pastiche shtick.
LAND OF PLENTY (NR) (2.5 stars)
Michelle Williams, John Diehl, Shaun Toub
Directed by Wim Wenders
The last five minutes of Wim Wenders' 2003 film, Land of Plenty, which has yet to find distribution in the US, suggest a fascinating character study and a disappointing road not taken: The two main characters, Vietnam veteran Paul Jeffries (John Diehl) and his missionary niece Lana (Michelle Williams), each give heartfelt monologues on how the events of 9/11 affected their lives and the way they see the world. They then embark on a trip across the US, rediscovering a country that Lana, who has been living overseas with her missionary parents since she was a child, never really knew. They finally end up at Ground Zero, which they both absorb in their own ways. Fade out, roll credits.
If only that were the entire movie. German director Wenders, who's become known for his road movies and explorations of the American heartland, could have wrung something real and moving about two characters from opposite political viewpoints discovering what they love about America while rediscovering their relationship with each other. Instead, Land of Plenty attempts to explore the reconciliation between Paul and Lana via an awkward and strained mystery.
Just back in the US after living most recently in Israel, Lana takes up residence at a homeless shelter in LA run by a pastor friend of her father's. She tracks down Paul, who at first doesn't want to have anything to do with her, but ends up involved when he witnesses the murder of a homeless Arab man outside of Lana's shelter. Still rattled by his experiences in Vietnam and stirred to action by 9/11, Paul is the stereotypical unhinged vet. Concerned that the government hasn't done enough to stop terrorism, he has taken it upon himself to track and investigate potential threats, and he believes the murder is part of a larger conspiracy.
Although the film's end and a few moments along the way show that Wenders takes Paul's patriotic views and war-time traumas seriously, for the most part the character is a Vietnam-vet caricature, and Diehl overplays his neuroses. Williams is acceptable but too subdued as the more liberal Lana, whose faith is an integral part of her worldview but doesn't get enough exploration of its own.
Instead, Wenders spends too much time with the uninteresting murder-mystery, and by the time he gets around to the truly insightful, moving dialogue, it's too little, too late.