Wet Dreams (3 stars)
Director: Steve Willis.
Stars: Rebecca Romijn, Steve Willis.
If nothing else, Wet Dreams proves once again that if you're famous, you can do anything you want. Surely hundreds of people have watched the water show at the Bellagio fountains and wished that they could create their own program, choreographing an elegant aquatic dance to the sounds of their favorite music. Unless they're employees of Wet Design, the company that created the fountain and designs all of its shows, though, those people have to be content with their dreams.
Not the famous. When model-actress Rebecca Romijn and her friend Steve Willis decided they wanted to choreograph a fountain show, Romijn simply showed up on The Tonight Show and pleaded with the Wet Design people to give her a call. Soon she and Willis were in the company's headquarters, hard at work on creating their masterpiece, set to Ennio Morricone's "Ecstasy of Gold" (also known as the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly).
Wet Dreams documents this process, and even if it does engender a bit of jealousy at the charmed lives of celebrities, Romijn and Willis (a music video director who also directed the film) are so charming and self-deprecating and genuinely thrilled to get this opportunity that it's impossible to feel any ill-will toward them. They do sort of torture the Hungarian programmer who does the actual work that turns their ideas into reality, and exhibit the annoying celebrity habit of bringing their tiny dogs with them everywhere. Then again, one of the funniest parts of the movie is a story about trying to bring the dogs on an airplane and being denied.
That story has virtually nothing to do with the fountain project, though, and that's the biggest problem with Wet Dreams—there just isn't enough story here for a feature film. Willis struggles even to fill out his brief 69-minute running time, throwing in digressions and little animated segments to pad things out, and letting many interviews run on much longer than necessary. Even so, Wet Dreams is breezily entertaining; take out a half-hour, and it'll make a great special on the Travel Channel.
PARK (3 stars)
Director: Kurt Voelker.
Stars: William Baldwin, Ricki Lake, Cheri Oteri.
See if you can follow this: Ian and Krysta are animal cleaners, but the latter is just here for a fling with a lawyer named Dennis, who is cheating on his wife, Peggy, who is sitting in a car with her friend, Claire, spying on him. Not far away, four coworkers pull up in a van. Sheryl and Meredith both have a crush on Nathan, who runs around nude with Babar. At least one of them is gay. Meanwhile, April is trying to kill herself, and Darnell the tow-truck driver will be called in to help clean this mess up. All of this takes place during the course of one day in a relatively secluded area of Los Angeles that passes for a park.
This is the setting for the new movie by writer-director Kurt Voelker, which made its world premiere at CineVegas. From the first frame, he establishes that he is a filmmaker who is not afraid to put just about anything onscreen. It's all delivered at a frenetic pace with a heightened sense of reality. This results in a lot of surprises and laughs and suggests he would be a good candidate to helm a horror movie.
The ensemble cast is pitch-perfect. Billy Baldwin is smarmy as ever as the despicable Dennis, the closest thing the story has to an antagonist. The other characters, for all their glaring flaws, are treated with some amount of sympathy. Ricki Lake is the disillusioned Peggy. Spurred on by Cheri Oteri, she builds her bitterness into a state of relentless fury, and unleashes it upon a helpless SUV.
Also noteworthy is Dagney Kerr's April, whose feeble attempts at suicide remind me of something I once heard: More women attempt suicide, but more men actually succeed, because they are more apt to choose methods that actually work. April may account for this statistic all by herself.
Perhaps this sounds cruel. What makes Park work so well is that we actually care about these people (except for Dennis). We are invited to laugh at their many misfortunes, but in one way or another, their mishaps are ours. If there's a moral to this story, it's vaguely something about decency and forgiveness. It may not be the most profound message at CineVegas, but it's one of the funniest.
G.I. Jesus (3.5 stars)
Director: Carl Colpaert.
Stars: Joe Arquette, Patricia Mota, Maurizio Farhad.
G.I. Jesus is what a movie at a film festival should be—creative, original and challenging.It's the story of Jesus Feliciano (Joe Arquette), a Mexican who enlisted in the U.S. Army and has served in Iraq as a means of obtaining legal citizenship in the United States for himself, his wife (Patricia Mota), and his daughter (Telana Lynum).
When he returns to California from the war, Jesus is haunted by post-traumatic stress, which forces him to face his past and future.
A movie like G.I. Jesus runs the danger of slipping into broad, easy proselytizing. It could lose its way, but it doesn't. Some of Jesus's hallucinations have more clutter than clarity, and on occasion the film seems on the verge of faltering, but director/cowriter Carl Colpaert knows where he is going. At times Jesus is wracked by uncertainty; Colpaert is not.
Colpaert has a deft human touch. He is an able filmmaker who knows what film can do, how it can mix time and space. He has some jolting montages; mixing in actual war footage gives authenticity to fantasy.
His cast serves him well. Arquette is vulnerable and convincing as the disturbed soldier, the Mexican Everyman. Mota is first-rate as the loving and fearful wife. Maurizio Farhad humanizes the otherworldly spirit, Mohammed. And Lynum steals scenes as the young daughter, Marina, who is the voice of sweet reason. Little Miss Lynum is a charmer.
There are some scenes that don't work. The argument between Jesus and Claudia in the car is pat and toneless. Some of the symbols are a little forced—a game of musical chairs that may be a metaphor for countries is unconvincing.
But the conclusion—Jesus's moment of truth, his decision and its relevance—is stirring. That emphasizes the quality that is the greatest strength of G.I. Jesus—its heart.
SKIN CITY (2.5 stars)
Director: Gregory Berkin.
Stars: Jack Sheehan, Rita Rudner, Sheriff Bill Young.
This documentary aims to analyze the sexification of Las Vegas, but with its flashy photography, smash cuts, quick zooms and tantalizing glimpses of nudity, the film frequently seems like it's contributing to its subject matter rather than analyzing it.
It hits most of the expected bullet points—hookers, vice cops, strippers, the porn convention and a few moments with a pastor and a "reformed" porn star to show how the other half lives—but there are really no surprises.
Obviously, the woman who refers to herself as a "reformed" porn star, who got into the business during a bad time in her life and now has a crucifix hanging from her neck, is going to say that it isn't worth it, that the women who do it secretly hate it. Meanwhile, the buxom porn star, who poses for fan photos and autographs DVDs at the porn convention, will say otherwise.
It feels like the truth is somewhere in between and, frustratingly, the film doesn't really get at it. So it changes gears and gives us a brief history of Las Vegas' ill-fated attempt to capture a more family-oriented feel before we finally gave in to "What Happens Here, Stays Here."
Writer Jack Sheehan, upon whose book the film is based, opens the film with the hypothesis that the sexification of Las Vegas is heating to a boil and is set to blow at any moment, leading to some form of vague cataclysm. But I think this notion rings far more true to tourists who believe in the mystique of Sin City than locals who live in the reality.
By the end, almost all of the interviewees, whether they're in the business of erotic entertainment or regulate it, agree that the sexing up of Las Vegas has been enormously successful and even saved our city from its post-9/11 slump. Whatever the moral implications, things appear fairly stable, so in a way, Sheehan ultimately disproves his own hypothesis.
5 UP 2 DOWN (1 star)
Director: Steven Kessler.
Stars: Isaach De Bankole, Kirk Acevedo, Paz de la Huerta.
The title refers to five days of a cocaine binge followed by two days of sleep. The film presents each day, complete with title card ("Day 1"). But after the seventh day, the movie keeps going for at least two or three more days, so a more appropriate title would've been 5 Up 2 Down 2 or 3 Up Again. Then again, since absolutely nothing important happens during the week-long drug-fest, and the story really begins after that two-day nap, maybe the title should have simply been 2 or 3 Up Again.
No matter what the title is, it won't change the first hour from feeling like you're spending a week with drunks and you're the only sober person in the room. What begins as sporadically amusing quickly becomes tedious. The film presents us with four drug addicts: Hunter (Isaach De Bankole), Santo (Kirk Acevedo), Ally (Paz de la Huerta) and Disco Dave, but forget about Disco Dave because that's what the screenplay does. Santo narrates intermittently with his musings on life, in particular a dream he has about an 1800s slave getting chased through a forest by two white hunters. I imagine slavery is a metaphor for addiction, but it never makes a great deal of sense. So on with the drug binge.
The three main characters and an assortment of other lowlifes have highs and lows, orgies and overdoses, and a great deal of meaningless conversation in which they argue over who gets the first hit off the pipe. These are supposed to be little slice-of-drug-life moments, but we've seen them in better films like Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting.
After the week ends, Santo's confusing dream motivates him to break his addiction. Hunter is conveniently saved by his art, a subject completely forgotten for the bulk of the film. But none of it has much impact, since we don't care about these people anyway.
Full Grown Men (3.5 stars)
Director: David Munro.
Stars: Matt McGrath, Judah Friedlander, Alan Cumming, Deborah Harry.
Since when did it become a crime to collect action figures? First Steve Carell's character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin has to sell his collection to achieve maturity and finally get laid, and now, in David Munro's Full Grown Men, main character Alby's inability to grow up and face the real world is symbolized by, yes, his collection of vintage action figures, with which he must part before completing his emotional journey to adulthood. Who knew G.I. Joe was holding so many people back?
The action figure metaphor is perhaps a little obvious, then, but Munro gets good mileage out of it, and effectively paints Alby (Matt McGrath) as an Adam Sandler-esque man-child who pines for the days of his youth—and not a beer-drinking, girl-chasing youth of high school or college, but the carefree innocence of childhood. Although Alby has a wife and a young son, he doesn't want any of the responsibility that goes along with it, and wishes instead he could just play games all day and head to his favorite amusement park, Diggityland.
And so, fed up with the nagging from his wife, Alby does just that. He walks out on his family and heads home to eat sugared cereal and watch kung-fu movies at his mom's house. He also tracks down his old childhood friend Elias (Judah Friedlander), who's much more satisfied with his own adult life as a teacher for special-needs children. Serendipitously, Elias is headed to Diggityland for a teachers' conference, so Alby tags along, whether his friend likes it or not.
The relationship between the stunted Alby and the mature Elias is funny and real, with Alby trying hard to recreate an idyllic sense of the past that Elias clearly did not share. On the road to Diggityland, the two joke and bicker and finally address all of the unacknowledged emotions from their childhood. Alan Cumming and Amy Sedaris put in funny cameos, and McGrath makes Alby likable and relatable even if he's clearly at least half the asshole that people claim he is.
The last 20 minutes or so pour on the sap a little too thickly—no movie needs cute retarded kids imparting life lessons, ever—but don't abandon Munro's wicked sense of humor. Alby does eventually find a new home for those action figures, but the question of whether he's genuinely outgrown them is left satisfyingly unanswered.
Mary (2 stars)
Director: Abel Ferrara.
Stars: Forest Whitaker, Juliette Binoche, Matthew Modine, Heather Graham.
Whether it's just luck or some sort of divine plan, it's fortuitous for Abel Ferrara's Mary to be playing in the wake of The Da Vinci Code. Mary addresses many of the same concerns as Da Vinci, primarily the alleged importance of Mary Magdalene to the development of Christianity and her status not only as Jesus' lover but also as one of his primary disciples. While Da Vinci wrapped its theology in a globe-trotting tale of high-stakes puzzle-solving, Ferrara presents his ideas in what's meant to be a meditation on the nature of faith but ends up an incoherent, pretentious mess.
The movie starts as production wraps on Hollywood epic This is My Blood, a movie about Jesus starring and directed by the arrogant Tony Childress (Matthew Modine). Childress' Mary Magdalene, actress Marie Paresi (Juliette Binoche), has been so affected by her experience portraying the biblical figure that she ditches acting to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, much to Childress' chagrin (he prefers the spotlight to himself).
A year later, the film is about to be released, and talk-show host Ted Younger (Forest Whitaker) is devoting a whole week of programs to the life of Jesus. As he waits for his wife (Heather Graham) to give birth to their son, he experiences his own crisis of faith and turns to the still-wandering Marie for spiritual guidance.
The film isn't nearly as straightforward or eventful as that summary makes it sound, and Ferrara breaks up the story with rambling discourses on religion from actual theologians who appear as guests on Ted's show, dreamy shots of Marie wandering through Jerusalem, and scenes meant to be from Childress' movie, featuring the unlikely sight of Matthew Modine as Jesus. Really, though, this is Whitaker's film, and he cries and beseeches and curses God as Ted deals with dangers to his marriage, his wife and his newborn child.
Ferrara reaches often for the profound, but he fails to adequately explain such mundane details as what makes Childress' film so controversial, or how Ted's staid, Charlie Rose-style talk show is such a ratings bonanza. The various entreaties to God are either trite or incomprehensible, and Binoche wanders through the film in a daze, looking more confused than enraptured. She's not the only one.
The Favor (2.5 stars)
Eva Aridjis. Stars: Frank Wood, Ryan Donowho, Isidra Vega.
The first 15 minutes of The Favor offer a glimpse into an interesting movie that might have been: After witnessing high-schoolers Lawrence and Caroline declare their undying love for each other even as they head off to college in separate states, we fast-forward 20 years, as Caroline (Paige Turco) returns to the couple's New Jersey hometown and reconnects with Lawrence (Frank Wood), whom she hasn't seen since high school. A movie about two people who were once deeply in love as teenagers rekindling their romance as adults sounds like a fascinating prospect, but that's not what The Favor offers.
Instead, Caroline dies suddenly in an accident, and Lawrence ends up taking care of her 16-year old son, Johnny (Ryan Donowho). Writer-director Eva Aridjis focuses on the relationship between the sullen, petulant Johnny and the naïve, earnest Lawrence, and it has many of the hallmarks of your average Hollywood film about two people who seem to have nothing in common but learn to appreciate each other. In a way, the problem with The Favor is that it's not a big Hollywood movie, so Aridjis is hesitant to employ the sweeping, broad gestures that often make such clichéd stories tolerable.
Instead, Johnny and Lawrence spend most of the movie irritating each other, and Johnny is such a jerk that when Lawrence, in a fit of anger, says that he never should have taken on the boy's guardianship, you agree. Not that Lawrence is much better—milquetoast and timid, he eventually grows a backbone, only to have it recede when the story calls for reconciliation. Aridjis throws in comic relief at odd moments, when it seems most out of place, but many of her dramatic scenes end up as inadvertent comedy anyway.
Even if the script is rather unfocused, Wood and Donowho do their best with the roles they're given, Wood especially giving life to some of Lawrence's endearing quirks (he has a side career taking photos of people and their pets). But all Aridjis can muster is inert drama and trite lessons.
STRANGERS WITH CANDY (1 star)
Director: Paul Dinello.
Stars: Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello.
Am I missing something? CineVegas kicked off with this lowbrow feature, which serves as a prequel to the critically acclaimed Comedy Central TV series that ran from 1999-2001. The protagonist is Jerri Blank (Sedaris), a former junkie, prostitute and convict who returns to finish high school. She's either 46 or 47 years old, depending on whom you ask.
Apparently, many people—including the sellout crowd—really enjoy this sort of thing. Judging from the endless string of celebrity cameos (Matthew Broderick, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ian Holm, Sarah Jessica Parker), even talented people are fans of the show. The movie offers little in the way of an explanation.
The problem with adapting a sitcom into a feature film is that there must be some semblance of a plot. Here we begin with Jerri being released from prison and coming home to find that an unsympathetic stepfamily has taken over the house while her father lies comatose. It seems that the shock and grief caused by this foul-mouthed, drug-addled whore running away as a teenager was too much to take. When her reappearance triggers a mild response, our heroine decides to pick up her life right where she left off. This involves re-enlisting in high school and entering the science fair. That's pretty much it.
The real point of this exercise appears to be to get away with as much debauchery onscreen as possible. From time to time, the jokes actually stick, but a few witticisms do not a movie make.
By and large, we're forced to deal with a racist, homophobic and altogether offensive sense of humor. Perhaps if there were a point to all this besides pushing the boundaries of an R-rating, there would be something to discuss. In the Q&A following the screening, writer-director-star Paul Dinello admitted that many of the creative decisions during filmmaking were chemically fueled. Now I realize what I was missing.
THANKS to GRAVITY (2 stars)
Director: Jessica Kavana.
Stars: Gina Philips, Adam Rodriguez, Eve Gordon.
Thanks to Gravity is as predictable as gravity. With a topic—a young woman trying to find herself as a debater, a daughter and a woman—bristling with potential for a fresh, keen eye, it's more a connect-the-dots script, touching fleetingly on a bunch of issues.
The most promising is that of a young woman struggling with her Latin-Jewish heritage and family. But it has to share the screen with the world of college debate and a shocking experience from the past, and it becomes simply another theme.
The cast is more than serviceable. Gina Philips is appealing as the buffeted young woman, Jordan. Adam Rodriguez is fine as Eric, her friend, but he's underserved by the script.
There's a telling faux pas in one scene: Jordan wears a T-shirt that proclaims: "Debater's Rule." They may rule, but they can't punctuate. And Jordan supposedly goes to Harvard.
The movie's best moment is when Eve Gordon, as Jordan's mother, meets her daughter's college roommate who is a lesbian feminist. Gordon's facial responses are priceless.
Produced by actress Philips and Amy Greenspun, Thanks to Gravity is an earnest effort with pleasant moments, but far too often it settles for the conventional and the obvious.
The 4th Dimension (1.5 stars)
Directors: Dave Mazzoni, Tom Mattera.
Stars: Louis Morabito, Miles Williams, Karen Peakes.
The first 75 minutes of The 4th Dimension are so annoying, pretentious and impossible to follow that by the time you get to the poorly executed plot twist at the end, there's no hope for redemption. The movie appears to take place in some bizarre land out of time, where Jack (Louis Morabito) works in an antique shop and lives in some sort of shack with no electricity. He's meant to be a mathematical and scientific genius, as we see in various flashbacks, with Miles Williams clearly in over his head expounding on complex theories as young Jack. Occasionally, Jack sits on abandoned trains, talks to mysterious women and perhaps develops some new theory about controlling time while fixing a clock. Several characters randomly speak German.
In short, the movie makes no sense. Writer-directors Dave Mazzoni and Tom Mattera try to tie things together with the ending, but all it does is dismiss everything you've spent the entire movie watching, and doesn't make it any more bearable.
Danika (2 stars)
Director: Ariel Vromen.
Stars: Marisa Tomei, Craig Bierko, Regina Hall
A dedicated but potentially unstable mother fends off what appear to be supernatural threats to her children, while everyone around her thinks she's going crazy. Sound familiar? It should—it's the basic plot of The Ring and Dark Water and the central theme of the wave of Japanese horror films whose remakes have found great success in American multiplexes. Danika isn't a remake of any J-horror flick, but it certainly is a retread of those movies' most common ideas and devices.
Marisa Tomei is a married mother of three who starts having vibrant hallucinations about horrible events, seemingly inspired by sensationalistic news stories. Writer Joshua Leibner and director Ariel Vromen seem to have something to say about the way that media-instilled fear can literally drive people crazy, but the message is unexplored and eventually buried under an avalanche of cheap shock tactics and pointlessly dizzying visuals.
RUNNING STUMBLED (2 stars)
Director: John Maringouin.
Stars: Virgie Marie Pennoui, Johnny Roe, Stanley Laviolette.
A sort of documentary-by-accident, director John Maringouin edited together his own home movies, which capture the reunion between he and his father, who purportedly tried to kill him as a young boy. The result is a frequently chaotic film shot in a messy home, which may or may not reflect the mind of both subject and filmmaker. When a pile of spaghetti lies rotting on the floor, things are not good.
Johnny Roe breathes smoke and bleeds painkillers. He reminds me of James Coburn in Affliction, another father whose disregard for the family members around him is downright terrifying. His paintings on the wall offer a glimpse of a once-creative spirit, but that soul is now buried beneath years of addiction.
Caught up in this are Maringouin's stepmother, Virgie, and his Uncle Stanley. Virgie also favors pills to actual food, but comes off as sympathetic compared to Roe. This was obviously a very personal project, but the audience is subjected to two depressives who have nowhere to go and nothing better to do than yell at each other all day.
THE PUFFY CHAIR (4 stars)
Director: Jay Duplass.
Stars: Mark Duplass, Kathryn Aselton, Rhett Wilkins.
After finding A replica of his father's favorite old La-Z-Boy on eBay, Josh (Duplass) sets out with his girlfriend, Emily (Aselton), and brother Rhett (Wilkins) to surprise Dad on his birthday. That's the synopsis, but what begins as an innocent road comedy soon turns into the most honest and heartfelt relationship story I've seen in a long time.
This debut from brothers Mark and Jay Duplass screened at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival before going on to win the audience award at the South-By-Southwest Film Festival and garnering two nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards. They cast friends and family, and the closeness of the cast and crew are evident in the performances and emotions, which are always believable.
In an age when Hollywood romances must cook up all manor of absurdist plot conflicts, here is a movie that is spontaneous, real, and truthful about relationships—even without Peter Gabriel on the soundtrack.
13 TZAMETI (4 stars)
Director: Gela Babluani.
Stars: George Babluani, Pascal Bongard, Aurelien Recoing.
In 13 Tzameti, Director Gela Babluani takes a thin concept and makes it work with masterful use of tension. He tells the story of Sebastien (George Babluani), a young roofer who gets stiffed on the bill for his latest project when his employer dies of an overdose. Fortunately, through those holes in the roof he was fixing, Sebastien heard vague descriptions of a very lucrative opportunity. So, stealing the instructions meant for his late employer, Sebastien embarks into the unknown, to engage in something that threatens to be more and more illicit with each passing moment.
Babluani does an incredible job of building a mounting sense of dread. Shot in high-contrast black and white, every forbidding location and intimidating face Sebastien encounters helps to crank the tension up an extra notch. Half the film has gone by before we find out what Sebastien has signed on for, and despite our massive expectations, the gig winds up being satisfyingly horrible. I'd recommend seeing it before it gets a crappy American remake, but during a Q&A session, Babluani announced that he would, in fact, handle the American remake, so perhaps it won't be so bad.
WILD TIGERS I HAVE KNOWN (1.5 stars)
Director: Cam Archer.
Stars: Malcolm Stumpf, Patrick White, Max Paradise.
When it comes to movies, I'm all in favor of seeing something that hasn't been done before, as long as the experimentation services the story. But Wild Tigers I Have Known feels like an experimental student film that's gotten out of hand.
It tells the story (at times) of young Logan (Malcolm Stumpf), a junior-high kid coming to grips with his homosexuality. But the story frequently gets sidetracked by an overabundance of style. Colors will be arbitrarily washed out in red, yellow or blue tones. Superimposed spiders will inexplicably walk across the screen. Buzzing music will slowly build over several minutes and then dramatically cut out.
These tricks fail to evoke a surreal, dreamlike quality because they don't build the appropriate mood for what's happening to Logan. They overwhelm the screen and keep the audience aware of the filmmaker, which could very well be a deliberate attempt to distract us from noticing this is merely a cutesy, gay version of Welcome to the Dollhouse.