The Junk Food of Writing

Friday, April 28, 2006

Film Festival leaves prints all over Boston

The ubiquitous icon of the 2006 Independent Film Festival of Boston, a thumbprint with a film reel embedded in the center, is perfectly emblematic of the staff, volunteers, and attendees of this 4th annual celebration of cinema. They all bear this symbolic, permanent mark. The excitement and amicability these film zealots exude exposes their genetic, and infectious, love of filmmaking; there is no rigid hierarchy at the festival – whether filmgoers have a Chrome Pass

With this congeniality, however, comes sycophancy. Although the obsequious crowds, many of whom proudly showered compliments upon even the worst of trash in hopes of gaining indie-cred, became a bit grating, most were approachable and willing to defend their opinions in a spontaneous discussion on the sidewalk outside the theater. The Someday Café, which is conveniently adjacent to the Somerville Theater, was another popular forum for impromptu, intimate film symposiums – and the baristas made damn good lattes which kept me awake through the twenty-six hours I spent in a dark theater with flickering lights.
or a ticket to a single screening, their passion for independent film unites them.

Opening night was greeted with a line which sprawled around the antique Somerville Theater in Davis Square – which served as the Mecca for low-budget-film believers. The massive queues -- which continued throughout the six days of the festival, an extension from last year’s four -- were so long that concession-snacking patrons had eaten most of their popcorn and candy before they even entered the theater doors.

Seventy-four films, the largest in the festival’s career, screened from April 19th to April 24th. The film festival began auspiciously with Half Nelson, an evocative and socially conscious study on the platonic, and implicitly political, relationship between a promising pupil, Drey (newcomer Shareeka Epps), and Mr. Dunne, 8th grade history teacher (an impressive and scruffy Ryan Gosling, who proved himself a worthy actor in 2001 with The Believer), who is not as responsible outside of the classroom as the school expects him to be. He commits reprehensible acts that no conscientious teacher would practice, such as smoking crack to the beats of Broken Social Scene, being blithely promiscuous, and watching Charles in Charge. After basketball practice one day, Drey accidentally catches Mr. Dunne puffing his crack-pipe in a stall. This encounter, of course, complicates their relationship yet strengthens their bond of trust.

Half Nelson may deceptively sound as if it is a victim of its own dangerously hackneyed genre – unorthodox-teacher-inspires-youth-and-the-youth-reciprocates – but it is actually the defeater of its own brand. It upends the conventions which make those films, like Dead Poet’s Society, so spurious and shamelessly manipulative. The naturalistic performances ground the film in a harsh reality, which is enhanced by the film’s gritty exterior. Half Nelson is in no hurry to create convenient characterizations – nuances and details organically become apparent throughout the production.

Although the personal drama is handled intimately, the racial issues which the film addresses -- and subsequently marginalizes – are not dealt with confidently. The subordination of such issues, which never materialize much, leads one to believe that the filmmakers (Ryan Fleck and Ana Boden) had more to say than what ended up being communicated. Therefore, the topical portion of the film is unfortunately reduced to mere black-face paraphernalia and brief student presentations of revolutionary events which are jarringly placed in between scenes to overtly emphasize the filmmakers’ rage against humanity’s past injustices. Nonetheless, Half Nelson is a powerful and authentic glance at narcotics, schoolteachers, and change due to conflicting forces.

ilm festivals offer an outlet for aspiring filmmakers who are just average guys and, quite often, you will encounter a film that is quite average. I stumbled upon a few cases of this dreadful mediocrity in two particular films which both focus on failure and, coincidentally, fail to transcend their trite plots: Cocaine Angel and The Last Romantic.

Cocaine Angel
was the second film I saw at the film festival and, after Half Nelson, I was beginning to believe that hard drugs would be a festival motif. While Half Nelson is bleak yet diligent, Cocaine Angel is downright unconvincing. Cocaine Angel opens with the protagonist, doughy-faced ex-family man Scott, going through the tedious process of shooting-up. Similarly, the film itself is a drab, inept and utterly amateurish exercise in uninspired “oh-that-looks-cool” filmmaking, which hopelessly depicts a hopeless cocaine addict in the frame of a few days. The neophyte filmmaker, Michael Tully, is under the false impression that jittery camerawork and violin-infused music will compensate for the lack of genuine dramatic imagery in his lens. Even the dark humor in the film falls flat. A Q & A with Michael Tully afterwards validated my opinion on his clueless and arbitrary approach to directing.

If you have been to a film festival before, or perhaps even seen a film about a naïve writer coming-of-age, then you can indubitably skip the Manhattan-based The Last Romantic; its title is even representative of the ever-approaching, and very welcome, end to this category of film. From the start, the deep irony of this platitudinous production rears its head as both the musical score and the voiceover are reminiscent of the best love story of the past ten years: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Last Romantic fizzles so massively because it believes its earnest quirkiness, changing color-palette and livejournal-deep ruminations are charming and fresh – but it’s all very derivative and irritating. Essentially, the film is about leaving one’s mark on the world – which is literally played out in a cringe-worthy scene when the protagonist pens his name onto a subway seat before departing – and the filmmakers, Aaron and Adam Nee, have undoubtedly left their stain on the projection screen.

At the opening night gala, before the screening of Half Nelson, a snazzy video iPod was raffled off to a lucky ticket-holder. There was no such giveaway at the screening of Joe Swanberg’s LOL – a penetrating, yet casual, look at the deterioration of human relationships in the face of technology -- and those who were hoping for a cosmopolitan BlackBerry 8700series were sorely disappointed. In fact, some BlackBerry models may cost more than the budget of this film, which was an admirably scant $3000. As an individual who is both enthralled by the internet’s sticky web and terribly frightened by technology, LOL’s nonchalantly incisive depiction of human alienation due to technology's omnipresence and domineering affects stuck me as truthful and heartbreaking. It can get a little repetitive and implausible in its observations, but it gains much credit for not resorting to a didactic 'technology-is-bad' viewpoint. LOL’s laid-back approach to its message is what makes its vitriolic thesis so unsettling.

Thus concludes my journey into a weekend of queues, coffee, delirium and DV. I attended twelve films in five days during its six-day run, and the best two and the worst two were critiqued above. At one point in the festival, I had to buy a big bucket of popcorn – named after Orson Welles’ corpulent character from Touch of Evil – in hopes that the mechanical arm motion would keep me from either falling asleep or going insane. Now, perhaps I can be patient for the madness that will inevitably ensue once the 5th Independent Film Festival of Boston comes around next Spring. Being a sane and considerably less sadistic moviegoer for 360 days of the year just isn’t as much fun.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Oh dear.

Due to final essays/projects and my irresponsible method of spending the weekend, I have finally reached the point of delirium. I have slept for 5 hours over the past 48 hours and have sat in a theater for 18 of those remaining hours.

Some ratings:

Half Nelson: B
Cocaine Angel: D-
So Much So Fast: C
Edmond: C+
Look Both Ways: B
In Between Days: B-
The Puffy Chair: C
The Guatemalan Handshake: No. Just no. (D-, I guess)

So, a mixture of 'good,' 'mixed,' 'bad,' and 'horrendous.'

Highlights so far? Stalking Michael Cera (George Michael Bluth -- from Arrested Development, losers) and briefly meeting Jesse Eisenberg.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Who is this guy, again?

Yeah, I have been absent recently. Yeah, I have slightly abandoned you recently. Yeah, I have been drowing in schoolwork recently. Yeah, I have had a bit of spare time to post recently. Yeah, I am unbelieveably lazy. These are all true.

Frankly, I am not sure why I am posting right now. Perhaps to rub this in your face:

Since I'm so crafty, I got a handy-dandy press pass for free -- which gives me access to every film/symposium/afterparty -- and I am taking full advantage of it.

Therefore, I do not have time for you jokers at the moment. I'll see you when the film fest has passed, all my final projects and essays have been handed in, and I have resurrected from the dead.

Let's estimate that the time will be around....May 7th. Yeah, that sounds about right.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Brick (Johnson, 2006)

After leaving Third Rock from the Sun and landing in the world of risky cinema, Joseph Gordon-Levitt finally sees the light.

She’s the Man, a teenage adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, is currently circulating the multiplexes. Over the past decade, nearly a dozen modernized adaptations of Shakespeare have been mass produced and distributed (and, shockingly, not all starred Julia Stiles). If the bard can have at least a handful of his own youthful adaptations, whether he wants them or not -- I’m betting it’s the latter, since a handful of those updates warrant at least a few tosses in the grave -- why can’t Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler? Director Rian Johnson answers that question with the contemporary-set Brick, a sly, dexterous and dapper detective tale which serves as both an homage and a send-up of archetypal noir stories.

The plot of Brick is, in pure noir fashion, deceptively uncomplicated. After receiving a worrisome phone call from a missing ex-girlfriend, Emily (a whiny Emilie de Ravin), Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) begins an investigation around his present-day southern California high school for her and ends up in troubling situations. No, this is not the type of trouble that will send him to detention. Brendan, in an attempt to “shake things up,” becomes involved in the underground drug operations of his school, which are run by The Pin (a faux-hawk donning, duck-cane-holding Lukas Haas) out of the wood-paneled basement of his parent’s house. The film manages to sneak in a few allusions to The Maltese Falcon here -- Lukas Haas' brass falcons (which appear on his mailbox and in his lair) often pervade the mise-en-scène.

Instead of taking aim at high society and the seedy underbellies of bleak urban areas, this jaunty production dissects the social hierarchy inherent in high school. Floating through the cliques and stereotypes of high school (the Rubik’s-cube-wielding brain, the vampy theater queen, the bully with a Mustang and a violent case of roid rage – if you’ve been to high school, you know the cast of characters), Brendan gets lost in the mystery surrounding Emily’s disappearance – and, due to a palpably tense atmosphere, so does the audience. Brick knows what it is, and it may not transcend its boundaries, but it does what it knows very, very well.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt departed from sitcom-land when Third Rock from the Sun ended five years ago and has rocketed to indie stardom with audacious and astounding performances in 2001’s Manic and last year’s Mysterious Skin. In a heavily stylized performance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt imbues Brendan with a roguish know-how; his hands often remain in his beige jacket with his shoulders held high, as if a cold chill is perpetually blowing over him. Gordon-Levitt is in nearly every frame, and he deftly drives this joyride. The femme fatale, disguised as the needy popular girl, Laura, is portrayed by Nora Zehetner (think a more adorable and intelligent Rachel Bilson from The OC who is more sexy, dangerous, seductive and less…on The OC).

The vernacular of the film is a clever mélange of high school jargon and hardboiled noir shtick. While probing the student body to glean information from his peers, Brendan inquires who his ex-girlfriend has been eating lunch with – and instead of leaving a business card or an office address, he utters with a straight-face: “If you find her, tell her where to meet me – she knows where I eat lunch.” After Brendan gets beat up, which is a common occurrence in the few days this film chronicles, he cunningly tells the angered principal, “he tried to take my lunch money,” and then his blank expression evolves into a slight smirk before he quips, “it’s a good thing I brown-bagged it.”

Most surprisingly, Brick has a slick sense of humor; it’s all refreshingly self-aware and deliciously ironic. Essentially, it is as if the genre itself accidentally stepped into a time warp and there are deliberate, and amusing, anachronisms which did not translate well in a dramatic sense. Replace the cigarette and a glass of gin with a cookie and a glass of apple juice. These toddler treats are served, not by the mysterious butler, but the gentle and congenial mother of the teen drug kingpin of the town. Even the hazardous rendezvous points are scribbled on notebook paper, resembling a note which was passed around a classroom underneath the teacher’s nose. Disclosing all its clever visual details and pizzazz would be shameful, however, so I will pause there.

The novelty of the premise may begin to wear in the last act, but – despite a few lame twists – the film has enough brilliant moments to compensate. The film’s alluring visual style is mesmerizing, yet this is not a simple case of style vs. substance; it’s an incident where the style is the substance. Although it occasionally dips into amusing parody, Brick maintains a serious veneer, and some audience members may find it a bit overbearing. The setting is, of course, in a contemporary Orange County high school. Some over-the-top moments may prompt one to think “But…they’re just in high school, shouldn’t they be going to class or doing their homework?” This reaction is understandable, but rather irrelevant; any fan of the film noir genre will know that it is hardly grounded in realism. The most crucial aspect Brick, however, is whether it captures the essence of classic film noir successfully and still manages to thrill a young audience. I must say, with the arrival of this pitch-perfect homage -- which has a few of its own tricks up its sleeve -- it appears as if Rian Johnson and his cast clearly did their homework.