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Scott Coffey’s
Adult World
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Written by Andy Cochran.

Starring: Emma Roberts, Evan Peters, John Cusack, Armando Riesco, Cloris Leachman, John Cullum, Chris Riggi, Shannon Woodward.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Amy Anderson (Emma Roberts) is a kooky young poet living in upstate New York. She wants desperately to be famous and published and she sets on the financially draining and often depressing path every writer knows too well—submitting your work to everyone and anyone—only to be met with constant rejection.

Amy’s parents tell her that they, “can’t afford to subsidize (her) poetry career,” so Amy packs a bag and slips out her window and is well on her own journey—but not necessarily the one she had in mind. After apprehensively taking on a job at a sex shop, called Adult World, she begins unlikely friendships with her oddball co-workers. These include a drag queen named Rubia (Armando Riesco) whom she stays with for a spell and Alex (American Horror Story’s Evan Peters), the store’s cute manager.

Amy also happens to stumble upon her favorite poet, Rat Billings (John Cusack), and begins to stalk him in hopes of finding the perfect mentor. Rat had his biggest success when he was eighteen and has since become depressed and crotchety. But Amy will not let this stop her. She basically hunts him down and forces her way into his life and home.

Director Scott Coffey weaves Amy’s story together with impressive ease, blending the comic moments with the more serious ones deftly. Of course, having Andy Cochran’s clever yet keen script to work from did not hurt.

Emma Roberts is the heart, soul and spine of Adult World. She’s an absolute joy to watch and root for—even though her character borders on the deranged and selfish. She is labeled “psychotic” by one character but may simply be misunderstood. Maybe. Amy’s reaction to being published in Rat’s “shitty little anthology” is priceless…and a bit scary.

Armando Riesco is just so bloody good as Rubia it’s hard to take your eyes off him when he’s onscreen and it’s impossible not to miss him when he’s offscreen. What a splendidly written and acted character—just the right mix of attitude and vulnerability without the usual empty diva-ness we often see in Hollywood films. Riesco’s performance deserves attention.

John Cusack, one of the best actors of the 90s (Being John Malkovich, Bullets Over Broadway, Grosse Pointe Blank anyone?) finally has a good role again and perfectly underplays it. “The SATs don’t mean shit. That’s like believing in Scientology.” Just one of the many great lines he nails.

Evan Peters is sweet and charming and just cryptic enough to keep us wondering about his intentions.

It would be difficult for me not to mention that Emma Roberts shows the kind of promise that her aunt Julia did a little over twenty-five years ago in a film called Mystic Pizza. It’s a different kind of Roberts, this time. A bit crazier, possibly. Hopefully, one with the same type of staying power.

Films about writers are usually either about washed up older males (Wonder Boys) or young males on the rise (gee, pick from so many). Here we get a young female—and she’s a poet!!! And she’s allowed to be weird. And we aren’t sure if she even has talent. Can you say: bloody refreshing?

My one and only complaint is what the hell happened to Cloris Leachman and John Cullum? Such fabulous actors in intriguing roles and they simply disappear from the film? Shame!

SPOILER ALERT

I truly appreciated how this film avoids the annoying clichés of literary films. No, Amy does not sleep with Rat. No, there is no happy letter from The New Yorker at the end. No, there is no tragedy in Act Three (usually the deeply unhappy drag queen). No, Amy doesn’t make any major decisions. But she has matured a bit…just a bit. Or perhaps she really is psychotic.


Claudio Giovannesi’s
Ali Blue Eyes (Ali ha gli occhi azzuri)
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Written by Claudio Giovannesi, Filippo Gravino.

Starring:: Nader Sarhan, Stefano Rabatti, Brigitte Apruzzesi, Marian Valenti Adrian, Cesare Hosny Sarhan, Fatima Mouhaseb

100 min.

In Italian with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Taking a page from the Italian Neo-realism filmmakers of the mid-20th century, writer/director Claudio Giovanessi delivers a raw, honest docu-drama about a sixteen-year-old boy’s struggle with who he is amidst clashes of culture, religion and an ever-evolving European society.

Nader (Nader Sarhan) is of Egyptian descent, but born in Italy where he has assimilated nicely into the culture—despite being a Muslim. His parents are constantly reminding him that he’s “not one of them,” and must obey the laws of his religion, meaning no girlfriend. Alas, Nader has fallen in love (lust?) with Brigitte (Brigitte Apruzzesi), an Italian Catholic girl he has know for a month. Nader and his parents argue about his relationship with Brigitte and one night after he comes home too late, they refuse to let him in. Just like a hotheaded Italian, Nader decides he will not return home until his folks accept his right to date who he wants.

Nader’s best friend is a local troublemaker, Stefano (Stefano Rabatti) and together they rob stores and whores for a few extra Euro. Nader comes to dopey Stefano’s rescue one night in a disco and stabs a Roumanian boy. His troubles are now compounded since he must hide from a bunch of angry, vengeful Roumanians as well as look for a place to sleep each night.

Giovanessi’s documentary Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) was actually about this film’s star, Nader Sarhan, and his family and friends. The director (and his co-writer) decided to fashion a narrative based on his story and cast his actual family and friends in the main roles. The gamble pays off with incredibly gritty and sensitive but no-nonsense performances from the entire cast—most especially Sarhan who is not only stunning to watch, but also a natural in front of the camera. His blend of toughness with vulnerability proves he could have a career if he wants one.

Giovanessi smartly does not provide any easy answers to the questions of identity he asks nor does he feel the need to wrap things up nicely. What he does is examine, with thoughtfulness and freshness, some of the more troubling aspects of being a lower class teen anywhere today—the lack of caring about education or bettering oneself. Nader is way more interested in his image. And the double standard that exists when it comes to males vs. females in too many religious cultures—Muslims and Catholics included.

The tech credits are impressive—especially the photography by Daniele Cipri. Ostia, a suburb of Rome, is captured in all its working class grit.

The film’s title comes from a powerful Pasolini poem. Giovanessi has made a film that certainly continues the realism in the best of Pasolini’s film work.




Ramin Bahrani’s
At Any Price
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Written by Hallie Elizabeth Newton, Ramin Bahrani.

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown, Chelcie Ross.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

At Any Price is a sometimes infuriating, often thought-provoking look at the heartland and some of the ethically-challenged people masked as good, hardworking folk currently inhabiting our country.

Dennis Quaid’s dead-on cartoonish turn as a slimy salesman Henry Whipple is a great example of what Willy Lowman might have evolved (devolved) into today. Henry is an overbearing and shifty feed salesman in rural Iowa who will stop at nothing to snag new property—including exploiting the grief-stricken at a local funeral. Whipple is proud of the fact that he is number one is seven counties, although his rival, Jim Johnson (a very effective Clancy Brown), has just taken one of his counties, making his tally six.

Henry has two sons. His eldest, Grant, would rather spend his time climbing mountains in Argentina than come home and have to deal with his dad. Younger son, Dean (Zac Efron, playing way against his teen-heartthrob-type) dismisses his father outright and is pursuing his own dream of being a racecar driver.

When we meet Henry’s old, demanding, son-of-a-bitch of a father, Cliff (Red West) we understand that Henry probably never stood a chance.

Henry’s wife, Irene (Kim Dickens) is barely a character—probably a deliberate reflection on just how little women seem to matter. Dean’s girlfriend, Cadence (an impressive Maika Monroe) fights to matter to Dean.

The crux of the film’s focus is on the stormy relationship between father and son and both Quaid and Efron keep the viewers engaged. Dean is a bit too petulant and angry but it isn’t Efron’s fault since the character is written that way. Quaid is remarkable and plays Henry as a father who unconditionally loves his son—even when he’s annoying the crap out of him and/or being insulted by him.

There is a major third act plot turn that feels desperate and contrived—it actually pulled me out of the film. But I appreciate the eventuality of the twist and what it says about today’s skewed notions of loyalty and morality in our current society in general and in our red states, in particular.




Lance Edmands’s
Bluebird
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Written by Lance Edmands

Starring: John Slattery, Amy Morton, Louisa Krause, Margo Martindale, Emily Meade, Adam Driver.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Lance Edmands’ feature debut, Bluebird, is a quiet, lyrical effort that sometimes suffers from being too quiet. Edmand’s does capture the bleak and cold mood of the small Maine logging town depicted in his film and he has assembled a gifted cast.

The plot centers on a terrible tragedy and who may have caused it. Lesley (Amy Morton) has been driving a school bus for a long time. She is married to a local logger (John Slattery). Their relationship is far from perfect. They have a teen daughter (Emily Meade) with her own angst issues.

At the end of one particularly freezing day, Lesley is inspecting her seemingly-empty bus when she is distracted by a bluebird that has oddly flown into the vehicle. Lesley watches the bird and then leaves the bus, forgetting to finish the task.

The next day she boards the bus only to find a young boy near frozen to death.

As it turns out the boy was supposed to have been picked up by his mess of a mother, Marla (Louisa Krause) on the one day of the week she actually cares for her son but Marla assumed her mother (the always good Margo Martindale) had the boy and was out drinking and cavorting instead.

The boy has fallen into a hypothermic coma and things aren’t looking hopeful.

Who is to blame for this tragedy? When Bluebird focuses on the toll this event takes on the lives of its fascinating characters the film is at it’s best.

Louise Krause is the standout performance in a cast of good, solid actors. Marla may not be the most likeable character but as played by Krause, she is most compelling—and Krause delves deep inside this damaged and disturbed gal.

Amy Morton, so good onstage in August: Osage County and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has the difficult role of playing a hard woman who has forgotten who she once was.

Mad Men’s John Slattery could make the phone book sound exciting so it’s no surprise he excels here as a man trapped in a lousy life.

The film reminded me of Atom Egoyan’s much more powerful film, The Sweet Hereafter.

Bluebird is a solid enough achievement but I wish Edmands had allowed for more actor time. While the setting is important to the story, it threatens to overwhelm it.

I was most taken by the disconnections of the characters. We aren’t given too much to go on in terms of backstories for Marla or Lesley but we don’t need too much. That ache that exists between family members and lovers where people just don’t know how to relate to each other—that’s what’s best about the film and the great work by the ladies.

The ending is infuriating. There were press/industry actually audibly shouting at the screen. I know I felt cheated. There’s pretentious and then there’s just wrong. After taking this soul-draining journey, the audience deserved some type of catharsis—even a horrific one would have been better than none at all. And while I appreciate Edmands’ not wanting to force anything, an organic ending could have and should have been achieved.

In the end, leaving things the way he does, took me out of the amazing world he and his cast so painstakingly created.




Chiemi Karasawa’s
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

A Documentary.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

When the subject of your documentary is as irreverent and iconic (and I use that word carefully, not haphazardly the way so may use it today) as 88-year-old Broadway legend (again, used deliberately but cautiously) Elaine Stritch and you have access to her every move for a year, how could you not make an absorbing and entertaining film? What’s surprising about Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is how revealing and disturbing it proves to be.

Filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa follows the incomparable doyenne around as she takes her show on the road one last time before she retires. We are privy to her strutting about the New York streets showing off her fabulous legs. We watch as she forgets lyrics, constantly. A telegram from Stephen Sondheim announces that he won’t be at her show tribute to him so she can “feel free to make up your own lyrics.” Funny, snippy Sondheim.

After being sober for 24 years, Stritch has decided she can handle one drink a day (a cosmo), even though she’s diabetic and it appears to really mess with her system. On one particularly harrowing night, Stritch suffers a diabetic attack and can no longer put words together—speaking only gibberish. It’s disturbing as hell to watch her struggle and the viewer feels like an intruder. Later, commenting on the scary situation, Stritch states defiantly that although she could not speak, “I’m perfectly savvy, I know exactly who I am.” This is not a celebrity grandstanding. This is a woman struggling to hold onto who she is.

Stritch spent six decades figuring out just that and continues to do so—she is an obvious work in progress. And she’s having a damn good time living her life. Still her lack of self-esteem tends to overshadow her confidence more often than not and we see that in how she still yearns for approval. Celebrated director Harold Prince mentions, “the convent school girl is there…always.”

If I have any complaint with Karasawa’s wonderful testament to this survivor it’s that more time should have been spent on her career journey. It’s an 80-minute film—another 20-30-minutes would have been welcome. Perhaps this will be rectified on the DVD.

We are given snippets of treasured moments from her brief film role in A Farewell to Arms with Rock Hudson to a revealing letter Woody Allen sent her before they began filming September (such a fascinating story to be explored there alone) to clips from D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking documentary Company: Original Cast Album (recut to make it seem that she was a perfectionist when the reality is that the powers-that-be, including Sondheim, tortured the poor woman into the wee hours of the night until she finally—the next day—nailed “The Ladies Who Lunch”).

We find out that in her early Broadway days she had the chutzpah to ask a young John F. Kennedy out and, after the second date when she refuses to sleep with him, he stopped calling.

On getting older: Stritch bellows: “Why not enjoy it because there’s not a goddam thing you can do about it!”

And when asked what she’d want on a desert island if she had to be there for the rest of her life, the immediate response: “A bar.”

Her good friend, Julie Keyes describes her as “a Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius.” True that!

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is a fitting, fascinating, agitating chronicle of one of most enduring talents of our time.




Craig Zisk’s
The English Teacher
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Screenplay by Dan Chariton, Stacy Chariton.

Starring: Julianne Moore, Michael Angarano, Greg Kinnear, Lily Collins, Jessica Hecht & Nathan Lane

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Julianne Moore is a curious creature. She likes to play in the deep end of the pool. And she isn’t afraid to give us a characterization with lots of flaws. So far this year she’s portrayed a self-involved, fading rock star bitch of a mother in What Maisie Knew and, in The English Teacher, breathes bizarre life into a repressed high school English teacher. Channeling both Jean Brodie and Katharine Hepburn at her spinster best in David Lean’s Summertime, Moore is such a presence and such a delight to watch that often she can make a person forget a film’s shortcomings. And, unfortunately, here there are quite a few here—which is a shame because the premise is so promising.

Moore is Linda Sinclair, a small town spinster schoolteacher in Pennsylvania who gets most of her passion from novels. In a hilarious scene involving pepper spray, she is reunited with a former pupil, Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano) who gave up on a playwriting career after graduating from NYU. Linda is horrified to hear this news and asks if she can read the one play he wrote. Deeply moved by the script, Linda shows it to flamboyant drama teacher, Carl (Nathan Lane) who proceeds to fall in love with it and decides to make it the next school play—although some changes need to be made to the ending.

From there we get oodles of sitcomy situations that involve potentially inappropriate sex, mayhem causing misunderstandings and more pepper spray as well as typical comedy characters like Jason’s misunderstood dad (Greg Kinnear), the play’s female lead who turns out to be a raging bitch (a devilish Lily Collins) and an annoying fat student who seems to be there simply to, well, be annoying…and fat.

There are some plot turns that are just downright dated and dumb like that same fat student happens to be hiding in the school parking lot and happens to video-record a conversation because it will cause a great plot reveal later. Please! Also unforgivable is the scripts incessant necessity to make fun of Linda’s age (she’s 45 for Christ’s sake—not 90!) and her stature as a teacher. Would filmmakers ever do this to a straight male teacher? I think not.

And it’s more than a bit disturbing that the manner in which Linda learns to loosen up comes with the lesson that it’s okay to compromise art. Shame on the screenwriters for putting out that Nazi notion.

Director Craig Zisk, who has many TV comedy credits, does his best with the sophomoric material.

Thank God for the cast, led by the vivacious Moore, who opts for dignity and grace.

Angarano does young-angst-ridden-playwright-horny-for-success-and-vagina very well. Watching him on the phone, getting great feedback on his work while fondling himself inside his underwear and then running those same fingers through the hair on his head is priceless and says more about Jason than anything the dialogue does.

Norbert Leo Butz and Jessica Hecht (so amazing in The Assembled Parties, currently on Broadway) bring a refreshing touch of odd to stock school principal and vice principal characters.

And Nathan Lane offers his over-the-top fabulousness to the role of neurotic director.




Tomasz Wasilewski’s
Floating Skyscrapers
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Screenplay by Tomasz Wasilewski.

Starring: Mateusz Ban asiuk, Bartosz Gelner, Marta Nieradkiewicz, Olga Frycz, Katarzyna Herman, Iza Kuna, Miroslaw Zbrojewicz

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Tomasz Wasilewski’s Floating Skyscrapers is a mesmerizing and significant film about connecting, understanding—about the perils of not being true to oneself and about the dangerously unenlightened world that sometimes surrounds us.

The film’s ending, while certainly forecasted, still hit me like a hard punch to the head--jarring me. But as I left the cinema, I also felt there was no other way to end this particular film.

Here in the US we are all too familiar with coming out stories that end tragically. Some might argue that we have evolved. I would beg to differ. This film is just as resonant here as in Poland and anyone who says differently live in their own bubble. Repression is not specific to Poland and other religiously brainwashed parts of the world but runs rampant in many parts of America.

The simple plot initially centers on Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk), who has spent the last fifteen years of his life training to be a champion swimmer. Kuba and his girlfriend, Sylwia (Marta Nieradkiewicz) live with his overbearing mother, Ewa (Katarzyna Herman), a woman who, while in the bath likes to have her back scrubbed by her son and kisses him inappropriately on the mouth. Kuba and Sylwia have a seemingly loving relationship and good sex. Not surprisingly, Ewa isn’t all that happy having Sylwia there.

One night Sylwia drags Kuba to a gallery opening where his life changes forever. He meets a beautiful (seriously beautiful) guy, Michal (Bartosz Geiner). Kuba begins hanging out with Michal and soon brings him along to events with Sylwia—creating quite the awkward atmosphere—the looks of scorn and contempt she shoots Michal are pretty hilarious and telling.

Midway, the film shares focus with Michal as he tells his family he’s gay. His father is accepting, mom not so much.

Kuba, meanwhile, has lost interest in training and begins thinking that, perhaps, he can actually be happy being himself and being with Michal—of course all that comes crashing down with an act three revelation as well as a horrific event.

Wasilewski chooses not to spend that much time exploring the relationship between the Kuba and Michal so when, late in the film they appear kissing and cavorting with one another it’s a bit jarring but I think it’s a deliberate comment on how relationships like theirs must flourish in the shadows and in small, cramped places because they’re not accepted by the mainstream.

What we do get is very real and captures that first love feeling perfectly--for a while nothing else matters to the boys but being with one another. If only…

Besides being a compelling storyteller, Wasilewski is a challenging and impressive helmer (this is only his second feature), detail-oriented and expert at creating an alienating mood—a world where capitulation and subjugation to accepted norms is imperative for survival.

Wasilewski isn’t afraid of nudity (there’s plenty) or honest sexual scenes. There’s an extended cunnilingus sequence that had to be, at least partially, real. The rimming scene with Michal, in contrast, is too brief–but one gets the feeling that had more to do with the actor playing Kuba.

Mateusz Banasiuk conveys the angst, confusion and awakening of Kuba masterfully and Bartosz Gelner gives us a sweet and loving young man who is willing to do what he must to be himself—and be with the guy he loves.

The portrayal of the mothers in the movie is quite interesting, showing how both these boys are mammas boys and the damaging and devastating effects a mother can have on her child. Ewa is a selfish bitch that has never bothered to get to know her son—she simply lives to dictate to him. Her reaction to his being with a guy is, “You can’t do this to me.” And Michal’s mother appears to be that disappointed “where did I go wrong” type constantly shooting him looks of disapproval and asking inappropriate questions about his using condoms. She’s the type that hopes her son’s “problem” is just a phase.

Wisilewski’s script is taut and his visuals are alienating and enticing—almost simultaneously. He, along with cameraman Jakub Kijowski, create a milieu specific to this ill-fated story of two people who want to love each other so desperately but are victims of those around them who would rather see them miserable than have to deal with a certain abomination.

Floating Skyscrapers (title explained late in the film) is, by far, one of the best films at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.




Darren Stein’s
G.B.F.
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Written by George Northy.

Starring: Michael J. Willett, Paul Iacono, Sasha Pieterse, Xosha Roquemore, Andrea Bowen, Megan Mullally, Jonathan Silverman, Rebecca Gayheart, Molly Tarlov, Taylor Frey and Natasha Lyonne.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

G.B.F. tries too hard to be cool and achieves a reductive effect.

Sure the film has pretty colors like Another Gay Movie and bitchy teens like Mean Girls, Clueless and Heathers--and cute closeted gay boys like…well name any coming out movie from Edge of Seventeen onward…what it doesn’t have is an original script.

I don’t mean to be mean and I really wanted to love this film but the formula, barely-amusing screenplay made it very difficult. So did the deliberately (I hope) over-the-top, cartoonish performances.

The basic plot has best gay (but not out) friends, subdued Tanner (Michael J. Willett) and campy Brent (Paul Iacono), debating coming out when the three most popular bitches in school decide they need a GBF (Gay Best Friend) to make them even more popular. Tanner is outed instead of Brent (kinda ridiculous to think anyone with the ability to see would think Brent is straight, btw…) and must cope with his newfound fabulousness. Oy.

Splashily directed by Jawbreaker’s Darren Stein, there are other good things to recommend beginning with a truly terrific performance by Sasha Pieterse who scratches beneath the surface of the one-dimensionally written Fawcett. Most of the scenes involving Willet and Pieterse are wonderful and have a sweet and loving feel to them—something the rest of the film mostly lacks. It’s a shame the film wasn’t about these two exclusively.

In addition, Megan Mullally is beyond splendid as Brent’s mom. And the scene where they watch Brokeback Mountain together proves just how good she can be. It also proves how weak the script is since the scene should have and could have been so much funnier.

Jonathan Silverman and Rebecca Gayheart shine in too-brief cameos, as does Natasha Lyonne.

Willett, so good on United States of Tara, is overly lackluster here. I get that he’s supposed to be the “normal” gay but he simply comes off as uninteresting—again, I blame the script.

Molly Tarlov and Derek Mio play two totally dull and inconsequential friends and give dull and inconsequential performances.

And on a strictly superficial note, Taylor Frey, is just stunning to look at. Can he act? Not sure. Possibly. Hopefully.

I appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to say about how gays should simply be accepted for who they are. I also like the idea that the film promotes diversity since blonde, white America has had enough power. I just wish the film matched its challenging ideas and didn’t wallow in the trivial.




Jane Weinstock’s
The Moment
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Screenplay by Gloria Norris & Jane Weinstock.

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Martin Henderson, Alia Shawkat, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Meat Loaf, Navid Negahban.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

How nice to see Jennifer Jason Leigh in a meaty lead role again. Back in the 90s she was one of the most promising actresses in film delivering astonishing performances in Last Exit to Brooklyn, Short Cuts, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Dolores Claiborne and Georgia. Strangely, she never received any Oscar recognition. Her kind of quirky extreme immersion into the role she played could be quite alienating (her turn in Robert Altman’s Kansas City is a good example), but, at least, she made distinct and beguiling choices.

In Jane Weinstock’s The Moment, Leigh is allowed to thesp-out again and she does so with full-on actor’s relish playing a war photojournalist who may or may not be crazy and may or may not be a murderess.

As the non-linear narrative unfolds, we learn that Lee (Leigh) was injured in a suicide bombing in Somalia and, while recuperating in a rehab facility meets John (Martin Henderson), whom she eventually has a stormy affair with. John disappears and Lee is convinced she has killed him. Now in a mental hospital, Lee becomes friendly with a fellow patient who looks exactly like John. Lee’s complicated relationship with her daughter (Alia Shawkat) adds to the intrigue.

Leigh keeps us interested at all times, even when the difficult and deliberately obfuscated narrative leaves us frustrated and confounded.

Henderson does a nice minor variation on Jekyll and Hyde while it’s wonderful to see Marianne Jean-Baptiste in a film again, even in the small role of Lee’s therapist.

Weinstock and co-screenwriter Gloria Norris should have made things just a bit clearer at the film’s end. Perhaps thirty more seconds of reveal. Instead, I walked away shrugging the film off and looking forward to my next screening--forgetting much of what I had just seen—except for the indelible impression Jennifer Jason Leigh made.




Mira Nair’s
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Screenplay by William Wheeler.
Screen Story by Ami Boghani & Mohsin Hamid (based on his novel)

Starring: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Unintentionally timely, Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist begins ambitiously and absorbingly enough but does not live up to its promise as it draws to a predictable and unsatisfying conclusion.

Director Mira Nair does her best to incite excitement even when the script works against her. She creates an interesting milieu (portraying Pakistan as a cultural mecca vs. the ruthlessness of NYC) for this tale of a man trying desperately to assimilate into a society that he soon realizes does not respect or want him.

I wish more time had been spent on the protagonist’s transformation instead of the ill-fated but benign romance with performance artist Erica (Kate Hudson, a good performance, an expendable role). Still, the film is worthwhile mostly because the lead actor, Riz Ahmed, is so riveting.

Having not read the novel (by Mohsin Hamid who gets co-screen story credit), I can only comment on the film which succeeds as a fascinating character study, but fails as a thriller. Had the film simply trusted the former more…

The story is told mostly in flashbacks. The framing device is an interview that American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) conducts with Changez Khan (Ahmed) after an American is kidnapped in Lahore, Pakistan. Changez was once a devoted Wall Streeter seeking that elusive but seductive American dream Gordon Gekko talked about in the Reagan Eighties.

Turns out that post-9/11, Changez was seen as the enemy almost everywhere he went, ultimately forcing him to reevaluate his path and alter his life—both geographically and philosophically.

“The ruthlessness of the attacks was only surpassed by its genius,” Changez provocatively comments about 9/11. And how bold would it have been to pursue this line of thinking. But Nair and her writers are more concerned with the Bond-esque yarn they are weaving, which is a shame. The film feels way too safe in this respect—one gets the feeling Tom Cruise could have played the journalist and with a few script alterations—presto Mission Impossible: Pakistani Protocol.

It doesn’t help that Schreiber’s character is so underdeveloped and cliché (in every way, even after the reveal) that it’s impossible to give a shit about him.

Which leaves Ahmed who keeps us engaged right up to the silly and compromised denouement. One could only wish the creators had the balls to make this reluctant fundamentalist much less reluctant. Then we would have had a much more relevant film.



Jonathan Gurfinkel’s
Six Acts
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Written by Rona Segal.

Starring: Sivan Levy, Eviatar Mor, Roy Nik, Niv Zilberberg.

In Hebrew with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Jonathan Gurfinkel’s unnerving new film, Six Acts, is a disturbing look into the world of the horny teenager and how sex can be used for power but lead to a downward spiral where the lines between consent and rape can blur.

Sixteen-year-old Gilly (Sivan Levy) pursues handsome Tomer (Roy Nik) who ends up getting a hand job from the girl. Tomer’s seemingly sweet friend, Omri (Eviatar Mor) then takes an interest in Gilly and, wanting to please him, she has sex with him in his pool. Soon Omri is procuring her for his friends, including a gross fat boy, Shabat (Niv Zilberberg), who borderline rapes her. The ultimate (well, almost) humiliation has Omri having Gilly come over to his home so she can do his 13-year-old brother.

Kudos to Gurfinkel and screenwriter Rona Segal for keeping so much ambiguous, showing how certain characters behave differently depending on who they’re with. Case in point: Omri. As played to queasy perfection by Mor, he can be charming and knows exactly the right compliments to spew to get Gilly to put out, but his horrifically misogynistic way of treating Gilly vs. the “nice” girl he is dating speaks volumes to the way affluent boys are raised to think about women. In the creepy but appropriate final moments, we learn just who has influenced Omri the most.

Gilly gives the impression that she never does anything she doesn’t want to do—that she is even taking advantage of those that are exploiting her. Is Gilly truly using these guys or allowing herself to be used? Is she delusional? Or just a typical teen girl who wants to fit in yet goes about it in the most misguided of ways?

Sivan Levy delivers a nicely paradoxical, sympathetic portrayal of a girl trying to figure out who she is but being distracted by a deep and damaging need to be accepted.

The title is a literal description of how the film is broken down. It can also be seen as descriptive of the six separate humiliations Gilly is forced to withstand. I was grateful it wasn’t titled Seven Acts.




Neil LaBute’s
Some Velvet Morning
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Screenplay by Neil LaBute.

Starring: Stanley Tucci & Alice Eve.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

There isn’t much that is seemingly cinematic about playwright/screenwriter Neil LaBute’s new film Some Velvet Morning, a two-character piece that takes place in one location and runs 90-minutes.

So why isn’t it a play instead? Probably because capturing the reactions of the actors, via close-up, was seen as a necessity to truly convey what LaBute was going for—that is until he upends everything with a twist that changes all the dynamics of the piece. Yes, this is the LaBute of Christmas past who enjoys flirting with his audience before he fucks them—and not always in the good way.

The claustrophobic feel, misogynistic lead male, precocious whore female, precious little character backstory and violent climax are all LaBute staples. Don’t get me wrong--I’m a fan. But something that veers away from his tried and true would be nice one day.

LaBute makes us uncomfortable from the get go when Velvet, a young gorgeous gal played by Alice Eve, apprehensively opens her door to Fred, embodied wholly and creepily by the great Stanley Tucci. The two haven’t seen each other for four years but Fred has decided to leave his wife and seems to expect Velvet to be delighted. She isn’t, which doesn’t make Fred too happy. We soon learn Velvet is a hooker of sorts who Fred met when his son introduced the two. A power play ensues between these two (of course) that boasts some clever LaBute lines (A particular reference to Lolita had me guffawing) but never truly enlightens us to who these two are (we learn why at the very end).

Some Velvet Morning is not a film that entertains as much as it provokes. The violent act I saw coming, the twist I should have but I didn’t. And therein lies the key problem with the film. In the end, it feels like a gimmick piece. You may want to go back and watch it a second time with the knowledge you now have but after that there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to revisit it—save for the performances that are both fantastic. Alice Eve, in particular, is mesmerizing—her face giving us more than she should—and thank God for it.




Clark Gregg’s
Trust Me
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Screenplay: Clark Gregg.

Starring: Clark Gregg, Saxon Sharbino, Amanda Peet, Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy, Allison Janney, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Molly Shannon, Paul Sparks.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Who does Clark Gregg think he is? Barbra Streisand?

Writing, directing, co-producing and starring in Trust Me, Gregg takes on a mammoth and, potentially ego-trippy (okay, that would be said if he were female) endeavor. And it only gets the best of him in the film’s finale. Up until those messy moments, Trust Me proves to be a gem—a riveting and insightful genre-blend--one of the best indie films I’ve seen in quite a while.

Howard Holloway (Gregg) is a former child star that never quite got his due. Now in his early fifties, he’s an agent for other child actors but, after a few too many blunders, not a very successful or respected one. His agent-nemesis, Aldo Stankis (Sam Rockwell having a blast playing a reprehensible scumbag) is always poised to steal any potential clients from him.

Through happenstance (and isn’t that all life is), Howard develops an instant rapport with Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), a fourteen-year-old natural on the verge of landing a major franchise contract. Lydia takes an instant liking to Howard and wants him repping her, much to the ire of her white trash, ill-tempered dad (an effective Paul Sparks). Howard has the potential to be back on top but soon realizes something odd is going on with Lydia and her dad.

Gregg’s screenplay is a smart, satiric, nasty look at Hollywood. It’s also hilarious, poignant and surprising throughout. He writes crisp, clever lines that actors have a field day with. As director, he strikes just the right balance between the lunacy of the film world (let’s face it, the industry is a satire unto itself) and the dignity of his characters. As lead actor, he sweetly underplays Howard’s desire to succeed versus his wanting to be a decent human being. And it all works so well…until that climax I keep mentioning…

Gregg brings together one of the best ensemble casts and allows them to do what they do best. Standouts include the always-underrated Amanda Peet as Howard’s love interest and Felicity Huffman as the deliciously evil queen bee producer.

He has also discovered an amazing new talent in Saxon Sharbino (what a name!). She’s precocious, ambitious, sweet, sexy, manipulative, damaged. Is she playing some game? How ravenous is her ambition? Is she just using Howard? Sharbino strikes all the right cords—keeping Lydia a mystery right until that whiplash ending. There I go again…

So let’s get to it…

Can a filmmaker ruin a film outright with a misguided ending? Gregg’s climax is certainly a bold choice that guarantees a divided audience and who cares about that if it’s faithful to the spirit and tone of the movie. But therein lies the problem. Tonally, the film is seemingly all over the map—to be specific he adopts a lighter, black-comedic tone in the first hour and shifts things quite dramatically with a very significant plot development. It’s a risk that pays off until he steers us off the cliff in the final few minutes. I was so immersed in the world he created and then felt like I was ejected right out of it.

Perhaps wearing so many hats, Gregg couldn’t see things clearly. The ending felt forced upon by the writer and not organic to the story he was telling. And it angered me. Mostly because, up to that point, I truly felt Trust Me had so much potential—deserving of awards consideration—deserving of discussion…well, that hasn’t changed...

There’s a true Heart of Darkness quality in Howard Holloway’s journey with some very strong Mama Rose shadings as well. It’s a masterblend of the allure and often-castrating inevitability of a rose-colored world that is actually dark and soul-destroying. It’s the aftermath of Day of the Locust. And I get where Gregg’s need to include redemption came from but it felt like Jesus was being tossed into a tale already overstuffed with metaphors and allusions.

But who knows. I might revisit the film in a few months or years and feel completely differently. That’s one of the joys of watching movies you love again—being in a different mindset each time you experience it. I may just understand and accept Gregg’s denouement. And I may even sprout wings…




Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’s
Whitewash
13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival
April 17 - April 28, 2013

Written by Marc Tulin and Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais.

Starring: Thomas Haden Church, Marc Labrèche.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Stark, strange and intriguing, Whitewash is Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’ first feature and will most certainly not be his last.

The film has two stars, Thomas Haden Church and snow.

Told in flashback, the movie opens with Church speed-driving a snowplow, during a blizzard, and running a man over. Did he know the man? Was it intentional? And why was the man not dressed properly for the harsh weather?

Set in Northern Quebec, Whitewash, is a fascinating character study. We don’t get too much backstory about Bruce (Church). All we know is that his wife died of cancer and he turned to the bottle for comfort. “Life can turn on a dime. One day you’re married and happy. The next day, you’re alone.” This is just one of the few voice over explanations we get from Bruce.

We do discover that Bruce saved the eventual victim (Marc Labreche) from a suicide attempt and allowed him to crash on his couch for a spell. And as we learn about Labreche’s character, we like him less and less. Still, dislike is no reason to kill a man, is it?

The film borrows elements from The Shining and Misery but then takes a bit of an Into The Wild detour. There isn’t a great deal of dialogue since so much of the film is simply Bruce doing his best to survive the elements.

The film is absorbing because Church is always interesting to watch. And when he isn’t, the snow is. Kudos to cinematographer Andre Turpin.

Hoss-Desmarais’s often has Church staring directly into the camera as his voice-over asks questions or makes defensive pronouncements (“I didn’t do anything wrong.”)—a very interesting choice that makes us feel like Bruce’s jurors. He can return home anytime (and does so once) but he would have to face his crime. He seems to want to live despite the fact that he is also self-destructive.

As serious as the film is, there are moments of the surreal that keep us engaged like a scene where he is peeping on a couple in a kitchen. The wife is dressed flimsily. Bruce begins to masturbate but a few seconds into it—simply gives up. He bored himself. But he never bores us.



 


 

 


 

 


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