RESURRECT DEAD — THE MYSYERY OF THE TOYNBEE TILES

One of most fascinating documentaries I’ve seen in a while, Jon Foy’s “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles” follows fringe artist Justin Duerr of Philadelphia on his admittedly obsessive quest.  Like a detective on the trail, Duerr spent years looking for the anonymous artist who was creating and burying these tiles into the pavement in various cities around the world. They contained cryptic messages and so the other inherent part of the puzzle was figuring out the meaning behind those messages.  It’s a riveting, dare I say spellbinding experience watching the film unfold.  Foy had been cleaning houses to raise money (and subside) while pursuing the making of “Resurrect Dead”.  It was a challenge which paid off.  Not only was it a hit at Sundance but Doug Block (“51 Birch Street”, “The Kids Grow Up”) signed up as Executive Producer, and then it was shown at the documentary series Stranger Than Fiction, which is how I came to see it.

The slideshow below includes both the post-screening Q&A at the IFC Center and an after-party in the West Village.

film review: THIS MOVIE IS BROKEN

Directed by Bruce McDonald
Written by Don McKellar
Cinematography by John Price
Edited by Matthew Hannam & Gareth C. Scales
Cast: Greg Calderone, Georgina Reilly & Kerr Hewitt

A hybrid of concert film and narrative film, Bruce McDonald’s “This Movie is Broken” does suffer a bit from that bifurcation but ultimately succeeds through sheer youthful enthusiasm.

The band Broken Social Scene (aka BSS), a Toronto-native musician collective, is the perfect choice for a concert film. Like their Montreal neighbors, Arcade Fire, BSS’s music is big and lush with somewhere between 15 and 20 band members.

That there are so many instruments being played at once can obscure the underlying simple melodies, something that makes the music ultimately accessible. While you may not necessarily remember all of the hooks, you’ll leave wanting to see them in a setting as inviting as Toronto’s Harbourfront Amphitheater.

The film’s narrative strain involves a handsome young man named Bruno (Greg Calderone) who, when the film begins, has finally consummated his long lasting crush on Caroline (Georgina Reilly). After a night of lovemaking on his rooftop, Bruno realizes that he is in love with Caroline. Caroline is steely determined to see through her plans to leave for Paris the following day despite Bruno’s earnest appeal for her heart.

That leaves them roughly 24 hours of time together. When the two venture out for breakfast, they run into Bruno’s pal Blake who mentions that BSS has a concert that very evening. After some bragging goes wrong, Bruno and Blake must now come up with back stage passes. A plan is set in motion to go the concert that night after the guys get off from work. Read more

film review: WHITE IRISH DRINKERS

Written & directed by John Gray
Produced by Gray, Melissa Jo Peltier, Paul Bernard & James Scura
Released by Screen Media Films
USA. 109 min. Rated R
With Nick Thurston, Geoff Wigdor, Stephen Lang, Peter Riegert & Karen Allen

Writer/director John Gray’s feature debut ultimately rises above its weaknesses because of the presence of newcomer Nick Thurston. The rest of the cast is made up of first-rate character actors, but, no matter, there’s no getting away from the fact that “White Irish Drinkers” would have been a stand-out had it not been laden with clichés. That problem falls on the back of Mr. Gray, whose background is in television. “White Irish Drinkers” doesn’t really rise above that smaller scale medium.

The story is set in 1970’s Brooklyn, and Brian Leary (Thurston), a sensitive artistic type and recent high school graduate, is trying to figure out what he’s going to do next with his life. He spends most of his time painting in the basement, out of harm’s way from his often drunk and angry father. When Brian’s not hiding out, he may often be found at the nearby movie palace, the Lafayette, where he works for the kindly Whitey (a dependably great Peter Riegert). The theater is in financial turmoil, so much so that Whitey borrows money from a loan shark named Jimmy Cheeks, a menacing Ken Jennings. Brian, clever lad that he is, convinces Whitey that he should put on live rock concerts as well. Before you know it, Whitey has tapped an old connection and landed the Rolling Stones, which would save the theater.

The rest of “White Irish Drinkers” follows another movie cliché: the troubled boy who makes it out of the neighborhood. Through the urging of one of his friends who is a college freshman, and a budding romance with a high school crush, Brian applies to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh on an art scholarship. Just in time, too, since a number of more violent and unlawful alternatives from all directions seem to be bearing down on him at once. (The film’s title comes from Brian’s pals, who refuse to smoke pot to get high. They adhere to a religious loyalty to the drink.) Read more

Top doc makers discuss ethics in Brooklyn panel

Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Wednesday, March 23, 2011

l to r: Filmmaker Marie Regan, Catfish producers Henry Joost & Ariel Shulman, and Producer Ginger Brown; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

Safe inside from the thundering hailstorm this past Wednesday night, a panel of documentary filmmakers gathered in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to discuss those ethical boundaries within which they must constantly navigate. The event, CROSSING THE LINE? A Conversation on Ethics and Documentary Film, hosted by The New York Film & Video Council comprised of Albert Maysles (“Grey Gardens“), Tia Lessin (“Trouble The Water“),  Stephanie Wang-Breal (“Wo Ai Ni/I Love You, Mommy“), Ariel Shulman and Henry Joost (“Catfish“), and was moderated by POV’s Yance Ford.

In addition to Ms. Ford’s thoughtful and provocative questions, audience members from the packed house were encouraged to participate as well. When do you turn the camera off? Do you ever pay a subject for participating in your documentary?  Is it ever appropriate to use a hidden camera?  Should hybrid films —a combination of the real and narrative— be categorized as legitimate documentaries? The answers were hardly predictable.  The consensus was that ethical decisions were generally personal decisions, often made on the fly and rarely cut and dry. With the recent surge of films like “Catfish”, “Exit Through The Gift Shop” and “I’m Still Here“, the issue of authenticity in documentaries has been a hot topic of late.  Scads of articles have been published on the subject, many proposing different solutions including some sort of code of ethics.  After each filmmaker shared specific examples of having wrestled with ethical dilemmas, in the end, the consensus among Wednesday evening’s panelists was that ethics had to be self-policed.

Doc Grand Daddy, Albert Maysles; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

To put some perspective on things, Maysles, considered the granddaddy of documentary makers, read out loud portions of the New York Times review from his 1970 seminal Rolling Stones concert film, “Gimme Shelter”, which included the spontaneous killing of an audience member by a Hells Angels security guard. Vincent Canby, then the Times movie reviewer, criticized the Maysles Brothers, Albert and David, for having exploited the moment by including it in their film.  A few years later, Walter Goodman, also writing for the Times, condemned “Grey Gardens” for exploiting its two subjects. Mr. Maysles, ably illustrated that the evening’s panel was discussing issues now that documentary makers been grappling with for decades. Read more

film review: LIMITLESS

Directed by Neil Burger
Written by Leslie Dixon
Cinematography by Jo Willems
Edited by Tracy Adams & Naomi Geraghty
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish, Johnny Whitworth, Anna Friel & Andrew Howard
Relativity Media. 2011. USA

If “Limitless” occasionally suffers from delusions of grandeur, it also has enough sense not to take itself too seriously. Like a hovercraft, the movie never touches down, instead it glides along nicely enough, providing a smooth and swift entertainment for its audience.

Bradley Cooper (“The Hangover”) plays Eddie Maura, a failed writer not prone to either shaving or tucking in his shirt. On his way home after being dumped by his fetching girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), Eddie runs into Vernon, his ex-wife’s shady brother (Johnny Whitworth).  A former drug dealer and who now supposedly works in sales for Big Pharma, Vernon wants to help Eddie get his life back on track and so convinces him to try NZT, a new drug that is about to hit the market.  For $800 a pop this drug allows its user to tap 100% of their brain. Even though the first pill was on the house, the cost is negligible considering it’s basically a ticket to fortune and power.  NZT allows your brain to access every bit of information to which it’s ever been exposed and can also soak up new information like a sponge. But like crack, NZT is also highly addictive and one needs to take it regularly in order to keep being so brilliant. And then there are those nasty side effects.

Through some convenient turn of events, Eddie comes into a mother lode of stashes.  This allows him to quickly toss off the book he owes his publisher as well as to enjoy other benefits of being the smartest man on Earth.  But being ramped up on NZT, the desire to keep moving forward is an insatiable one. With a cash infusion from an unsavory Russian lender (Andrew Howard) Eddie quickly makes his way to the top of the corporate food chain.  Once there he quickly gets an audience with financial tycoon, Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). Van Loon is on the cusp of setting up an enormous deal with another titan. The walls, however, are closing in on Eddie despite or because of his success—; the Russian wants his money back, a police detective is snooping around, and those are just the two he can identify. Read more

film review: WIN WIN

Written & directed by Tom McCarthy
Produced by Mary Jane Skalski, Michael London, Lisa Maria Falcone & McCarthy
Released by Fox Searchlight
USA. 106 min. Rated PG-13
With Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Alex Shaffer, Margo Martindale & David Thompson

Thomas McCarthy, a director of two prior inspired films, “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor”, has gone and added a rather predictable dramedy to his portfolio. “Win Win” starts off with a quirky acoustic guitar soundtrack accompanying Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) as he jogs down a sylvan path. A moment later, he’s brushed by two passing runners, who might have stepped out of a fitness catalog. Mike stops to catch his breath, then gives up, and walks back home. This opening sequence is full of so much promise; there’s a familiar lived-in quality to it. But sadly, regardless of how likable Giamatti’s salt of the earth schlemiel might be, the character never quite adds up to much more than a composite of what we’ve already seen in far better movies like “Sideways” and “American Splendor”, to name just two.

Mike, it turns out, is a real family man, with two daughters and a pretty wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan). As an attorney, he scrapes by taking on elderly clients. He’s also the head coach for the local high school’s losing wrestling team. But drowning in debt, Jack makes an ethically dubious decision, rather than confide in his strong-minded wife. This is a problem with the story and effectively reduces Ryan’s role in the process. Nevertheless, she delivers a deft performance though she has less to do here than in “Jack Goes Boating” and “The Office”. The good news is that Giamatti and Ryan make a credible pair.

Burt Young plays Leo, an elderly client going senile who ends up as Mike’s legal ward. This is where Mike’s ethics become sticky. When he can’t locate Leo’s troubled daughter, Mike accepts a monthly stipend and puts Leo in a nearby nursing home, facts he keeps from Jackie. Shortly after this occurs, Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), shows at his granddad’s doorstep. Mike and Jackie open their home to the bleached-blond, rebellious boy, who has nowhere else to stay. And in a happy coincidence, it turns out that Kyle is an especially talented wrestler. You can probably see where most of this is headed. Even when the bad mom shows up, the script never really goes that deep or that far. And by the time she does, about half way into the story, Kyle has softened to the Flaherty clan, indeed, becoming one of the family. Read more

film review: WRECKED

What is it about “Wrecked” that pulls you in? It doesn’t necessarily distinguish itself in any particular way. In fact, it might remind of you of several other films, two that are currently in theaters.

One is “Unknown”. That movie, starring Liam Neeson, also includes a leading character in a car crash and who loses his memory. The second is Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” starring the Academy Award announcer James Franco. In that latter film, the hero Aron Ralston, spends the majority of the film pinned between a rock and a hard place.

In “Wrecked”, Adrian Brody portrays a character credited as “The Man” who suffers a similar fate to Ralston for a good portion of time. In the case of “Wrecked”, our hero has the additional burden of amnesia. Once dislodged from the auto wreck in which he has been trapped for the first 20 minutes or so of the film, he spends the balance trying to figure out how he got to the bottom of the ravine and how the heck to crawl out.

It’s a fun predicament to watch, much like those scenes in “Cast Away” just after Tom Hanks has become shipwrecked. Like the above referenced movies, this is a story of a man’s journey out of Hell. Isolation is not just punishment, but a kind of catharsis for these men. Though in the case of “Wrecked”, The Man can’t even remember how he screwed things up so bad. Through the course of the film, as he attempts to crawl his way back to civilization, the pieces slowly begin to fit together again.

Those clues don’t exactly add up to much good news. When he finally gets the car radio working news of bank robbers on the lam paint a very ugly picture. The dead body in the backseat with the gun doesn’t bode much better. And then there’s the spectral figure, clearly a figment of The Man’s imagination, which keeps returning to the scene of the accident to try and give him help.

Lastly, there is a very real companion in the form of a lost dog which ends up helping him keep some semblance of sanity and determination to survive. You might say that he plays a similar role that the volleyball, Wilson, played for Hanks’ Chuck Noland.

What “Wrecked” does have going for it is a solid performance by its star, Adrian Brody, an actor who may certainly claim official leading man status. After performances in “The Pianist”, “The Darjeeling Limited” and “Cadillac Records”, there’s no doubt that Brody can carry a movie.

In “Wrecked” he is in every frame of the movie and deftly delivers a performance expected of a star. There’s not much by way of subtext in this movie, directed by Michael Greenspan, but it’s an entertaining suspense piece, similar perhaps to something Bogart might have starred in seventy years ago.

film review: BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK

Directed by Richard Press
Produced by Philip Gefter
Released by Zeitgeist Films
USA. 84 min. Not Rated

Bicycling around Manhattan on his 29th Schwinn—the first 28 were stolen—photographer Bill Cunningham is constantly on the look out for the latest fashion trends. He shrewdly realized some time in the early ’80s that the answer is often at street level and not necessarily on the runways. While he still makes it to Fashion Week in Paris, he’s most excited when shooting on the sidewalks of midtown. Many of those photos have been filling the pages of The New York Times these past few decades. Before that, Cunningham shot for Details magazine and Women’s Wear Daily. Each chapter in his career is so lovingly related here that they are worthy of their own documentaries.

An enigmatic but thoroughly New York figure, Cunningham should not be confused with a society page photographer, although he does shoot high society doyennes. The point is that he is more interested in how women look in clothing, and he draws absolutely no distinction between classes. Cunningham himself is decidedly unfashionable in his non-descript blue smocks. The abundance of pockets allows him to carry his many spools of film. Yet he lives and breathes for fashion, something he strongly believes is a result of imagination and the courage of individuality. As Cunningham points out, since the fashion district has disappeared along with all the jobbers and other characters, we’ve become a society that dresses the same in our mass manufactured made-in-China wardrobes. Standing on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, Cunningham performs what may best be described as a dance, shooting one passer by’s shoes and another’s jacket.

Interviews here include such luminaries as Anna Wintour, herself the subject of a recent successful documentary (“The September Issue”), Annette de la Renta, author Tom Wolfe and others. Cunningham knows everyone in the fashion circuit, and is a beloved figure at The Times. He has a smile and hug for practically everyone and refers to many as “child,” not unusual for someone who has been around as long as he has. What director Richard Press makes pitch perfectly clear is that the 82-year-old Cunningham has dedicated his entire life to his work, leaving time for little else, including meals, hobbies, or relationships for that matter. Read more

film review: BROTHERHOOD

Written and directed by Will Canon
Cinematography by Michael Fimognari
Edited by Josh Schaeffer
Cast: Trevor Morgan, Jon Foster, Lou Taylor Pucci, Arlen Escarpeta, Jesse Staccato

“Brotherhood” is an exhilarating and thoroughly enjoyable roller coaster ride.

Concerned with a fraternity hazing stunt gone horribly awry, the movie doesn’t necessarily bring anything much new to the action suspense genre – it’s truthfully quite conventional — but through its fine editing (John Schaeffer) and strong direction (Will Cannon) the pacing (fast & furious) does not let you down. There are any number of completely implausible events that occur over the course of its economically 76 minute running time but you can not fault it for lacking entertainment value.

The cast of “Brotherhood”, like so many indie low budget movies in its ilk, is cast with mostly twenty-something vaguely recognizable faces. Mostly TV or former child actors, the cast includes Trevor Morgan (“Jurassic Park III”, “The Glass House”), Jon Foster (“Life as We Know It”, “Windfall”) and Lou Taylor Pucci (“Thumbsucker”, “The Chumscrubber”). As competent, though mostly one-note, as the actors’ performances are in “Brotherhood”, performances are really beside the point. The movie is not character driven and the actors are mostly there to serve the plot.

Without giving away specific plot points, it’s a case where the problems pile up over the course of the movie; just when you think the guys have gotten out of one fix, two more problems are thrown their way.

There are a couple of incidents that in any other movie would be unforgivable: one concerns a local cop who stumbles into the misadventure but agrees albeit reluctantly to not report what he has seen. The idea that he would imperil both his career and his personal life seem highly unlikely. The other issue has to do with a witness, an overweight girl, who conveniently keeps mum. She too ends up just providing the script with an excuse to get rid of one of the fraternity brothers for most of the ensuing evening. But in a movie as garishly cartoonish as this one —call it a poor man’s “The Hangover”— it’s silly to perform forensics on its details. In this movie, God is in the broad strokes.

film review: RUBBER

Written & directed by Quentin Dupieux
Cinematography &  editing by Quentin Dupieux
Cast: Stephen Spinella, Jack Plotnick & Wings Hauser

A small-town police lieutenant (Stephen Spinella) climbs out of the trunk of a car and addresses the camera about the arbitrariness of various popular film plots from the past. He looks straight into the camera and repeats the phrase “no reason”. This might be musician-turned-director Quentin Dupieux’s way of warning us not to rely too much our rationale for the next 85 minutes.

Meanwhile, a group of folks who looked like they just stepped out of a voir-dire session for jury duty set up camp on the edge of the desert. Their common aim is to observe the goings on of a rubber tire that has come to life in the form of a serial killer. They train their binoculars into the distance and perhaps wonder, much like those who are watching this French produced but English language comedy horror film, “Rubber”, just what they are doing.

The titular rubber tire, whose name is Robert, rolls down a two-lane blacktop somewhere in the American Southwest desert in search of something, its raison-d’être perhaps?

Robert has taken on some human qualities and appears to be on a mission. He dispenses with anyone who gets in his way. Why his victims include a crow and an innocent bunny rabbit is anyone’s guess?

His method is to come to a standstill, focus his mental powers on someone, shake furiously, and then zappo! The results are something out of the George Romero handbook. This is no surprise, as clearly Dupieux is gently mocking the horror genre and where else does one go but to the original master? Read more