Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On the road

Just a quick note to let you all know that I'm at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival. My intention was to file daily updates about the festival, but what is it they say about best laid plans? Mine have had holes shot in them.

First and foremost is the lack of free wi-fi internet access at my hotel. I knew that was the case and figured I might pay for it one or two nights, which is why I'm able to post this. (I won't pay for it each night I'm here, a cost that would surpass my monthly Road Runner subscription.) I thought I caught a break when I spotted a Panera Bread near the hotel, but while in the restaurant the computer wasn't able to locate their network. As it turns out, they're having trouble with their server.

The other issue is that there are only so many hours in the day, not enough of which can be spent writing (or to writing anything worthwhile). We'll see how things go, and maybe I'll get a post or two up before leaving town. Full daily reports will be forthcoming, just not quite in the manner in which I wanted to file them.

Friday, April 21, 2006

2nd annual Deep Focus Film Festival lineup

As you know, I help with the programming for the Deep Focus Film Festival. Here's the press release with the details of this year's event:

It's Here!!

Organizers of the second annual alive! Deep Focus Film Festival, Columbus’ own festival of the best new films made outside the Hollywood mainstream, announced the complete schedule of features to premiere locally during the event. It’s set to begin Thursday, May 4, continuing through Sunday, May 7, with all screenings to take place at the Arena Grand Theatre.

Alive! assistant editor Melissa Starker, Drexel Theatres president Jeff Frank, and Mark Pfeiffer, a film critic for Otterbein College’s WOCC-TV, contributor to The Film Journal and member of the Online Film Critics Society, contributed to the festival’s programming:

Opening Night Gala
SCR/DIR: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, Emilie de Ravin, Richard Roundtree
U.S., 35mm, 110 minutes
A Focus Features release
Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for “originality of vision”, Rian Johnson’s feature film debut moves the lingo and plot twists of classic detective films to a modern California high school.
Screening Thursday, May 4 at 7 p.m., followed by an after-party at Red Star Tavern.

20 Centimeters
SCR/DIR: Ramón Salazar
Cast: Monica Cervera, Pablo Puyol, Miguel O’Dogherty, Rossy de Palma
Spain, 35mm, 113 minutes, not rated (adult language, nudity, graphic sexuality)
A TLA release
A colorful blend of the glamour of classic Hollywood and the gritty, gender-bending humor of early John Waters, this Spanish fantasy musical centers on a narcoleptic transsexual prostitute torn between a dreamy man and her dreams of becoming a woman. For adults only.
Screening Saturday, May 6 at 7:45; Sunday, May 7 at 2:15.

The District!
Midwest Premiere!
SCR: Márisuz Bari, Viktor Nagy, Erik Novák, László Jakab Orsós
DIR: Áron Gauder
Cast: L.L. Junior, László Szacsvay, Gyözö Szabó
Hungary, DVD, 87 minutes, not rated (adult language, violence, sexual content)
A Szimpla Film
An eye-popping animated entry from Hungary, this hilarious, raunchy satire about time travel, big oil and the real whereabouts of Osama bin Laden is most easily described as Eastern Europe’s answer to South Park - but with a hip hop soundtrack.
Screening Saturday, May 6 at 9:45.

District B13
Ohio Premiere!
SCR: Luc Besson, Bibi Naceri
DIR: Pierre Morel
Cast: Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Tony D’Amario, Dany Verissimo
France, 35mm, 85 minutes, rated R for language, violence, adult content
A Magnolia Pictures release
In the near future of this action-packed French drama, a crime-ridden section of Paris has become a walled-in prison. A cop and a vigilante team up to take down the local crime lord and stop a ticking neutron bomb from exploding.
Screening Friday, May 5 at 10 p.m.; Saturday, May 6 at 5 p.m.

The King
SCR: Milo Addica, James Marsh
DIR: James Marsh
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, William Hurt, Pell James, Laura Harring
U.S., 35mm, 105 minutes, not rated (violence, nudity, adult content)
A ThinkFilm release
Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt star in this intense Southern gothic thriller about a preacher whose past comes back to bite him in the form of a son he never knew he had.
Screening Saturday, May 6 at 10 p.m.; Sunday, May 7 at 4:30

LoudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies
Midwest Premiere!
DIRS: Steven Cantor, Matthew Galkin
U.S., DV, 90 minutes, not rated (adult language)
A Stick Figure production
Two filmmakers capture the extraordinary music and uncomfortable dynamic between members of The Pixies during the band’s sold out 2004 reunion tour.
Screening Saturday, May 6 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 7 at 2 p.m.

The Puffy Chair
Ohio Premiere!
SCR: Mark Duplass
DIR: Jay Duplass
U.S., 35mm, 85 minutes, not rated (adult language and situations)
An IDP/Roadside Attractions release
A favorite on the festival circuit, this funny, endearing slice of life tracks one man’s quest to get his father a vintage La-Z-Boy for his birthday. It’s part romantic comedy and part road movie, but casually defies the clichés of both genres.
Screening Friday, May 5 at 9:30.

Twelve and Holding
Midwest Premiere!
SCR: Anthony S. Cipriano
DIR: Michael Cuesta
Cast: Conor Donovan, Jesse Camacho, Zoe Weizenbaum, Annabella Sciorra
U.S., 35mm, 90 minutes, not rated (adult language and content, violence)
An IFC release
In this touching comedy-drama by director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E., Six Feet Under), three kids deal with newfound adult feelings and parental conflict after the accidental death of a friend.
Screening Friday, May 5 at 7:15; Sunday, May 7 at 5 p.m.

Ohio Premiere!
SCR/DIR: Richard E. Grant
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Julie Walters
UK/France/South Africa, 35mm, 97 minutes, rated R for language, brief sexuality
An IDP/Roadside Attractions release
Richard E. Grant’s smart, semi-autobiographical tale of growing up among adulterous colonials in pre-independent Swaziland features an extraordinary cast, including Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson.
Screening Saturday, May 6 at 5:30

Ohio Premiere!
SCR/DIR: Deepa Mehta
Cast: Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas, Sarala, Manorama
Canada, 35mm, 114 minutes, not rated (adult language, some vulgarity)
A Fox Searchlight release
The third film in Deepa Mehta’s Elemental Trilogy, this ultimately uplifting drama details the lives of a group of widows in India in the 1930s. Cast out of society and locked away for life in an ashram, the most beautiful among them, Ray’s Kalyani, and the youngest, a spirited eight-year-old girl, dream of the world beyond their confinement.
Screening Friday, May 5 at 7:30.

Closing Night selection
American Blackout
DIR: Ian Inaba
U.S., DV, 86 minutes, not rated (adult language)
A Guerilla News Network production
Inaba’s fascinating documentary, an award winner at the Sundance and Cleveland Film Festivals, returns to the sites of recent instances of voter disenfranchisement in American politics, including Franklin County, Ohio during the 2004 election.
Screening Sunday, May 7 at 7 p.m., introduced by director Ian Inaba.

Information on short films to be presented before select features will be announced in the coming days.

Tickets to the 2006 Alive Deep Focus Film Festival go on sale Monday, April 24 at the Arena Grand box office, online at, and by phone at (614) 222-0947. Admission to the opening night gala, which includes the after-party, is $15 general admission. All other screenings are $10 for adults and $8 for students with valid ID.

The festival is supported by the Arena District, CD 101, Fifth Third Bank, Movie Media, Orange Barrel Media, Raising Canes, Scion and WOSU.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


SLITHER (James Gunn, 2006)

In SLITHER a meteorite lands unseen in a sleepy small town where the police have little better to do than point the radar gun at a whippoorwill to time how fast it flies. Resident Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) comes across it and has a creature from it penetrate his body. Over a period of days he transforms into a squid-like monster with the sole purpose of changing everyone else into outer space creatures. Grant's wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) doesn't notice any changes in him at first, but when he mutates into a grotesque, tentacled being, she understands that her husband isn't the man she once knew despite his proclamations of marital affection.

Inspired by 50s invasion B-movies and Troma films, SLITHER elicits a fine balance of laughs and armrest-grabbing moments. Writer-director James Gunn aims to disgust and scare, but SLITHER is also very much tongue-in-cheek. Underscoring the humorous nature of the film is FIREFLY and SERENITY star Nathan Fillion as the town sheriff Bill Pardy. Fillion plays the part with a knowing wink. He’s at his finest when the sheriff encounters something he can’t believe he’s seeing or has his best laid plans dashed.

SLITHER utilizes the sick jokes to break the tension. A slug stalks a victim in a bathroom scene that perfectly encapsulates the side-by-side humor and horror. If David Cronenberg’s films haven’t provided enough material for an academic paper about horror movies and body fear, SLITHER’S contribution should make up for the deficit. Gunn, who wrote the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, knows how to frighten an audience. With SLITHER he demonstrates that he can make us laugh at the same time.

Grade: B-

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Benchwarmers

THE BENCHWARMERS (Dennis Dugan, 2006)

In THE BENCHWARMERS a trio of adult misfits stand up for those kids riding the pine or not even allowed on a baseball team. Gus (Rob Schneider), Richie (David Spade), and Clark (Jon Heder) won’t be mistaken for Murderers’ Row. Only Gus has any skill, but his ability to clobber home runs and strike out his pint-sized opponents is enough to carry the team to a win in a schoolyard challenge.

Nerdy millionaire Mel (Jon Lovitz), the father of a child picked on by the junior jocks, finds out about Gus, Richie, and Clark beating the Little Leaguers and decides to put on a tournament. To entice participation in the competition Mel offers a majestic baseball stadium as the prize, but his motivation is for the Benchwarmers to show up the bullying athletes and their obnoxious parents.

Through his own films and those from his production company, Adam Sandler has assembled an unofficial repertory company that makes movies about freakish, innocent man-children. These arrested development comedies are often as lowbrow as possible, trafficking primarily in the eternal adolescent male amusement with bodily excretions.

In that way, THE BENCHWARMERS is no different than other Happy Madison productions like GRANDMA’S BOY and the DEUCE BIGALOW films or the Sandler movies BILLY MADISON and BIG DADDY. In spite of the film’s juvenile mindset and gross-out gags, THE BENCHWARMERS looks practically mature next to those other movies. Schneider’s Gus is about as normal of a character these films has ever seen. That helps balance the lunacy that brothers Richie, Clark, and agoraphobic Howie (co-screenwriter Nick Swardson) bring.

The screenplay has just the sketch of an idea for a movie, and the jokes seem pretty dire. That THE BENCHWARMERS produces laughs semi-regularly should be credited to the actors. There’s nothing subtle about what Schneider, Spade, and Heder are doing in their performances, but they play immaturity in all its amusing awkwardness rather than the cuddliness Sandler tries to bring to his characters. Lovitz, whose eccentric character looks ordinary by the film's standard, steals practically each of his scenes.

THE BENCHWARMERS is funnier than it probably had any right to be, but the tedious repetition of the tournament games strands the film on second rather than bringing it in to score.

Grade: C+

Friday, April 14, 2006

Thank You for Smoking

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (Jason Reitman, 2005)

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING'S All-American, strong-jawed Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) speaks on behalf of cigarette manufacturers as though his employer were selling the most innocuous product available. The tobacco lobbyist is good at his job and relishes a challenge. He gets one when Vermont Senator Ortolan K. Finistirre (William H. Macy) pushes to have packs of smokes labeled as poison.

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING skewers the prevailing political notion that two truths exist rather than a right answer and a wrong answer. Throw enough money into a think tank and present statistics in the most advantageous light and you can prove whatever you like, even that the earth is flat. Jason Reitman’s satire, adapted from Christopher Buckley’s novel, takes aim at the whole system, not just a blame-dodging Big Tobacco. One side may be more correct, but Reitman exposes lobbyists, politicians, and victims as opportunists looking to parlay their worldview into economic gain.

It goes without saying that what Nick does is morally questionable at best even if the tobacco corporations need representation. As he first demonstrated in Neil LaBute’s IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, Eckhart’s good looks and persuasive manner mask his character’s devilish agenda. In this case, it’s to make scientific truth relative instead of absolute. Bolstered by outrageous humor, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING grazes the main players and bystanders discussing national welfare from their own self-interest.

Grade: B-

Take the Lead

TAKE THE LEAD (Liz Friedlander, 2006)

Following in the footsteps of cinema's passionate and unconventional educators, Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) tries to straighten out the lives of some problem teens in TAKE THE LEAD. Contrary to the mostly defeated staff of a New York public high school, Pierre believes that the troublesome students can be reformed if he can impart self-respect and discipline to them.

Pierre is a ballroom dance instructor, not a high school teacher, but out of concern for the students he volunteers to watch over detention if he is permitted to teach the foxtrot and other traditional steps. The principal (Alfre Woodard) is desperate for someone to supervise the kids, so if Pierre will do it for free, she’s not about to refuse help. Pierre’s pupils bristle at being taught dances that have no resemblance to their hip-hop moves, but slowly he wins over some of them. He intends to cap their learning by entering them into a dance competition.

TAKE THE LEAD is based on Dulaine’s true story and the Dancing Classrooms program he initiated in New York public schools. Per any film with its origin in a true story, the facts have been altered. The real Dulaine worked with fifth-graders rather than high schoolers, a change that allows the film more dramatic opportunities and conveniences.

TAKE THE LEAD’S climactic competition scene is wholly ludicrous but energetic and entertaining nonetheless. TAKE THE LEAD succeeds because Banderas makes a compelling central figure. He has an unspoken toughness that makes it believable he could confront these teenagers and get them to listen without being laughed out of the room or worse. His generosity and genuine interest in giving the troubled students respect for themselves and others comes through in how he carries himself more than what he tells them. TAKE THE LEAD hints that Pierre has had a rough past, but the mystery surrounding him is barely breached, which makes his secretive history seem like the byproduct of lazy screenwriting.

This conventional cross of DANGEROUS MINDS and MAD HOT BALLROOM can be beholden to the inspiring teacher movie formula, but Banderas’ quiet grace keeps the film from pushing the motivational message too insistently.

Grade: B-

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Inside Man

INSIDE MAN (Spike Lee, 2006)

In INSIDE MAN, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) plans what he believes to be the perfect heist. He and three partners take control of a Manhattan bank and the forty or so hostages therein. Mediating the situation is Dalton’s counterpart, Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington. Complicating the standoff is Madeline White (Jodie Foster). She’s a power player representing the interests of the bank’s chairman of the board of directors. Madeline has no authority but is well connected enough to try to cut a deal with Dalton that will help him and her client regardless of if it interferes with the police department’s aims.

With INSIDE MAN director Spike Lee takes a break from social commentaries to put forward a highly entertaining and unexpectedly funny genre film. It’s the most commercial movie he’s made, but the accessibility isn’t a negative. Rather, having a skilled director helm a standard thriller livens up what might have otherwise been an unremarkable heist film.

First time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz stays a couple steps ahead of the audience and keeps plenty of surprises and twists in reserve. There are some potential plot holes and narrative conveniences that might have been more problematic had INSIDE MAN slowed to consider all of the pieces. Those concerns get lost in the shuffle of the intriguing chess match played among multiple characters. Washington, Foster, and Owen don’t get their acting muscles strenuously worked out, but it’s a pleasure to see them and an excellent supporting cast elevate the material.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

She's the Man

SHE’S THE MAN (Andy Fickman, 2006)

If Shakespeare were a middling modern day screenwriter asked to pen a tween gender switch comedy, the result might be SHE'S THE MAN, sort of JUST ONE OF THE GUYS via the Bard. Like 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU, one of Shakespeare's play serves as the basis for a high school romantic comedy. SHE’S THE MAN retains the character names and scenarios from TWELFTH NIGHT and updates it for a generation weaned on MTV.

With her high school girls’ soccer team eliminated and a spot on the boys’ team unavailable to her, Viola (Amanda Bynes) is seemingly out of options to play the game she loves. When her brother Sebastian (James Kirk) asks that she cover for him while he sneaks away to London for a couple weeks, Viola takes the opportunity to pose as him and earn a spot on his prep school’s team. Things get complicated when Viola falls for her roommate Duke (Channing Tatum), who is interested in Olivia (Laura Ramsey), who has a crush on Viola as Sebastian.

At no point is Bynes convincing as a boy, which is where some of the comedy lies. For instance, with the help of friends she convinces her soccer teammates that her gawky alter ego is a stud. SHE’S THE MAN becomes preoccupied with whether Viola’s secret will be revealed, leading to one exhausting sequence after another in which either she momentarily "forgets" she’s Sebastian or must be in the same place as herself and her brother.

David Cross and Vinnie Jones add some laughs as the school’s principal and soccer coach. In general, SHE’S THE MAN is cleverer than the average teen movie, but it gets so wrapped up in plot mechanics that it loses the characters.

Grade: C

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY (Michael Winterbottom, 2005)

Laurence Sterne’s 18th century novel THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF TRISTRAM SHANDY, GENTLEMAN has been considered impossible to adapt into a film. This belief is even acknowledged in director Michael Winterbottom’s TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY, his and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce’s adaptation of the supposedly unfilmable.

Steve Coogan stars as Tristram, but who and what the character is matters not a whit. In actuality Coogan's playing himself. The film quickly abandons a literal adaptation in favor of capturing the spirit of the book through documenting the invented behind-the-scenes activity on the disorganized production.

TRISTRAM SHANDY gives every indication that Sterne’s novel is a postmodern work. Winterbottom does an excellent job taking what is in essence a plotless film circling around itself and turning it into one of the funniest movies of the year. The versatile director playfully experiments in the making of this period piece.

TRISTRAM SHANDY parallels the Ricky Gervais series EXTRAS, although the film provides a comprehensive view of film production whereas the TV show concentrates on background artists. The backbiting, fraternizing, and rampant insecurity among the cast and crew are an easier hook into the film, but what Winterbottom has done beautifully is distill Sterne's comic experimentation with the rules and shape of the written narrative and translate it into a lark on filmmaking form and technique.

While the film has a book as its source, a better title might be STEVE COOGAN: A COCK AND BULL STORY. The British comedian fools around with and deconstructs his image. Coogan plays himself as an insecure nitwit to hilarious effect. He frets that a co-star’s shoes make him taller than him and suffers the indignity of playing Tristram as a baby in his mother’s womb. Coogan played with the blurry line of who he is and his screen identity in Jim Jarmusch’s COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, but in TRISTRAM SHANDY he takes it to another level.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Why We Fight

WHY WE FIGHT (Eugene Jarecki, 2005)

The documentary WHY WE FIGHT examines the growth of the military-industrial complex and the reasons America goes to war. Director Eugene Jarecki posits that the two are deeply connected. Protecting freedom and stopping terrorism might be why the average citizen believes the country fights, but the film suggests that political and corporate interests are at the heart of the nation’s post World War II warmongering.

In today’s divisive political climate, WHY WE FIGHT is unlikely to persuade those who don’t already share the film’s skepticism regarding the current administration and their motives with the war in Iraq. Nevertheless, Jarecki attempts to mitigate partisan rhetoric by founding his argument on President Eisenhower’s warning of the mushrooming relationship between the military and defense contractors. Since then political ideologues have been added into the mix. In Jarecki’s view, this has created a dangerous situation in which national security and the welfare of soldiers is secondary to special interests and corporate profits.

While WHY WE FIGHT comes across as strongly researched and well reasoned, it can be a slog through information that has been in the public sphere for some time. WHY WE FIGHT premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005 and bowed on television in the UK a year ago. It would have felt more vital twelve months ago than it does now. Jarecki raises important questions about war, empire building, and the people working toward those goals, but in this rapid media age, it feels like old news.

Grade: C