Mon, May 23, 2005
Jacksonville Film Festival
As luck – and three years of pleading by my mother – would have it, my summer trip home this year coincided with the Jacksonville Film Festival. Since Daddy's got connections, baby, we scored some VIP all access passes, and I managed to sample a healthy cross-section of the offerings.
We arrived after this charming, simple short had already started (traffic!), but managed to catch up pretty quickly. It stars Pat Finn (TV guest star extraordinaire, notably as Molly's boyfriend on Ed) as the leader of a Boy Scout troop taking its annual camping retreat in the woods. They run into strange circumstances along the way, which put a new twist on the tradition of telling scary stories around the campfire. It has a nicely polished look and excellent timing and delivery, particularly from Finn as the fidgety troop master.
Completed at the FSU film school, Moondance is a hybrid of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale and Kill Bill – and manages to be more entertaining than either. The film returns to the woods ten years after the Big Bad Wolf kills Red's grandmother, when his reign of terror has forced all the other fairy tale characters to join his menacing army and reduced poor Mother Goose to a semi-catatonic state, mourning her friends and lamenting the fate of the woods in rhyming couplets. Red decides to take back the woods, engaging in bloody combat with such foes the Three Little Pigs and Hansel & Gretel (devilish siblings who finish each other's menacing sentences). The tone is copied wholesale from Tarantino, but the writing is smart and creative, and the camera work and sets are impressively ambitious. Moondance shows its film school roots here and there, but overall it succeeds admirably in matching the slasher tone without losing pace.
Elephant Palm Tree
A married couple bicker amongst themselves about their relationship and their history. The wife has a dream which compels her to confront the husband about his extramarital affair, but she can't muster the will to leave him. Impressive performances, but ultimately a dour, trite story.
I had heard that audiences adored this short film, profiling Canadian animator Ryan Larkin, and that it was an impressive mix of live action and animation. It won last year's Animated Short Oscar. But I had no idea how elaborate it would be, overlapping surreal computer-generated characters – which rival any of Dalí's output – on top of interview footage between director Chris Landreth and his subject. It's a fascinating exploration of the creative mind and the pressures that come with critical success, and it manages to wordlessly teach us a great deal about animation along the way. I'm not sure if it's a blend of live action and animation, or if some of the animation, particularly in the faces, is so detailed that it seems like a live action composite, but it's excellent to watch. Basing it on interviews, Landreth is able to convey two levels of meaning at the same time: what the characters are saying, and a subtextual commentary that comes out of the animation. It sounds like it might be distracting and overbearing, but it isn't – it's poignant and beautiful.
A real-time dissection of a romantic triangle. The boisterous, overbearing one of a group of friends regales the others with banal stories from her life until she realizes her life might not be as perfect as she thought. Interestingly, this was adapted from an August Strindberg play. (Don't miss: Strindberg & Helium) However, it travels well-worn indie short territory and offers little unique value for the journey.
Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party
This was the film I was waiting to see. After all, it seemed like it had been made for me. Almost everyone I know fits into the category of people in this film's trailer, who – when interviewed by Tobolowsky – reply cheerfully that they've never heard of this "Stephen Tobolowsky" fellow that he's asking them about. (Arksie and I were lucky enough to share a characteristically enthusiastic Tobolowsky "Hello!" on the set of Mr. Rhodes in college.) But I've been a big fan since the early days – probably Sneakers is when I first really started paying attention, although his highest profile role may be that of Ned Ryerson ("Bing!") in Groundhog Day. He's a very successful character actor, appearing in hundreds of movies and TV shows, but while his face may be familiar to most moviegoers, he's hardly a household name. And, despite his ability to pour himself into any character (provided, of course, that the character is balding and slightly geeky), I wouldn't have guessed that Tobolowsky is such an energetic and worldly raconteur. It's this side of his personality that director Robert Brinkmann captures in Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party. The film quite simply opens a window into the proceedings on the day of Tobolowsky's birthday: he grills some sausages, tells some stories, welcomes guests, tells them some stories, blows out candles, and tells more stories. Some of the stories are from his film and stage career (switching deaths in Bird on a Wire, flirting with racial upheaval in Mississippi Burning), while others are from his life (meeting his wife, having a child, being held at gunpoint in a supermarket). It's an unprecedented look into what Tobolowsky is like off-screen, and a delightful surprise.
Andy doppelgänger Christopher Gorham (Medical Investigation) plays a young man who enters a haiku contest and wins a lifetime supply of Spam. After that, things in his life get a little weird. Superbly acted by Gorham and expertly plotted by director Steven K. Tsuchida, this film explores an offbeat topic with a delightful mix of dialogue, visual gags, and timing. Plus, it's the perfect length to enjoy the comedic possibilities, whip up some laughs, and plow into an ironic ending without overstaying its welcome.
The Almost Guys
One of the main features of the festival, The Almost Guys screened right after the big VIP party and right before the giant VIP gala. Writer/director Eric Fleming stars as Rick, a down-on-his-luck repo man who's teamed with an ancient accomplice known only as "The Colonel" (Robert Culp of I Spy or Everybody Loves Raymond in a very scruffy three days' growth and a worn ball cap reading only "Security"). Rick begins his day having his ass handed to him by a martial arts expert who would prefer not to have his car repossessed, and it slides downhill from there. One of their repossessions has a baseball player bound and gagged in the trunk, and he's slated to pitch in the World Series in less than a week. As they work feverishly to set things right, the plot keeps unraveling until they've kidnapped Rick's son, stolen multiple vehicles, and crashed with the pitcher's ex-wife.
It's a fun and well paced comedy, which suffers a little in the structure department but comes together cohesively for the most part. Fleming would do well to go back and re-cut a few scenes to allow more time for laughter after some of the throwaway joke lines. It's the sort of thing you probably get a better feel for when forced to go through the studio preview screening process; in this case the festival audiences are the preview screeners. It happens maybe a half dozen times or so, and when I noticed the audience laughing over the next line, I thought back to Tobolowsky and how Brinkmann did a better job of cutting away to give time for the jokes, but also how most times a cutaway wasn't necessary because Tobolowsky knew how to let the lines breathe and instinctively timed his storytelling to accommodate that.
Aside from these technical shortcomings, though, The Almost Guys is very well constructed and entertaining. Shawnee Smith (Becker) is excellent as "Bigger," the ex-wife, and Oliver Davis (ER, Rodney) is extraordinary as Rick's son Buddy. It's amazing how many great child actors there are these days, from Kieran Culkin and Haley Joel Osment in films to TV's Taylor Ball and Renee Olstead. It's still a minefield out there, but lately I'm finding myself more and more impressed with the work of our younger thespians. One key that was mentioned in the Q&A after the screening is that Oliver really enjoys acting and his mom is very laid back. I think the kids that get involved in performing because they genuinely enjoy it and not due to pressure from "stage mother" parents are more likely to be natural and comfortable in front of the camera, as opposed to the huffy eye-rollers you see on Showbiz Moms and Dads. Oliver Davis manages to be very genuine in his scenes, and often does a fair amount of heavy lifting since one of the film's underlying themes is the father-son relationship. Fleming mentioned in the Q&A that Davis was often called upon to improvise a few lines, and the scenes he cited as examples were among the best of the father-son moments.
Fleming handles the hyphenate workload admirably, although you sense that he'd have gone with another actor for the main part if budget had allowed. He certainly has no problem occupying Rick – impressive since, judging from his manner at the Q&A and after party, the two have little in common. Through his portrayal and directorial style, he manages to make The Almost Guys a poignant and accessible comedy that's offbeat without straying as far from the path as anything the Coen brothers might produce. Given a distribution deal and a few more hours in the editing room, it could easily be a successful comedy nationwide.
Five Children and It
This British children's fantasy piqued my interest because it featured Eddie Izzard as the voice of "It," and I've really enjoyed the hell out of him lately. In a story that might have been brought to market if not for Lemony Snicket, the titular quintet are sent to live with an eccentric uncle (Kenneth Branagh in some old-guy makeup) when WWI happens and their mom goes into nursing and their dad into the RAF. Uncle Albert's a bona fide wacko, spending all his time writing a schoolbook entitled Difficult Sums for Children while his maid and bizzarre young son have the run of his giant, remote, gothic mansion high on a cliff. As an eccentric old uncle, he brings with him the customary set of arcane and ridiculous rules, which of course terrify the children. As you might imagine, one of these rules outlines a room in the castle that is entirely off limits, and as you might imagine the children beeline straight for the forbidden zone – led by Robert (Freddie Highmore of Finding Neverland and the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
Once there, they discover a secret door which opens onto an even more secret spiral staircase which leads to a super-secret beach. On the beach, they discover "It", a self-described Psammead or "sand fairy." He's a whiskered, blue little scamp, brought to life by Jim Henson Studio, the same folks that created Farscape – and very likely the same molds that created Rygel. He's able to grant them wishes but they quickly learn, as mop-headed British children so often do in these tales, that sometimes the thing you wish for comes with strings attached. They wish for their chores to be done by magic, but when It conjures up an army of clones to do the tidying, the clones get a bit carried away (just like they would in "Calvin & Hobbes") and create more mess than they had to begin with. What's more, these wishes apparently last only until sundown. (The Psammead indicates that this is a well known condition of any magic wish, but really the rules vary from film to film – here, it seems like an arbitrary way to keep the children coming back for more wishes.) Ultimately, what the kids want is for their dad to return safely, but of course a bunch of familiarly wacky things happen to them in the meantime.
If I've given the impression that the film comes off a bit derivative, you're damn right it does! Interestingly, though, it's based on a novel by E. Nesbit from 1902, pre-dating WWI and most of the familiar children's stories that make it seem so trite. So, maybe it's a chicken-and-egg thing. Either way, the film needs a little something more to set it apart from the pack. Sadly, the relationships among the children, while poignant, also seem pretty familiar. What's more, the entire story becomes very episodic and seems to have trouble getting into gear. Because of that wacky sundown rule, every time the children wish for something it goes through the same cycle: resistance to the temptation of wishing, wishing anyway, hustling back up the stairs to see what they got, enjoying the wish, getting into unforeseen trouble as a result, watching everything wrap up tidily when the sundown expiration wipes the slate clean. So, the first two thirds of the movie go in a repetitive cycle (meanwhile, a cute sub-plot about a struggle between Uncle Albert and his publisher) and then finally the kids get worked up about their father at the last minute. There's a fun interlude with John Sessions (the brilliant English comedian known to U.S. audiences from the original run of Whose Line is It Anyway?) as a car salesman, but most of the movie fails to reach its potential.