Quick Hits on Tiny Furniture – Lena Dunham (2011)

-I really didn’t catch on to the big deal about the film. I mean that in both the negative and positive: I don’t see what is so great about it, but I certainly don’t see what is the worst thing ever in the world about it. I found it to be a fairly innocuous picture that tread over the same ground as films that came before it, truthfully. There is nothing wrong with that; every director treads over the ground of their inspirations, Welles and Scorsese chief among them. It’s the last thing I’d fault a director or a film for, but I’m also a little skeptical about about the sincerity of the film. It does feel like art for art’s sake, not because there is anything needed to be said. You are supposed to learn something from good films — anything, even the causal recipes that Coppola throws into his films. I didn’t learn anything from this film. I don’t care that it was privileged, I care that it was, for the most part, empty.

-I’m trying to think of more to say about the film, but it didn’t really affect me very much. Most of the reactions I had to it were based on other people’s reactions to it. The extreme views don’t add a balance to the film, they take away from it greatly. But people are allowed to love any film they like and make a connection with, so fair play to people who liked this. A lot of the hate it’s garnered is pretty despicable, but that’s what we’ve become lately: any movie we don’t like is an assault on our senses, a declaration of artistic war which is fought out in the anonymous realms of the internet where the director is helpless to fight back. Of course, I just called the film empty on the internet. I suppose I’m just as bad as the rest, except I wish her good luck on her HBO show.

Red State – Kevin Smith (2011)


It’s hard to recall a movie that’s more confrontational than Red State. Both the film itself – a damning portrait of a super-strict cultist religion based on Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church – and its director began the journey to the screen in a highly combative spirit. Most of what Smith himself has done reeks of a wounded ego after his last film, Cop Out, faced a severe critical drubbing that he still has not recovered from. I suspect many of us would have the same lingering issues to deal with if we faced such harsh criticism, but Smith, like Elizabeth Wurtzel or Sarah Palin, brings much of it on himself through his outspoken Twitter feed and podcasts in a time when the people have a more powerful voice than the ones with the megaphone.

But to spend too much time on that is to miss the point, perhaps. There is a film on the line here, and a new distribution model is being tested. It’s a film and distribution model we’ve been hearing about for years through the hard road that Red State faced to get financed, both due to its religious content, and how much of a departure it is from its director’s previous work.

Different may be an understatement: There is very little in the way of an authorial stamp to Red State beyond the sex jokes that it kicks off with, and the religious trickery at its conclusion. But those jokes are generic, far removed from the gasping-for-breath hilarity of Clerks or Chasing Amy, and the trickery in comparison to Smith’s Dogma.

That Matt Damon-starring firestarter was the charming story of two morons, the black 13th apostle and a Catholic girl with a shortage of faith who try to stop two rogue angels from destroying the world by proving God wrong. It came with an authenticity, a confidence and a certain playfulness. But Smith grew up a good Catholic boy in New Jersey, so that was in his nature. Red State, about an extreme anti-gay protestant splinter group that loves guns (and, apparently, knitting), is a foreign concept to most rational people, Smith included. Where Dogma had wit and insight built on a lifetime of thought, Red State has an outsider’s kneejerk reaction to a sick cult, one that slowly devolves into caricature by film’s end, rendering it a wholly useless take on the subject.

The film is essentially more of a Waco or Ruby Ridge story than it is a Westboro Baptist Church commentary. After luring in several victims (led by Michael Angarano as Travis) with the promise of sex, the congregation proceeds to drug and cage them. They execute a gay man who is wrapped in plastic in order to, it seems, keep his gay blood from touching their altar. The escalation of violence is a somewhat abrupt turn from the light beginning of kids looking to get laid via computer, but it’s not wholly unexpected. From there, it’s something of a race against time for the three remaining victims to escape the heavily fortified compound before the ATF, led by a totally wasted John Goodman performance, lays siege to the building.

The churchy segment starts off strong, with Michael Parks (as homophobic madman mastermind Pastor Abin Cooper) stealing the film with a 20 minute-long sermon that outlines the ethos and venom of the church’s faith. Aside from that, however, very little about this thing works. It’s not insightful or funny. The story is betrayed right off the bat by a stunningly weak script, something that’s normally Smith’s strong suit, and weak direction that doesn’t know what to do with its stars, including Melissa Leo. Red State lacks focus and clarity, has no real point of view, and if you buy a second of the climax, I’ve got a bridge and some magical beans to sell you.

The distribution model – a road tour followed by VOD availability and a limited theatrical release – may work for Smith, but he’s spent almost 20 years now building up a fairly loyal fan base (including this writer). So, like Nine Inch Nails or Radiohead or Joe Swanberg’s big idea, this kind of self-distribution can work for him, but it won’t be the kind of “revolution for the little guy” that was promised. You have to have a name and the sellable personality to match to get away with this kind of thing, and if he has nothing else in life, Smith has exactly that.

Senna – Asif Kapadia (2011)


On May 1, 1994, Ayrton Senna, a three-time Formula 1 World Champion seeking a fourth title, was a few seconds ahead of racer Michael Schumacher in the San Marino Grand Prix. He began the race in pole position and, despite new restrictions to the computer-controlled suspension on his Williams-Renault car that made it harder to control on turns, it looked like no one could touch him.

Starting out in the sport a decade earlier after years of “pure” kart racing in his native Brazil, Senna was something of a revelation to Formula 1. He brought fire and a passion to win, and his all-or-nothing style defied the distorted logic built around the Formula 1 World Championship points system that others, like his future teammate and enemy, the French racer Alain Prost, could navigate so well.

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of Ayrton Senna. Nor had I heard of his rivals, Prost and Schumacher, or the old crony head of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the international governing body of motorsports, Jean-Marie Balestre. Here was a whole world, a truly rich, deep, politically involved world, one that spanned the continents, and I’d never heard of it.

But the way director Asif Kapadia sets up his new documentary Senna, it doesn’t matter. Certainly, it is helpful to know a little, but you don’t need any more knowledge of F1 racing going in than Exit Through the Gift Shop required prior acquaintance with street art. The film is a snapshot in time of an imperfect, interrupted life more than a gateway drug to racing enthusiasm.

Composed entirely of archival race and interview footage with Senna, Prost and a handful of others involved with racing at the time, Senna delivers an incomplete – and, one could argue, one-sided – look, but it’s riveting nonetheless. The racing scenes, especially those using the onboard video cameras from Senna’s car, are enthralling, and the speed at which he flies around the course is mesmerizing.

The main thrust of the film is Senna’s rivalry with his one-time McLaren-Honda teammate Prost, and the controversies that surrounded the championship in both 1989 and ’90, when both titles were eventually won in the midst of crashes and FIA politics. Did Prost cause the crash in ’89 that led to his win? Was the crash in 1990 caused by Senna as revenge?

The film certainly sides with Senna on the issue, and on pretty much every other question raised along the way. In that manner, we are slightly at the mercy of Kapadia here. But let’s face it: We’re always at the mercy of the director.

Senna died during the San Marino Grand Prix as he went into a turn on the 7th lap. I may not have heard of Senna during his life, but his trademark yellow, green and blue helmet – the colors of the Brazilian flag – blazing around the racetrack is an image that I’ll never forget.

Here are some leftovers I couldn’t fit into my review:
I can’t help but wonder where I was as all of this was happening, though. No, I’ve never watched racing, but I did watch Sports Center every morning before school, and I always read the paper back to front. I know exactly what hockey game I was watching the night of May 1st, 1994 — the Rangers beating the Capitals in the second round of the playoffs, Kocur and Berube fought — but I didn’t know of any of this. How did this all escape me? I don’t watch tennis but I know who the great tennis players are. I even know who the great NASCAR drivers are. We all do, just by osmosis. So it bothers me a lot that something this big, something where it seems like half of Brazil lined the streets to pay tribute to the guy, went unnoticed by me.

Kiss Me, Stupid – Billy Wilder (1964)


Out of Billy Wilder’s entire filmography, Kiss Me, Stupid is the one that really stuck in his craw. Lambasted by critics and censors alike for being too crude for its time, it was seemingly doomed from the get-go, when Jack Lemmon, fresh off of back-to-back-to-back hits with Wilder (Some Like it HotThe Apartment and Irma La Douce) had to pass.

The film stars Dean Martin in a playful parody of himself as the charmingly drunk, eternally handsome nightclub singer and actor named, cleverly, Dino. He has just closed his run at the Sands in Las Vegas (treating us to a really wonderful rendition of ‘S Wonderful by the Gershwins, who also provide new songs to the production). Travelling to LA for an engagement, he is stopped in the podunk town of Climax, Nevada, where he is Shanghaied by two song writers, hoping that Dino will take on their compositions, Orville (Ray Walston)  and Barney (Cliff Osmond). But it’s not songs that Dino is interested in, it’s girls. So like any normal fellas would, Orville and Barney hatch a plan to chase away Orville’s wife, Zelda (Felicia Farr), and hire a hooker with a heart of gold, Polly (Kim Novak), to seduce Dino so he’ll be more inclined to buy the songs. Hijinks and switcheroos ensue.

It’s a plot that could easily play these days in a black sex comedy, but for 1964 was too risque for mass audiences, even as the Hays Production Code was slowly fading into obscurity. Such blatant, open adultery was still a tough sell, even though it worked like gangbusters in The Apartment. But it was a softer form of adultery in The Apartment, where the adulterer, CC Baxter’s boss Shelldrake, was the film’s heavy, not the film’s hero, a small-town piano teacher like Orville.

Orville, too, was a problem. It is a lead role that was so clearly written for and tailored to Lemmon’s personality and sense of style that it was almost unfair to expect anything but a long reach from Ray Walston. Walston, to his credit, is amiable in the role as the slightly dense but skilled composed and tries hard to hit the story’s finer notes, but he just doesn’t fit the bill. The film is intended to be raunchy in a really lovable way — almost a New York apartment film, like an Odd Couple or a Two for the See Saw, but with a little more “gee, whiz” to it than savvy Greenwich Village intellectualism.

But outside of that, there is a lot to like here. Much of the raunchiness still works, or perhaps works even better now, and Dean Martin and Felicia Farr are both excellent in their roles. Martin’s parody of himself is second only to the long-running gag act of Tony Clifton, and Felicia Farr even steals the film a little bit in her short scenes after she’s run away from Orville.

Billy Wilder, along with his co-writers Charles Brackett and Izzy Diamond, had one of the best runs of any filmmaker in the history of film, and even though the wheels were coming off of the train by the time he got around to Kiss Me, Stupid, you can still see the Wilder of old at work. If Kiss Me, Stupid can be said to not work on the whole, you would at least have to admit that it works in pieces, and that some of those pieces are pretty great. There is a slightly absurd touch to the whole thing, especially the ending, but it’s no less absurd than the end of Sabrina or Some Like it Hot.

Hana & Alice – Shunji Iwai (2004)


In the normal run of things, there are very few love triangle films you would ever find me enjoying on the sly, let alone openly praising and defending, but Shunji Iwai’s Hana & Alice is one of them.

A beautiful, deceptively complex film, one that is as touching as it is funny, and one that works just fine on its surface but that gets better and better as you peel back the layers, Hana & Aliceconcerns the lives of two teenage girls living in the suburbs of Tokyo as they are about the graduate junior high and move on to high school.

Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) have been joined at the hip for years, best friends that are so similar and used to each other that they move in unison, something helped along by their ballet classes. When we first meet them, Alice has fallen deeply in love with a boy she sees on the train platform every day, a Japanese-American mix who Hana isn’t interested in. As an aside, mostly joking, Alice says she can have his little brother, Miya (Tomohiro Kaku). Hana’s nose immediately crinkles at the idea, but its posturing to hide the embarrassment from Alice. Her eyes tell the real story: something in her brain makes her want him.

What exactly that is is hard to say. Thinking back on some of my high school crushes, I can’t explain the attraction either. It was just a fact. Like the sun rising every morning and setting every evening, there was a crushing weight on my shoulders.

I’m somewhat hesitant to provide a synopsis because the film defies explanation, really. It is the sort of silly-serious material that needs the right hands to works, and in Iwai, it does have the right hands. Iwai is a master filmmaker, and material that would be weak and frivolous in anothers hands are spun into lace by his. We are meant to laugh a little at the girls, at the lengths they go to for such a fleeting end, but we are meant to empathize with them as well, to see the silliness through their eyes, to see that it’s not silly at all, it’s just one of those things that slowly gathers an unstoppable momentum.

The film actually began life as a series of internet shorts commissioned by Kit Kat Japan for their 50th anniversary. Its popularity quickly sent it into a feature production, but the film still has a vignette feeling to it, weaving together several concurrent stories rather than relying on a heavy plot. At it’s core, the film is essentially a gentle stalker comedy, but it is so intensely self-aware of what its comedy is, where it is and how to mine it, that it somehow manages to escape creepiness. Any hint of creepiness is immediately defused by subtle absurdities, well timed self-deprecating jokes and ultimately by the lively charm of characters themselves, even though the spin out of control into a jealous rage over Miya by the end.

Love triangles are one of the worst inventions of life, never mind the movies. Guys fight over girls, girls fight over guys. It’s usually for shallow, petty reasons, where the girl or guy in question has been stripped of their flesh and humanity, transformed into a golden statute, a trophy to win. Positive traits are hyper-focused on and the openly visible negative traits are handily ignored. In the end, they are hardly ever worth all of the anguish and bickering they cause. Most love triangles, though, are a natural outcropping of competitive relationships, where you want to possess the things your friend wants or already has because of our stupid lizard brain remnants. It comes in quite a different flavor in Hana & Alice. There is no machismo or cattiness to contend with here. In fact Alice is only spending time with Miya as a favor to Hana to deepen the “truth” of the game she is playing with him. In Alice’s desire to please her friend, she builds an even more elaborate game with Miya, one that they both have trouble easily dismissing.

Whenever I show this film to someone, or make them watch it against their will, they always turn it into a contest of which girl they like better. The answer is always – always – Alice. Even the girls pick Alice. It’s not hard to see why people would immediately pick her. She is adorable, sweet, intelligent and quick witted. Her ballet makes her graceful, and we see all of that right out in front.

I’ve never personally made a decision between the two. I like Hana as much as I like Alice, though for conversation’s sake I usually side with Hana because no one else does. You have to work for her, take time to consider what makes her tick. On the surface she appears to be the more mature one, more eager to be an adult and quickly grow up than Alice. But inside she still retains the romantic notions and emotions of childhood, though they manifest in decidedly mature ways. Whatever her deceits, they are very adult in nature, even if the intent behind them is juvenile. Much of the material added to make it feature length focused on Alice’s family, so Hana lacks a certain depth of story development, but there is enough visible to make small leaps of faith about her character and background. In that way, she is a little bit more rewarding a character to spend time with.

There is a hazy quality to the cinematography, something like a shadowy, overcast day that follows the film around, even in the bright sunshine of the spring scenes. It works like magic to the film, making it feel more like the fairy tale, and even though I know in my head that it’s just a problem inherent in old digital cameras (Iwai has shot much of his work on video instead of film), and I know how much I hated digital cinema until very recently, I can’t help but give it a pass in this film for the magic airy feeling it inspires in the film. I say airy, but really it’s more about a heft. These problems in these years of a persons life are heavy stuff. There is a reason why everyone can identify with Charlie Brown and the rain cloud above his head, and that’s exactly the feeling that is evoked here.

The film was shot by Noboru Shinoda, and was one of the last films he worked on before his sadly premature death in 2004. Shinoda, who appears in a cameo role as a commercial director, and Iwai had a working relationship that went back to 1994 when they made the short film Undotogether.

Over 10 years they worked together often, building a truly unique visual style together. He was the cinematographer for  every feature length film Iwai had made up until his recent film,Vampire, Iwai’s first feature length English film, which failed to secure North American distribution after mixed reviews at Sundance. Between 2004 and 2009, Iwai only has a documentary on Kon Ichikawa to his credit, and I don’t believe it an accident, I believe it to be a period of mourning for his friend, who was such an important part of his films, and who might have gone on to direct his own as Iwai moved into more of a mogul role, giving directing opportunities to others he’s worked with over the years on films like Rainbow SongHalfway and Bandage.

Terri – Azazel Jacobs (2011)


It’s hard to believe that as bad as high school used to be, it’s even worse now. Kids are less inhibited today, and not as easily tamped down by authority figures. Whether it’s all the behavioral meds or just something in the water, it all makes life one hell of a bitch to get through for Terri (Jacob Wysocki), the titular overweight, disinterested high schooler at the center of the new Azazel Jacobs film. Because of his weight, Terri is friendless and constantly bullied in increasingly degrading ways. In a show of social surrender, Terri starts wearing pajamas to school, because it just doesn’t matter: He’ll be made fun of either way. He might as well be comfortable in his clothes, since he’ll never be comfortable in his own skin.

Unlike the fat kids in the movies I grew up with, like Angus or The Mighty Ducks, Terri doesn’t seem to be especially good at anything. Certainly not football or hockey, not even science. Or, he might be, but won’t bother to try; again, he’d just be teased. He seems to have already given up on life before it’s started. Sadly, it’s completely understandable.

Like every misfit throughout real life and movie history alike, Terri has made the mistake of crushing on a pretty, smart, but ultimately unattainable girl, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia). Worse still, she is dating his bully, Dirty Zach (Justin Prentice). Of course she is. When the universe plays a joke on you, it goes all in. But everything changes for Terri when he and a few chatty girls see Dirty Zach getting in some finger play with Heather in class one day. The incident turns serendipitous for Terri, though, when he stands up for Heather. Dirty Zach is expelled, and Heather is pardoned by Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the vice principal, though she’s left with a proverbial scarlet letter by the students, giving Terri an opening to sneak into her life.

Jacobs has matured as a filmmaker since Momma’s Man, and he brings a soft touch to much of this tough material. The film, though, exists as two almost entirely distinct halves. In one half, there is a serious coming-of-age drama, and in the other, John C. Reilly’s comedic persona, though charming, hurts the proceedings by turning them into the John C. Reilly Show.

Terri is not a film one would call enjoyable or triumphant, but it’s a film that’s easy to connect to. The bad times are rendered through the fat-kid trope, but Terri’s weight isn’t dwelled on as much as it might seem. (In fact, the film bears almost no relation to the trailer whatsoever.) It’s intensely awkward and squirm-inducing at some points, but Terri is sweet and darkly funny as well, and emotionally rewarding all the same.