Friday, July 27, 2012

The Well Digger's Daughter (Thursday, July 12, 2012) (63)

Perhaps best known for Claude Berri's two 1986 adaptations of his novels, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, Marcel Pagnol remains one of the most important romantic writers and filmmakers of the pre-War era in France. Described by Jean Renoir as "an author of genius," Pagnol mostly wrote about early-mid-twentieth century rural France and all the colorful, modest and immodest people who live there.

Daniel Auteuil, who played Ugolin, the stubborn farmer in Jean de Florette, makes his writing and directoral debut with an adaptation of Pagnol's The Well Digger's Daughter, a light story that seems to fall in perfect like with the films of Berri, not to mention the lighter fare of Renoir or Pagnol himself.

Pascal Amoretti (Auteuil) is a very proud well digger in southern France. His devoted daughter, Patricia (the absolutely gorgeous Astrid Berges-Frisbey), takes care of him and his passel of young kids now that the mother is dead. Due to some quick economic figuring, Patricia had been partly raised in Paris by a rich lady and only came back south recently. Because of her brief flirtation with bourgeoisdom, she tilts her head a bit too far up and has a slightly fancy air about her.

She meets Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the son of the local grocery store owner and a dandy and a total snob. He woos her and she gives in quickly -- and they have a quick fling in the hay loft. He is then sent off to War (WWI) suddenly and is unable to tell her he loves her, etc. She becomes doubly sad, not just losing her boyfriend, but also because she gets pregnant from their tumble.

Pascal and her go to the Mazel house to ask for help, but they turn them away, seeing them as gold diggers. When news arrives that Jacques has died in battle, Pascal sets himself to raising his grandson with pride in his family and a bitterness for others.

There is a lot of discussion here about classism, sinful pride and snobbery and how it comes in all shapes and sizes from all directions. At first the Amorettis are treated badly by the Mazel's for being poor, but then Pascal responds by treating them with contempt for being out of touch. Jacques and Patricia's relationship, though brief, is filled with each one trying to gain upper-hand through money, body or psychology.

This film plays mostly as a charming chamber piece, light and funny at times and melodramatic at others. It is a very good movie with a seemingly timeless story, although it is not really brilliant and feels ultimately small and sometimes too shallow. Still, it's enjoyable and done in a very clean, naturalistic way.

Stars: 3 of 4

Magic Mike (Sunday, July 1, 2012) (62)

Film directors these days seem to trip into genre holes, where they make one kind of movie, either action movies, comedies, dramas, trashy popcorn fare, etc. Steven Soderburgh, on the other, hand makes all sorts of different kinds of movies, and seems to approach the movies he makes these days as experiments in genre analysis, more than just story-telling itself.

Last year he made Contagion, which, although being disappointing, was a contemporary effort at a disaster flick. Earlier this year was Haywire, a very small and totally solid bite-sized action movie. Now he comes out with Magic Mike, a movie that is more about an examination of trashy exploitation fare (something out of the late-'70s and early-'80s) than it is about male strippers. To look only at the beefcake on stage is to miss the point of the movie. This is a send-up of that moment when B-movies went mainstream, the kind of thing you would have seen playing on a loop on some Turner network in the late-'80s and groaned but continued to watch (and now quote to your friends nonstop).

The eponymous Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) is a scrappy young man in Tampa who works as a roofer and handyman during the day and a stripper at night. His boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the entertainment boss of the review show is a bit older and has bigger dreams than just taking over the Gulf coast. Mike seems to have no problems with the women, sleeping with whomever he wants. One day he takes under his wing a younger guy at the construction site, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who is a bit of a lost soul and lives on the couch of his (super hot) older sister, Brooke (Cody Horn).

Mike gets Adam to strip one night and Dallas believes he has the goods to do the work and become part of the troupe. Mike and Adam become best friends, of course, until Adam gets naively involved in side projects like drug deals. Mike has to figure out what his figure is (if it's with Brooke or not) and how he can work with Dallas and Adam going forward.

On its surface, this is a ridiculously stupid movie. There is nothing complicated about the plot and the elements of the narrative (from the guys being construction workers to Brooke being silly hot but unable to connect to guys) seem banal or even forced. Yet Soderbergh is too smart a guy to not know what he's doing. He includes all of these details because this is what the genre dictates. (This reminds me a bit of Verhoeven's Showgirls, a superficially ridiculous movie that recasts All About Eve as a story of strippers in Las Vegas. But there too, a surface look misses the point of what the director is doing. He's mocking the genre and mocking the ridiculous consumerist culture of entertainment and movie-going.) 

Soderbergh is also, of course, very interested in an examination of the genre and how more broadly it can be a Nicholas-Ray-like critique of masculinity in our culture. These men are all perfect physical specimens, of course, but they generally function only a half-level above drooling dogs. The lifestyle that Dallas represents and advocates is empty and impotent in the long run, and Mike has to go through the journey to discover this. Throughout all of this there's the paradox that these super-men are doing a job that's incredibly homoerotic, but makes women get horny. 

For me, this is a really fun and interesting film, partly because it's just silly and sexually interesting and partly because, on a meta level, it's a very harsh criticism of our culture. I love that for most it comes off as not being political in the slightest, just being an easy-to-swallow pill. Soderbergh shows (again) that he's a great actors' director and gets a hell of a performance out of Tatum, that's both multi-faceted and profound. Listing the actors the director has worked with over the years shows that he knows what he's doing on set; watching this movie shows that he's really thinking about a lot of interesting stuff behind the camera as well.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Take this Waltz (Saturday, June 30, 2012) (61)

Canadian dynamo actress/writer/director Sarah Polley's first feature film Away from Her is a very interesting, personal look at love and devotion during Alzheimer's. The film has the decency and carefulness of Atom Egyoan, a director Polley worked with in the past as an actress, and shows a tremendous amount of restraint and talent. In her second film, Take this Waltz, Polley looks again at love and devotion, although this time from a younger point of view. One could see this film as a "prequel" to Away from Her, as an examination of a couple struggling to stay together. 

Margot (Michelle Williams) is a woman in her late-20s/early-30s who lives with her loving husband Lou (Seth Rogan). They lead a rather typical young urban life (in Toronto, natch), where she writes travel guide books and he is a cookbook author. On a visit to a tourist destination she meets a guy to whom she's immediately attracted. Lo and behold, it seems he's her next-door neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby). The two flirt for awhile and end up beginning an affair together. 

Margot, who never expected to fall out of love with Lou, is suddenly faced with an existential dilemma about the future of her marriage. We see how happy she is with Daniel and how hum-drum her married life is. 

Polley has a really nice style and a very careful and visually connected presentation. She tells much of the emotional story through simple camera angles and compositional elements. At one point while Margot is struggling with her feelings for the two men, we see a straightforward shot of the married couple on two sides of the kitchen window. She's inside with (diegetic) music playing, while he sits outside on the porch, cut off from her literally and emotionally. 

Later, we see Margot and Daniel on a date in a carnival tilt-a-whirl. Polley shoots the pair from inside the car, so they stay in the shot, while the rest of the world literally spins around them. Both of these shots are very clever and translate volumes of emotional material efficiently. This is the touch of a great director who is able to convey deep feelings in a naturalistic context without the audience noticing. 

A strange recent trend in (Canadian) cinema is not knowing when to end a film -- or ending it a whole scene or section too late (see Heartbeats and Incendies). Polley suffers a similar fate as she adds on an unnecessary coda that shows Margot in the months that follow her decision about the two men. This does serve to tie up the story in a very neat and tidy way, and makes her personal journey a slight bit more complete, but it really just gives more information that doesn't help us understand her psychology more. (There's also a totally silly over-the-top sex montage that is more laughable than powerful.) The film would have been much cleaner and tighter without this postscript. 

Still, this element is mainly a writing issue (the script is also by Polley) and doesn't really take anything away from the very good picture that precedes it. Polley is clearly a very talented director and seems to have an independent vision for filmmaking and story telling. I very much look forward to her next film  -- and hope she knows when to stop it at the right time.

Stars: 3 of 4

Beast of the Southern Wild (June 26, 2012) (60)

Beasts of the Southern Wild, by first-time feature co-writer and director Behn Zeitlin, is much more of a portrait of an emotional moment and feeling than it is a narrative story that follows a character from one point in her life to another. It has the eerie lyricism of a Terrence Malick film (particularly Days of Heaven) as it examines the relationship between neorealism and magical realism that can coexist in a child's psyche.

Loosely described, the film tells the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an 8-year-old girl being raised by her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in a (fictional) area called the Bathtub in southern Louisiana, in the wilderness south of New Orleans. It seems in this near-post-apocalyptic time, the polar ice caps have melted and have flooded the low bayou. Residents of the Bathtub live a semi-amphibious lives jumping between boats, house trailers perched in high trees and houseboats. There are several dozen residents in this community, where they seem to live life in a non-linear, joyful way. There is a sense that somewhere north of them is civilization, continuing mostly as it seems for us today, while they down below try to avoid that world.

Hushpuppy and the other kids her age go to a makeshift school where their teacher Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) teaches them they they "are all just meat". She tells them that they have to watch out for themselves because if they don't some other animal will come to eat them.

Hushpuppy's mother, it seems, has left in the years before, although it's never totally clear whether she actually walked away from the Bathtub or if she died and Wink just told the girl that her mother had "left". This concept is one of the first times we are faced with an oblique concept due to a mix of fantasy and reality in Hushpuppy's perception of the world. She is haunted by visions of massive beasts running roughshod over the land toward the Bathtub to eat them.

Throughout the film, Zeitlin interjects moments and scenes that don't totally follow in a narrative path, but add to the general feeling of happiness and innocence of the location. The film opens with a magnificent party, shot hand-held, that easily conveys the joy of the village and the community feeling of all the people. Later, there is a craw fish boil with singing and a wonderful feeling of warmth and support as Hushpuppy is taught how to open crabs by "beasting" them (ripping them) apart.

Zeitlin cleverly plays with New Orleans culture and recent history as he alludes to typical tropes from the area. One moment, above all others, is particularly powerful, as the Bathtub is flooded by a storm and the residents blow up the levee that separates the Bathtub from the mainland. When they do this, the water drains, like out of a tub, into the land above. This is a very deep and significant allusion to the common conspiracy theory that the US government blew the hold in the levees that flooded the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Here it's the poor people (mostly black) who are flooding the richer, nicer areas north of them.

Stylistically, Zeitlin weaves a very interesting tale, where dream-like sequences of the wild beasts, in Hushpuppy's imagination, are cut in with more hard-nosed, brutal images of the living conditions of the people and their struggle to survive. Added to this are segments that seem to exist neither in a totally naturalistic place nor a totally fantastical place, as when Hushpuppy and some of her friends go out looking for her mother and end up in a floating brothel in the bayou where the girls dance with the prostitutes (whores in New Orleans, an allusion to several New Orleans movies and stories over the years). The story becomes a spectrum of reality and surreality, ranging in degree from one shot to the next. At one point the Bathtubbers are discovered by what seems to be FEMA workers and taken to a hospital. Suddenly everything is clean and made of plastic in right angles. It's both super-real (from our point of view) and incredibly uncanny (from Hushpuppy's point of view).

The cinematography by Ben Richardson is beautiful and dreamy. It seems to be shot mostly digitally, though that adds a quickness and naturalness to settings and situations. We see lens flares and sun spots as the hand-held camera pans around a dark room, lit only by the sunlight peeking through the cracks in the wooden shack wall. The music, by Dan Romer (the brother of a close friend of mine, full disclosure) and Zeitlin is ethereal and classical in a sense not normally seen in a small film like this. It is very evocative of Morricone's score for Days of Heaven, as well as the Saint-Saens "Carnival of the Animals"excerpt from the same movie.

This is an excellent first film that shows a true directoral voice and point of view. I appreciate that Zeitlin doesn't answer too many questions, but leaves us open to figure out the puzzle ourselves. As a snap-shot story, there is no tidy ending, only a slow fade out of the characters and action. This is a movie about dreams, and as such, is hard to nail down as meaning one thing or another. Yes, some of the imagery is a bit heavy-handed, though that too is the nature of dreams. At time this film is frightening, exuberant, dark, funny, sad and hopeful. This is a roller coaster of emotion and tone, but feels warm and very well made.

Stars: 4 of 4

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed (Saturday, June 23, 2012) (59)

It would seem like Safety Not Guaranteed is a movie that was made in the 1990s and somehow got lots in the shuffle, only to be released now. It has the generally feeling of a generally safe and broad-enough-but-also-a-bit-weird '90s romcom (think So I Married an Axe Murderer) and seems weirdly to have no idea what's going on in the world today. Still, it's a generally enjoyable movie (with a very surprising ending).

At its core, this is a story about living in the past versus living in the present and future, or living in a fantasy world versus living in the real world. Jeff and Darius (Jake M. Johnson and Aubrey Plaza... yes, Darius is a girl... just go with it) work for a magazine in Seattle. They get tipped off to a story out in the middle of nowhere where there is a guy who claims to be building a time machine to go back and fix mistakes that were made in the past. Interested in the story, they go off to meet him and look into his life.

Darius meets the guy, Kenneth (Mark Duplass... yes, you basically need to be a Duplass or on a TV sitcom these days to be cast in any movie), who is at first weary of who she is and why she's coming to him. He seems paranoid and weird, but she falls for him right away. She never lets on that she's a journalist only interested in his time machine for the story, but they slowly fall in love. Of course the relationship is based on lies, so once the truth comes out, it will ruin their relationship.

Kenneth lives in the past and can only look back on mistakes he made (something about running his car  into the living room of a woman he was interested in... ooops!); Darius is also hurt from past history (something involving her dead mother), and is interested in the possibility of going back in time. She's not as stuck in the past as he is, but she's not a very optimistic person. Jeff, on the other hand, is a rather brainless frat boy who is looking to get drunk and laid as much as possible. He is a buffoon, but a generally happy one with few regrets.

At some point the movie turns from a rather typical romcom to a darker, more dramatic heisty scifi movie (the time machine might actually be a real thing and not just a paranoiac's pipe dream). I rather like this pivot and appreciate that it's a brave, atypical move to make with the story.

Mark Duplass is becoming a very good dramatic/comedic actor. He plays serious better than he does silly-- and this role is much darker than he normally does. This is probably his richest, best and fullest performance to date. He seems to act in weird, small movies to make money to finance his own directoral work, and I really appreciate it. Sorta a comedic Wally Shawn or Sam Shepard, I guess.

This is not really an important movie, but it's a good movie. I forgive it for being a bit dated (I don't know many magazines today that would send a team of writers to a far-off town to write an article about a crackpot) because it's sweet and has a clever idea about what it is. It's a very creative exploration of a legitimate human psychological dilemma presented here in a charming way.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Saturday, June 23, 2012) (58)

What's not funny about a doomed romance as the world is about to end?! Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the directoral debut and second screenplay for Lorene Scafaria (who previously wrote the oddly toned Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist), is an offbeat romcom, filled with lots of grossout jokes and a comforting level of sadness that's hard to find in most mainstream fare.

There is an asteroid falling to earth in the next few days and all hopes of human survival are lost. Dodge (Steve Carell) is an everyman with a wife and a comfortable life. As soon as it becomes clear that the end of the world is nigh, his wife bolts, leaving him alone to deal with his fate. He meets crazy English neighbor girl Penny (Keira Knightly) who is looking for companionship as she's stuck in the U.S., while her family is in Britain. The two begin a weird, funny friendship as he promises her that he knows a guy with a plane who could take her home. They go on a road trip, visiting some of the weirds throwing caution to the win in their last days as they drive to this alleged plane.

The whole film feels like it really shouldn't work; it would seem like it has too broad an appeal to really be funny and puts two actors with no particular sexual chemistry together to fall in love. Yet it does work -- in a very uncomfortable uncanny way (not unlike Carell's previous work in "The Office"). Knightly and Carell seem to be in two separate movies, he in a morose man-looking-back-at-the-end-of-his-life-with-regret movie and she in a zaney comedy about a magical girl who doesn't see the world as seriously as everyone else. But Scafaria makes these two styles work together by showing that they each like in the other person what they themselves lack. He's serious and she's silly. 

I'm a little upset that the film goes from something a bit bizarre and unconventional to something more sentimental and conventional in the final minutes, but that doesn't take away from the generally good story and the very funny acting. I really like moves that take big risks, and this is not at all a safe, straightforward story. I appreciate that Scafaria presents a world with very few moments of redemption, where people pay for bad decisions and are mostly unable to change their ways (which is even more of a reason the last two scenes are bad for the overall film). I like the way she mixes happy and sad to make a richer comedy.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Lola Versus (Saturday, June 16, 2012) (57)

I am a big fan of the 2009 film Breaking Upwards, directed by Daryl Wein and co-written by Wein, Zoe Lister-Jones and Peter Duchan. It's a very mature story of the end of young love and the coming to terms with who we are as grown-ups. Now in their second movie, Wein and ZLJ, come back with Lola Versus, which feels at times like a pseudo-sequel to the first film and at other times like a fresher indie romcom.

Lola, played by the magnificent Greta Gerwig (again, Greta, I always say this, but you never do it: call me! I'll make you happy!), is a twenty-something New Yorker who lives with her boyfriend-cum-fiance, Luke (Joel Kannamen). Just before they're gonna get married, he dumps her unexpectedly. She runs to the the arms of her best friends Alice and Henry (ZLJ and Hamish Linklater) who support her through the initial shock of the event. (I say pseudo-sequel, because Upwards really is about the breakup and not so much about the afterwards.)

She starts sleeping with Henry and continues to get questionable advice from Alice. She goes on a few dates with creeps (one of whom is played by Wein in two hilarious sequences) and learns that being alone is not the worst thing in the world, despite her constant feeling that it is. Luke comes back a few times, but she feels betrayed by him and can't reconnect to his new life without her. 

This is a very sweet and funny movie, with clever writing and some good insight into singledom (in New York, at least). It does get a bit sappy and trite at times (particularly in the last scene), but generally is good and entertaining. All the young characters seem to be friendly and people we want to hang out with (that is, aside from deeply wanting to be naked with GG). 

There is really nothing totally magical about this movie, but it is a good romcom that doesn't slip too much in to banal stereotypes about manhattaniana. I like what Wein and ZLJ do - they make these nice, small movies that feel unpretentious, honest and sometimes very funny. This is not as serious and sad as the first film (which I do like a bit more than this one), but it is a good movie.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

You Sister's Sister (Friday, June 15, 2012) (56)

In her last feature, Humpday, Lynn Shelton examined male sexuality and friendship in a very mumblecore way (though it was much more polished that a true mumble). In this film, Your Sister's Sister, she comes back to look at relationships between brothers, sisters and friends and how sexuality might be a silly cultural construct that ignores an emotional human element. Both films suffer from sometimes silly writing decisions, but Shelton is clearly a great director of actors and creates interesting relationships and moments on screen.

At a memorial service for his dead brother, Jack (Mark Duplass), loses his temper at some of the mourners. His best friend and his brother's widow (or was she a girlfriend?), Iris (Emily Blunt), tells him to go to her father's vacation home in the wilderness to cool off for a few weeks. He rides his bike out the place (it's Seattle, so that's normal) and when he gets there he discovers Iris' half-sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), is already there, getting over the pain of her long-term lesbian relationship that she just ended. They're awkward at first, but settle in to drinking and talking about their respective issues.

At the end of that long night, they decide to fuck, even though Hannah is gay and Jack is really in love with Iris. The next morning, Iris comes to visit Jack (not knowing Hanna is there) and the three of them proceed to hang out there for a few days or relaxation. Issues of love and sexuality, betrayal and coming to peace with past mistakes all come up and are worked through.

This is a very nice independent movie filled with some really great acting and great interpersonal quiet moments. Shelton clearly knows how to get actors to do what she wants them to do, to act naturally in strange situations. She also has a very interesting, slow touch, letting shots last for a bit longer than you might normally see in other movies, letting moments sink in a bit deeper. Strangely she seems to either be bad at or unconcerned about framing and composition, as almost every shot is either trite or just weirdly random and neither balanced, nor interestingly asymmetric. (I think it's more that she's just bad at composition because there doesn't really seem to be a point to these clumsy shots.)

I'm always a bit weary of liking Emily Blunt too much, because she seems like too big an actor for me to be very interested in ... and yet, most of what she does is small stuff like this, so I'm really being unfair. Still, she wins me over every time and I fall a bit in love with her. She's got great comic timing and seems heartfelt in her more serious speeches. She's a great match for Duplass and DeWitt here, both of whom are natural and warm. This is a very good trio; a group we wish were our friends we could hang out with in an island cabin.

There is an annoying sentimental ending that really doesn't do much to add to the story, but, other than that, this is a very gown-up post-mumble movie that deals with growing up and putting away childish things. Shelton clearly has chops for some things, but she should work on small elements like her writing and composition. I hope she improves those things -- if she does she will make great movies!

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Prometheus (Sunday, June 10, 2012) (55)

So in 1979, Ridley Scott re-wrote the look, style and tone of scifi movies with his brilliant Alien -- the best movie he has ever made (or ever will). Of course, that film launched a multi-movie franchise, including James Cameron's 1986 sequel, Aliens -- which is arguable better than the first film. 

So now that everyone in Hollywood is totally out of ideas, Ridley is back with Prometheus, a prequel to the earlier franchise. This is a very big and thick scifi movie, filled with all the stuff that the original films didn't have: sex and love, god and existentialist quandaries, near-human robots and power-hungry billionaires. It's all so dumb, clumsy and boring, there's basically nothing good to say about it. 

The film begins with an alien dude standing on the edge of a waterfall. He takes a drink of a mysterious substance and jumps to his death in the falls. This is supposed to mean something or connect for us, but it just seems random and disconnected. We then see a team of scientists, lead by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovering how cave paintings from around the world all have a similar constellation in them -- and that that set of stars is in some far-off part of the universe... so they get in a spaceship with a team of "scientists" (funded privately by billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce)) and ride off into the cosmos deeply in love.

As the crew sleeps (because they're traveling at light speed, natch), a humanoid android named David (beautifully acted by Michael Fassbender) takes care of the ship. He styles himself after Peter O'Toole from Lawrence of Arabia and reads all the dreams and memories of the people (because that's deep, you see... an android who wants to be human). 

They land at some planet where they find a big pyramid and decide to go into it -- because as scientists they know that fucking with their study subject is the best way to do research. They realize there's living stuff there and they bring some of it back on to their ship (again - that's the scientific method). The leader of the mission on the ground is some skinny blond lady called Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) who is probably not a robot, though she seems to be one... and also seems to be the daughter of Weyland -- though that is presented in a way that could be sarcastic (and it doesn't really matter... like everything in the movie, it's more about loading the story with informational stuff than really exploring anything). 

Ultimately the aliens, who are probably our forebears, infect the ship and kill all sorts of people in boring ways. We ultimately see the famous phallic-vaginal alien guy from those earlier movies emerge from people's bellies -- three times like the great scenes in those early movies... because once you have a good trick you should do it over and over and over and over.

In most big, heady (or fake heady) movies today almost no clear information is presented, and instead, we are given with lots of texture and information, but no synthesis. I firmly reject the notion that a movie has to be oblique to be worthy of discussion or analysis. Great movies are frequently presented straightforwardly, but it seems that many directors can't just leave well enough alone and have to overly complicate stuff. 

The questions this movie presents about our origins are facile at best. Does god exist? Did he create us? What about aliens? Can a robot be a human? It's all so boring. 

On top of this, there's a really uncomfortable and bizarre element that Elizabeth wears a cross around her neck and several times makes it clear that despite finding out that human existence has more to do with aliens than with a creationist myth, she clutches her totem closer and reaffirms her faith. Why? I dunno. Some upside-down ef-you to athiests and scifi geeks who deny god's existence? It's hard enough to believe that an evolutionary scientist would trust so closely in a Judeo-Chrisitan god -- but then that she reaffirms her faith when shown that it's all bunk is just annoying and dead-ended. What am I supposed to do with that information? Does that make me think about my own faith more? No - it doesn't. 

Most of the problems with the film are in the script (by Jon Spaihts and Damon Linelof... of Lost), which is undercooked and banal. We don't need a love story to make us care about people and certainly don't need to see the same gags three times to appreciate them. There's nothing clever or interesting in the film and it all comes off as totally flat and dull. What a disappointment. 

Stars: 1 of 4

Paul Williams -- Still Alive (Sunday, June 10, 2012) (54)

Paul Williams was one of the most active singer-songwriter-actor-personalities of the 1970s. He wrote or co-wrote some of the most romantic and well-loved songs of that era, from "The Rainbow Connection" and "Rainy Days and Mondays" to "We've Only Just Begun" and "An Old Fashioned Love Song." His high camp and thick sugar style probably peaked with his collaboration 1974 with Brian De Palma in Phantom of the Paradise, a film for which he wrote the music and starred in as a slightly sexier, more powerful version of himself.

But since the mid-1980s, Williams has been somewhat invisible and largely forgotten by the younger generation. He fought addictions to drugs and alcohol (natch) and has been touring on a much smaller basis for the past twenty years or so.

Stephen Kessler's film, Paul Williams -- Still Alive is a love song to the man who wrote so many love songs. That is, Kessler confesses early in the documentary that he was a weird, fat kid growing up in the '60s and '70s and that Williams' music spoke to him in a deep way. Now in the present day, as a self-concerned documentarian, Kessler goes out to connect with his idol and make a movie about how far he's fallen -- at least that's exactly what he tells us.

When the two meet, Williams seems a bit nervous and unsure about Kessler's motives. He hopes to tell his life story, beginning with his troubled relationship with his father in Nebraska as a kid... but Kessler doesn't let him do this, saying it will be boring. Already the two seem to approach this film project differently. We see them interact over the course of several months, growing closer as time moves along, as the filmmaker follows the singer on a tour of various smallish shows around the country (and into the Philippines). They build a friendship as they learn to accept one another for who they are. To Williams, Kessler is a nice guy who has an unrealistic, nostalgic idea stuck in his head; to Kessler, Williams is a fallen idol, who is making it in the music biz his own way.

The biggest problem with this film is Kessler himself. I appreciate that this film functions as a form of psychotherapy for him, coming to terms with his own childhood and his own failure (Stephen Kessler is not really a household name, after all), but I don't really care to watch a movie all about him and his feelings and his view of Paul Williams. On the other hand, Williams is a super charming performer who shows a deep and interesting insight into his life and career. I could watch him on state and onscreen for hours. He's funny and self-effacing, self-aware and unapologetic.

So many times, just as Williams is about to say or do something interesting, Kessler inserts himself (or his directoral/editing touch) to change the course of events. This is one of the most unnatural fly-on-the-wall documentaries I've ever seen. Kessler has no qualms about pushing and prodding Williams to get him to do what he wants. Thank god Williams mostly pushes back. Kessler is desperate for Williams to be a broken man, suffering in his fading glow of decades ago, but Williams, thankfully, won't have that. He's aware he's fallen a bit, but not unset about it (this seems to have something to do with his involvement in AA, or the like, although that's never totally investigated).

Williams only looks forward, and doesn't live in the past, the way Kessler does. This is the most interesting element of the film, although I'm not sure this isn't an example of a broken clock being right twice a day. Kessler seems to be totally unaware of the film he's making and the subject he's looking at and seems to trip into this interesting duality of "forward and backward". That he does hit it means this movie is not really a failure, but the way he gets there is really messy.

Stars: 2.5 of 4