Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Sundance 2012 Roundup 

The Surrogate *****
This film is based on the autobiographical writings of journalist, poet and polio victim Mark O'Brien. At age 38, O’Brien decided it was time to lose his virginity, but recognizing that this was going to be a challenge for a man largely unable to move his body and housebound in an iron lung for most of each day, he elected to engage a sexual surrogate.

This is a brave, bold film that goes head-on with a tough subject and makes it work. The Surrogate does this largely by dint of a fantastic cast all firing on all cylinders, particularly John Hawkes (as O’Brien), Helen Hunt (Cheryl Cohen Greene, the surrogate), Bill Macy (O’Brien’s confessor) and Moon Bloodgood (Vera, his nurse). Filmgoers who saw Hawkes’ riveting performance as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone (2011) will be blown away by the contrast to his portrayal of Mark O’Brien and will be left asking themselves, “Is there nothing John Hawkes cannot do?” Answer: probably not.

The Impostor *****
Oh, what a ride. Cross Man on Wire (2008) with Unknown White Male (2005) and you might have some sense of what this documentary is about. This is a plot beyond simple summary, but let’s give it a go: a young teen boy disappeared in Texas only to turn up several years later in Linares, Spain. Only that can’t be possible, right? The Imposter is largely narrated by the imposter himself, as well as by the family that swore he was their missing son and brother. Why would a family insist this young person was their son, when so many warning signs seemed present from the outset? Why did the US government patriate him to the US? Why did the FBI go along? What motives are involved?

Twists and turns abound and you’re not likely to ever know where it’s all going next. Fascinating.

The Ambassador ****1/2
Speaking of unusual documentaries, The Ambassador is right up there. Danish investigative journalist Mads Brügger learned that African nations sell diplomatic status (for a pretty penny). So he bought himself the post of Liberian ambassador to the Central African Republic. The CAR is, incidentally, a country without a functional government. What it DOES have is a lot of diamonds. Tragicomedy ensues as Brügger struts about sporting riding boots and a cigarette holder, wheeling and dealing with shady characters from all over the world, and trying to do what any other white man would do in the CAR: build a bogus match factory, acquire a pair of pygmy sidekicks, buy some blood diamonds…and get out alive. It must be seen to be believed.

Your Sister's Sister ****1/2
The simplest plot summary of Your Sister’s Sister would be to say that this is a story of what happens to a guy (mumblecore master Mark Duplass) when his best friend (Emily Blunt, escapee from Hollywood) accidentally throws him together with her sister (the always fierce Rosemarie Dewitt). Naturally, there is some rivalry as well as some attraction.

There are plenty of other relevant details one might share, but I think this is a film best seen with zero expectations because it’s not going to go where you expect it to go. In fact, writer/director Lynne Shelton seems to be specializing in just that kind of film. Her last Sundance effort was Humpday (2009), a gloriously edgy, loose comedy. She returned this year with a film that not only maintained the best parts of what the Seattle scene’s process (building films through structured improvisation) frequently delivers, but Your Sister’s Sister adds a significantly greater sense of maturity and groundedness. The result feels loose and free without actually feeling improvised. You would be forgiven for thinking there was a script.

Safety Not Guaranteed ****
A number of years ago, an advertisement appeared in a survivalist magazine which read, “Wanted: someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid when we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” Using this actual event as a jumping off point, screenwriter Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow tell the story of jerky journalist Jeff Schwensen (Jake M. Johnson) and his emo intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) who set off to find Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), author of the ad, and determine just precisely how nuts he is.

Once found, Kenneth may or may not be sane, but he certainly appears determined to return to his past and right a (very romantic) wrong. Darius follows along gamely trying to determine what’s really going on until she, like the audience, begins to hope against hope that somehow Kenneth can achieve some form of satisfaction regardless of whether or not he can actually achieve time travel.

This slightly comic, but largely straight role is quite a departure for Duplass and it’s his commitment to it that ultimately holds this film together. Despite the rickety nature of the script, the hard work of Duplass and the natural charisma of Plaza (with a tremendous assist from the production team) ultimately had Sundance audiences cheering at the film’s finale. I’ve rarely heard such unbridled enthusiasm.

The Invisible War ****
A simple and straightforward documentary can sometimes pack quite a wallop. The Invisible War reveals an awful truth in the starkest terms: the US military, US military justice system and the US courts treat rape by one’s fellow soldier as a form of friendly fire. Worse, because the military is comprised of men and women who are taught to value violence, the culture tolerates not simply the horror of forcible penetration, but breaking the victims’ bodies into pieces while being raped. Inevitably, as in cultures that tolerate rape, it is the victims who are blamed; often with the outrageous charge of adultery if their assailant was married!

Fortunately, despite its painful subject matter, the film is entirely watchable. It spares us lengthy re-enactments and focuses on the testimony of the victims, combined with data (all extracted from government reports) that make manifest the scale of the problem that needs to be addressed. Even more fortunately, the filmmakers, both in the end credits and via Twitter and their website are working to allow interested viewers to actively support the victims our country has so terribly betrayed. Thank God.

Queen of Versailles ****
The shortest review of this film would be “OMG!” And it would be an appropriate one. Lauren Greenfield began to document timeshare mogul David Siegel and his trophy wife Jackie’s process of commissioning and building the largest home in the United States of America, both modeled and named after Versailles.

What follows is the most strange and alienating Greek tragedy I have ever witnessed. You see Siegel’s parents were Vegas gambling losers and Siegel made his fortune (most recently in Las Vegas!) selling timeshares, effectively a variant on a sub-prime mortgage, to folks much like his parents. When the market crashed, partway into the making of the movie, so did the Siegels’ fortune.

From there on out, their lives and household fall apart much in the way the rest of America did. It’s the American national economic tragedy writ small in the sense that it’s about what happens to one family and simultaneously writ large because of the incredible scale of that family’s spending habits.

The Atomic States of America ****
You really don’t want to know what this film has to tell you, but you really do need to hear and learn what it has to say: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now totally controlled by the nuclear energy industry. And America’s nuclear plants are aging. And, much like Fukushima, they are built in the wrong places. P.S. – they leak hazardous waste nearly every year. P.P.S. – they’re 30-40 years old. YIKES.

The good news here is that people have taken action, lives have been (and still can be) improved, and there’s more we can do. See it and learn about what you might want to do.

Robot & Frank ****
You’ve never seen this film before. That’s because it takes place in the very near future.

In the near future, if your parent needs a home healthcare aid, you can buy them a robot. And that’s precisely what Hunter (James Marsden) does for his father, Frank (Frank Langella), whose memory is fading fast.

Predictably, Frank doesn’t want a home healthcare aid robot. He wants his independence. But he begins to discover that his robot (voiced by Peter Saarsgard) has a very unexpected set of values and that he might use that to find a kind of freedom he had not anticipated. Funny, sad, improbable, and also totally captivating.

Under African Skies ****
Twenty-five years later, Paul Simon finally confronts the ghosts of his masterwork album Graceland, which he broke the UN cultural embargo on South Africa to make. The movie offers the opportunity to hear several sides of the story; to meet the musicians then and now; and to witness Simon’s first real attempt to make peace with Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid, and a key member of the ANC. A must for Simon fans, and still very interesting for those who are not particularly, but are interested in the intersection of art, culture, music and politics.

Love Free or Die ****
If you don’t already know and love the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, this is your chance. If you do, here’s a great opportunity to spend more time with him. For me, they had me at “Gene Robinson.”

Young & Wild ***1/2
In Chile, a young teen in an evangelical family authored a blog called (in translation) youngandwild.blogspot.com (jovenyalocada) which broadcast to the world her intense and myriad sexual activities of which her family was unaware. Director Marialy Rivas decided to turn the story of that blog into a movie. Amazingly, it works far better than you might have imagined.

The film is extremely explicit (it would never get anything less than an NC-17), heartfelt, and formally inventive. Rivas’ techniques for visualizing Internet interactions and emotional states are original and constantly engaging. Despite its graphic sexuality, this is really an existential story of love: how both religious believers and non-believers struggle to make meaning within the same mysterious universe where both the feeling of love and those people we love are prey to disappearing at any minute.

Sleepwalk With Me ***1/2
Comedian and off-Broadway hitmaker Mike Birbiglia has translated his first one-man show into a charming ensemble comedy. For those who don’t already know, Birbiglia suffers from a disorder that leaves him vulnerable to extremely dangerous episodes of sleepwalking, especially when his life gets stressful. Naturally, his rise to success as a standup comedian, paired with his stop/start progress towards engagement and potential marriage creates a lot of stress.

(FYI, for those who have already seen the stage show: it’s a little odd the first time you hear the protagonist called Matt Panamiglio, not Mike Birbiglia. Birbiglia shared in the Q&A that he felt it was better to change the names of the characters because once fleshed out by other actors, e.g., Carol Kane as his mother, the characters clearly evolved rather far from the actual people in his life.)

The House I Live In ***
Binding together both personal (from Eugene Jarecki’s own life) and historical strands, The House I Live In helps us to understand how and why so many Americans have been jailed during the War on Drugs without any lessening of the ills our aggressive system of drug prosecution was meant to address.

Jarecki starts out with the story of his childhood housekeeper and the effect of drugs and the drug war on her family. Then he expands out to follow the young offenders who receive startling sentences due to mandatory minimums, a judge who is forced to impose draconian penalties, and a prison guard who ends up as the custodian of a warehouse of lost souls. Along the way, he finds some great talking heads, including a Lincoln biographer who emerges as the voice of justice, to help us to better understand the origins of the drug war and where it went awry.

Eugene Jarecki has a wonderful mind and is a very compelling filmmaker. Why We Fight (2005) was an extraordinary example of what he can do. I expected to give this film five stars (or at least four), but I found that The House I Live In really did not bind all of its various theses together until the last 20 minutes (at which point, I found it extremely powerful). With a careful edit, abbreviating some stories and deepening others, I think it could pack a real wallop.

Slavery By Another Name **
This is a story that must be told: not until 1942 did slavery truly end in the United States. Hard to believe for some, but the historical evidence is available for those who want to know. Unfortunately, the important information contained in this film (based on a book of the same title) clarifying what actually transpired for African Americans post-Emancipation is clouded by hokey re-enactments and a repetitive narrative style. Edited down to its core, this documentary might be useful in schools; most adults, however, will grow impatient. I sincerely hope someone else eventually tells this story more effectively. Americans need to know. In the meantime, a far better film on a related unwritten history of US slavery is Traces of the Trade (2008).

We're Not Broke **
This documentary focuses on the tax shelters and havens which enable US-headquartered multinationals to avoid paying any significant US taxes. This is a shame indeed. Unfortunately, this earnest film is not particularly insightful about the issue and suggests no real path to solution. It wants to be a call to action, but I fear it’s simply preaching to the choir.

My Best Day *
A rickety endeavor from start to finish, My Best Day is one of those films where the ingredients thrown into the mix (a small town lesbian community, separated half-sisters, refrigerator repair, a nerdy younger brother, a Latino police officer, and a father who came out late in life) simply refuse to gel into a meaningful narrative. Better luck next time.
Read the rest of this post...

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sundance 2011 Roundup 

This year I’ve decided to do something a little different with my Sundance roundup. I’ve listed the films by day, and in the order in which we saw them. I thought this might give non-festivalgoers a sense of what our annual 4-day, 16+ film blowout experience is like.

Thursday, January 27th
Resurrect Dead ****

Have you ever been walking down the street in the city and seen a strange tile in the road, most often in a crosswalk, that reads something like, “Toynbee Idea in Kubrick’s 2001. Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter”? I have. Many times. And I’ve always wondered what the heck they were.

Filmmaker John Foy has created a captivating and scrappy documentary that solves the mystery. He followed three “Toynbee tile” enthusiasts for 5 years until they uncovered the secrets of the tiles’ creation, including why no one has ever seen one being placed into the tarmac!

Beyond its literal detective storyline, however, Resurrect Dead brings other, more subtle joys as Foy contrasts the personalities of the hunter and the hunted. His lead detective, Justin Duerr, turns out to bear many striking resemblances to the person he seeks. But rather than bang you over the head with the resonances, Foy is content to let the patterns emerge without stating them plainly, leaving attentive audiences to draw their own connections and conclusions.

The Lie ****
When chief Sundancer John Cooper introduced this film, he noted that director Joshua Leonard has quite literally been raised at the festival. Debuting in The Blair Witch Project in 1999, Josh has returned to the festival in many other films, notably in one of the most wonderful high notes of the “mumblecore” genre, Humpday (2009).

A young couple with an infant is struggling with what their lives are becoming. Clover (Jess Weixler) is an activist and community organizer who has gone to law school and now finds herself confronted with a plum job “working for the man”; and not just any man, a large pharmaceutical company who her youthful compatriots view as the problem, not the solution. Her husband Lonnie has sacrificed his rock ‘n roll dreams for a stultifying job editing bad commercials. In the midst of this existential crisis, a pressurized Lonnie tells a whopper of a lie to his screaming boss and thereby launches their safe making-ends-meet existence into a slow motion crash. That process occupies the majority of the film and it is drawn with extreme empathy and liberally salted with humor that is both au courant and extremely Chekhovian.

The Lie shows just how much the actor turned director has learned over the years. In addition to the technical details – beautiful crisp images, great sound design, tight editing - Leonard’s performance as an actor feels effortless and as a director he pulls strong performances from his entire cast; most notably a stunningly lucid performance from Weixler, quite possibly the best of her career to date. [Disclaimer: The director is a friend and I have a financial stake in this film.]

Gun Hill Road **1/2
Gun Hill Road tells pieces of a story that we’ve heard before, but we’ve never quite seen them assembled in this way. Enrique (Esai Morales) returns from prison to discover his only son is in the process of transitioning. Protected by his mother (a very grounded Judy Reyes), Michael/Vanessa has had the space to begin to find himself and a community. But Enrique is an O.G. and, despite the fact that his friends seem to accept Michael’s evolution, Papi understandably cannot get his head around the new configuration of his family.

What makes Gun Hill Road fly when it flies is the attention to the details of Michael’s transformation. What stalls it out is the attempts to give Enrique a justifiable backstory to motivate his homophobia. Nonetheless, this is a valiant first effort, lovingly and sensitively directed, and worthwhile viewing for anyone who is interested in the subject matter.

Another Earth ****1/2
There’s a remarkable Sundance story to be told about this film and its mate, Sound of My Voice. Brit Marling (remember that name) and two Georgetown University friends moved in together in LA. Marling co-wrote both screenplays, working with one director all day and the other at night. The product? Two very interesting, challenging, philosophical films.

In Another Earth Rhonda is bound for a full ride in MIT’s astrophysics program. After a night of partying, she heads home and hears on the radio that an astonishing discovery has been made. A planet that looks exactly like Earth has been revealed due to an axis shift of the sun. (It’s been mirroring our orbit and thus been invisible to us.) She leans out the window to see this surreal sight in the night sky and causes a disastrous car accident.
Another Earth charts Rhonda’s reentry into society after imprisonment and her subsequent unintentional embroilment with her surviving victim John Burroughs, a Yale professor and composer (the fine William Mapother) who lost his pregnant wife and child in the accident. Filled with twists and turns both in the lives of Rhonda and John, and in the unveiling of a small portion of the mysteries of Earth 2, Another Earth is a compelling exploration of the roles of sorrow, chance and forgiveness in our lives.

Friday, January 28th
The Future ***

If you enjoyed Miranda July’s Me You and Everyone We Know (2005), you will definitely enjoy The Future. Like its predecessor, The Future is a fragile, ethereal film full of moments of extraordinary poetry. Also like MYAEWK, it’s full of twee humor and odd sex.

There’s not much point in describing a Miranda July film. The plots are not literal and the logic is sui generis, but here we go: a young couple is about to adopt an injured cat (who narrates the film). They are concerned that the cat will dramatically change their lives and therefore they decide to abandon their current lives in order to explore as many possible options for their futures as they can before they have to take delivery of the adopted cat. Along the way, he stops time and carries on a conversation with the moon. She has an affair with a man she probably should never know. At the end, they have to decide what future they wish to have. Odd, right? Right. Yet, for some, this will probably be the most beautiful film they have ever seen.

Sound of My Voice *****
Peter and Lorna are following driving directions to a nondescript suburban house. Upon arrival they are stripped, made to shower and change into hospital gowns, and then transported blindfolded to another location and into the presence of Maggie (the superb Brit Marling once again.)

Maggie has a remarkable claim as to her origin and what she is teaching her acolytes reeks of EST. Her story is so very hard to believe, but her manner is so compelling. At some points you are sure you know the truth…and then not so sure. It will keep you guessing right up to the last frame.

This deceptively simple, well written, directed and performed tale has a hold on my imagination. I cannot stop thinking about it.

The Details ***
The Details is a gonzo black comedy that begins with an obsession with destructive raccoons and ends with murder. In between lies a plot of mayhem. Tobey McGuire stars with an underutilized Elizabeth Banks (will she ever get the script she deserves?) and a magnificent Laura Linney. Linney’s performance as a sex-crazed, cat-lady-next-door is simply not to be believed, even after it’s been seen. The rest of the film is pretty standard indie black comedy at this point and not at all special, but Linney is the price of admission. She simultaneously steals this film and any film screening in the same multiplex. Sheer genius. Somebody introduce her to Christopher Guest, pronto!

The Bengali Detective *1/2
The Bengali Detective is a documentary that sounded so very promising in the description, but which unfortunately fell flat in the viewing. In seeking to find someone whose own story and profession would branch out in ways that would help illuminate the story of a city, Philip Cox discovered Rajesh Ji, the titular character. Mr. Ji has a small detective agency which primarily investigates and shuts down the distribution of fake consumer goods. He also takes on the business of any PI in any city; the odd adultery, etc. More interestingly, he attempts to solve murders where the police are dragging their heels. What would seem to be the final ingredient in the mix (it’s not, but I’m saving you an exhaustive list of what is covered in the film) is the fact that Mr. Ji is also enamored of Bollywood and enters his detective force into a local TV dance competition. All of this sounds like the recipe for something fun, funny, and extraordinary. This is why it has already been optioned to be remade as fiction. The reality presented in the documentary itself is much less satisfactory and the film simply doesn’t gel.

Flypaper **1/2
*Sigh*. What to say about this one? This was the first spec script from the duo that went on to write The Hangover. It became clear during the post-screening Q&A that this script was more intended to show their writing chops than it was ever intended to be produced and it shows. Flypaper is nearly 8 movie genres mashed up. It’s a bank heist, a pseudo-Coen Brothers character comedy (including Tim Blake Nelson in one of his wacky hick roles), a romance, a whodunit a la Clue, and on and on.

Saturday, January 29th
Hot Coffee *****

Docs like Hot Coffee are part of why I go to Sundance. Made by a first timer attorney-turned-filmmaker, Hot Coffee will open your mind on a topic you only thought you understood: so-called “frivolous lawsuits.” Starting with the infamous McDonald’s coffee lawsuit in Texas, the movie explores how corporations have systematically removed your access to the courts. It’s enraging, remarkable and enlightening. See this movie! (HBO bought it.)

Win Win ****
Another well-made, character-driven feature from Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor), starring Paul Giamatti and the wonderful Amy Ryan. The accidental result of a desperate deception leaves a lawyer/high school wresting coach in loco parentis for a troubled teen. A terrific cast makes this well-worn tale new again.

Old Cats *
We did not enjoy this film. The dramatic climax of the film involves an elderly woman walking down 8 flights of stairs. ‘Nuff said.

Like Crazy **** 1/2
A bittersweet romance about the emotional scar many of us earn in our first significant relationship. Jacob, an American, and Anna, who is British, meet at college in LA and fall madly (and quite believably) in love. Visa problems thrust them into a long-distance relationship. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones are so committed and affecting that one wishes someone would give them a chance to star in Romeo & Juliet together.

Drake Doremus impressed with his Sundance debut Douchebag last year. Whilst being a vastly more commercial effort, Like Crazy manages to live up to the directorial promise he showed without selling out. It’s a heartbreaking film (in a good way) and I predict that some will put it on their list of all time great indie romances. It clearly ran away with the jury’s heart, earning it this year’s Grand Jury prize for US drama.

Sunday, January 30th
Being Elmo ***1/2

A very sweet bio-doc about Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Elmo. Thoroughly heart warming.

Kinyarwanda ***
The “first dramatic feature film conceived and produced by Rwandans”, Kinyarwanda educates us about the complexities of the genocide in Rwanda in a completely non-exploitative fashion. While not ultimately a great film, Kinyarwanda is still a very good film on several levels. An extremely worthy effort that should be seen by anyone who wants to begin to understand the pros and cons of being homo sapiens.

Buck ****1/2
The inspiration for The Horse Whisperer, Buck Brannaman travels the country most of the year teaching people how to engage with their horses in a completely new – and vastly more humane - way. Watching Brannaman with horses is indeed something to see. And he quite literally (and quietly) radiates good, solid American values of the kind that make myths. Spending time with Brannaman and listening to his gentle philosophy, born of years of private pain, is, if you let it truly sink in, inspiring. His demeanor is that of Atticus Finch, only looking out for the horses, not the people. His words are those of a Khalil Gibran of the American West. Watch, listen with your heart, and learn.

Project Nim ****
Another tale of people and animals, only this time without the redemption. In the 1970s (of course…) a bunch of feckless, self indulgent academics decided it was a good idea to try to raise a chimpanzee as a member of a family in a brownstone on the Upper West Side. Their alleged goal was to see if they could teach it enough sign language for an interspecies breakthrough. The result? Individual agendas clash, the convenience of the humans quickly supersedes any sense of moral obligation, and we are left with what is simultaneously a sad comedy of errors and a classic example of man’s inhumanity to animals. As a study in human fallibility, Project Nim is fascinating. As for the original wrongheaded experiment? Madness.
Read the rest of this post...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sundance 2009 Roundup 

Overall, the quality of the films we saw at Sundance 2009 was quite good. While there were fewer lifechanging standouts than past years, there were fewer total stinkers and almost every film we saw was a worthwile investment of 90 minutes.

Feature Films
Humpday **** 1/2
You heard it here first: Humpday is the next Sundance comedy that is going to nail the zeitgeist in a big way. Two 30-something straight guys reunite after their lives have diverged and end up accidentally challenging each other to what is essentially a game of gay chicken. Verbal pyrotechics flare as they try to determine who's going to top whom, psychically and maybe even physically.

World's Greatest Dad ****
Bobcat Goldthwaite's junior directorial effort can be summarized as a cross between "Election" and "Pretty Persuasion" and it is a dark, transgressive, misanthropic comedy of the first order. I won't summarize the plot for fear of ruining any of its constant surprises. The film successfully keeps you off balance throughout with its combination of comedic and tragic shocks. But this is not Farrelly Brothers territory as Goldthwait's script has significant meaning woven intricately into it, although some viewers will be too freaked out to take those meanings on board. Unfortunately, as of the Saturday screening the film hadn't sold despite having Robin Williams in the title role.

The Greatest ****
The pre-title sequence of Shana Feste’s first effort as a writer/director features the best 10 minutes in film I’ve seen in a long time. Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon play the parents of a family coping with an untimely death and the enchanting Carey Mulligan (who clearly made a Sundance breakout this year) plays the teenage girl who forces the family to collectively confront their loss. Feste’s debut is remarkably assured: well scripted, well directed, and beautifully lensed. She’s one to watch.

An Education ****
A well made Brit-pic scripted by Nick Hornby and based on a memoir of a young woman's youthful awakening in 60's London. 2009 Sundance It Girl Carey Mulligan illuminates the screen whilst Peter Saarsgard charms her and her parents into foregoing her potential for an Oxford university education in return for a life of seeming glamour. It's a modern day fable in the tradition of Austen and exactly the sort of film you'd expect Emma Thompson to be in and lo, she is.

Lymelife ****
The Martini Brothers' autobiographical tale of the dissolution of a Long Island family treads the extremely familiar grounds of suburban dystopia blazed long ago by "American Beauty," "The Ice Storm" and countless other indies in the last decade. What distinguishes this effort and makes it a four star flick, however, are the performances of a stellar cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Cynthia Nixon, Rory Culkin, Kieran Culkin (who given his repeated excellence on film and stage should be more appreciated), Emma Roberts and Tim Hutton, all of whom are very good indeed. The only person who struggles a bit is Hutton, but this is the challenge with having more of a plot device to play than a fleshed out character.

Paper Heart *** 1/2
A quirky exploration of what it means to give in to love. Nerd queen Charlayne Yi and a young director friend have done what may turn out to be the post-millennial version of “When Harry Met Sally," only this time there are documentary interviews not only with couples, but also with singles. To make matters even more au courant, the documentary exploration is paired with a parallel “scripted reality” plotline regarding Michael Cera’s attempt to win Yi’s heart. It has its own totally peculiar (and probably entirely unrepeatable) alchemy that somehow works.

Adam ***
A young man with Asperger’s is suddenly cut adrift in the world by the loss of his parent and simultaneously finds his first romance at the time when he most sorely needs it. A terrific performance by Hugh Dancy in the title role makes this film worth seeing, and the rest of the cast also acquits itself quite nobly: Rose Byrne does a lovely job as Adam’s love interest; Amy Irving is always compelling in a role of any size and her role as the mother is smaller than I’d have liked. Peter Gallagher does what Peter Gallagher does best: gently nibble some scenery in a role that suits him well. It is clear director Max Mayer struggled a bit with the film’s ending and even while it’s not quite perfect, it’s good enough and doesn’t compromise the movie.

Arlen Faber ***
Arlen Faber wrote a book that changed the world called “Me & God” and his life has never been the same. A philosophical romantic comedy quite well played by Jeff Daniels (in what would once have been the Albert Brooks role) and Lauren Graham (in the Lauren Graham role). Extremely enjoyable all around, although the largely zingy soufflé of a script falls in the end.

Push ***
Recipient of multiple awards this year, “Push” is something of a glorious mess, not dissimilar in its strengths and weaknesses to Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (1991). “Push” tells the story of Precious, a teenage girl whose kitchen-sink full of dire circumstances includes poverty, pregnancy, obesity, and even incest. The film’s weaknesses lie in its structure (there is a fair bit of trite plotting and more than one false ending) and overly familiar characters, e.g., the saintly (albeit lesbian) teacher who saves the day. But there are remarkable performances here; most especially Mo’Nique whose rip-roaring performance as the Mother from Hell might do for her what the role of Gator did for Samuel L. Jackson. And newcomer Gabby Sidibe’s performance as Precious suggests she might have a long career ahead of her. (For the snarkiest of moviegoers, the most shocking thing in the movie will be Mariah Carey’s remarkably competent turn as a social worker.)

Mary & Max ** 1/2
This film’s style is greatly indebted to Hillaire Belloc, Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey and Tim Burton - all sources I enjoy. Yet I was quite conflicted about this stop motion animated pic about an unfortunate Australian girl and her adult American pen pal who has Asperger's syndrome. I enjoyed parts of it greatly, most especially Phillip Seymour Hoffman's voice acting, but nonetheless left the screening unmoved because the whole (five years in the making) enterprise seemed overwhelmed by a surfeit of twee.

Against the Current *
Joseph Fiennes mourns his wife and unborn child. So he decides to swim the Hudson River with two friends alongside in a boat before he commemorates his beloved’s death with his own. Veering between road movie, buddy comedy, and mumblecore, this is a total drear fest whose primary feature is that it refuses to sell out at the very end. There is also a superb cameo by Mary Tyler Moore, who just might be the patron saint of getting a handful of otherwise unproduceable indies funded.

Once More with Feeling *
Chazz Palminteri and Drea de Matteo star as father and daughter on the verge of breaking their respective marriage vows with the hope of injecting needed change into their lives. He is suddenly obsessed with karaoke as a proxy for the singing career he might have sacrificed in becoming a psychiatrist and she's consumed with the possibilities of recapturing her groove via lipo and the hunky cop who would like to collude with her in committing a serious moving violation. K. summed it best when she said, "I liked it better the first time when it was called 'Moonstruck'."

The Cove *****
A heartrending must-see that combines the best elements of “Mission Impossible” with Jacques Cousteau. A team of activists learns that the insane machismo of some powerful Japanese men is inspiring a small town to slaughter 26,000 dolphins a year. Their motivation? Apparently, largely because the West told them not to harm whales. Of course, there is also the fact that they can get $150,000 per dolphin caught for adventure parks. But that only accounts for a small number of the dolphins captured. The rest are herded into a secret cove and slaughtered en masse like a scene out of “Gladiator." (The mercury laden dolphin flesh having no real market is sold off as whale meat to an unsuspecting populace.) An A-Team of activists assembled high technology spy equipment and captured the horror on film in order to prove what is going on and to inspire us all to action. See it. Take action.

The September Issue ****
For many viewers this well-crafted doc will simply put proof to "The Devil Wears Prada." (And indeed, it is fascinating to see how well Streep nailed Wintour.) But the true value of this film lies more in its portrayal of the social issues universal to all human endeavors great and small. The struggle between creativity and pragmatism. The fact that those who display superiority complexes in one context (e.g.., the workplace) are inevitably prey to the inverse effect in another (e.g., their personal lives). And the need to create and find some form of existential meaning from our professional lives, no matter what it is we do for a living.

The Yes Men Fix the World***
The Yes Men punk corporations and government via brilliant hoaxes that demonstrate what those organizations should be doing if they had a moral compass. For instance, one Yes Man poses as a Dow Chemical spokesman and announces Dow will fund the eco cleanup and also pay reparations for (their Union Carbide subsidiary's) catastrophe they created in Bhopal. Piquant political fun for the Stewart/Colbert set.

Sergio ***
A great story and a good film, Sergio recounts the heartbreaking story of the fiendishly handsome, suave and charming UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. Killed shortly before he meant to remove himself from active nation-building in order to be with his lovely paramour, de Mello was a dashing figure targeted by al Qaeda for his role in freeing East Timor from Islamic Indonesia. Remarkably successful and abstracted recreations give an excellent sense of the dramatic and prolonged attempt to rescue him from the rubble of the UN compound in Baghdad.

We Live in Public ***
Call Josh Harris what you will: damaged sociopath, stupid idiot, vainglorious visionary, and/or full-blown narcissist. What Ondi Timoner’s “We Live in Public” (which won best doc) demonstrates clearly is that all of those labels apply equally well. Harris made himself a multimillionaire with his dotcoms and spent the money in strange experiments such as “Quiet” where he built a compound where everyone was filmed all the time doing everything people do and everyone was watching everyone else do those very things. Yet he also clearly predicted the power of the Internet in society and how we would collectively come to accept and willingly participate in the diminution of our privacy.

Big River Man *
Sherpa Dan and Chris liked this one. The rest of us DID NOT. It has so much promise. Martin Strel, the world's most successful long distance swimmer decides to swim the insanely dangerous Amazon. It sounds like a Herzog film, right? And, in many ways, it is. Strel goes nuts, along with some of his helpers. But in the end, too much goes unexplained (why does Strel connect his head to a car battery exactly?) and what we get is a maddening portrait of madness rather than a revealing one. Strel remains a cypher.
Read the rest of this post...

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Buddha Asked Me Where to Shop 

A number of friends and colleagues have asked me about where I shop for clothes. Finally, a lovely man who happens to share the Buddha’s name importuned me repeatedly and I began to assemble this information. Some of it repeats from older posts, but most of it is new.

The focus here is a shopping list for men, but I'm sure that an equally lengthy list of recommendations of places for women to shop will spring out of my head (like Athena, to mix metaphors and pantheons in the same post) eventually.

On Your Body

OK. Look. I’m a total whore for murses. (That’s a man’s purse, if you didn’t already know.) I have a ton of them and I have bought cool ones in several countries when I happen to have stumbled upon them: Spain, Japan, Italy, wherever.

Where to find one for yourself? Honestly, the easiest way to find good murses is to scan the coolhunting blogs as they show up there all the time under the guise of “messenger bags” or “laptop totes”. Check out Josh Spear, Cool Hunting, and Uncrate for leads.

Casual Shoes
There are so many casual shoe brands with style. Stroll into any Otto Tootsi Plohound (they have locations all over The Blessed Isle) and you’ll find at least 4 or 5 brands you’ve never heard of. I recommend taking a look at whatever you can find from Tsubo (for comfort and edge) or Mark Nason (for edgy style).

Dress Shoes
When it comes to dress shoes, if you want the traditional styles, shop the traditional brands. You don’t need me for that. If you want something that combines comfort, quality and has more style, then I recommend checking out the offerings of Donald J. Pliner. You should be able to find his product in boutiques, major department stores and online.

If you’re willing to pay for truly superlative comfort and style, then brace yourself and put on a pair of Michael Toschi. The technology in his shoes makes them insanely comfortable. There is no other description. But be prepared that even on sale, they’re going to set you back at least $250.

Hedda Szmuk at The Eyeman at 84th and Broadway is your answer. Hedda will find you an excellent pair of frames within minutes. And then if you want to continue, she'll spend as long as you like finding other truly excellent options. As you explore the spectrum of spectacles available, you will be treated to Hedda's saucy commentary along the way. You should be forewarned that if a pair doesn't look good on you, Hedda might just snatch them off your face and absolutely forbid you to buy them.

If it’s time to get educated about scent, then there are only two masters you must know: Chandler Burr and Luca Turin. Start by reading Burr’s biography of Turin (The Emperor of Scent) and then read Burr in the Times (he writes Scent Notes) and buy Turin’s book “Perfume: The Guide”.

Fragrances are a personal thing, so let me recommend fragrance houses to explore that you won’t find every guy wearing. (Remember Drakkar Noir and your college squash team?). First, go smell the scents at L’Artisan Perfumeur and Bond No. 9 (outlets available around Manhattan) for some excellent androgynous options. If you’re feeling like you want something edgier, drop into Bendels and check out the scandalously named fragrances of Etat Libre d’Orange.

If you want something custom, go to Le Labo on Elizabeth Street in SoHo and they’ll mix something up for you special.

Leather Goods
I think everyone needs a friend in the leather business. Me, I go down to see Memo at The Village Tannery on Great Jones Street between Broadway and Lafayette. If you want a backpack, a purse, a belt, pretty much any utility piece made of leather, drop in.

Shirts, Pants & Essentials
Keep in mind as you review this section that while I focus on shirts in my descriptions, each of these outlets also retails pants, sweaters, jackets and suits, etc..

My hands-down favorite place for menswear in 2008 has been Italian designer Eredi Pisano at 54th and Madison. It’s going to have the latest patterns, tailoring, collars…and price tags. Although, if you go during a sale, you’ll obviously be able to do better.

If Italian high-end is not your style, well, there’s no denying the influence of Jermyn Street on men’s fashion in the last five years. And it’s hard to go wrong shopping at Thomas Pink if you have the income. If you want to a lower price point with Jermyn Street styling, go for Charles Tyrwhitt. Both of these stores have retail locations near Eredi Pisano on Madison, as well as websites and catalogs.

The key with shirts, as with all clothing, is the fit. So if you want a more reasonable price point and a good fit, I recommend the Land’s End custom shirt process. You can input your measurements into their website and they will tailor a shirt just for you. It’s somewhat more costly than a standard Land’s End shirt, but you can be sure it will look great on you. And their customer service is to die for.

If you’re in NYC and you want to a boutique experience with multiple brands, I have three different recommendations, two are designer discount shops and the other is a boutique. Designer discount shops can be a hassle because these guys are out to move merchandise fast. On the positive side, you can haggle.

The first, relatively well known, shop is Riflessi, which has a shop on Madison Avenue and another on 57th Street. Long a staple of New York Magazine’s Best Buy column, Riflessi carried European and American designer brands a season or so behind the department stores and at a lower price. The less well-known shop is Valenti at 50th and Third Avenue. In addition to discounting designers, Valenti buys Italian fabric lots that European designers have elected not to use for one reason or another and they do their own private label shirts in the latest styles.

Finally, my favorite menswear boutique in Manhattan is Frank Stella. They have a store on 7th Avenue above 58th Street and another on Columbus and 81st. John Hellings stocks his store with a wide array of what’s hot, from the edgier brands like Ted Baker to more staid labels such as Tommy Bahama. Shop his seasonal sales and you’ll do very well indeed.

If you happen to be in Providence, Rhode Island, the only place to shop is Marc Allen on South Main Street. Marc moved north from NYC to raise his family and he’s got the best shop in town by a long shot.

If you happen to be in Los Angeles, you must go find menswear genius Marc Callo! For those of you connected to me on Facebook, Marc is the man who created The Jacket: my gorgeous platinum leather motorcycle-style blouson that magically elicits positive appraisals from peoples of all races, ethnicities, genders, and gender preferences when and wherever I wear it.

We live in the age of the screen printed T-shirt. There are many sites that follow the Threadless model of having the public vote on the designs they would like to see produced. I happen to prefer Design by Humans.

If you're an NYCer, there are several local designers worth noting. My favorite is Severyn. If you go by his table in Union Square often enough, you'll eventually meet his whole freakin' family manning it at one point or another. (I'm particularly fond of his wife Natalie, who calls everyone "Babes".) And, although they're so hot they need no promotional support from me, it's also worth mentioning the guys at Barking Irons whose funky designs are all about forgotten elements of the history of our fair city.

In Your Home

My personal philosophy is that there is nothing more important to me than ecstasy available through art. I really don’t think there are many endeavors that man engages in that matter more. I’m also a big believer in buying the work of living artists and I have met most although not all of the artists whose work I own.

Buying art is a very personal activity, so far be it from me to tell you where to buy it. If you’re already into buying art, you’ll have your own ideas about where to get it. If you’re new to buying art, this entry will hopefully provide you with a starting point for how to find art you might like at a price you can afford.

First of all, I’m a big believer in craft as well as art and you can find both at the best juried craft fairs: Lincoln Center has two craft fairs per year and Art Rider produces craft events nationwide.

Second, if you’re just beginning to explore buying art, I recommend buying the work of art students. There are two great ways to do this: 1) either attend the juried shows at a local art school or 2) go to Art Student Showcase on Lafayette between Prince and Spring. Art schools generally have an annual juried show in June and/or sometimes even a holiday art/craft fair for alumni (RISD has a fantastic holiday show!) in December. These are great places to go, meet young artists, and make acquisitions at any price point that works for you. You might find a lovely still life for $25 by a current student, a stunning pencil nude for $75 by a recent graduate or perhaps an oil landscape by an established alumnus for $7500.

If you just want any old invitation, go to the stationer. If you have a significant event that you want memorialized in a one-of-a-kind way, I’m a tireless promoter of Ceci New York. Lisa Hoffman is truly brilliant and working with her and her team is like having any great graphic piece produced for your company. You establish a creative brief, likes and dislikes, key themes, and they’ll make magic. You’ll pay for the privilege, but I guarantee you that you’ll want to frame it when it’s done.

Furniture & Lighting
For me, there are always two places to start furniture shopping: Maurice Villency on 57th and 3rd and Lee’s Studi0 on 57th east of 7th (above Lee’s Art Shop). Both have highly opinionated help available (I recommend Ed Silverii at Lee’s and Norman Teitelbaum if he’s not yet retired at MV) and lots of high-end design.

Being the CFO of our family K. feels strongly that I have to include three less pricey options for finding contemporary furniture options: NYC's own Scott Jordan, Manhattan retailer Jensen Lewis and the national chain Room and Board. All of them are great places to look as you seek out just the right piece. If the piece in question is a sleeper sofa, check out this 2005 post.

Read the rest of this post...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I'm Big on (and in) Japan 

It's fun to be able to say that I am writing this from the Osaka Kansai airport business class traveler's lounge. Being able to say that means that I have now finally been to Japan!

I've wanted to to Japan all my life and I've finally had my first taste. My employer needed me to be in Tokyo and Singapore across two weeks. Now I've been to Singapore before, so that in itself was not so exciting a prospect, but Japan...that was something I got quite excited about.

My time in Tokyo was limited but very enjoyable. And the Tokyo trip had the added bonus of coinciding with a Japanese holiday. So I my concluded my meetings on Thursday, the office was closed on Friday and I bulleted up to Kyoto for a long weekend with my friend Jonah. He lives in Vietnam and flew in to meet up with me in Kyoto.

Kyoto is a great city and I look forward to coming here with K. (Jonah said the same thing about wanting to bring Phoung.) It has some commonality with two very disparate cities that I also enjoy: Amsterdam in that it has canals, geishas, bars and Siem Reap in that it has a truly profuse number of dazzling ancient temples and shrines. And like those cities, Kyoto also has great food at both high and lowbrow levels. (Come to think of it, I think that Siem Reap is actually only excellent at lowbrow/local cuisine as opposed to haute cuisine.)

I'm a little exhausted now, so I'm going to do a fuller post on Kyoto later. But for now I'll just share some fun images.
As you can see from this Buddha against a backdrop of power lines, Kyoto is a city where the old and the new sit side by side. You can be walking in a covered outdoor shopping passage in downtown Kyoto and you will suddenly stumble into a temple, graveyard or shrine. It appears that the modern city of Kyoto was simply built around the ancient city's constellation of sacred sites. So those sites site untouched, tucked in admidst the concrete sidewalks, endless storefronts and and high rise construction of downtown Kyoto. The next two images carry forward this theme of ancient and sacred side by side with the new, novel and profane.

Here's a shot from the wonderful Ryoanji: a Buddhist temple with a very famous Zen garden. This is a wonderful site to sit contemplatively. You may even begin to understand what a Zen garden is for because the scale and the arrangment of this extraordinary place cannot help to provoke some desire to look inward. Once again though, I found the sacred butting up against the profane at Ryonji because in order to contemplate the garden properly, you have to be able to ignore the constant chatter of your fellow humans who have come to pay the stones a visit.

Here I am with a Japanese soda. I'll have to post some photos of Japanese soda machines later. There are an endless variety of sodas with odd names and flavors that are extremely hard to discern from the bottles. Which of course means its fun to try them. This soda had an odd light green color. I can't recall the name. I may have simply chosen it for the image of boy and his dog in the style of Picasso 's Don Quixote. Anyway, I drank a sip. Jonah looked at me quizzically.

It wasn't bad, but it wasn't immediately clear what it was, supposed to taste like either. Fruit...hmmm....mild fruit....urrrr...slightly sweet without being overwhelming...huh...rather refreshing, I guess....familiar...but what IS IT?

And then, it suddenly dawned on me. And I was so glad that my darling K. was not present or she might have wretched being that this is her least favorite flavor ever. I was drinking melon soda. Somewhere between honeydew and cantaloupe, I think. Colored like honeydew, but the flavor was a bit more cantaloupe. Fascinating and nice on a hot day (if you're me). Anyway, more on Kyoto and Japanese sodas at a future date.
Read the rest of this post...

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Measure of America 

Through a happy accident, I had a very small role to play in the development of an exciting new book that will be launched July 16 in Washington. I was on a business trip and met an author who needed a special breed of partner to help her express some very important ideas based on research about the state of our nation. As it happened, I knew the good folks at Humantific who helped Kristin Lewis communicate her data through the design of a compelling and understandable book. Below is some information about it. I hope you'll take an interest.

The Measure of America is the first-ever American human development report. Carefully crafted by the authors to be nonpartisan, we are hopeful that The Measure of America 2008-2009 will become a significant catalyst for societal change in the United States.

You can see the announcement trailer on YouTube and you can become a fan of Measure of America on FaceBook.
Read the rest of this post...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Icoa: A Little Foodie Heaven on Grand Cayman 

We knew for certain that we had hit the jackpot when the beautiful little artisanal bread board arrived and practically begged us in audible human language to be savored immediately. A brief glance in its direction and we knew we would have to oblige it.

It all started back on Little Cayman at the Southern Cross Club. When we realized that we had no way to avoid a long layover on Grand Cayman on the way home, we figured we'd better ask Terry Thomson what to do about it. Terry is SC's masseur who also doubles as the bartender (and in earlier days was apparently also the boat captain and a divemaster). Having spent a little time at the bar with Mr. Thomson it was pretty clear that he's a very well rounded hedonist. So Terry gave us the eye, considered our foodie tendencies and spieled through a few options for lunch on GC. Watching our reactions carefully, he finally pronounced, "Yeah. You know, I think Icoa Cafe is the place for you. It's in the Seven Mile Shops strip mall. Don't be fooled by the appearance of the mall. The food is really good."

Now the strip mall is seriously unpreposessing, so the warning was very much needed. One would never imagine that there was a purveyor of food porn present given the humble setting, but as K. began using a cute little spoon to put some tapenade on the freshly baked bread, we were thinking that this was going to prove to be a serious find.

Because the appetizers looked so fabulous and because we had been eating and drinking a lot more food than we are accustomed to for the past week at Southern Cross Club, we elected to order a whole bunch of appetizers and forego the main dishes.

Dish after dish, we were not disappointed. Two tender scallops were in an unctous mushroom broth (definitely cream in that "broth!) with a few beautifully shaved pieces of parmesan. I honestly was a bit skeptical about the cheese in this context, but I loved it in practice. Or more specifically, in my mouth. And that bread basket required a refill so that we could sop up all that yummy broth!

A cylinder of chicken liver pate arrived with toasted pistachio nuts, fig compote and most interestingly a pot of honey and a honey dripper. Ohhhhhhh.....so unbelievably superb. I would have never thought to combine honey and pate myself, much less fig compote but it turned out to be an inspired combination.

After a sip of crisp Australian Pino Grigio, I would spread a little bit, consider whether or not with this taste I had accomplished everything I needed to in this world and whether or not I could depart with this swallow as my last deed on earth. I have to say that the chicken liver pate was truly unbelievable. I loved the texture and it's robust but not overpowering flavor. Both the honey and fig compote managed to be complementary without repetitive in the ways in which they added sweetness. And the simple, but inventive presentation of the honey in a shot glass with the mini-dripper struck me as delightfully pragmatic and still surprising at the same time.
After raving about the pate, I don't want to give too short shrift to the Blue Crab cakes with lemon verbena, sweet pea & mint "Gazpacho". It too was lovely and flavorful. Yet another win on the menu.
So the moral of the story here is:
a) Listen to your local hedonist when it comes to island food (which in the Caribbean is so often a crashing disappointment in comparison to the beautiful environs)
b) Never mind the strip mall because most of the islands are not generally known for their glorious architecture to begin with, right?
c) You dont need entrees when the appetizers rock the house. You have the advantage of being able to try many more items and see what the chef is all about.
The next time we're passing through Grand Cayman, we might just engineer a little layover at lunch hour on purpose!
Read the rest of this post...

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?