Friday, May 20, 2005

Administrivia: Subscribing to This Blog 

I posted this in the beginning of the year, but it's worth repeating. If you would prefer to get The Evangelist via email instead of checking the site, send an email to the-evangelist-subscribe AT yahoogroups.com. When you join this Yahoo! group, you will automatically receive emails with the contents of each new post to the site.
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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tribeca Film Festival - Part II 

As promised, here is the second (and final) set of reviews from the Tribeca Film Festival.

Transamerica (****)
I rarely comment on the circumstances of a screening, but this one merits it because the advance word on this film was totally out of control.

At the screening I attended, they overadmitted people and the aisles were full of angry unseated attendees. Despite the fact that festival administrators repeatedly announced that the screening would not start until the aisles were clear, many refused to leave the screening theatre for some fifteen minutes.

Hype aside, Transamerica is a very good film. It tells the story of Bree, male-to-female transsexual on the verge of getting the final surgery when a long lost son suddenly turns up. Refused permission by her counselor to go ahead with the surgery until she resolves her relationship with her heretofore unknown progeny, Bree sets off to find some way to expedite this process and get on with her operation. This desire kicks off a cross-country car trip with Bree and her son Toby; with Bree finding herself unable to own up to their true relationship and masquerading as a Christian missionary.

Felicity Huffman does a remarkable job with the role and there is well deserved buzz that she might garner an Oscar nomination. The entire cast, in fact, turns in terrific performances. Kevin Zegers delivers the goods on all fronts as Toby, a gorgeous gay hustler with strikingly low ambitions. And the divine Fionnula Flanagan fires off an outrageously tempestuous yet plausible performance as Bree’s unaccepting mother.

While there is obviously a lot of room for comedy in this plotline, Transamerica deals directly and sensitively with Bree’s condition, her desires and her relationships. It’s also very strong work on both fronts from writer/director Duncan Tucker and should bring him a fair bit of attention.

Mad Hot Ballroom (*** 1/2)
Speaking of festival buzz, Mad Hot Ballroom was the breakout film at Slamdance (the festival held simultaneously as Sundance is held) and was snapped up by Paramount Classics and Nickelodeon. We didn’t catch it in Park City so we were happy to have a chance at Tribeca. It’s now in wide release.

This documentary shows us a special New York City school program where ten and eleven year olds learn ballroom dancing at school and then teams from each school compete against each other.

While not a brilliant documentary structurally (it plays its hand too clearly throughout), it is a Mad Hot Ballroom is a dedicated crowd pleaser in every sense. The kids come in all flavors of precocious, from verbal skilled to physically adept to emotionally connected. And it is delightful to watch them dedicate themselves to this pastime that their great grandparents might have loved and which has been so neglected in successive generations.

The competition itself is also great fun. You get to witness, along with the professional judges (including Ann Reinking), the marvelous abilities of these underprivileged kids, many of whom have found real meaning in the competition and potentially a lifelong passion in dance. It’s mad. And it’s hot.

Neo Ned (***)
This is film whose premise along would doom it as a straight to video release, were it not for committed performances from Gabrielle Union and Jeremy Renner: throw together inside a mental institution are Ned, a neo-Nazi skinhead, and Rachel, a beautiful black woman who thinks she’s Hitler. They fall in love.

The script doesn’t try to hold this silly premise together for too long. Ned quickly turns out to be a charming troublemaker who just wants attention and Rachel a woman on the run from her past. But the actors rise above the risible material and make this a very watchable movie. They manage to ground us in the implausible and make us care about their characters. And thanks to the strength of their performances, the characters stay with you long after the troubled plotline has floated away.

It makes one wonder why Renner isn’t a star yet and why Union usually gets such bogus material to work with. (Actually, that’s easy. She’s a fantastically gorgeous black woman. Even Halle Berry has only had Monster’s Ball to acquit herself with. Then it was on to Catwoman.) Somebody needs to give these young talents a bigger break because they’re clearly capable of outstanding work.

The Illustrated Family Doctor (**)
An Australian film with the best of intentions. A young man working at a book packager (they abridge novels and the like) soldiers on after the death of his father. He struggles to navigate his dead end job and his dead end life, which gets increasingly surreal as the film progresses. Based on a novel - and it feels like it - The Illustrated Family Doctor manages to hold your attention, but despite everyone’s best efforts (cast, production design and direction), ultimately it doesn’t quite come together.

The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green (**)
Based on a queer comic strip, TMUSLOEG seemed to register a lot more with the largely gay male audience more than it did with me (despite my rampant metrosexuality).

Protagonist Ethan Green is searching for love and stumbling a lot along the way. He can’t seem to decide what he wants so as soon as he gets into a relationship, he’s finding his way out of it.

A farce with some entertaining moments, the film is hampered by a general lack of finesse in the material and the acting. Making matters worse, Daniel Letterle as Ethan seems to be miscast. If he is actually gay himself, he’s simply not that convincing. (Ouch.)
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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Tribeca Film Festival - Part I 

It’s happened again. I fell off the posting wagon. And it’s not because I haven’t had anything to write about either. We’ve been seeing a lot of films and plays. In fact, that’s part of the problem. K. and I have been so busy seeing stuff I haven’t had time to process it all! I think that perhaps I have to settle for more frequent shorter posts vs. the longer weekly essays I have been tending to write. We’ll see. In any case, It’s time to talk about the films we saw at the Tribeca Film Festival.

We began this film festival obsession at Sundance 2004 and Tribeca 2004 was our second festival ever. Sundance was so amazing and Tribeca was terribly disappointing; there were very few films that I enjoyed and overall I found the screenings to have sensationalist content combined with abysmal execution. It seemed like the dregs of the independent scene to me. So I was – understandably – tentative about returning.

Then the Tribeca guide went online and I was shocked at how much I wanted to see. The timing did not work out for us to be able to see as much as I would have liked, but we did pretty well nonetheless.

I should also point out that K. has said that I always “find some way to see something positive” in all the films I see and that I should institute a ratings system to give Evangelist readers a better sense of my response to a particular film, play or other event.

I would like to point out that part of the issue is that if I didn’t like something (unless it was at a festival and I summarize it with the rest of what we saw), I have not bothered to review it here. This blog is called The Evangelist and not The Detractor for a reason.

The fact is that year we have been subscribers to Manhattan Theatre Club, Second Stage Theatre and Brooklyn Academy of Music and the only show I reviewed here was Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. Tells you a lot by omission, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s a story for another post. Let’s return our attention to Tribeca, shall we? But before we do that, let’s talk ratings. Here’s what we’re going with:

One Star: Save your time! I wasted mine so you don’t have to waste yours.
Two Stars: Skip it. Unless there is something specific (subject matter, actor, director) about it that you know you want or need to see.
Three Stars: Worthwhile. While not perfect, it has something substantial to appreciate.
Four Stars: Very strong. You should put it high on your list of things to see.
Five Stars: Outstanding. The work will stay with you long after you see it.

Mysterious Skin (*****)
Greg Araki’s latest feature film is a truly remarkable work. Based on Scott Heim’s novel of the same name, Mysterious Skin tells the story of two young Kansans who grew up in the same town and each of whom had a specific childhood experience that they view as the defining moment of their life.

Neil fell in love with his Little League coach and was sexually abused by him. Brian suffers nosebleeds and fainting spells that he dates back to a faintly remembered experience of what may have been an alien abduction. Neil becomes a gay hustler and Brian spends his time trying to sort out and clarify his memories of the aliens. Both of them are pushed apart into very different lives and then gradually back together as Brian begins to recover fragments of his memory. Ultimately, they connect for a shattering moment of unlikely grace.

Araki has managed to do a wide range of extraordinary things with this film. He has gotten tremendous performances from his cast, including Brady Corbet as Brian and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil. (If you weren’t at Sundance, you probably remember Gordon-Levitt as the talented young physical comedian who played the alien son on Third Rock from the Sun. If you were at Sundance and didn’t see Mysterious Skin there, you might remember Gordon-Levitt as the star of Brick. In either case, stayed tuned. This young man promises to be the next Johnny Depp: a daring and very young actor who takes strong, quirky scripts and delivers top notch performances.) Araki has also managed to edit together incredibly frank scenes using very young children. They appear to show the abuse in action, although Araki explained at the Q&A that the children were filmed in a completely different context. Not since Hitchcock edited the Psycho shower scene has a director so effectively used their craft to make you think you see something that you never actually saw.

Mysterious Skin is a film that brings a full spectrum of experience to the viewer. It is different things at different moments: funny, shocking, engaging, moving, uncomfortable, beautiful and finally haunting.

I Am a Sex Addict (****)
Caveh Zahedi’s latest effort almost defies description. It is an autobiographical, somewhat documentary comedy with multiple streams of meta-commentary. Zahedi set out to make an autobiographical film about his struggle with his addiction to prostitutes. But fate intervened on several levels and the results are wonderfully unexpected and fresh.

Because Zahedi had no money, he had to recreate scenes from his life in cities where they didn’t happen. His freewheeling revelations of this sort of detail, which he addresses directly to the camera, provide one of the unusual levels of meta-commentary. Additionally, unbelievable coincidences in his casting process (which I’m loath to reveal) prod him to begin to address the camera about the actors he has chosen to portray key figures from his life experiences.

On top of all of this, Zahedi is unflinching in recreating the worst of his behaviors. He is brutal in showing his ability to continuously and hilariously justify his nonsensical strategies for trying to overcome his sex addiction, which ruined a number of ill-fated marriages.

I Am A Sex Addict resembles Ross McElwee’s seminal work Sherman’s March in its ability to let the audience get ahead of its protagonist as the story unravels, but also continuously and effectively throws wrenches into our expectations due to the creativity in its storytelling and filmmaking. Also like Sherman’s March, it’s a longer story than it needs to be although it’s a fraction of a fault by comparison. For all its joys, Sherman’s March overstayed its welcome by as much as ninety minutes and managed to be successful due to in spite of that. This film is only a wee bit longer than need be.

I Am A Sex Addict is well worth catching when it comes your way. It’s funny, fresh and creative.

The Power of Nightmares (****)
The Power of Nightmares is a BBC documentary that all Americans who want alternate points of view about the Bush Administration and its engagement with Al Qaeda should see.

The premise of the documentary is that two schools of disciples are in conflict with each other: those who follow the teachings of Islamic fundamentalist Said Qutb and the American Neoconservatives who follow the teachings of University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss.

Both groups were dismayed at their perception that liberalism failed to make the world a better place. And both groups believed that only a vanguard spinning a mythology that would engage the masses uniting for a common cause could make the world better.

Having failed at coming up with a positive mythology, both sides settled on nightmares to establish power and authority. The fundamentalists use the nightmare of “Western corruption” of Islam and their countries. The Neocons use “freedom” and the “war on terror”.

While the film suffers from a certain amount of didacticism and would benefit from more detailed “hard evidence” (as much as that is possible) to support its claims, it pulls together a striking alternate view of our current world situation: that both the Neocons and the Islamists were facing complete irrelevancy. The Cold War ended and the Neocons had no enemy left to give them meaning. The Islamists tried and failed for many years in Algeria and elsewhere to foment revolution, but failed. Bin Laden and Al Zwahiri were desperately trying to achieve relevance when they happened to fund “the planes operation”, an idea created by a separate group and funded by Bin Laden as a sort of venture terrorist. Up until that point, there never was an “Al Qaeda” as we have come to perceive it in the news. But with the execution of the “planes operation” both the Neocons and the Islamists found an enemy and a new and terrible raison d’etre.

This concludes the first group of Tribeca reviews. Stay tuned for the rest of this festival's reviews in a subsequent post.
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