Sunday, February 10, 2008

I have been getting regular complaints from certain parties for quite some time about the fact that The Evangelist became defunct.

This blog originally arose out of my fears of joining a large corporation some four years ago. I was concerned about a general lack of/loss of creativity in my life and I launched this site to keep a certain spark alive.

As it happens, I ended up enjoying both my corporate gig and keeping this site alive so both prospered together for quite some time. Then I accidentally got promoted two years ago. Being less interested in “tidbit blogging” and given to writing essay-style posts, I found it too hard to maintain the dedication required for keeping this site current. And – like going to the gym – once out of the habit, it became quite daunting to getting back in the game.

In any case, I wanted to share an update about this year’s Sundance pilgrimage and it seemed like this site is really the best place to do it, so I’m back for the nonce. We’ll see if any more posts squeak out of my brain in the coming weeks.

So on to the topic at hand. In the tradition of Sherpa Dan, I will force rank this year’s flicks from favorite to least favorite.

Young@Heart *****
This documentary is the rare film that runs the entire emotional spectrum: I laughed, I gasped, I groaned, and I sobbed. Quirky modern day saint Bob Cilman leads a chorus of 80+ year olds in renditions of songs by Sonic Youth, The Rolling Stones, James Brown and Coldplay.

It’s a tough repertoire that they don’t always relate to at first and Cilman gives no badges for showing up or for just trying. These choristers are made to work and work hard. He stretches their memories, their cultural boundaries and their minds; challenging them to stay vital members of the Y@H community of performers who tour in the US and abroad.

The documentary form is stretched a bit in fun ways by the inclusion of music videos where the Y@H team gamely showcases their theatrical skills in addition to their vocal ones. But truly the price of admission is Fred Knittle’s heartbreakingly gorgeous solo performance of Coldplay’s “Fix You”. I can hardly read what I’m typing through the tears as I recall it even now.

Man on Wire *****
“Man on Wire” is the compliant filed against Philippe Petit for wirewalking between the Twin Towers. This gripping, amusing documentary is pretty much guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser in the art houses. One of the few docs that have ever used dramatic recreations to brilliant effect, “Man on Wire” takes us from the early plotting of the caper through its daring and successful execution; a story combining artistic obsession, Keystone Kops slapstick, acrobatic talent, megalomania, and the blissful naïveté of the pre-9/11 world to unleash an extraordinary moment of breathless grace into the memory of the city hat never sleeps.

Traces of the Trade ****1/2
Brave documentarian Katrina Browne confronts her family’s legacy as the largest slave trading family in the history of United States and uncovers the implicit complicity of much of the population of the northern states in the process. Uncovering the uncomfortable truth about their past, Browne invited 9 members of various branches to join her in retracing the Triangle Trade from Bristol, Rhode Island to the slave trading ports of Ghana and the sugar cane plantations of Cuba.

This movie (and an accompanying book) will make great centerpieces for all American communities who wish to set up programs to actively discuss, explore and potentially redress the repercussions of human bondage in American history.

Towelhead ****
Alan Ball’s feature film directorial debut is going to piss lots of folks off. First of all, it’s going to annoy many simply by its content: a half-Lebanese tween discovers the power and perils of her emerging sexuality with the help of her mother’s boyfriend, her Army Reservist neighbor, and her more age appropriate African-American boyfriend.

Tackling teenage sexuality, racism, pedophilia, and misogyny in one blow is pretty much what we might expect from the screenwriter of “American Beauty” and the creator of “Six Feet Under”. And this leads to another group of folks who are likely to be annoyed: those Ball fans who feel he’s repeating himself here. While he didn’t write the novel on which the movie is based, it’s clear that he has favorite themes and he’s far from done dramatizing them. (I couldn’t help feeling that “Towelhead” represented Ball’s desire to have directed “American Beauty” himself.)

Those reservations aside, “Towelhead” is still a compulsively watchable film. There are standout performances from Summer Bishil as protagonist Jasira, Maria Bello as her mother, and Aaron Eckhardt as her neighbor Mr. Vuoso (and I’m not normally a fan of Mr. Eckhardt at all). I’m also a fan of quirky Peter Macdissi who plays Jasir’s father Rifat. He stole every single scene he was in on “Six Feet Under” as the bisexual Svengali art teacher Olivier. And I was thrilled to see him given a leading role here. (Now my friend Josh is an experienced Hollywood denizen and he not only walked out of the film, he found Macdissi to read as blatantly gay. I understand his take. But I find Macdissi’s energy to match with my experience of any number of Arab and/or Muslim men, who while may come from a macho culture, can still read as metrosexual or gay vague to a Western observer.)

Choke ***1/2
Choke is adapted from “Fight Club” scribe Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name and represents a solid debut directorial effort from Clark Gregg, one of my favorite unsung actors. Starring Sam Rockwell as a sex-addicted, historical recreator (think Colonial Williamsburg) who’s struggling with his oddball mother’s decline. Full of puzzling plotlines, chockablock with outré sexual shenanigans, and pulled together by a strong case, “Choke” is a very credible effort to bring a challenging script to the screen. While not ultimately moving in the way it had the potential to be, it’s still full of fun and interesting bits and pieces and I suspect that it may well find itself a cult audience amongst the Palahniuk and Nicholson Baker fans.

Sleep Dealer ***
In the near future, outsourcing is accomplished by importing foreign labor without the foreign bodies: Mexican laborers remotely operate robots performing blue collar work (such as construction) in the United States. Building on the cyberpunk concepts of William Gibson and others, writer/director Alex Rivera has crafted a really neat little science fiction film that manages to successful cram a ton of political questions between its opening and closing titles, including water scarcity, immigration, free trade, globalization and the visible imbalance of wealth between nations. While it ties itself up a little too neatly at the end, it’s still a valiant effort.

Be Like Others ***
“If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” So speaks Fabian in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night” and so will you feel too when you learn about this peculiarity of the gay life in modern Iran: you may be stoned to death for being gay, but as the result of a fatwa made by the Ayatollah Khomeini himself you are allowed to have a sex change! Yes, indeed. This documentary takes us to a gender reassignment clinic in Tehran where hundreds of surgeries are performed so that homosexuals can continue to reside in their native country. Truly unbelievable until you see it for yourself.

The Black List, Vol. One ***
Elvis Mitchell interviews notable African American’s for Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary. While not every interview is riveting, many of them are. Mitchell is off camera and unheard, but his probing questions brought some new and unexpected responses out of many familiar faces, including the Reverend Al Sharpton and Colin Powell. Highly educational on a number of levels and well worth seeing for those of us who enjoy the occasional festival of talking heads.

Phoebe in Wonderland ***
An unsuccessful effort overall, but full of wondrous elements nonetheless, not least of which is a terrific performance from young Elle Fanning as Phoebe.

A young girl struggles with an unnamed challenge that seems to incorporate hallucinations and compulsion. Phoebe is only “normal” in the context of rehearsals for a school production of “Alice in Wonderland” (presided over by the always wonderful Patricia Clarkson).

A talented cast that includes Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman as Phoebe’s parents, Peter Gerety as her shrink, and Campbell Scott as the principal of her school, work very hard to try to string the pearls on the necklace of this fantastical script and often succeed. In the end, however, first timer Daniel Barnz resorts to some tired clichés in both script and direction that are overly calculated to pull heartstrings.

Sunshine Cleaning ** ½
Let me start by saying could probably watch Amy Adams read the phone book. She stole my heart in 2005’s “Junebug”(for which she won a special jury prize at Sundance) and I thought Disney’s “Enchanted” would have been nigh impossible without her miraculously transcendent and emotionally transparent performance.

“Sunshine Cleaning” allows Adams, partnered with the fine Emily Blunt, to do the thing she’s proven she can do well: present a vulnerable character struggling to make a life for herself. But beyond showcasing Adams and Blunt, it is simply yet another Sundance story of how people make sense of life when life doesn’t make sense. Nice enough if you happen to catch it on cable, but not essential viewing

American Son **
A young soldier is called up to Iraq and has 72 hours for a whirlwind affair and separation from his family and friends. Nick Cannon and Melonie Diaz as the star-crossed lovers acquit themselves adequately. But the overall effort has a workman-like aura and the story, while quite timely, still manages to feel somewhat shopworn. Quite watchable, just not extraordinary.

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? **
Morgan Spurlock’s sophomore effort, this falls far short of both “Supersize Me” and his also his strong docu-TV series “30 Days”. It’s a shame because it starts out very strong and then declines throughout the film. Part of the problem here is the premise: Spurlock decides that in the time that his long-suffering partner is pregnant (!!), he will run off to try to track down OBL. In order to forgive this blatant megalomania, he’d have to have come back with a much stronger film. Instead, we get a lot of what the choir being preached to already knows: man-in-the-street interviews that demonstrate they hate our government in the Muslim world and some of them forgive “the American people” for electing it; others do not. Duh.

Roman Polanski *
A documentary on the case that sent Polanski out of the US forever, this film is primarily of interest for revealing how peculiarly the wheels of justice turned in this instance. Polanski, while guilty of having sex with an underage girl, was clearly also himself the victim of judicial misconduct. Given this revelation, this could have been a fascinating movie, but I found it shockingly bland.

Savage Grace
I have rarely seen such a beautifully photographed failure. I think this script wanted to be something along the lines of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, but instead the best that can be said for this truly awful film is that it does stand a chance of becoming a camp classic.

Based on a true story, this Julianne Moore feature is overrun by Kabuki-style acting and a plot bloated with sexual misconduct. Jacobean dramas were noted as bloodbaths where most of the characters murdered each other in the final moments. This overwrought misadventure is some sort of nihilist Jacobean sex drama where most of the characters fornicate with each other in various combinations until the increasingly frenzied plot climaxes (pun intended) with mother-son incest on the living room couch.

The audience I saw this with laughed in all the wrong places. Enough said.
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