Film Threat Review: Grassroots

2012
Rated R
100 minutes

****

There’s a scene in Cameron Crowe’s film “Singles” in which Campbell Scott pitches to Mayor Tom Skerritt the Supertrain: a high speed commuter train which he believes would solve Seattle’s horrendous traffic problems. The Mayor smiles and nods throughout the impassioned speech. But when Scott is done, Skerritt shuts him down in four words. He’d made up his mind before Scott even opened his mouth. This scene perfectly sums up Seattle’s perpetual transportation issue. There are always people pushing to build one effective public transportation system, but our car-happy government is resistant to it, instead focusing on the roads, which only become more congested. Though they did approve a billion-dollar novelty streetcar to Paul Allen so that we now have not one, but TWO extremely slow trains, neither of which travels more than 2 miles.

Stephen Gyllenhaal’s new film, “Grassroots,” is based on the “mostly true” story of music-critic-turned-politician Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), whose passion for making the touristy Seattle Monorail a viable commuter option led to a bid for City Council in 2001. “Singles” was released in 1992. In 2012, Seattle STILL hasn’t resolved the issue. That’s twenty years of congestion (both governmental and vehicular). If you lived here, you wouldn’t be home by now.

If you’re already bored to tears reading about transportation in Seattle, you might want to skip “Grassroots.” That’s mostly what it’s about. On the other hand, if you have even a passing interest in political activism, you just may get something out of it anyway.

An antagonistic idealist, Cogswell is tired of seeing his beloved cityscape marred by gridlock. So he enlists his friend, Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs), a freshly unemployed journalist, to be his campaign manager. They assemble a peaceable collective of rag-tag youths and embark on an uphill battle to unseat the deep-seated incumbent who stands in the way of their vision of a traffic-free Seattle.

Based on the book “Zioncheck for President,” written by the real Phil Campbell, “Grassroots” is very much a Seattle film. It’s difficult to imagine this story happening in any other city (except maybe Portlandia). Gyllenhaal (who also co-wrote the script) and cinematographer Sean Porter do an excellent job setting the scene. In fact, the authenticity is almost surreal for a local such as myself (especially since I voted for Cogswell in that very election). Though I found the name-dropping of local businesses and culture a little distracting, it was quite a treat it is to see a Seattle-set film that was actually shot on location. There have been several films shot here as of late, but this is not in keeping with tradition. It would certainly soften the impact for Grant Cogswell to gush about his passion for the Emerald City, whilst gesturing toward Vancouver B.C.

Cogswell’s idealism is contagious. But because of his foul-mouthed abrasiveness, his campaign gets off to a rocky start. He mostly speaks with his outdoor voice, spouting fervent, but not always articulate, speeches. He is, in every way, a foil to his opponent. The incumbent, Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer) isn’t a bad guy, but he is a career politician who knows how to work the system to get what he wants. Cogswell is not a politician and the system isn’t working for him, so he sees his campaign as a moral imperative. Politics tends to be very loosely related to actually accomplishing any significant structural change. Grassroots campaigns like Cogswell’s attract people for whom politics is more ideology than paycheck. It’s an indispensable form of checks and balances.

Just when Cogswell’s campaign starts to gather momentum, 9/11 happens and it is temporarily derailed. Gyllenhaal crafts the most accurate and honest cinematic depiction I’ve ever seen of the emotional fallout after helplessly watching those buildings crumble and burn. Seattle is 3000 miles away from Ground Zero, yet our world seemed to come to a halt as everyone tried to process those images and figure out how to carry on. Inevitably, things became divisive, but during those early days, everyone was on the same page. Reportedly one of the bigger moments of artistic license, the movie version of Grant Cogswell decides that what he must do to counteract the destruction is to build that monorail. He delivers this message in a rousing speech to a bunch of stunned canvassers who are suitably inspired. Even if that specific scene never really occurred, elements of his speech still ring exceedingly true.

Not so relevant, however, is a fabricated subplot in which the campaign negatively affects Campbell’s relationship with his live-in girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose). It’s an awkward, unnecessary attempt to insert someone with boobs into the narrative (besides the miniscule part Cobie Smulders has as a monorail activist). Fortunately, it doesn’t detract too much from the more significant themes of passion, perseverance, and community.

Amidst all this seriousness is still a fair amount of comedy. Surprisingly, Jason Biggs is the straight man for much of it. Several jokes have an “in” quality, especially ones involving the weekly hipster rag with which Campbell and Cogswell (along with much of Seattle) have undulating relationships. Nonetheless, a character as idiosyncratic as Cogswell can’t help but produce a couple of laughs from the population at large. People of a certain age will also get a hearty chuckle out of the pre-Smartphone tribulations depicted.

Though “Grassroots” is, first and foremost, a film for the campaign’s contemporaries, it’s also a call-to-action to modern youth everywhere to get involved in local politics. When things aren’t really going our way, it’s easy to forget that every vote really does count.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF Review: Joshua Tree, 1950 – A Portrait of James Dean

2012 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
93 minutes

**

The shorter a star’s career, the less the world learns about them. The less the world learns about a star, the more brilliant and mysterious they seem. We’ll never know what James Dean could have been as an actor. “Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean” wants us to believe that he could have been one of the greatest in the history of the business, had his craft been allowed to flourish. Unfortunately, Matthew Mishory’s reverent film inadvertently does the man a disservice. The black and white cinematography, by Michael Marius Pessah, is breathtaking, making a Hollywood mogul’s clothing-optional pool party seem every bit as picturesque as the titular dessert. But the pseudo-intellectual dialog combined with James Preston’s stiff acting are so distracting, one comes away with the impression that James Dean was actually worth little more than a pretty face and a roll in the hay.

Writer/director, Matthew Mishory liberally utilizes what they call “artistic license” to profile the actor on the cusp of fame. The loosey-goosey plot follows in a non-linear fashion as Dean navigates the seedy side of the casting couch, has intense candle-lit conversations with his less-than-platonic male roommate and takes method-acting classes. He also embarks on a road trip to the dessert with an aspiring actress and his aforementioned roommate all while having no-strings-attached trysts with whomever asks. These events lead up to Dean’s exodus to Broadway. We never see a successful version of him. If people like Channing Tatum and Megan Fox didn’t exist, this film would make his eventual star status incredulous.

There’s a reason Mishory used the word “portrait” instead of “bio-pic.” He’s made an art house film with an overwhelming emphasis on the word “art” This gives the story a lot of leeway. It’s much harder to criticize art than it is traditional film because the very nature of the format is open to interpretation. Of course, art criticism is not impossible. Lovers of French New Wave cinema and the films of Guy Maddin will enjoy the disjointed, visual poetry format. Others will find it challenging if not annoyingly self-important.

The references to Rimbaud and Hemingway are meant to make the audience see Dean as a great thinker himself. But all of his conversations sound more like pretentious quote-offs, the likes of which you might find at any liberal arts college dormitory at 2am. No one is really making a connection in these conversations. They are merely trying to out-do each other. Perhaps this is what passed for deep thought in 1951 Hollywood (and possibly even today), but it is not fooling anyone who actually studied these authors. At one point, Dean utilizes the phrase “Catch 22” ten years before Joseph Heller coined it in his novel. Obviously, this reflects more poorly on Mishory’s screenwriting than it does on his quasi-fictional character. But it certainly doesn’t help the case that Dean was an intellectual.

The film’s strength is in its visuals. Mishory decorated his film with beautiful, often naked people. There are numerous graphic love scenes involving Dean’s many male and female lovers, which arrive just in time to keep you from getting too bored. Naked butts look terrific on black and white film. There’s an argument to be made for watching with the sound off and the remote in hand. Its beauty is marred whenever it opens its mouth. Bad ADR in points further detracts.

I also have to give Mishory credit for capturing a time and place. The indoor sets are tight and scarce, leaving little opportunity to question the authenticity of the era. And there are few things more timeless than a desert. All you need is an era-appropriate car and cigarette-smoking young actor with a wrinkly forehead to believe that you are with James Dean in 1951. It’s too bad about that script.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF REVIEW: GAYBY

2012 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
89 minutes

****
Does every set of male/female BFFs have a pact of some sort? It certainly seems so. In “Gayby,” the pact is between Jenn and Matt who, in college, agreed that they would breed together if they haven’t found the men of their respective dreams by the time Jenn’s biological clock starts winding down. Loosely based on a real (but unfulfilled) pact he made with a college friend, writer/director Jonathan Lisecki extended his acclaimed short film into a feature-length story. The result is a film that is consistently fun and silly, but never over-the-top and, despite some Hollywood moments, feels quite genuine.

After listening to her sister lament her international adoption troubles, Jenn, a thirty-something hot yoga instructor, decides that she doesn’t have time to keep picking through the New York dating pool. She needs fertile sperm and she needs it now. So she calls upon her best friend, Matt (Matthew Wilkas), to make good on their deal.

Matt is having trouble getting back into dating after a bad breakup. His despair is exacerbated by the fact that his ex works for the very comic publishing company to whom Matt wants to pitch his own book. Worse yet, the ex’s job enables him to keep making “business related” visits to Matt’s comic shop, leaving Matt perpetually on edge. Matt is slightly resistant to the idea, but he tells Jenn he’s game, if only to keep his mind focused on creation instead of destruction. They will raise the baby together and their search for romantic partners will thus be detached from their desire to have a family.

But there’s one caveat. Jenn would like to conceive “the old fashioned way.” This is the one plot point that felt a little forced to me. Jenn never really gives a valid reason for why she wants it this way. I can understand the aversion to the expense and invasiveness of involving doctors. But squeezing a turkey baster full of baby batter into her nether regions is one of the least horrifying things that will happen to her on the road to motherhood. It’s fast, clean and couldn’t be cheaper. Nonetheless, their arrangement provides the comedy gold that comes from a gay man and a straight woman attempting to do what most certainly does not come naturally.

When the first time is not a charm, they realize they are going to need some help. For this, they turn to a number of sources including their friend Nelson. Lisecki himself plays Nelson, a resourceful sort who peppers his advice with the witticisms of a modern-day Oscar Wilde. Jenn seeks help from a naturopath in the form of horny goat weed, which in addition to making her more fertile, also boosts her energy level to eleven and, perhaps unsurprisingly, makes her very horny. Hilarity ensues.

Lisecki is keenly aware of his lead actress’ talents and how to showcase them. Jennifer Harris fully utilizes her role with the physical comedy and eccentric presence of a young Carol Kane. She is most impressive when engaged in vocationally enhanced sex and trying to find ways to expend all her excess energy. Some of Jenn’s antics are so bizarre that they can only be innate to the actress playing her. I hope to see Jennifer Harris again soon (and not relegated to some “best friend” role either).

The supporting cast is chock full of talent and every character gets at least one good line. Lisecki has a real flair for zingers. He gives more than a few to Jenn’s “work best friend,” played with effortless charm by Jack Fervor. Matt and Jenn may have trouble conceiving, but they are lush in the awesome friend department. Refreshingly, none of the deterrents they encounter involve narrow-mindedness of any sort. Their world may be devoid of Mr. Rights, but it is full of judgment-free people, whose arguments hardly ever get more serious than debating Johnny Storm’s sexuality.

Fantastic though it might sound, the plot of “Gayby” is still firmly planted in the real world. Jenn isn’t secretly in love with Matt. But she does love him and he loves her. With archaic laws still in place and adoption an elusive option for even straight couples, Matt and Jenn’s decision is really not all that crazy. Divorce rates suggest that a nuclear family is not necessarily the best scenario for everyone. Jenn and Matt, along with the rest of their social circle, were already a loving family. Why not create a child out of that love? What every kid needs, much more than a married, heterosexual set of parents, is someone to love them and support them unconditionally. Mitt Romney might not agree but, like it or not, this is the new normal. And it seems to be working out just fine.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

Hotter with a Beard: David Bowie Edition

A friend of mine recently directed me to this little feature on normally clean-shaven celebrities with beards. I’ve covered some of these people before and others aren’t so hot no matter how much hair they have (but who knew that Phil Collins invented the trucker hat hipster?). Of course, David Bowie looks amazing with a beard. This is a man who somehow gets sexier with every passing year. He can don a spiked, orange mullet and paint a lightening bolt on his face, or even wear a Tina Turner-style wig and a Bea Arthur formal blouse, but he’ll always look like sex personified.

With a beard, he just looks like a normal bloke. Or else a normal, effortlessly hip English Lit professor who everybody has a crush on.

Good one, Bowie.

SIFF Review: Extraterrestrial

2012 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
90 minutes

***

Whenever an alien species invades Earth, there are people who rise up and band together, showing their true quality in the epic fight for survival. And then there are the other guys. Nacho Vigalondo’s (“Timecrimes”) latest film is about the people without a heroic bone in their body and what they get up to during the downtime between the shit and the fan. It’s a bold and original idea, but it seems to promise a little more than it delivers.

Julio (Julian Villagran) and Julia (Michelle Jenner) awake in her apartment, having blackened out the events that put them in bed together. As Julia shoves Julio toward the door, they happen to notice an enormous spacecraft hovering over their unexpectedly deserted city. Something big went down while they were sobering up and they are the last to know. Cell phones are out of commission and the news broadcast urges everyone to remain in their homes. This is the first time sci-fi audiences have ever met the people who followed that advice. Julia’s stalker neighbor, Angel (“The Last Circus” star Carlos Areces, making a career out of creepy, lovelorn characters) also stays behind, most likely to live out his last-man-on-Earth fantasy with Julia. He’s none too pleased to find that Julio has gotten in the way of this.

The only other character in the film is Julia’s boyfriend, Carlos (Raul Cimas) who has traveled some great distance, risking his own safety, to get to her. Carlos is an expat from a traditional sci-fi action film. He’s so obsessed with the idea of saving the day that he is completely oblivious to the love affair that is blossoming between his girlfriend and another man right under his nose. Angel is eager to spill the beans, but Carlos runs off to be a hero before that can happen. Besides, he doesn’t really seem like he would even care that much. He’s far more concerned with events occurring in the world outside.

The only trouble with “Extraterrestrial” is that you don’t really understand what kind of movie it is until it’s over. The frequent jokes and antics clue you in to the satire, but the title implies more (or at least some) participation from otherworldly beings. Instead, we spend the entire time in a “Three’s Company” episode without even a peep from Mork.

Nearly everything in “Extraterrestrial” takes place in Julia and Carlos’ apartment. In another movie, this would create a claustrophobic tone. But because of the tomfoolery between Julio, Julia and Angel, it actually ends up bringing the whole thing into sitcom territory, complete with a wacky neighbor. Angel is increasingly incensed by the goings on between Julio and Julia and makes it his mission to destroy them. He is a cartoon character who is mortally offended when they undervalue a gift of poached peaches. The actors occasionally seem like they want to shift to a more serious tone, particularly when Carlos reveals that the aliens are rumored to walk among them in human form, but their characters’ primary motivations prevent it. They are far too invested in their little love triangle, which, ironically, doesn’t really involve Julia’s boyfriend.

Julio and Julia are perfect for each other. They are so self-absorbed that they can’t really be bothered with the giant spaceship hovering above their city. Angel shares their dubious priorities. These people would die wordlessly in any other alien invasion movie.

“Extraterrestrial” is the story of alien weapon fodder. They’ll sit and wait for what’s to come because they have no other choice. But while they’re awaiting instructions from their new overlords, they might as well engage in some romantic shenanigans.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF Review: Paul Williams Still Alive

2012 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
84 minutes

**

If you think about it, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is a somewhat insulting title for a documentary about the diminutive, floppy haired jack of all entertainment trades who served as director Stephen Kessler’s childhood idol. In his new film, Kessler never misses a chance to call Williams a has-been, even while he professes his own undying devotion. This is probably the real reason Kessler didn’t have any friends when he was growing up. That may sound like a cheap shot, but Kessler is the one who invites the audience into his personal life. There are few things more narcissistic than making a documentary about you, which is probably why Stephen Kessler tried to make it seem like his film is actually about Paul Williams. A more accurate title would have been “Stephen Kessler: Please Notice Me”.

It’s possible that Kessler feels a little guilty about this. He leaves in several instances of Williams scolding him for attempting to insinuate drama and discontent where there is none. It’s true that the composer behind some of the most beautiful songs ever written (including several Carpenter’s songs and “The Rainbow Connection”) disappeared for a while to battle drug and alcohol addiction. But he left all that behind almost twenty years ago and has since found an inner peace on the road, playing to small but enthusiastic crowds as he travels all around the world with his wife.

Kessler tries the best he can to drum up Behind the Music-style melodrama, but Williams is having none of it. Kessler has no idea how to gently coax an honest moment out of his subject, opting for a passive-aggressive approach that is clearly messing with Williams’ harmony. So Kessler instead turns the camera on himself, making it the story of how a Paul Williams super fan came to fulfill his childhood dream of professionally pestering his hero. If you go into the film with zero knowledge of the documentarian or subject, you will know more about the filmmaker within the first fifteen minutes than you will about the person you tuned in to see.

To be fair, it is Williams who suggests that Kessler officially join the narrative, but I kind of think it’s because he wanted a break from interviews full of leading questions. Eventually, Williams seems to warm to Kessler, as they bond over a taste for squid and the nervous giddiness of traveling through terrorist-ridden Philippine jungles where Americans aren’t super popular. That’s more of a testament to Williams’ magnanimous personality than it is to misconceived first impressions.

I have to give the editor credit. He seems to sense when Kessler overstays his welcome and distracts with footage from Williams’ heyday. These clips are the real reason to watch the film. He’s had guest spots on a million TV shows (hyperbole) and has been working pretty steadily, even throughout his wet years.

This is a man who was on Johnny Carson fifty times (not hyperbole) and acted in several films including the “Smokey and the Bandit” series and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” He also wrote some incredible soundtracks including Brian De Palma’s ahead-of-it’s-time camp classic “Phantom of the Paradise” and the goddamned “Muppet Movie.” Most notably, he was a hit-maker for Three Dog Night, Elvis, Bowie, Sinatra and Barbara Streisand, with whom he also shares an Academy Award for “Evergreen.”

With flamboyant clothes, mop top hair and elfin features, he had a very unusual look, even by seventies standards. With no Channing Tatumness to fall back on, he achieved success with pure talent and charisma. Not many people can say that. A man this accomplished is certainly worthy of cinematic celebration. I hope that someday, a filmmaker comes along who can give that to him.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF Review: Lola Versus

2012 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
89 minutes

***

Sometimes, in the course of writing about a movie I liked, I come to find that my first impression might have been hasty. Ostensibly, “Lola Versus” follows the long-overdue trend of Rom Com re-invention pioneered by “Bridesmaids” and HBO’s “Girls.” But I’m beginning to wonder if the movie only works so well because of Greta Gerwig in the titular role. The moment that planted this seed of doubt in my brain occurred when, at the post-screening Q&A, scribes Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones identified the city of New York as “a character in the film.” (Note to people who make films in New York: We get it. You love your city. Now please shut up about it.) If the writers would say something so pretentious and cliché about their film, perhaps it’s not really as groundbreaking as it seems. Nonetheless, Gerwig’s congeniality and omnipresence are clearly enough to distract from the film’s problems.

Lola is a 29-year-old post-doc student who is bursting with contentment in her New York loft that she shares with Luke, her handsome artist fiancé. But when Luke abruptly calls off the wedding, Lola finds her once-perfect world in upheaval. As a result, she finds herself at odds with the world as she descends into a shame spiral of binge eating, extreme cleansing and sexual rebounding. Much of Lola’s floundering would be tedious in the hands of a conventional actress (like a Heigl or a J-Lo). I don’t know how versatile Gerwig is, but she’s damned good at playing affably troubled women.

There are many “versus” with whom Lola is contending. But the appalling double standard regarding oat sewing is one of the big ones. After two of her paramours run into each other, Lola is blindsided by admonition. “I’m slutty, but I’m a good person,” she protests. Even in these sexually liberal modern timey times, nice women are not supposed to have meaningless sex. If a man doesn’t say, “let’s be exclusive,” he’s not her boyfriend and is therefore free to have his cake and eat hers too (cake being a metaphor for lady junk). But if a woman has sex with a man once, they are dating unless he explicitly says they aren’t.

There are other genuinely astute observations in “Lola Versus.” Many involve affectionate ridicule of hipster culture (Lola binges on rice chips. A man at the butcher shop asks in-depth questions about the origins of their meat). Lola’s scenes with the embodiment of nightmare dates (played to the hilt by Ebon Moss-Bachrach) will be cringingly familiar for much of the female audience. These elements make it seem miles apart from the vacuous Rom Coms that trivialize romantic relationships. But Lola still has a male best-friend-turned love interest (Hamish Linklater, doing his best with a generic character). She also has a piss and vinegar-laden female best friend, Alice (Lister-Jones), who dispenses love advice amidst her own romantic failures. Alice also furnishes the film with saucy jokes because you can’t have a comedy about modern women without someone casually mentioning their vaginal hygiene. I’m sure a lot of people will find her character delightfully irreverent, but I’m getting a little tired of that schtick. Why does a normalish female protagonist always have to surround herself with snark robots?

If you ask me, Lola gets a little screwed over by her friends who are at least partially responsible for driving her to the brink of insanity. It’s hardly surprising given her limited social circle. With Luke out of the picture, she is left only with Henry and Alice for support. For a while, she finds solace with Henry until he confesses to having a long time crush on her just when she is at her most vulnerable (one of the more realistic plot contrivances). She gets along with her parents but, despite their liberal leanings, they don’t have any advice beyond feeble parental platitudes. When Henry and Alice get sanctimonious toward the end of the film, Lola falls through her already weak safety net into an epic bender. However, the script never calls them on their friendship lapse, seemingly placing the blame entirely on Lola’s shoulders. This rubbed me the wrong way during the film and only continues to fester the more I mull it over.

At one point, Lola shares a revelation that the old adage about not being able to love others till you love yourself is backward. She won’t be able to love herself until she learns to love other people. For her sake, I hope she finds some lovable people soon.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).