Reeler Archive for January, 2006

Leave in Silence, Flee in Terror: Sundance 2006 Calls it a Festival

From the back seat of a car on the way to the Salt Lake City Airport, I am picking up the pieces of my severe Sundance Day 10 wall-smack and placing them in the only context my devastated mind will allow: It is over. Saturday’s awards ceremony lasted a relatively quick 90 minutes, mostly painless with the exception of a world cinema juror falling off the stage and Alexander Payne’s Barbarino haircut.

In Between Days filmmakers So Yong Kim (L) and Bradley Rust Gray, caught on a screen grab from the press steerage-class quarters “anterior room” during Saturday’s Sundance Awards Show (Photo: STV)

In fact, several New York filmmakers (all covered over the last few weeks by The Reeler, not quite coincidentally) enjoyed an impressive showing in the final tallies, with Hilary Brougher claiming the festival’s screenwriting prize for her Stephanie Daley; Dito Montiel taking home a directing and ensemble cast award for A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (“I’m taking it back to New York for all of the kids,” he told The Reeler after the awards, “But I’m still gonna keep it.”); So Yong Kim winning the Independent Vision Award for her brilliant In Between Days (“Yeah, New Yorkers were great tonight,” she told me, pumping her fist. “We rocked.”); Carter Smith receiving the Shorts Jury Prize for Bugcrush; and, of course, Chris Quinn accepting both the Audience Award and Special Jury Prizes for his Sudanese Lost Boys documentary, God Grew Tired of Us. Along with dramatic competition winner Quinceanera, the two films were the first in festival history to win both top prizes in the same year.
Then Half Nelson got picked up by ThinkFilm, some asshole stole my scarf at last night’s awards after-party and I decided that does it: I need a couple of days off. So congrats to all the New York filmmakers, crew and actors who crashed the Sundance party in 2006; after a month or eight of therapy, I should be ready to tackle the Class of 2007. Much sooner–say, Feb. 1–I will be back at Reeler HQ with an attempt to reclaim a working knowledge of what’s happening around this city of ours. As always, thanks for reading, and I will catch you in a couple of days.

Sundance 2006: All Over But the Flying (and Maybe Some Hardware)

Well, that was fun. A four-film marathon closed out my Sundance viewing experience Friday, with Dito Montiel’s uber-hyped A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints occupying The Reeler’s closing-night slot. Festival staff outside the Library screening venue stopped handing out wait list placeholders around No. 200, and inside the theater itself, the Saints buzz bounced from seat to seat, aisle to aisle, wall to wall. Anyone who was not chatting about the film’s sales potential was yammering about its front-running candidacy for a festival prize. All in all, even as the lights dimmed at 11:34 p.m., the Library may have been the only place in Park City where adrenaline seemed to have overtaken fatigue.
Of course, that has as much to do with the quality of Montiel’s (above) quasi-coming-of-age film as the bloodrush associated with scoring a ticket to see it. Saints is a lightning bolt of a movie, brilliant in its kinetic vistas of Astoria, Queens, and smoldering aftermaths of violence and chaos. Granted, it is nothing you have not seen in one fashion or another before; Montiel leans unapologetically on the cinema of Scorsese, Lee, Cassavetes and (in one especially odd, derivative sequence) even P.T. Anderson. But in its hybrid of family drama and urban mystique, Saints inhabits a space wedged between total control and total inexperience. You know what you are watching, but nevertheless have no idea what is coming next.
No idea, that is, unless you know Montiel’s life story, on which Saints is partly based and which The Reeler broached here a few weeks ago. In the post-screening Q&A, the filmmaker noted that finding that balance–as well as that between the past and present he breaks up with flashbacks–came down to a certain… well, flexibility. “Once we started filming, the script kind of went in the garbage can,” Montiel said. “I’m not going to teach 15-year-olds how to curse, you know? So I’d just sort of go around and make sure the heart of the scenes would happen, and then it was like, ‘Go crazy.’ And they went crazy, and it just sort of worked in this weird way.”
Some scenes’ histrionics will no doubt be trimmed when–not if–the film gets its distribution deal. Saints lives and dies by its emotional ebbs and tides, which currently leave too little to the imagination–especially as young Dito (Shia LaBeouf) wrangles with his father’s (Chazz Palminteri) desperate clinging. As present-day Dito, Robert Downey Jr. returns to Astoria for a series of tight-lipped interludes with old friends Nerf (Scott Michael Campbell), Antonio (Eric Roberts) and his ex, Laurie, whom Rosario Dawson imbues with a completely unexpected, heartbreaking honesty. Montiel said the film and its cast came together after Downey’s early producing commitment–not that his attachment as a star totally reassured the director. “It terrified me to have him play the role because we didn’t really have any idea if it was going to work,” Montiel said in his usual mile-a-minute, hand-waving style. “I was never even really much of a fan of his, you know? I know him, and I love him in this movie, but I never saw Chaplin or all the movies that people go nuts for. I’d always be like, ‘Oh. Breakfast Club.’ And he’d be like, ‘I wasn’t in the fucking Breakfast Club.’ ”

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Neverending Story: Another Thursday at Sundance

I should have more to show for Thursday, I know, but this place is totally starting to depress me. There’s just too much space and fewer and fewer people want to be here and my ghetto Internet hook-up at Reeler HQ West makes posting about as pleasurable an experience as circumcision. The parties become insufferable; the oily Hollywood douchebags scurry through the snow like rats. And when Jeff Lipsky’s ham-fisted Flannel Pajamas turned out to be the only New York feature I could catch all day, my spirit crashed somewhat violently and I wound up having to watch two hours of C-Span just to help flush the immediate memory.
Commonly referred to as a contemporary stab at Scenes From a Marriage, Flannel Pajamas yields none of that film’s insight or intensity. Lipsky (above) showcases a relationship from first date to last goodbye, but showcasing is all you get; the drama surrounding lovers Stuart (Justin Kirk) and Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) features tenderness and turmoil as clinical as integers on a number line. The film’s raves–and there are plenty, including Roger Ebert’s breathless outpouring of praise earlier this week–attribute an unblinking honesty to the couple’s rise and fall, but there is nothing remotely honest about the events accelerating Stuart and Nicole’s demise. With few exceptions (a powerful, long take of Nicholson standing self-consciously naked at a window overlooking Manhattan, for example), everything that happens in this film happens verbally; as opposed to real unraveling marriages, nobody shuts up long enough to convey any sense of alienation. Think of Liv Ullman’s expressive close-ups in Scenes, or the space Bergman uses to convey Johan and Maria’s fragmentation in that film. In the end, the viewer discovers, an indestructible love–not each other–is their burden.
Not so in Pajamas. From the lovers to their friends to their families and beyond, it is the individuals who dissolve this relationship. There eventually is no love, which does not automatically imply a dishonest portrayal (Pajamas is its own film, after all), but the execution leaves such an inauthentic, forced chronology that even the romance cranks along like a machine. For something that purports to be so real, the characters speak with an over-the-top, almost allegorical self-awareness that mirrors Lipsky’s own clumsy direction. Worse yet, especially in light of the Bergman influence, Lipsky gives you no one to loathe. Stuart’s younger brother’s mad, tragic genius excuses his impetuousness, and the viewer cannot hold Nicole’s mother’s anti-Semitism against her because of its roots in some early stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Infidelity is implied fleetingly, but we are denied even the implication’s consequences for Stuart and Nicole. Nothing about this film is honest or complex or challenging. It is simply a bloodless, obvious Saturday-morning cartoon version of a landmark.

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Good 'God' and a Defense of 'Daley'

The Reeler had a fairly successful viewing tandem today, skipping from a packed screening of Christopher Quinn’s documentary God Grew Tired of Us to an almost-packed screening of Hilary Brougher’s drama Stephanie Daley. Both filmmakers came to Sundance from New York with films in competition and in search of distribution; audience and industry expectations surrounding their films seem to have only heightened as the festival inches to its conclusion.
God Grew Tired in partcular has earned some of this year’s most consistent acclaim, with all of its screenings so far leaving stranded wait listers by the dozens. I barely snuck in to the Holiday Village this morning, but I was grateful to check out Quinn’s four-years-in-the-making doc about the struggles of African refugees known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Quinn follows three of the Lost Boys as they join a government program that relocates them to new lives in Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Of course, their lives are new in only a proscribed cultural sense; a permanent and painful displacement impels them to add second and third jobs as a means of supporting the refugees left behind in a bleak Kenyan camp.
Following the screening, Quinn acknowledged that recent years’ tumult in Rwanda and Sierra Leone inspired him to tell a story about the ongoing strife afflicting parts of Africa. Yet in bringing the Lost Boys to screen–and two of them, Daniel Abul Pach and Panther Bior (pictured above with Quinn), to Sundance–God Grew Tired skillfully reveals voices that eschew politics for a more dignified, humane commonness.
“When something happened to you, it will also happen to others,” Abul Pach told the audience in the Q&A. “The reason we’re letting people know is for the next generation to come. Number one is to survive in this world. The problems are not finished. In years to come, there might be problems, and this can help other people–not us. In this next generation to come, it will help people to survive. This is a difficult world to live (in), but the best way to do it is to know what this world is for and how to survive in it. …
“I feel it,” he continued. “When I look at it, I cry. I don’t want to watch it. At the time, when it was happening to me, I didn’t know how I managed it. The way I was represented is that when something hurts you, in the beginning, you don’t feel it. That it harms you. But after a while, you feel the pain. That’s how I feel about it, you know. It’s very tough. But I realize that God helps people through people, and that’s why these people came and found us in the camps.”

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Breaking: IFC Films Picks Up 'Wordplay'

Breaking news from the Sundance trenches: Sources at Cinetic Media and IFC Films have confirmed that the distributor has picked up domestic distribution rights for Patrick Creadon’s crossword documentary Wordplay. Not terribly shocking considering the sight of IFC reps at the film’s premiere bolting for a cell signal and a quiet space the minute the screening ended, but exciting nonetheless.
Details are not presently being disclosed, but an IFC spokesperson told The Reeler a few minutes ago that Wordplay is set for a 2006 release. As always, more information is forthcoming, so drop by a little later for specifics and official comment from IFC Films.

Picturehouse: Come For the Pizza, Stay For the Seven-Figure Distribution Deal

Tuesday was a relatively slow day in Park City, with some parties scattered here and there and most of the festival’s premieres winding down. There were the swamped Kodak and Sundance Channel gatherings that everyone was talking about, but The Reeler wound up checking into the Picturehouse event on Main Street to sniff out any Earth-shattering deals. Flannel Pajamas filmmaker Jeff Lipsky was a conspicuous early attendee, and (at right) Everyone Stares hack/ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland chatted up Picturehouse chief Bob Berney around the one-hour point.
But it was not until the entire Half Nelson contingent walked through the door that most guests’ eyebrows spiked. A little asking around yielded no confirmation of a deal or even that the parties were negotiating, but Berney’s a fan, and Ryan Fleck’s film has stoked enough festival buzz to be off the market by the weekend. Or perhaps the gang was just in the neighborhood and heard the beer and pizza hors d’oeurves a Zoom were really good. Really, it could have been anything.
Anyway, I will try to have an update for you this afternoon following today’s God Grew Tired of Us/Stephanie Daley double feature; stay tuned, and maybe start a dollar-per-square office pool for the date and time Half Nelson sells if you feel so inclined. Consider preparing one for Wordplay and Off the Black while you are at it.

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Reeler Rates at 'Rated' Fête

For a while there, I really did think the coolest thing that I was going to hear on Monday would be the voice of the outraged publicist who shrieked into a cell phone: “Eight Touaregs? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Someone needs to remind him he’s Justin Timberlake.” But then I wandered over to the party IFC and Netflix hosted for Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, where I finally had the opportunity to meet oft-discussed IFC TV boss Evan Shapiro (far left in the photo, with Dick, Rated producer Eddie Schmidt and Netflix CCO Ted Sarandos) in person. And when Shapiro introduced me to a friend as his “favorite blogger,” well, you know. It is all downhill from here.
Favorite blogger or not, Shapiro was a true gentleman, and the party was a nice chance to catch up with some of IFC’s New York contingent at the base of Main Street. Rated executive producer Alison Palmer Bourke and I toasted the film with my red wine and her Airborne, and IFC News stud Matt Singer recalled the great time he has had at Sundance despite not having seen any films. Efforts to organize a jailbreak on Singer’s behalf failed when publicists staged the event’s only photo op in the middle of our plot. Alas, Singer and crew will return to NYC Wednesday, well before the hotly anticipated 9:30 premiere of Rated.
With any luck, I should have a little more about the film and its late-night after-party Thursday. Wait a second–luck has nothing to do with it. I am Evan Shapiro’s favorite blogger! Maybe I’ll even wind up in that cool “reserved” section at the front of the Eccles. It is not like I am asking for eight Touaregs or anything.

Zwigoff, Clowes, Malkovich Declassify 'Confidential'

“Wow,” Terry Zwigoff muttered from the stage at the Eccles Theater. “World premiere.” I am sure that in his heart, however, the rumpled filmmaker was overjoyed to be introducing his latest, Art School Confidential, which has had some mixed-reaction press screenings around New York but played just fine in its Sundance opening Monday night.
Reuniting Zwigoff with his Ghost World collaborator Daniel Clowes, Confidential veers into the story of a idealistic art school freshman whose ambition collides with competition, love, a serial killer and other harsh, um, realities of the art world. And while I’ve never been a big fan of Zwigoff’s previous narrative work, which always seemed kind of sterile and hammy, Confidential turns a bit of a corner with Clowes’s semi-autobiographical script and a nicely balanced lead performance by Max Minghella. The climactic turn-for-the-worse is still vintage Zwigoff, as are the squirming interludes of unqualified cruelty and clinking one-liners. Nevertheless, Confidential works in the context of this fucked-up, ego-ravaged community (modeled after Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute) where even the good guys can–and often do–lose their souls.
“Believe it or not those characters were not at all stereotypes,” Clowes said in the post-screening Q&A. “Those are actually people I went to art school with.” Their absurdity–like that of Minghella’s sensitive, unraveling young Jerome–and questionable talent underscores the limitations preventing them from art careers. As one character explains early in Confidential, to be a great artist, you must be a great artist, and even that is no guarantee of success. “To me, it was about that sort of a following,” Clowes added. “What you really want to do is what you love, but your own art mixes with commerce and other students influence each other and corrupt each other on both sides of the equation. So I thought (the story) would be more interesting conceptually in that regard.”
As Jerome’s frustrated professor, John Malkovich (above) makes one of his less eccentric, purely Malkovich-y turns in recent years. Audiences accustomed to seeing him in positions of quiet control instead have him lacking influence among his peers and gallery owners, as much a guiding hand to his worst students as he is a sycophant to his most talented. His character’s cynicism is far more complex than the garden-variety misanthropy that threads Zwigoff’s previous work (and even parts of Confidential); his failures here exist mostly as well-intended failures.
So, you know–if you like Zwigoff, you should probably like this just fine. If you do not like Zwigoff, expect a late-summer DVD release. But do try and see it, if only for the nude modeling at the beginning. You will thank me later. Or not so much. But still.

Monday Night Live: Beastie Boys Party Overruns Sundance

Last things first, at least vis a vis Monday at Sundance. While an underachieving movie-viewing day left me with a single film under my belt (Art School Confidential, but more on that later), a few trips around town culminated in the Sundance party to end all Sundance parties: The Gen Art/ event, during which the Beastie Boys played a full set for about 1,000 partygoers at the Park City Mountain Resort.

Picture if you will: The Beastie Boys tearing it up Monday night on the mountain (Photos: STV)

Not like they just showed up in Utah for a one-off or anything. The Beasties’ Adam Yauch (aka rapper MCA, aka director Nathaniel Hornblower) is the man behind Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That!, the trio’s Sundance-entry concert film comprising video footage shot by audience members at a 2004 show at Madison Square Garden. Awesome enjoyed a pair of sold-out festival screenings Saturday and Sunday, and Monday’s party resulted in another capacity turnout to celebrate both the film and all the Gen Art goodness (and genuine balls-out fun) we concertgoers could stand.

As you can see to the right, I dusted off my most dramatic dance moves just for this event, wowing the crowd and earning just enough tip money to pay my cab fare back down the mountain. OK, fine–that is not me. Rather, it is festival director Geoff Gilmore, letting the independent spirit move him as never before. OK, fine–that is not Geoff Gilmore. It is Michel Gondry, all stoked and shit at having pawned off his festival entry The Science of Sleep to Warner Independent. OK, fine–that is not Michel Gondry. It is gossip-tard Roger Friedman, whom the publicists forced to break dance for his party wristband. OK, fine–it is not Roger Friedman. It is just some dude who got wasted on free Stella Artois and jumped from the third floor landing. I told you this was a fucking party.
I shall return later today with additional, foggy Monday remembrances and maybe one or two Tuesday news flashes, assuming I can keep up. You know how that goes. The big buzz around Reeler HQ West is Korea’s The Peter Pan Formula and the Crook Brothers’ Salvage, both of which unspool late Tuesday. I vow to make the most of the time inbetween; I have been away from you sweet kids far, far too long.

Why? Why Do They Hate Us?

A loyal reader outside the Racquet Club Theatre, Sunday afternoon.

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The Reeler's Sundance Sunday: Brunch, Films and Phair

The bad news about blogging Sundance is that you cannot blog Sundance. I mean, you probably can, but covering the festival in even the slightest depth requires a time and mobility that defies you to lug a computer around, let alone scratch together a series of entries of any real substance.
But the good news is that if your life is crazy enough that you cannot find those spare moments to blog, you are, in all likelihood, acquiring some fairly decent stories to tell eventually. To wit: This morning, I flailed at the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle with its editor, Will Shortz (right), hanging out about 10 feet away. As you read here Saturday, Shortz is the principal subject of Patrick Creadon’s brilliant crossword doc Wordplay and something of an institution among puzzle solvers nationwide. But at the film’s Sunday brunch event at 350 Main, he was more honorary ringleader than evil word genius. I would have asked Shortz for an extra clue or four (EX: 104 down, four letters, clue: “Gunks”), but my virtually empty grid made it seem kind of pointless.
So instead we talked about the movie. “Yeah, it’s just great,” Shortz told me. “I’ve seen it four times now, and every time, my heart still races at the end, and I’m sweating, and I know what’s going to happen. I was there!” As far as being one of Sundance ’06’s unlikeliest stars, Shortz deferred to the puzzle itself and said he was just happy to be able to support it. When I asked if he thought he would continue promoting Wordplay on the road after the film receives distribution (and it will receive distribution), Shortz shrugged. “It was hard for me to get the time to be out here for this,” he said. “I’ve got a full-time job and the (American Crossword Puzzle) Tournament coming up in March. But I’m going to do what I can.”
At least Shortz was making the most of his time at Sundance, providing not only the inspiration for Wordplay but also more than a dozen of his puzzle books in a contest during brunch. Naturally, I lost, but the editor of the Park Record snapped a picture of me with the crossword guru that she promised to e-mail, so we’ll see if that brief photographic instant yields some kind of vocab karma for me in the future. God knows I need it.

Half Nelson, Full House: Director Ryan Fleck (with mic) joins partner Anna Boden and partial cast and crew following their film’s Racquet Club premiere (Photos: STV)

Speaking of the future, Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson is The King Shit among the dramatic competition films I have seen thus far. Yep–all three of them. Anyway, I was blessed to catch yesterday’s premiere out at the Racquet Club, where Fleck and co-writer/producer Anna Boden joined a huge chunk of their cast (including 16-year-old Shareeka Epps, the star of Half Nelson’s Jury Prize-winning short predecessor, Gowanus, Brooklyn) and crew for a post-screening Q&A. As we recently discovered, Fleck and Boden are exemplars of modesty, and their urge to let the film speak for itself did not shift too dramatically from last week to this week. And while I will have more about the actual film film tomorrow, today we have Fleck sourcing out the root of his and Boden’s story.

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A Good 'Listener': Stettner Premieres Mystery with Collette, Maupin

This first weekend at Sundance is totally nuts, with anticipation levels surpassed only by the sheer volume of people squeezing into theaters and wait lines to catch dozens on dozens of premieres. Take Saturday night’s Eccles Theater showing of The Night Listener, with about 1,300 filmgoers packed in for Patrick Stettner’s tale of a late-night New York radio show host ensnared in a phone relationship with a mysterious young fan. Star Robin Williams was a no-show (Stettner passed along Williams’s “crazy love” from the actor’s location shoot in Canada), but co-star Toni Collette and writers Armistead Maupin and Terry Anderson made the trip and greeted their audience following the screening.

Toni Collette and Listeners (L-R) Patrick Stettner, Terry Anderson and Armistead Maupin (Photo: STV)

As the caretaker of Williams’s ill phone friend–a 14-year-old who styles a gripping, soon-to-be-published abuse memoir of increasingly questionable veracity–Collette disappears into blindness, loneliness, clinginess and a general devastation that is as creepy as any of the dark revelations Williams discovers in his quest to track young Pete down. “The story was just so unbelievably intense,” Collette said when asked how she prepared. “I think basically this woman is very needy and wants love, and I think it’s a very basic need to take it to the nth degree. I feel sorry for her. And I don’t know how I prepared for it.”
Stettner jumped to the podium. “She’s Toni Collette,” he said. “She can do anything.”
There you have it. I, on the other hand, am fairly limited in what I can disclose without giving the story away, although I can safely say that Lisa Rinzler’s cinematography triumphs mightily in a gorgeous duel with underexposure, yielding a dark, saturated color palette you might have expected had Gordon Willis shot a Hitchcock film. And on a semi-related note for those of you Maupin fans reading from Park City, the ever-engaging storyteller will be signing books Monday morning at Dolly’s Bookstore on Main Street. The fun starts at 11 a.m., and here is hoping your wait line moves a little more fluidly than those at the theaters. It is about time you got a break.

Creadon's Sundance Bow 'Wordplay' Revels in Hard Times

If you think the cult surrounding Will Shortz–the estimable editor of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle–is a mostly NYC phenomenon, filmmaker Patrick Creadon has news for you. Actually, he has a whole documentary: Wordplay, a brilliant crossword opus which premiered this morning to a packed house at Sundance’s Prospector Square Theatre.

Wordplay director Patrick Creadon, enjoying his first screening of his first-ever Sundance Film Festival (Photo: STV)

In profiling Shortz–from his college degree in “enigmatology” (AKA puzzle-making) to his colorful fan mail–Creadon uses the editor as a hub to survey the impact and influence of the Times Crossword. When he is not checking in with a handful of competitive puzzlers around the country as they prepare for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the director hobnobs with the likes of Bill Clinton, a trash-talking Jon Stewart, the Indigo Girls (who only semi-joke about their inclusion in one Times Crossword as the “highlight of our careers”) and a very, very philosophical Ken Burns among others.
“The idea was always really to learn more about Will Shortz, to find out who he is and how he does what he does,” Creadon told the crowd following the screening. “We kind of thought that the film was just going to be about the New York Times Crossword, but as we got to know more about Will–he’s devoted his entire life to this, he has this annual tournament that he runs, he’s on NPR every Sunday–we knew we had to tell those stories too. And then we also really thought it would be fun to sort of find out more about the puzzle throught the eyes of people who are fans of the puzzle.”
And while Wordplay will inevitably be construed by cynics as a feature-length Times commercial, Creadon sustains a tension that makes its climactic crossword sequence feel like one of Murderball’s wheelchair rugby clashes. Moreover, his diversion into the construction and editing of crosswords is classically rich, inventive documentary fodder. Creadon never condescends to his subjects, even as they hold forth on matters like the power of the letter Q (“I’d just like to say for the record that I don’t go around generally talking about my favorite and least favorite letters of the alphabet,” former tournament champ Trip Payne announed after the film). He allows the perfect amount of breathing room and context for the film to grab its viewers, even as he could probably trim one or two interview segments to shape a leaner, stronger narrative.
Either way, the film made me smile, which is no small feat considering the high ratio of crap I’ve been seeing over the last few days (Police fans will be disappointed to know that the movement to ceremonially burn the Sundance print of Stewart Copeland’s documentary/home movie Everybody Stares gathers steam every hour). The Reeler will return to the Wordplay beat Sunday morning when Shortz, Creadon and the film’s gaggle of puzzle solvers gather for breakfast and a stab at the Sunday Times Crossword. Knowing my own puzzle luck, I hope they bring along plenty of erasers.


Ponsoldt, Nolte and Co. Paint the Eccles 'Black'

After all that nuts-and-bolts talk this week about finishing his film on time, Brooklynite James Ponsoldt’s feature debut Off the Black enjoyed its world premiere this afternoon at Sundance. After a turbulent period waiting for admission outside the Eccles Theater–with none other than Reeler MVP Roger Friedman stomping through the cold, loudly asking anyone who would listen “where are the fucking tickets”–everybody found a seat and settled in for Ponsoldt’s story of a lonely high school baseball umpire’s who befriends a troubled young pitcher.

Black magicians (L-R) Nick Nolte, Timothy Hutton, Trevor Morgan (over Hutton’s shoulder), Rosemarie DeWitt, Sonia Feigelson and filmmaker James Ponsoldt onstage at the Eccles (Photo: STV)

Shot in upstate New York, Black features a sublime lead performance from Nick Nolte, whose fearless tear through umpire Ray Cook’s slow, alcoholic disintegration will no doubt condemn him to at least a few more months of “playing against type” jokes. In reality, Nolte offers his least self-conscious work in years. Opposite Trevor Morgan, Nolte loses himself in a swamp of good intentions and suffers an outgrown paternal despair that recalls his filial anguish in Paul Schrader’s Affliction. His line-straddling between humanity and sociopathy–especially in Black‘s second act–ties with Tim Orr’s typically gorgeous lens work as the film’s most rewarding commodity.
And after he joined Ponsoldt and about 90 percent of Black‘s other cast and crew onstage for a post-screening discussion, Nolte credited the young filmmaker with writing the type of meaty, natural part he had been looking for. And he discredited any reservations about working with a rookie like Ponsoldt. “I don’t put much stock in that ‘first-time director’ thing,” Nolte told the crowd. “Usually, when you meet these people–the ‘first-time directors’–they’re not first-time directors. They’ve done shorts, they’ve done film, they’ve been shooting and shooting. They just haven’t done a major feature. And usually they come with such passion and such great ideas because they’ve thought it through so well. … I’ve worked with many, and it’s always been a good experience.”
For his part, Ponsoldt shared the backstory behind writing Off the Black. Part of his inspiration had come from a trip to see the Atlanta Braves in spring training, but he noted a more striking influence stemming from a long-lost school chum in his hometwon of Athens, Ga. “When we got to hgh school,” Ponsoldt said, “he ran into some trouble with drugs and he dropped out of school. When I went off to college, I remember coming home for Christmas break and I ran into his father at a grocery store. His father was a high school baseball umpire. And his father was so excited to see me; he was asking me how life was up north, was I making short films, all these such things. And nowhere in the conversation did we talk about his son, who was addicted to crack cocaine. And later on I felt awful–like a complete coward–for not asking this guy about this son.
“The guy kept being an umpire. I thought about how he would go to games every day for other people’s children, and no one would know really his own private life and love and pain. And it sort of inspired me to start writing.”
Which he said he did in while locked away in a cabin near Asheville, N.C., finishing the script in about one week. And now look at him, putting the Eccles back in Ecclesiastes: Maybe the race is always to the swift.

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Van Peebles's 'Watermelon'-Flavored Weekend at Film Forum

To hear him tell it, Melvin Van Peebles had Joe Angio totally fooled. “Originally, I think, in his mind, Joe had me in amber already,” he said, recalling the early stages of Angio’s new film about Van Peebles’s life and career, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It). “He came over and said, ‘What are you doing now?’ Of course, I had 95 things on the agenda. I said, ‘I’ve got my little group and we’ll be playing… ‘ He said, ‘You’ve got a group?’ I said, ‘Yeah, man, we’ll be playing soon.’ He said, ‘No shit?’ So Joe wanted to get that. He said, ‘Boy, that was great. What are you doing now?’ I said, ‘I’m getting ready to shoot a film in France.’ ‘What? What?’ Gotta have that in the movie.”

Sweetback in the day: Melvin Van Peebles in 1971 (Photos: Breakfast at NoHo/Film Forum)

Indeed, Angio got to have that and decades more of the legendary filmmaker’s personal history in his documentary, which opens this weekend as part of a six-film Van Peebles retrospective at Film Forum. An engaging survey of a relatively mellow guy whose incendiery output polarizes audiences to this day, Watermelon functions as one part biography and one part diagram of how revolutionaries are made. The delineations are pretty much all here: Van Peebles’s awkward upbringing on Chicago’s South Side; his turn as an Air Force pilot (flying with an atomic bomb, no less); his unceremonious dismissal from a cable car operator’s job in San Francisco; and the subsequent European sojourn during which he found his calling as a writer/director/novelist/journalist/artist/musician/you name it.
All of which, of course, culminated in one of the great independent film coups in cinema history: 1971’s groundbreaking, haymaking classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The movie’s myth is nothing you have not seen or heard elucidated a thousand times before (even by Van Peebles’s own son Mario, whose Baadasssss! will screen with the documentary Jan. 23), with its love-or-hate status often (and unfairly) overriding its ageless quality as black culture’s raw, stoic and defining call to arms.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon