LURKING IN SUBURBIA
Connie is turning 30 tomorrow. A struggling writer, he is the last of his friends to reach 30, an age he considers the Rubicon between the puerility of youth and the responsibility of adulthood. But, he looks around and sees those friends' continued immaturity and instant-gratification lifestyles, and can't reconcile that with the image of his father at 30: the settled-down family man.
His friends celebrate with a birthday bash that takes up much of the movie. Connie (Joe Egender) mocks it as much as he participates, pointing out all the ways his friends flout Esquire's "Things a Man Should Never Do After the Age of 30." ("Own a skull bong. Live with someone you don't sleep with. Body shots.")
His dilemma is enabled by his residence in the Suburban Palace, a bachelor pad of casual sex, drinking and sleeping late. And Connie lives in suburbia, to him, the stability of inertia. Suburbia is also the state of Connie's mind: he's been stuck in neutral since his heart was broken at 14.
Connie's quandary is that of much of his generation. On more than a few occasions, I've looked at my so-called life and compared it to my father's when he was my age. And at least a few of us look back at a good chunk of our post-collegiate life as some sort of somnambulant funk (if we have to look back at all).
Lurking in Suburbia never resonated as much as it should have. Part of this must be ascribed to the star, Joe Egender; he does a decent job carrying the film, but he never strays too far from his favored expression of smirking insouciance. Some of the dialogue and insight are profound enough, but it's not always matched with feeling. Which is not to say that Lurking in Suburbia is not a fun ride. And one way or another, Connie will get on with his life.
Depending on your nationality, the climax of Peter Wellington's Luck could play out as either suspense or dread. Unlike the films of fellow countrymen David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan (the latter of whom executive-produced this project), Wellington's movie is quintessentially Canadian. It's set against the backdrop of the 1972 Olympic hockey series between the Soviets and our neighbors to the north, and several plot points hinge on the outcome of the event.
Luck is actually a small, character-driven story about relationships and gambling, and gambling with relationships. As with recent fare like The Cooler and Owning Mahowny, the ups and downs of gambling are a metaphor for the characters' lives.
Shane Bradley (Luke Kirby) seems like a nice, sensitive guy. He's in love with his friend, Margaret (Sarah Polley, who starred in Wellington's previous feature, Joe's So Mean to Josephine), but like most nice, sensitive guys, he lacks the courage to tell her. One charming smile from Polley and it's easy to see why he's smitten, but his cowardice reduces him to giving her friendly advice on relationships with other guys. Hell must be like this.
When Margaret takes a cross-Atlantic vacation with her boyfriend, Shane's friends pull him out of the frying pan of depression and into the fire of Olympic hockey gambling. Suddenly, his dull existence is catapulted into a streak of incredible luck. Wellington's script received a well-deserved Genie nomination (Canada's highest film award) for best original screenplay with lines perfectly describing Shane's mind-set. "It's better than sex," we hear in voice-over. "If you like sex better than gambling, you're not gambling right!"
What happens when the lucky streak is over? Turns out this little film from Canada is something many people in Vegas can relate to all too well.
Like a series of skits strung together into a feature, Napoleon Dynamite is fitfully funny but ultimately hollow. Director and co-writer Jared Hess crafts a memorable figure in the title character (Jon Heder), a sort of nerd version of Beavis and/or Butt-head, who spends his time playing tetherball, feeding his grandmother's llama and hanging out with laconic best friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez).
Without anything resembling a plot, Hess surrounds the awkward, dim Napoleon with a cast of equally bizarre characters, and presents bits in what most closely resembles a three-panel comic strip: Napoleon's fey brother (Aaron Ruell) finds love on the Internet; Pedro runs for class president; Napoleon's oily uncle Rico (Jon Gries) tries to use a time machine to head back to 1982 and relive his high-school-football glory days.
The bits are hit-and-miss, though the funny ones are often very funny. Hess attention to detail has brought him comparisons to Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums), and while he shares an emphasis of the clever over the insightful, ultimately Hess' film is just about the gags, and those are mostly enough.
WINDY CITY HEAT
Windy City Heat was written and produced by the minds behind Crank Yankers. That should tell you all you need to know about whether you'll like it. If cruel practical jokes and crude humor are your idea of a good time, then this is the film for you.
The rest of us will sit uncomfortably as "comedian" Perry Carovello becomes the butt of an elaborate prank, perpetrated by his alleged friends, Don Barris and Mole (Tony Barbieri). They convince him he's been cast in a lame action movie about a hard-nosed private eye. They then humiliate him in every way possible, and his flustered outbursts of anger are what passes for comedy in the film.
It's hard to believe that Carovello wouldn't have figured out the labored and obvious bits, and you'll have to draw your own conclusions about whether the joke is really on the audience. Windy City is either incredibly cruel or incredibly pointless; either way, it's immature, repetitive and unfunny. Strictly for those who've worn out their old Jerky Boys tapes.
THE HILLSIDE STRANGLER
One of the few outright duds of last year's CineVegas was Chris Fisher's Nightstalker. Ostensibly about mid-1980s serial killer Richard Ramirez, Fisher's Nightstalker butchered the facts for background to his larger story of a Latina police officer promoted to homicide detective and instantly assigned to the Ramirez case.
Fisher is back with The Hillside Strangler, and it's the same routine: an actual serial-killer case tailored as background for a chosen foreground story of questionable believability. Dr. Samantha Stone (Daniel) is a psychiatrist brought in to interview suspect Kenneth Bianchi (Collins), and he confesses to her his acquaintance with one of the killers, whom he knows only as "Steve." She believes him, and he is let go.
Samantha has her own problems: a private life of 1970s-style swinging drug orgies, a life she is increasingly beginning to question. Things come to a head when Bianchi shows up at her house, having gotten the address from her.
Credibility has already been taxed at the police station, where Samantha interviews Bianchi—suspected of killing a dozen women—in a revealing dress.
Compounding the damage is Daniel's wooden acting. She's never believable as a psychiatrist, her inadequacy only highlighted by Collins' effective portrayal of Bianchi.
Fisher has traded in Nightstalker's hyperkinetic editing for long takes. But he can't keep his camera still, dizzying us into submission.
Anyone looking for a serial-killer movie will be gravely disappointed. The facts of the case are poorly fleshed out, and when Samantha fingers the guilty party, what should be a convincing conclusion is wrapped up so neatly and quickly that we feel cheated out of a climax.
THE GRAFFITI ARTIST
Following the relationship between two lost souls as they wander aimlessly between Portland and Seattle, The Graffiti Artist is a model of existential rummaging. That it is shot on grainy digital video is less a comment on the budget than on its grungy attitude and aesthetics. It's as if writer-director James Bolton captured some normally free-ranging characters from a Richard Linklater film and locked them inside a claustrophobic Nirvana video.
Angry-at-the-world Nick (Ruben Bansie-Snellman) meanders the streets, apparently homeless, his only discernible goal to spray-paint his insignia in as many places as possible. He steals what little it takes to sustain his existence: scraps of food and lots of spray-paint. One day, he spots fellow artist Jesse (Pepper Fajans) and they decide two loners are better than one. Much of the film is without dialogue, and I initially welcomed the emphasis on visual storytelling. But soon the narrative wheels began to spin and I began to wonder if these characters, and the movie, had any point at all.
To the wider world, the Bronx still might have to overcome its 1970s status as New York City's rat hole. But for the four Westchester County boys of Cross Bronx, it represents the first step toward bigger New York dreams as they cast off their unstable home lives and move to a shared Bronx basement apartment in their waning high school days.
And those dreams are attainable: Schiek (Kearse) has a tryout with the Mets' minor-league team in Brooklyn; Rob-O (Dale, of TV's 24) is a talented artist; Vivo (Ferrara) wants to make his bones in the family business—the mob; and Ike (Greenfield) ... Ike is the only one of the group who, literally and figuratively, is still in high school. He hasn't yet set his path, still focused on winning school wrestling championships, and now the girl he just met while acting as Schiek's wing man. Needless to say, Ike is the film's moral center.
But even as they move in together, they are moving in opposite directions. Their bonds of friendship become increasingly frayed, manifesting themselves through the tensions that accompany the roads to their respective successes, and patched together with secrets and lies.
Engagingly told, crisply shot and seamlessly acted, Cross Bronx might have shorted its characters a little by not effectively giving enough time to each, but it's a minor flaw that's easily forgivable given the limits of independent cinema.
When the words are nearly as evocative as the imagery, you've got a documentary to reckon with, as director-co-writer-co-producer Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys) does with Riding Giants, a lively, if overly long, homage to big-wave surfing.
Peralta makes a compelling case for the exceptional ardor of those who devote their lives to staying seconds ahead of the ocean's gorgeous, potentially bone-shattering showers of power. He also must hope that surf-flick popularity is yet to crest after Blue Crush broke big.
What he assembles here with pop!-pop! pacing, linked to Sean Penn's surprisingly animated narration—archival shots of the beach-side life crackling alongside vivid, sound-bite bursts from the pioneers (salty-tongued Greg Noll), the new breed (big-wave wizard Laird Hamilton), and surf journalists (yes, surf journalists)—makes us feel like we're surfing the sport's giddy, chuck-it-all lifestyle.
Peralta nicely contextualizes his film, from a vivacious history montage in a 3D/popup-book style to extended segments on surfing's big-wave meccas, as well as the tragedies, such as the death of legendary Mark Foo.
It's all told with a narrative tension that Peralta keeps taut for 90 of its 105 minutes, before the film starts sacrificing momentum—though it never suffers wipeout. Riding Giants is a thrill-ride with salt water in its veins and the cry of the seagull in its heart.
If it weren't for the promise presented by the title, I might have grown irrevocably angry by Phileine Says Sorry's final act. The always-entertaining film speeds along at a frenetic pace, blending a cornucopia of styles, from traditional narrative to breaking the fourth wall to Ally McBeal-like fantasy sequences. But protagonist Phileine, played with gusto by Kim van Kooten, brings us dangerously close to hating her. She has positive qualities; she's bold, smart, direct and quick to attack worthless scum such as unfaithful boyfriends. But she's also selfish, abrasive, fake and quick to attack people weaker than herself just for the fun of it. Worst of all, she's completely unapologetic.
Occasionally, the film asks us to sympathize with her, a feat that would prove impossible were it not for the extremity of her situation. The fact that, upon arriving in New York to visit her long-distance boyfriend, she discovers he's performing in a pornographic interpretation of Romeo and Juliet certainly gets us on her side. And the fact that we know the titular apology for all her bad behavior is coming lets us grant her some leeway. But be warned: she uses a lot of leeway.
"To embrace bowling is to embrace indignity, to cuddle with disappointment."
So scrolls a quote from the Cleveland Scene to open the extraordinary A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, a funny, textured and most of all, human documentary about professional bowlers from a former production assistant on laxative commercials. That would be director Christopher Browne, who aims his witty camera toward a sport that has gutter-balled in popular culture over the last few decades. Once a legitimate member of the pro-sports hierarchy, bowling devolved into a Kingpin-style parody of itself, synonymous with beer bellies and blue collars.
Though he mines bowling insights and footage from such diverse characters as actors, reporters, university professors and Bill Clinton, Browne's astonishing accomplishment arrives later in the movie's 93 minutes as he focuses on the Professional Bowlers Association, struggling to regain its respectability after being sold to a group of ex-Microsoft execs for a measly $5 mill. That means following its gruffly amusing chief cheerleader, Steve Miller, and a traveling band of bowlers and their families (including sadly disenchanted Wayne Webb of Las Vegas) as they compete in qualifying rounds leading to the PBA World Championships. Browne transforms these Joe Blows into characters you'd care about in any mainstream Hollywood film.
With a keen ear for funny one-liners and telling offhand remarks, and a documentary eye that lingers over his subjects and strips away artifice—capturing the awkward pauses, shrugs, stammers, stares and glares, the tiniest gestures that often define people more incisively than their words—he brings them alive, from boastful "bad boy" Pete Weber to modest master Walter Ray Williams Jr. By the time they put their balls up against each other in the ultimate match, you're a riveted bowling fanatic, even if you don't know a 7-10 split from a five-o'clock shadow.
"Nice bike. Ever take it off any sweet jumps?"
— From Napoleon Dynamite
I can't say I knew much of anything about TJ Lavin, or the sport in which he is famous, which is why Steve Olpin's short documentary about the star came as such a surprising pleasure to watch. In less than 30 minutes, someone I had never met became one of the most charming people I know.
For the uninitiated, TJ Lavin is a Las Vegas native who's literally ridden his BMX dirt bike to fame and fortune. Much of the film was shot here in Lavin's back yard, which he has sculpted into a treacherous series of hills and valleys. For those who have never been much of an X Games fan, Olpin's artfully composed shots and Lavin's gracefulness with a bike are never less than breathtaking to behold.
What really makes the film, though, is the personal side of the story. Through home video and interviews with family and friends, we get an intimate portrait of the inspiring and charismatic subject. His positive influence was apparent on the kids' faces as they joyfully lined up to meet him after the screening.