Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Ins and Outs of "Around"

“The most important part in telling any story is knowing where to start.”

That line, spoken at the beginning of David Spaltro’s new film, Around, could well turn out to be prophetic, especially if he can match the unique qualities of this, his initial professional cinematic venture.

I say professional as Spaltro made films during his time at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. This four years of his life is the basis of Around and it takes us on an unusual journey, as the principal character Doyle Simms (Rob Evans), shares his uncertainties of a Jersey City boy going to the Big Apple to pursue his dream. Simms is of course, Spaltro to a certain degree (it’s essentially autobiographical) and though we follow his experiences at film school, much of the movie deals with his relationships, both with his friends he grew up with as well as the collection of characters he meets in the city.

What I like about the film is the honesty we feel as Simms deals with the trials of his new life. He doesn’t have much money, which results in him sleeping in train stations (mostly Grand Central) and taking some pretty menial jobs to make some basic wages. At a dump of a resturant he works at, he sees a beautiful young woman, Allyson Lodeir (Molly Ryman) whom he had previously seen posing nude at a drawing class at school. Allyson thought Doyle was there for less than honorable reasons, but when she sees that he can draw, she asks for forgiveness. He’s smitten, but she plays hard to get. It’s only when he stands up for her face to face with a tough guy she’s dating that she starts to give him the time of day.

This part of his life starts to go well for Doyle and soon, he’s getting her some photo shoots. But he can’t enjoy any success too much, which is the main angle Spaltro examines in the film. His parents divorced when he was nine and after all these years, he doesn’t exactly have a loving relationship with his mother. When she becomes seriously ill, he starts to question his role in life.

This subplot may sound like a thousand different movies from the past, but in Spaltro’s hands – he wrote and directed the film – it comes off as fresh and a bit quirky. I like the way he writes, as this is the way people really talk. It’s not overstylized for the movie audience, nor is it everyday dull speak. Getting the right mix is not easy and I have to credit Spaltro with keeping things original.

His direction is also quite good, especially for a first-timer. Things are handled pretty straightforwardly, with only a few oblique angles and the pacing, except for a few brief moments, is nicely releaxed. He elicits two very fine performances, from Evans and Ryman, the two main characters. Evans is very convincing, especially in scenes where he’s just not sure what road he’s on; Ryman is also quite good and has an ease and charisma that works well for her character. They’re both totally believable in their parts.

(Photo courtesy of David Spaltro)

The photography is sharp and quite attractive, though at times it seems almost too pretty, considering some of the locales (train stations and city streets) this picture features. Still, Spaltro puts his camera in the right location most of the time and avoids the artsiness too often seen in many first features.

Some viewers might have a problem with Doyle’s self pity during the second half of this film; I have to admit that I didn’t think his life was that bad. But this is Spaltro’s life for better of for worse and as he lived it, we have to believe it. I would have liked to see a few more scenes about his film school life and his attempts at movie making. We get one such short scene and then we see his final effort in school, which will determine if he graduates; this latter scene is very well done. I guess Spaltro decided that his experiences outside of school would be more interesting for the audience to watch than film making sequences and based on the assortment of characters he meets (from a homeless man he befriends at the train station to a sensual young Indian woman he meets one night), he’s probably right.

This slice of life is very entertaining and best of all, unpredictable. You think Doyle will end up one way or the other, but he takes his own path, one that many of us might not. The world Spaltro presents is a pretty nice one; once people get to know you, they put their trust in you, he seems to be saying. Doyle has a hard time realizing this, which is the conflict that makes Around so intriguing.

Note: Around had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in September 2008. It is now available on the “videos on demand” section at, which is where I viewed it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Don't Lie to Me

Once again, I find myself catching up on movies on airplanes; not the best place, I admit, but things are better than they used to be. On Lufhansa and other airlines these days, the technology now permits the passenger to not only select one of several films (as often as 9 or 10 different choices), but with some programs, you can actually rewind or fast forward the film at very fast speeds, allowing you to watch a scene again and again. So while I’m not exactly getting widescreen visuals, it is a great way for me to take notes on the films and if I miss something, I can go back over it again.

This most recent trip afforded me the opportunity to watch Up In The Air and The Invention of Lying and while these films have little in common, the subject of lying is the one that appealed to me. I had heard so many good things about “Air” and I certainly think that director and co-writer Jason Reitman (Sheldon Turner was the other writer) deliver with a film that is spot on about a troubling aspect of the current business mode – that of laying people off. The film is at its best when it discusses that subject in a straightforward manner and George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, the man who has to deliver the bad news to too many people, is remarkably efficient in his role, not only in his vocal delivery, but also in his facial expressions. He’s got this thing down and he’s careful not to get caught up in peoples’ woes. I can’t help but think that Clooney was selected for this film, not only for his considerable talents as an actor (and he truly nails this performance), but he IS the actor – and star - of the day, so life imitates art, in an unusual way.

There are so many perceptive moments in the screenplay and there is one scene in particular where Reitman and Turner have Bingham artfully shift one man’s sorrow into a vision to his unfound dreams. Having just fired an employee face to face (the need to do this one-on-one rather than over the internet is a critical point of this film), Bingham listens to the man complain about how he will not be able to pay for everything from the mortgage on his home to medicine necessary for his daughter’s condition. He then reminds the man that he has a culinary degree and that now, despite the immediate gloom that he sees, his new life – that of pursuing his real love of French cooking – can start. The anger this man feels over the loss of his job slowly turns to a glimmer of hope, thanks to Binghman’s composure in a stressful moment. It’s one of the most beautifully written scenes for me in years and it’s also marvelously directed and edited (Dana Glauberman was the editor).

The film also works with the character of Natalie Keener, energetically played by Anna Kendrick. She is the one who wants to use the internet to coldly fire people and it’s Binghman who takes her under his wing to show her how ridiculous this decision truly is. I like the way that her character is at first put off by Bingham, then slowly sees the genius of his work and is so won over by him that she empties her soul, letting him know that her boyfriend has broken up with her. It’s a nice shift and I must credit Kendrick with fleshing out her character so marvelously, as this role in lesser hands might have come across merely as a bitchy young female executive trying to make it in the real world. There are things not to like about her character, but deep down, she’s just someone looking for security and Kendrick finds that in her character, while maintaining a nice edge throughout.

As for the other female in Bingham’s life, Alex Goran (played with great charm by Vera Farmiga), their relationship is all about flirting. They text suggestive messages and we’re led to believe that they sleep together, although we never see them actually do so. Alex is the fire in Ryan’s life, while Natalie is the stability. It’s nice the way the screenplay introduces them as two very disparate parts of Bingham’s life and then slowly enmeshes all three together in their daily business routine.

It’s the relationship between Ryan and Alex that eventually brings this movie to its most surprising twist. I won’t give it away, but it comes as a shock to the viewer and to me that shock is shock for its’ own sake. She has been lying to him about her life and as soon as I saw her real situation revealed, I couldn’t believe that she would have never told him the truth during all their time together. When she speaks with Ryan on the phone after he learns her secret, she calls him a “parenthesis” in her life. For some, this line may be a key to her character, but I thought this line was a bit over the top, more cruel than what the situation called for.

The lie that Alex leads means that the wedding sequence in which Ryan and she attend is a poorly devised plot device to make the ensuing surprise even more of a stunner. On its own, the wedding of Ryan’s sister is the least interesting sequence on the movie; after we learn Alex’s surprise, we feel cheated and realize the wedding was totally unnecessary. We’re supposed to see Ryan in this situation so that the light bulb goes on in his head and he can finally realize that he should commit to a woman and a more stable lifestyle. But this is cornball, Psych 101 stuff and it is clearly below the excellence of the rest of the story and screenplay.

By lying to us both figuratively and literally, the screenwriters keep “Air” from being an even better film than it could have been.

As for The Invention of Lying, the title cleverly takes us to a world where no one has ever lied. It’s a neat concept and co-writers (and co-directors) Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson create some great setups as well as write some pretty funny lines. A television commerical for Coke has the spokesman tell us not the qualities of the soft drink, but instead pleads with us to not stop buying it. An ad on a bus tells us that Pepsi is for those moments when “you can’t find a Coke.”

The film starts off brilliantly, with Mark Bellison (Gervais, in full inferiority complex), arriving at the home of Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) for their first date. As no one can lie, Anna reminds Mark that she doesn’t really find him attractive, but doesn’t want to spend the night alone at home. Mark understands all too well, as his life is at a crossroads; he knows he will be soon fired for the poorly written screenplays about the Black Plague that he labors over.

The dinner conversation is hilarious, as the waiter lets Anna know that “this will be clumsy” as he finds her attractive. When he asks her if she’ll give him her number, she bluntly refuses (remember, she can’t lie). Mark tries to enjoy the evening, but knows that while he is attracted to her, she is out of his league, which she is all too happy to remind him of (even the waiter lets Mark know this fact).When he sees her to her door after dinner, she tells him that she enjoyed the evening more than she thought she would, which is about as positive a message as Mark can take away from their night out.

If only the movie could have kept up the hilarity and charm of these first few scenes! Unfortunately, the story gets predictable and despite a few clever scenes, such as when Mark tells a beautiful woman passing by that the world will end unless they have sex right away (and of course, she believes him, as remember – no one has ever lied), the film becomes a tired retread of “will the guy get the girl.” We know he will and while this can be fun to watch in some films, it isn’t all that entertaining here, despite the appeal of Gervais and Garner.

Another problem is that Gervais comes across as a sad sack and wants us to love – not just like – his character. While that sad puppy dog look of his is funny for a short time, it wears thin. Sympathy is not what makes this movie funny, it’s the spot on use of the truth to challenge us and make us a little uneasy. Like in many uncomfortable situations, we nervously laugh to relieve our uneasiness. That’s what’s best about this film.

So the messages in this film don’t always work. But at least the creators didn’t lie to us.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oscar Time

Oscar statuette in bronze. This is an early form of the statue before it is dipped in gold.
(Photo by Tom Hyland)

A few thoughts on this year’s Academy Awards:

How I long for the period from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s, when Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams were nominated almost every year for Best Original Score. How uninspiring this category has become. I’m picking Michael Giacchino for his score for Up not so much that it’s a great score, but for the fact that he was passed over for his charming score for Ratatouille a few years back.

Speaking of music, I read that Ryan Bingham and T. Bone Burnett, composers of the song, “The Weary Kind” for the movie Crazy Heart, were not invited to the Oscar ceremonies and were told not to bother showing up. I guess we can eliminate that song. This is another category that has lost some of its luster. Remember when many of the winning songs as well as the nominated ones that didn’t win were gorgeous compositions that were perfomed by major recording artists? That was in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Recently, in an apparent effort to seem more relevant and hip, the Acadmey has chosen some pretty obscure selections. That said, I predict that Randy Newman will win his second Oscar for one of his songs from The Prince and the Frog (sorry I can’t be more specific on which one).

It doesn’t take a genius to predict Jeff Bridges will win, but how nice for an actor who is a natural on screen. I’ll consider this a lifetime achievement award for him.

And finally, in the category everyone will be watching – Best Short Film (Animated), the winner will be French Roast. Don’t ask me why.