What I have always loved about the filming of West Side Story is the way in which the camera captures the choreography. Most musicals frame a shot, and then keep the choreography in view of the camera; in other words, the dancing is staged for the camera. What happens in most of West Side Story, however (that community dance as a notable exception), is that the choreography is staged not for the camera but for the space available in the streets and sets—and the camera is positioned in such a way that the heart of the choreography, and not all of it, is captured. In other words, the camera is not the primary focus: choreography that makes sense for the story is.
Great Characters, Good Heart
Dan Reed, the embattled mayor of a small Alaska town, finds his leadership questioned as another Christmas approaches, when who should come back to town but his old high school nemesis Mitch Bright? And what could be worse than finding out that ol’ Mitch is now an atheist activist angling for Dan’s job as mayor… using the constitutionality of town-sponsored Christmas celebrations as a wedge with voters? For personal reasons alone, Dan would love to knock Mitch’s teeth out, and the added religious and political challenges grate heavily on Dan’s already strained nerves. The story itself—which, I must say, very very responsibly deals with the politics (and faith) of the season—is exceedingly well rendered; but the characters really bring it to life.
Light and Enjoyable Family Fare
Director Peter Odiorne keeps the pacing brisk and deftly light as Whitney’s world comes crashing down with the economy. She and her parents fall quickly out of Philadelphia’s 1% back to whence they came. Whitney must make her way in a new school (with some oddly snooty would-be friends there, too) as Mom and Dad try to whip the old farm into shape and make a new start. Whitney’s new BFF (Best Furry Friend) becomes Bob, a horse who seems to have an odd free rein in the county. Mom and Dad get some help from… well, you’ll probably guess who. Sammi Hanratty’s downhome appeal works both in the context of a high-society prep middle school… and out in the country.
Darkly Subtle Humor
The film is set during precisely the season and year that I also made a visit to the same part of Romania. I saw the same post-Soviet cultural confusion and malaise that gripped the country, the same ironic desperation in the eyes of dirt-poor and shell-shocked citizens who had little and expected less. And there was a certain dark humor to it all. Yes, bribes were still in—but nobody really felt like much was at stake. Things just got slower if you resisted, that’s all. Clerks at four-star hotels the quality of a Motel 6 could just shrug off the inconsistency; after all, where else were you going to find hot and cold running water, and your own private WC? It’s gallows humor of a sort.
Tykwer may have conned audiences, critics, and possibly even himself into believing that his new film 3 is merely a sophisticated black comedy about relationships. I hope that’s not really the case—because if it is, Tykwer and audiences will have expended a whole lot of energy on a scenario that is likely to work for only a very, very small percentage of the population. The reason that Simon and Hanna can make their mutual relationship with Adam, the target of their affections, work is that all three of them are terribly self-absorbed. Will a threesome work any better for any of them than twosomes did? My guess is that Tykwer is pretty sly about what he’s really saying with the film, using sexual politics as a metaphor for the geopolitical.
Ohio Yesterday... Your Culdesac Next?
If you care at all about animals and law enforcement—if last week’s news about the dozens of exotic animals slaughtered in Harrison’s backyard interested you at all—you need to see The Elephant in the Living Room. NPR asked Harrison last week for his thoughts on the Ohio tragedy. “No police officer in the United States of America has a dart rifle in their cruiser,” Harrison observed, referring to animal tranquilizers. “The sun was going down, Scott, at that period of time. They had to make a decision. Do we allow them to run free through our neighborhood here in Zanesville, or do we stop them now? And they had to choose to make the decision to stop the animals.”
Don’t Look Too Deep
The first two-thirds of the film, while not exactly brilliant, are engaging and beautiful as journeyman director Francis Lawrence presents the most appealing depiction of a circus since Something Wicked This Way Comes. The cinematography is simply brilliant, and Lawrence deftly captures the magic of what circuses have come to represent in our culture. Oddly, the story and film both completely dodge what we know today about the underbelly of circuses. Sure, August is a schmuck; but think of how this particular schmuck would have taken advantage of midgets, minorities, or David Lynch’s Elephant Man. Lawrence’s vision of circus life, August aside, is awfully shiny. I still could have forgiven that if the story hadn’t thrown all plausibility to the wind in the third act.
Surprisingly, It Works
The Lamp has a lot going against it. First is a vague title that really doesn’t clue us into what the film is about. Second, the storyline includes not just one but two examples of what my colleague Maurice Broaddus refers to as “The Magic Negro”—mystical black folks who are required by a script to step in and save white folks. Finally, is there any doubt what will happen with the storyline involving Josh? Naw. But there’s a lot going for this film, too, which captivated me in spite of its shortcomings. Best, Trost’s script—in all the ways that really matter—doesn’t really go where you expect it to. Let’s just say you’ve never seen a genie story resolved the way that this one is.
Make Of It What You Will
The technical qualities of the film are pretty uneven, ranging from inventive and intriguing to choppy and annoying. But the central performances of Kevin Maggard and Luke Weaver as Eli and his chief tormentor are very appealing. They bring an offbeat and youthful energy to the story that always keeps in involving. Most of the performances in the minor roles, however, are pretty rough. Still, director Benjamin Stark manages to keep a decent rein on the proceedings, and the film feels like it achieves the vast majority of what the production team intended. It’s smart, slightly obtuse in an arty sort of way, and remarkably restrained and mature for an indie thriller.
How Do We Get From Here to Hereafter?
The Presenceis a film that really nails what a good ghost story should do. Yes, it works at a metaphorical level—as Sorvino’s writer gets a chance to work through her “inner demons”—and takes seriously the notion of the metaphysical world. But it also takes that extra step, taking very, very seriously the idea that the metaphysical world has both a bearing on the here and now and, literally, the hereafter. It’s a stirring vision of mercy and redemption. If you’re looking for intelligent, well-crafted, thoughtful filmmaking in the form of a ghost story, invest in The Presence. You won’t regret it, unless you suffer extensively from either clinical or culturally-induced ADD.
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