Three for the Road

The Puffy Chair was the Duplass brothers’ first feature film. I’m not sure I would have pegged it as such; maybe I would have been tipped of by an unsteady hand-held camera in the first few scenes, or a sharp zoom in on a moving van that feels like “Hey, look what this camera can do!” At any rate, it was well-received by the critics, deservedly.

Mark Duplass plays Josh, a fledgling booker of indie bands; Emily (Kathryn Aselton) is Josh’s girlfriend (and I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember the non-Josh aspects of her life). We first meet them throwing cuteness bombs at one another, which means either they are just really, annoyingly cute or their relationship has a lot of emptiness to conceal. But Emily blows up when he is distracted by a phone call, and with an eye to reconciliation he invites her to join him on a road trip. He’s driving from New York to Atlanta for his father’s birthday, and on the way he’s picking up a gift–an overstuffed recliner he bought on the Internet. He also stops in Philly to see his brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), who asks to come along. Um, okay. (Awkward.)

So that’s the setup, and the trip is a chance for Josh to learn about relationships and best-laid plans, and most of the movie is enjoyable and feels true (though aspects of Josh’s personality come out that, surprisingly, surprise his girlfriend and his brother). There are some funny set pieces, one concerning a shared motel room and another involving the pickup of the titular chair. In the end a couple of the characters reach a conclusion much of the audience will have seen coming for some time, but we don’t mind; some decisions take a while.

The Puffy Chair (reviews)
Directed by Jay Duplass
Written by Mark and Jay Duplass
Running time: 84 minutes
DVD release date: January 23, 2007

The Golden Familiar

Movie fans are inclined to save their highest praise for those films that set out to dazzle. Fractured timelines, mind-bending twists, searing performances, breathtaking photography, Shakespearean scripts–movies with these features come to us, modestly concealing the already-inscribed trophies we may be expected to award them. And yet once in a while we get a film like The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, conducting us gently along a well-worn path, surprising us with the pleasure of the trip.

Edward Burns’s latest low-budget indie drops us in the middle of a big Irish-American Catholic family (two parents and seven kids), preparing for Christmas. Twenty years earlier, the father (Ed Lauter) walked out, for reasons we will learn; and now he wants to join the family get-together, for another reason to be revealed. Eldest son Gerry (played by Burns) wants to get a consensus: Do we let the big rat darken our door this holiday? Mother Rosie (Anita Gillette) has a birthday a few days before Christmas, so the ideal family powwow would take place then. But everyone seems to have other plans, so Gerry must improvise.

We meet the siblings, alone and in groups, and though some start out as stereotypes (for instance, there’s the kid brother returning from rehab), the personalities flesh out nicely. They align and re-align (brothers versus sisters, older versus younger), their behavior shaped by personality, birth order, and depth of trauma from the big crisis (papa’s departure).

Burns worked from a detailed script, allowing his trusted troupe to work out particular points in the story, and the result feels organic and consistent. One plot contrivance stands out a bit: Two couples working out their relationships are thrown together, consequentially; but every movie gets one freebie, right?

In any case, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is an exceptional naturalistic drama.

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (reviews)
Directed and written by Edward Burns
Running time: 102 minutes
DVD release date: November 5, 2013

Promised Joy, Delivered Sorrow

There may be parts of the world where prostitution is as dignified as any other work, but those parts are not visited in the documentary Whores’ Glory. In the movie, the three sites filmed–in Bangkok, Thailand; Faridpur, Bangladesh; and Reynosa, Mexico–are like three circles of hell.

The Thai location is relatively upscale. The women punch a time clock, get made up and dressed up, are pinned with numbered tags, and seat themselves behind a large display window. A customer picks the woman he wants and pays in advance, based on the activity planned and time reserved. There is an oversupply of women, and they are not well paid; a single trick won’t even cover busfare home.

The Bangladesh site is a crowded, multi-story brothel, where the women are more or less the property of “mothers.” Clients haggle, often bargaining prices down to almost nothing. Occasionally, a client brutalizes his whore.

In Mexico, the film visits a sealed-off area, which clients enter and cruise in their vehicles; the women do drugs.

All of these scenes are filmed with no voiceover; we see the women soliciting work, or they face the camera and talk about their working conditions. The Thai women are youthful, and some are not entirely beaten by life; beyond that, the film is relentlessly depressing. But the filmmaker’s view is humane, and there is some value in bearing witness to these women’s stories.

Whores’ Glory (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Michael Glawogger
Languages: Thai, Bengali, Spanish, and bits of German, French, Japanese, and English
Running time: 119 minutes
DVD release date: January 8, 2013

Unsafe Streets

Most people watching A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night for the first time will have heard this is a girl vampire film. Many will expect something like Let the Right One In–stylish, with jump-out-of-your-seat shocks scattered throughout and a bit of cool gore. This is a mistake. The style is there, but the shocks and gore are not. Instead, there’s a pervasive sense of unease … and a dance with a mylar balloon. Better to think of this as Ana Lily Amirpour’s Eraserhead.

Filmed in shadowy black and white, the movie takes place in an Iranian town called Bad City. Arash (Arash Marandi) is a decent cool kid who drives a cool car (which he bought after saving for six years); he eventually crosses paths with The Girl (Sheila Vand), she of the retractable fangs. The other cast members are types: The Junkie, The Pimp, The Prostitute, The Street Urchin, The Princess (some of these also have names). It’s not clear whether the vampire will prey on bad people only, or whether she will display more catholic tastes; she’s a bit opaque. Apparently she is a fan of the Marx Brothers, though.

This first feature manages to be eerie and fun at the same time.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (reviews)
Directed and written by Ana Lily Amirpour
Language: Persian
Running time: 100 minutes
DVD release date: April 21, 2015

* * *

Ward No. 6, based on a story by Chekhov, tells the story of the director of a psychiatric asylum who becomes one of the patients. Vladimir Ilin is moving as Ragin, the director, as he shifts from lonely doctor to sad inmate. The movie is filled with philosophizing about fate and justice and sanity, which some viewers will devour like candy while the rest of us are checking our watches. A lot of the film is inmates and staff speaking to an unseen interviewer; this talking-heads approach does not seem to recommend itself to a non-comedic narrative film.

Failure to Re-Launch

A young man visits his parents when his mother has a brief health emergency, then finds himself unable to leave when the emergency is over: This is the premise (and practically the whole story) of Momma’s Man. Mikey (Matt Boren) can’t seem to abandon his old attic bedroom in his parents’ rat nest of a New York apartment; he oozes into his box of childhood mementos like an explorer sinking in quicksand. Never mind his wife and infant daughter in California; never mind his job; that darned airline just won’t issue him a ticket to go back west.

Boren’s Mikey is a harmless shlub, on hiatus from reality, trying halfheartedly to believe he’s returned triumphantly to the old neighborhood for good. His parents (Flo and Ken Jacobs) are tolerant, if a bit put off about sharing their home with a man-child; they’ll give him space to work through his existential crisis.

Not a lot happens here, but Mikey’s odd regression held my interest throughout the film.

Momma’s Man (reviews)
Directed and written by Azazel Jacobs
Running time: 94 minutes
DVD release date: May 5, 2009

The Settlers Are Coming

5 Broken Cameras, co-directed by a Palestinian and an Israeli, tells the story of a West Bank hamlet as an Israeli settlement encroaches upon its territory. Emad, a farmer, lives in Bil’in, and he gets a video camera when his fourth son is born in 2005. He plans to film his newborn, but he quickly learns that the camera can also document his village’s efforts to preserve itself from illegal land grabs. So he films the siege of Bil’in.

The townspeople are joined by Israeli allies and, eventually, members of the international community, as the village becomes a focal point in the struggle against the theft of territory. Emad is right there on the front lines, and from time to time his camera is broken–usually by an Israeli settler or soldier. Over five years or so he goes through five cameras.

This is a very personal film–no talking heads to give us an overview of the situation or tell us the history of the Israeli settlements. Still, it’s hard to imagine an alternate point of view that justifies the stealthy seizure of land (Israeli law prohibits the dismantling of concrete structures) or the burning of olive trees (which vibrates sympathetically with the slaughter of domesticated animals in the beginning of Virunga).

Of course, I can hardly pass judgment from on high, what with my country’s history of displacement of the American Indians. But 5 Broken Cameras offers powerful testimony.

5 Broken Cameras (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
Languages: Arabic, Hebrew, and a little English
Running time: 94 minutes
DVD release date: January 15, 2013

Slain

Kurt Kuenne grew up in California’s Silicon Valley, and as a kid he loved making movies. All of his movies starred his close friend Andrew Bagby, an outgoing, puckish kid who grew up to look a bit like Jack Black. As an adult, Kuenne became a maker of fictional and documentary feature films. When he found out his lifelong friend Andrew had been murdered, he decided to make a film about Andrew’s life. And when an infant son appeared, the film gained form and purpose.

I have elided a few details of Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, to be discovered by viewers upon watching the film. It’s an affectionate portrait of a widely loved man, snappily edited and interwoven with a gripping criminal justice drama, as efforts are made (and not made) to find, detain, and try Andrew’s killer. The crime story is told with more fury than balance, but an even-handed account would only slightly diminish the level of horror. The tale is still astonishing, and the presentation is still brilliant.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Kurt Kuenne
Running time: 93 minutes
DVD release date: February 24, 2009