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Column Fri Dec 07 2012

Playing for Keeps, Starlet, The Central Park Five & Generation P

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Playing for Keeps

Let me just stop you before you even ask the question, Why do you bother seeing -- let alone reviewing -- a movie like the new attempt at life-affirming romantic comedy Playing for Keeps? The answer is painfully simple: because part of my job, my obligation, is to steer you and those you care about clear of this kind of drivel. And rest assured, this movie is 900 percent, often nonsensical drivel.

Let me give you an example of how this story about former soccer star George (Gerard Butler), trying to be a better man as well as a better dad, makes no sense. There's a scene deep into the movie where George arrives home late one night to find Patti (Uma Thurman) in his bed, eager to seduce him. Patti is the wife of one of George's new friends, Carl (Dennis Quaid), the father of one of the kids on a school soccer team that George coaches (his son is also on the team). It has already been established that the philandering Carl has a jealous streak when it comes to his wife, going so far as to having her followed sometimes, including the night she goes to George's house. Despite already having bed a few of the other soccer moms who have thrown themselves at him (including ones played by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Judy Greer), George rejects Patti, and she eventually leaves.

Later in the film, Carl confronts George during a game, claiming he slept with his wife and that his investigator was there that night and saw the whole thing. Assuming there was a P.I. on the case, he would have reported that Patti left un-boinked and that George never even took his shirt off. So why is Carl so angry? Simple, because (in theory but not in practice) it makes for a better comedy bit when George and Carl are rolling around on the ground during their kids' soccer game. It's not funny, and featuring a character that is borderline abusive to his otherwise faithful wife is hardly the best building block for an otherwise feather-light comedy.

And then there's the other, bigger part of Playing for Keeps that makes no damn sense. Part of the reason George is back in his son's life again is because he wants to get back together with his ex-wife (Jessica Biel), who is on the verge of getting married to another, very nice man (James Tupper). So essentially, George is using his kid (played by Noah Lomax) to get back in his ex's good graces. At the same time, he really wants to get a sports broadcasting job for ESPN that would likely take him far away from his son, so he's really just giving the boy false expectations about having a dad around during his formative years.

If you've made it this far, you may have come to realize this movie is fucked from the first frame. I'm not sure if the problems were there at the script level or if director Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds) is to blame, but it doesn't really matter. The film tries to portray George as a guy who's just down on his luck, but every problem in his life were the result of childish behavior, poor decisions, and just not caring about other people more than he cares about satisfying himself. Even the soccer moms throwing themselves at him comes across as bad luck. Oops, George tripped and his penis just landed in these willing ladies.

I despised pretty much every minute of Playing for Keeps, from the severely off-putting story and despicable characters to the pompous attempts at life lessons and the wholly unbelievable ending. Plus George's demo reel and resulting audition reveal he'd be a horrible sportscaster. This character truly has nothing going for him beyond good hair, which is more than I can say for this fiercely loathsome movie. Protect your friends and loved ones from this cruddy mess.

Starlet

Wow, this one caught me off guard with how sweet, moving and authentic it was. I don't usually go into detail about the circumstances of how I saw a film for the first time, but over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was in Washington, D.C., to visit family, and I went with one of my cousins (a fellow film enthusiast) downtown to catch literally the only film playing in the area that I hadn't seen and had barely heard of beyond a press release from distributor Music Box Films that it was coming out soon, called Starlet. I went in not knowing the story, who directed it, or who was in it. I don't get many opportunities to go in blind to a movie, but I find I relish that moments when they happen.

Starlet is a character study about two women -- one, a 21-year-old "actress" named Jane (Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel, which means she's also the great-granddaughter of Ernest), the other and 85-year-old widow named Sadie (Besedka Johnson). Jane is a bit of an airhead, living and getting stoned with her two roommates (James Ransone and Stella Maeve), one of whom seems to manage the other's elicit career. One day checking out yard sales, Jane stumbles upon a thermos being sold by Sadie and decides it would make a better vase than container for soup or coffee. She discovers several thousand dollars at the bottom of the thermos and hides it in her closet until she decides what to do with it or whether to return it, even though she's fairly certain Sadie never knew it was there.

In surprisingly subtle and clever ways, Jane finds ways to insert herself into the resistant Sadie's life, and with much hesitation, the two become friends and constant companions, getting to know each other's lives but leaving out some fairly critical details that are discovered by the end of the film, including Jane's rather shocking way of earning money. But the film's real strengths on in the conversations. Sadie opens up about her late husband, while Jane is a bit more evasive with her life story but her belief system is fairly clear and quite amusing. We begin to realize that, although Jane may never give the money back, she feels like she's earning it by spending being good company to this old woman. And what starts out as guilt or obligation on her part becomes a genuine friendship.

This is my first exposure to the work of filmmaker Sean Baker (Prince of Broadway, Take Out), but I was especially impressed with his ability to generate tension while adhering to a lovely naturalistic style that also allows for a great deal of humor (the scenes of the two leads playing bingo really deliver). Hemingway is the real discovery, with her combination of wild-eyed innocence and world-weary knowledge of how to manipulate the world with her looks and sexuality. She's not a woman who needs taking care of, and that will make most male audience members want to do just that. She's in the constant company of a chihuahua named Starlet, which seems strange since she can barely take care of herself.

The film has a final moment where certain secrets are revealed, and the resulting gut punch is something that took me a long while to get over. Baker is so easy-going with his direction that you're almost not aware of how invested in these characters you are -- until you find out you're completely immersed in their dramatic lives. Starlet is high drama disguised as mumblecore, and I was deeply touched by the stories of these lonely women finding each other, complementing one another, and ultimately discovering whether they need each other or not. It's a quietly devastating and wonderfully realized bit of filmmaking. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Central Park Five

It's not a coincidence that Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was released about two months after the horrific event that is the jumping-off point of The Central Park Five, a rare theatrical release from master documentarian Ken Burns(along with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon). As Lee's benchmark work confirms, New York City was being torn apart by racial tension and an aggressive police force and mayor, Ed Koch, hellbent on a certain kind of law and order.

In late 1989, sections of the city were in something of an upswing -- money was finally coming in after decades of collapse, and the resulting economy was strong. At the same time, a social moat had been established around certain neighborhoods, and a locked-in underclass struggled to make ends meet. To make matters worse, crack cocaine entrenched itself in these neighborhoods at about this time, making cash and guns a part of the mix; young black men were an "endangered species," according to one subject interviewed in the film.

With racial tensions at an all-time high in the Big Apple, a 28-year-old female investment banker went jogging one night in Central Park. At around the same time, a group of mostly black young men went on a tear through another part of the park, beating up and otherwise harassing random passers-by. What happened next was the subject of debate for more than a decade. As the police and most press were more than willing to report, some of these men crossed paths with the jogger, beat and raped her mercilessly. What followed was textbook coercion and self-fulfilling prophecy by both police and the district attorney's office, and eventually all of those put on trial went to jail until their indictments were set aside in 2002, more than 12 years after their swift conviction.

The Central Park Five does an important job of setting the tone of the city while the trial was happening. Borderline prejudicial words like "wilding" and "wolf pack" were introduced into the public vernacular, and even though their forced confessions told wildly contradictory stories, the prosecution and the jury essentially ignored this. Perhaps the greatest miscarriage was perpetrated by the media (a fact that New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer readily admits), which all but declared the youths guilty from the minute they were arrested.

The film enlists testimony from historians, social psychologists and law experts to tell its story, but the most compelling words come from the now-grown suspects themselves (all but one is interviewed on camera; another only gives an audio interview), who not only detail the events as they unfolded, but also give moving and terrifying accounts of life in prison for so many years. As one of the five makes clear, "Vacating the sentence didn't vacate my time in jail."

The Central Park Five is diligently researched and laid out in a straightforward, but powerful manner. But at its core is a message of a city's racial chasm coming to a head during this trial. The point is made by both black and white interview subjects that if the victim had been black, the case wouldn't have received nearly the level of attention. Fueling these heating emotions were a mayor calling the suspect "animals" and the trial "a test of our criminal justice system." Even Donald Trump got into the opportunistic act, putting out a full-page newspaper ad calling for the death penalty to be brought back to New York with the strong implication that it be applied in this case, despite all of the suspects being underage.

The most infuriating part of this story is that the serial rapist who eventually confessed to the jogger attack could have easily been a suspect back in 1989 if the police weren't so committed to railroading these easily manipulated kids. The biggest slap in the face to the original suspects was that their innocence and release didn't receive a fraction of the coverage in the press that their arrest and trial did. The media is just as efficient at covering its mistakes as law enforcement and the DA's office.

Like many great documentaries, The Central Park Five will make audiences' blood boil, as it demands viewers take pause before convicting someone in the mind at any point before all the facts are known. It's a fair and shameful testament to our human desire for vengeance, even if the focal point of our rage isn't the guilty party. Consider it that rare cautionary tale where the truth actually did come out in the end. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Generation P

It's nice to know the Russians and Russian filmmakers haven't gotten boring since the fall of communism. The trippy, inspired Generation P follows a shop clerk-turned-advertising "idea man" Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Yepifantsev) through his rise in the ad world at a time when Communism is dead and Western products are on the verge of flooding the former Soviet Union. Babylen's job is to modify the ad campaigns of these products to fall in line with Russian sensibilities and modern ideas patriotism, and the man is very good at his job, due in no small part to his taking large amounts of controlled and illicit substances (mushrooms, LSD and a whole lot of vodka) that open his mind and get to the heart of what it is to be a Russian in today's world. A Ouija board and the disembodied specter of Che Guevara figure into the mix as well, but I'm not quite sure I could pass a test on how.

Director/co-writer Victor Ginzburg has a wizard-like visual style that really lends itself to the mind-melting that is frequently at play in Generation P. The good news is that he rarely gives himself over to the crazed kinetic ways of some of his American counterparts dealing in drug-induced states, opting instead of shots that take in all that is around the actors and examining them (sometimes to death). I'll admit, there's some philosophy at work here that I didn't quite get, but a great deal of the film is more about the changing face of Russian and its painful rebirth as a quasi-capitalistic society (shockingly enough, not everyone is in favor of the changes).

There are still the requisite mobster, corrupt politicians, and other scuzzy types that float around Babylen as he moves from job to job in the advertising community. And some of the plot devices (including the creation of computer-generated politicians) that are just plain ridiculous. But I admired Ginzburg's energy, creativity, and social-psychological viewpoint of his homeland. Plus the fake commercials are damn funny. If you like your films decidedly mainstream, Generation P may not be for you, but I found it exciting, irreverent, and a bit naughty. We don't get enough films with that combination these days. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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