I sat through the first part of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary profoundly slack-jawed with what I would imagine to be an expression of absolute horror on my face. The film profiles the Siegels, an obscenely wealthy Florida family who are in the process of building the country’s largest single residential space, modeled after the famous Palace of Versailles. 74-year-old patriarch David made his fortune selling time-share real estate on credit to middle-class patrons who mostly couldn’t afford it. Thirty-years-his-junior trophy wife Jackie is an ex-model who rarely dresses without accentuating her ginormous fake boobs. They have seven kids, because, as Jackie says, it’s so much fun poppin’ them out when you have a staff to take care of them. They’re building a home they don’t need in a décor of nouveau riche bad taste that renders even Joan Rivers’ apartment a model of restraint. The Siegels are American capitalism gone awry and a convincing argument against wealth accumulation.

If the story concluded with the palace’s completion, THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES would play like the ultimate Bravo TV reality show. Instead, following the 2008 financial crisis, David’s company takes a dive and begins hemorrhaging money, so much that construction on the new home ceases halfway through. Soon, the Siegels are forced to downsize their opulent lifestyle, most crucially by letting go of household staff. One can’t help but feel some schadenfreude at this turn of events, but while David remains an unlikable asshole, Jackie emerges as the film’s protagonist. We learn there’s more to her than meets the massive breast implants—her flaws are still apparent, as when she takes the kids on an ill-advised Walmart shopping spree, but she’s also motivated and smart (she worked as an engineer (!) before modeling) and genuinely cares about her family’s well-being. It’s actually heartbreaking to see how little her family (especially her husband) gives back to her.

In the end, the film not only illustrates how much wealth can skew one’s own perception of the world but also how those outside that bubble perceive the wealthy. Although THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES is effortlessly entertaining (you can imagine a Hollywood adaptation starring Jennifer Coolidge as Jackie), it’s also surprisingly humane, even sympathetic as it chronicles insane personal wealth and how suddenly it can just disappear.  Grade: A-


If asked to sum up the 1970s in a single celebrity, one could do worse than choose Paul Williams. For about ten years, he was oddly ubiquitous in popular culture, and I do mean odd: he was short, bespectacled and a singer-songwriter whose tunes were primarily hits for other people, most notably The Carpenters, Three Dog Night and Barbra Streisand. Early on, he found his niche as an engaging television personality, appearing on every talk and variety program from The Tonight Show to Circus of the Stars; he also cultivated a minor acting career, starring (as The Devil!) in and writing songs for Brian De Palma’s cult musical PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.

At the dawn of the ’80s, he seemingly disappeared overnight. He may have simply fallen out of fashion, but a growing drug and alcohol problem also contributed to his swift decline. He became sober by 1990 but his career never recovered. So off the radar now was Williams that filmmaker and fan Stephen Kessler thought he was dead, but he wasn’t. Thus, Kessler tracked him down and got permission to follow him around on tour, where he plays to substantially smaller crowds than in his heyday. Initially, Williams seemed reluctant and evasive, and with good reason—would you want a stranger tagging along from one concert venue and hotel room to the next, invading your personal space?

The thing is, Kessler’s presence in the film lifts it from a typical, where-are-they-now sort of documentary up to something far more illuminating and complicated. Often, too much of a director’s presence in a doc is its kiss of death. Fortunately, by making himself nearly as prominent on screen as Williams, Kessler not only gives the film an interesting narrative, but also opens up this sort of film’s parameters, exploring in-depth the relationship between artist and fan. Although Kessler may come off as a little self-absorbed at times, his own story and the very palpable effect Williams had on his formative years casts him as a much-needed audience surrogate—he approaches Williams as most of us would, with initial trepidation, then curiosity and a desire to know more, to understand what Williams is really like. Both Kessler and the viewer feel compelled to reconcile the popular image of Williams from 30-40 years ago with the man he is today.

As with any relationship, it simply takes time for Kessler and Williams to become comfortable with each other. They eventually establish a rapport via unlikely common interests (a taste for squid!) and by being in close proximity with each other for a length of time (particularly on a tour of the Philippines). Williams finally opens up about his sobriety and no longer possessing (or desiring) the level of fame he once had, but it’s even more revealing, and somewhat shattering, to see him watch video clips of his younger self at the height of his fame (and possibly his addiction). The clips aren’t very flattering, and it’s apparent that the person who may have the most difficulty reconciling Williams then and now is Williams himself. PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE begins as a celebration of and search for a former celebrity and concludes both as a meta-commentary on fame and fandom and as a cautionary tale of sifting through and trying to resolve one’s own past.  Grade: A


Creativity is nebulous; what inspires and motivates us often varies maddeningly from one artist to another, making it near impossible to form a general hypothesis on how people create. And yet, certain motifs and a collective camaraderie emerges in FROM NOTHING, SOMETHING, a documentary in which director Tim Cawley (a Chlotrudis Short Film Festival alum) interviews over a dozen people, asking each what inspires them, how they generate ideas and how they transform them into art. The subjects range from people traditionally thought of as artists (novelist Tom Perrotta, musician Sara Quin (of Tegan and Sara), creature designer Neville Page (pictured above)) to others whose professions fall outside those strictures but to whom the creative process is just as essential—people like chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, architect Preston Scott Cohen and MIT cancer researchers Moungi Bawendi and W. David Lee.

Although some interviewees entertain more naturally than others (comedian Maria Bamford shows she’s at ease fielding questions from one person as she is performing onstage for thousands), Cawley obtains engaging and insightful commentary from the entire cast. It also helps that he has made a talking-heads film that transcends the label—it’s quick-paced, gorgeously shot and well structured, divided into sections each headed by a different animated version of the Frankenstein story, itself an iconic tale of creativity. With so many subjects, a mass of ideas and theories emerge but the personal narratives that materialize prevent the film from becoming too dry or muddled. One leaves the film not only with more ideas as to how the creative process works but elated and inspired by many examples of it in full bloom.  Grade: A-


Guy Maddin’s latest could’ve just have easily been titled PORTAL or VORTEX; I’ve watched it three times and I’m still trying to make sense of it. I can tell you that it centers on Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric), a fugitive criminal who, with his motley gang in tow, returns to the family home after a long absence. His objective? To find estranged wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), who lies in wait in their upstairs bedroom. It sounds like a straightforward task until you consider that the house, ordinary on the surface, spatially appears as a seemingly endless labyrinth where memories and dreams converge and overlap. From one murky corridor to another, we witness screaming ghosts, mysterious shadows forever gliding across the walls and random oddities like a ramshackle, bicycle-powered electric chair.

None of this should seem outlandish to anyone familiar with Maddin’s oeuvre. However, in addition to an ever-convoluted narrative and the usual black-and-white cinematography, he has thrown in a few new wrinkles. Stylistically, instead of the usual recreation of late-silent/early-sound cinema, he’s essentially crossed a film noir with a RKO horror flick (and a soundtrack to match). The sustained tone, while still containing flashes of macabre humor, is altogether more serious (if not at all somber). Patric’s presence also brings a new dynamic to the proceedings: although he meshes well with a typically eccentric Maddin ensemble (including both Kevin McDonald and Udo Kier!), his hard-boiled but nuanced and shrewd performance comes closest to giving the film a desperately needed center.

But how to explain the naked old man chained to Hyacinth’s bed (actually her father)? Or the bound-and-gagged young man and teen-aged girl (who recently drowned but seems alive, if not altogether well) that Pick holds captive and drags with him throughout the house? KEYHOLE piles one illusion on top of another memory on top of another apparition until it’s damn near impossible to keep up, or keep from giving up on the plot. One could argue that narrative cohesion isn’t the goal here, but often Pick seems like a mere stand-in for Maddin as he sifts through a collective unconscious of motifs stemming from personal interests and other things that amuse him.

Coming after an impressive run comprising Maddin’s most accessible (THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD), personal (MY WINNIPEG) and arguably original (BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!) works, KEYHOLE feels frustratingly transitional. Some may think all he’s doing here is further burrowing down his own rabbit hole, but the film also suggests a number of intriguing new directions the director could (and should) explore going forward. Perhaps it’s best for fans to view it as a few more pieces of a far-from-completed puzzle.  Grade: B


Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest is not just a film about children (like NOBODY KNOWS); it’s one that seems specifically made for children. That’s not a criticism, but it’s an important consideration. The peppy soundtrack, the juvenile (to adult ears) dialogue, one fantastical turn of events—all are meant to appeal to a younger audience. Fortunately, Kore-eda doesn’t speak down to that audience. Instead, he’s come up with an intelligent kids’ film whose appeal extends to all ages.

The story hinges on a legend that one can make a wish at a point where two particular trains intersect. Thus, two brothers in a family whom, due to their parent’s separation, has fractured (one remains in Tokyo with their father, the other has moved to Kagoshima with the mother) plan to meet up at this midway point to reunite and make their wishes. Both bring along friends who also each have a desired wish. After much exposition regarding the brothers and their separate, contrasting environments, the wish-making pilgrimage comes late in the film and it’s the most compelling part of it; still, the preceding scenes are also important, for they’re full of the rich character development one expects from the director.

When the kids finally make their wishes, Kore-eda inserts a splendid montage calling back to objects and settings from throughout the film, driving home how resonant these ordinary things are in relation to the wishes. It would have made for a lovely conclusion, but the film goes on for another five or six scenes, each one suggesting a potential ending before moving on to the next.  This same shapelessness somewhat diminished his last film, AIR DOLL and I hope this doesn’t become an ongoing problem. Up through its climax, however, I WISH succinctly places the viewer at a child’s viewpoint and does so without being sentimental or condescending. Grade: A-


Best known from the HBO series SIX FEET UNDER, Lauren Ambrose has taken a fittingly unconventional career path since that show ended in 2005. Rather than parlay her fame into high-profile studio pictures, she’s stayed indie and highbrow, divvying up most of her time between New York stage productions and supporting roles in small films. THINK OF ME (like the similarly scaled, little-seen STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING) features one of Ambrose’s rare turns as a lead and it’s an ideal vehicle for her talent.

She plays Angela, a single Las Vegas mother struggling to provide a decent life for her young daughter, Sunny. We know little about their past, only that Sunny’s father left them some time ago and now has next-to-zero involvement in their lives. Angela works a menial telemarketing job, although it’s not enough to pay all the bills. She’s always looking for extra cash—often ill-advisedly, for in the first scene she picks up a guy at a strip club, takes him home, sleeps with him and then, in the morning, asks him to spare some dough. At that moment, Sunny walks in on them and appears more annoyed than shocked, as if this isn’t the first time this has happened.

What makes THINK OF ME difficult to watch is not so much Angela and Sunny’s grim, lower-middle-class surroundings but Angela’s often misguided attempts to deal with their situation. While it’s a stretch to call her an unfit parent, she’s not always a responsible one. Her occasional lapses in judgment (like leaving Sunny on her own while she takes a graveyard-shift second job) speak volumes about her impulsive character—she’ll do anything to reach a goal without considering every last detail or potential consequence. However, she obviously loves and cares for Sunny. Writer/director Bryan Wizemann stresses the genuineness of this mother-daughter bond over any of Angela’s flaws, especially in the film’s wrenching conclusion which eventually ekes some grace out of a series of dire straits Angela must endure and try to overcome.

Although pretty bleak, THINK OF ME is not so much a downer as it is an earnest attempt to give its viewers an alternative to the mindless escapism often inherent in inspirational tales of ordinary folk just trying to get by (it nearly feels like a less austere Dardenne Brothers film). There may be little hope of escape for Angela and Sunny, but at least their world reflects something that’s familiar to and may resonate with many working-class single mothers—a significant demographic all-too-rare in cinema today. Although she has good support from Audrey P. Scott (very natural as Sunny) and Dylan Baker as a sympathetic (if somewhat creepy—thank you, HAPPINESS for altering Baker forever) co-worker, it’s Ambrose’s film. Her Angela is every bit as intricately layered and deeply felt as her Claire was on SIX FEET UNDER. It’s an occasionally unflattering but remarkably honest performance—a good fit for a film that pulls few punches.  Grade: A


“The 24 Hour Musical” is an annual New York City charitable event in which four teams of esteemed writers, composers, directors and actors have one full day to create and perform their own fifteen-minute musicals. As a look into how the creative process works under extreme pressure and time constraints, ONE NIGHT STAND doesn’t offer much insight beyond the stressed-filled melee of having to come up with something, anything on the spot. The film is more of a (pretty good) excuse to showcase a bounty of talent in action, from stage veterans (Richard Kind) to current popular Broadway fixtures (Cheyenne Jackson, award-winning composer Lance Horn) to stage/screen/recording artist hybrids (Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson, kooky-as-one-could-wish-for-chanteuse Nellie McKay) and ringers such as ex-SNL cast member Rachel Dratch.

Well-structured and crisply edited, the film pertinently guides us through the middle of night (where the writers and composers strain to make their deadlines) through the following morning and afternoon (where the directors and actors have to learn and perfect the material) into the evening, where the finished mini-musicals are performed for an audience. The ensuing deadline ensures a quick-on-the-draw pace, although your enjoyment of it will depend on how much you like watching people rehearse. It helps to have some developing character arcs such as Dratch’s. Although not much of a singer (by her own admission), she’s given an important song to be sung straight and her struggle to find enough confidence to pull off something outside her wheelhouse is far more involving than watching a more seasoned musical performer like Jackson trying to learn his lines.

At the conclusion, the fruits of all this labor are on display. As they had throughout the film, co-directors Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton continue to cut back-and-forth between the four teams. Although practicality prevents showing the entirety of all four mini-musicals, seeing highlights of each separately rather than mixing them all up might have given viewers a more complete sense of each work. The mini-productions themselves aren’t going to win any Tonys, but each contains dedicated performances, an egregious mistake or two and a few small triumphs (Dratch pulls off her song passably well). ONE NIGHT STAND is probably not going to win any awards, either, but for musical fans it’s a pleasant, entertaining digression.  Grade: B


As you can discern from the title, this is a documentary fueled by nostalgia—for good and for ill. TIME ZERO begins promisingly: alongside a brief but informative history of the product and its enigmatic creator, Edwin Land, we meet a few but fervently dedicated photographers for whom Polaroid is their canvas of choice. They all make a convincing case for its usage (two of them even have entire walls of Polaroids on display in their homes), lovingly fetishizing the otherness of its neatly compact cameras and the charge one gets from a small snapshot developing right before your eyes.

Naturally, all are dismayed (to varying degrees) when Polaroid ceases production of instant film in 2008. At this point, unfortunately, the film shifts from affably golden-hued wistfulness towards sentimental wallowing.  Rather than spending time fully considering the pros and cons of digital film (the dominant format most responsible for instant film’s decrease in popularity), with the exception of a sound bite or two, TIME ZERO focuses more on what is lost, and it nearly lost me with a lengthy, rambling scene centered on a Polaroid devotee in tears over the product’s demise.

The final third shifts focus again to a collective headed by an entrepreneurial Austrian that attempts to recreate instant film, a challenge since many of the materials Polaroid originally used to make it are no longer available. This process should feel inspiring and uplifting. Instead, it drags and seems laborious, which runs counter to everything Polaroid and instant film represents.  At the very least, TIME ZERO stirred a newfound desire within me to obtain a Polaroid camera, but it really could’ve worked better as a half hour short. Grade: C+


If you’ve ever seen Andrew Bird live, you can understand why anyone would want to make a film about him. A singer, songwriter and classically trained multi-instrumentalist (most notably on violin and guitar), Bird has gradually harvested a notable following over the past decade (his latest album cracked the top ten). Obvious talent notwithstanding, he doesn’t really sound like anyone else. His music is an idiosyncratic but accessible mix of jazz, folk, roots and rock while his voice (pitched somewhere between Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright) is punctuated by a whole lot of violin (and nearly as much whistling). In concert, he’s even more strikingly peculiar, often using looping to build one sound on top of another until they result in a rich, multi-tracked, ever-shifting tapestry.

Following him over the course of a year, the film intercuts concert footage of Bird and his quartet with scenes of him at his family farm in bucolic rural Illinois, where he’s converted a barn into a recording studio. The former, mostly culled from a show at the beautifully ornate Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, is a terrific primer for anyone unfamiliar with Bird as it shows how comfortable and innovative he is as a performer (especially in how he continually strives to challenge himself and his band). Director Xan Aranda smartly employs split screen techniques (a la WOODSTOCK) to illustrate the flurry of activity and multifaceted nature of a typical Bird show.

The “Bird at home” stuff also captivates but in a different way.  Although the novel setting gives some insight into Bird’s background, it ultimately just emphasizes how all-encompassing music is in his life. Even in his house, he’s surrounded by a menagerie of instruments; in other times when he’s not performing, we see him scribbling lyrics in a hotel room or visiting a man who sculptures the giant phonographs Bird utilizes in his performances. We learn very little about his personal life apart from glimpses of him gardening or biking to a creek nearby his home for a swim. Since the film concludes with Bird more or less stating that music is his life, this decision makes sense, but I still would have liked more moments such as the brief one when his parents visit him backstage (and could’ve done with less endless point-of-view shots of the open road meant to suggest how much time Bird spends on it while touring). Still, ANDREW BIRD FEVER YEAR is far more than a puff piece or a concert film DVD extra; it’s clearly manna for fans but crafted well enough to easily convert new ones or at least earn respect from others. Grade: B+


And so it begins.  I saw ten movies at the Independent Film Festival of Boston this year, and my goal is to write full-length reviews (200-500 words) for all of ’em (as I did for PIFF last year). I also wrote blurbs for four more films for the festival’s program guide (plus an additional title I saw again at the fest)… with the exception of that additional title, I will not be reviewing them here. However, I will link to those program guide blurbs (not sure how long one can access them online): AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY, DETROPIA, THE LONELIEST PLANET and LOVE FREE OR DIE. Now, on to the opening night film.

Exactly how an artist develops his/her voice often makes for good art itself. Adapted from his autobiographical THIS AMERICAN LIFE radio segments (and co-written by TAL host Ira Glass), stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia’s film is at its best when it considers this process. From the moment his alter ego, Matt, addresses the camera, we get a strong sense of his persona: a guy who would simply come off as a relatable average joe if he wasn’t so quirky and spacey. We soon see his evolution as a performer from a bartender working with eleven minutes of material (largely centered on tired pop culture references like Cookie Monster) to someone who can effortlessly talk about himself—in particular, his long-term relationship with girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) and his tendency to sleepwalk.  Both breed conflict—Abby wants to get married but Matt’s clearly not ready and the sleepwalking, in which he acts out his dreams while not awake often proves physically destructive to both himself and others.

SLEEPWALK WITH ME feels heavily indebted to ANNIE HALL, albeit Woody Allen’s original conception of it when it was called ANHEDONIA and focused primarily on the Alvy Singer character. As an actor/performer, Birbiglia has a compelling presence; as a first-time co-director (with actor Seth Barrish), however, he’s a little shaky and could have benefited from working with a seasoned filmmaker open to collaboration—someone who could have kept Birbiglia’s vision intact while also shaping it into something a little more cinematic (the sleepwalking sequences, for instance, are competent but mostly lack visual flair). Ambrose is likable and Abby fleshed-out enough without distracting too much sympathy away from Matt; the film also features nice, smaller turns from Carol Kane (delightfully eccentric as ever) and James Rebhorn as Matt’s parents and comic Marc Maron (as a droll version of himself). Although it’s hard imagining it finding much of an audience beyond TAL listeners and stand-up comedy fans, it altogether feels like an endearing (if somewhat shambolic) labor of love and thus not too hard to like. Grade (yes, I’m trying out letter grades now): B+