SIFF News, Picks, and Pans

WE ALL KNEW somebody like Rick Kirkham, or maybe we still do, or maybe it just seems that way because he's got such a TV-familiar demeanor. Good hair, square jaw, and a broadcaster's deep voice—these are just some of the attributes that make him such a natural in the compelling, can't-look-away documentary TV Junkie. During his self-filmed video diaries, edited here to cover about seven years of his life, Kirkham is utterly at ease on camera; in fact, his day job was as a TV reporter, eventually rising up to Inside Edition during the '90s. Yet this is a profoundly disturbing doc, as Kirkham frankly and unwaveringly chronicles his double life as a crack addict—a habit that he keeps secret from his employers, at first, and family back in Texas. Eventually Kirkham amassed some 3,000 hours of brutally candid footage that, years later, came into the hands of TV Junkie producer/co-director Michael Cain, who will appear with his film at SIFF. Speaking by phone, Cain explains how he sees Kirkham's addictions, and desire to come clean, in the context of the baby boom. "The baby boom represents coming out of a certain time period where the barriers were taken away, and the rules were kind of fuzzy," he says. Kirkham was an attention junkie who started breaking big TV news stories in his early 20s, for whom fame, fortune, and drugs all went together. By the time he starts his video diary at age 33, Cain adds, he's struggling with "the complexities of getting what you want." Possessed of what Cain calls a "triple-A personality," Kirkham is clearly a bit of an obsessive in his constant auto-documentation. He has a classic cocaine personality, too, but there's nothing self-aggrandizing about his tapes. "His relationship with the camera is probably the most honest relationship that he has," says Cain. In a sense, it's consistent with his job—"the act of doing the reporting." Kirkham specifically documents himself at his worst, and his only advice to Cain and co-director/editor Matt Radecki was, "You have to tell the truth, no matter how bad it makes me look," as Cain recalls. (Fascinatingly, Kirkham never went back and watched his own videos until the final cut of the movie.) Expected in theaters this fall (and later on HBO), TV Junkie also benefits from a certain cultural time lag. The story basically ends, but for a postscript, in 1997—before reality TV, blogging, etc. Kirkham's compulsive diary habit now seems almost normal. Says Cain of the long-gestating project, which he began in 2000, "There was no Capturing the Friedmans, the current documentary craze, the current reality [TV] craze. There was no Survivor." Yet in another sense, Kirkham's video confessions are part of an older tradition. "Yes, he is a Catholic," Cain laughs. BRIAN MILLER The Big Bad Swim Here's a feel-good eccentric ensemble comedy you won't feel guilty for loving. This delightful debut from Ishai Setton follows the members of an adult swim class. There's Amy (Paget Brewster), a high-school teacher going through a divorce. One of her students (Avi Setton) is filming a documentary about his croupier by day/stripper by night sister Jordan (Jess Weixler), who's also in the class. Jordan is hot for swim instructor Noah (Jeff Branson), who's haunted and depressed by failure. Their relationships overlap both out of the pool and in, where the students are united by their fear of the water. Swim has good writing and better performances. The student-movie-within-a-movie conceit even feels organic. Everything is simple and believable, without cloying sentimentality or overly scripted coincidences, and the characters become more intriguing and likable as the film continues. Grab your suit and dive in. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Broadway Performance Hall: 4:15 p.m. Fri., June 16; 11 a.m. Sat., June 17. C.R.A.Z.Y. This bildungsroman follows Zac Beaulieu (Émile Vallée and later Marc-André Grondin), the fourth child in a family of five boys, from birth in 1960 to adulthood in 1980. Although the details of Zac's life are typical of the "my life as a gay teen sucks" genre, the supporting cast elevates C.R.A.Z.Y. above standard family melodrama. The film has a bunch of genuine little touches we might recognize from our own families. The most successful is papa Beaulieu (Michel Côté) performing a sweet old French love song at Christmas dinner every year. (Christmas also happens to be Zac's birthday.) Cutting 10 or 15 minutes would help the movie, but it's always engaging and never boring thanks to sharp dialogue and amusing fantasy sequences. C.R.A.Z.Y. recently swept the Genies (Canada's Oscars) with 11 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Egyptian: 9 p.m. Fri., June 16; 1:15 p.m. Sun., June 18. The First People on the Moon This ingenious, straight-faced Russian fake-umentary maintains that a Soviet spacecraft was launched in 1938 after years of secret development—all of it filmed. Accordingly, the movie is mostly composed of black-and-white newsreel footage, some genuine, some expertly distressed as if on old film stock. (No computer effects were employed.) There are interviews with a few ancient surviving cosmonauts about their training—The Right Stuff with laughable methods but boundless patriotism, as we witness. Applicants run a foot race wearing gas masks and are sprayed with ice-cold water. One's even a dwarf—to save weight and use less rocket fuel! Drawing on insect anatomy and coal-fired power, this covert space program has its heroes, like Yuri Gagarin a quarter-century too soon, but the war and politics suppress its triumphant story. "Mankind doesn't learn," warns an aged crewman. "There is no such thing as progress—technical or moral." Moon's charmingly comic premise thus turns into a more typically Russian and pessimistic fable, where the stars beckon and the system crushes. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 9 p.m. Thurs., June 15; 7:30 p.m. Sun., June 18. House of Sand House of Sand is a good movie that you would never, ever tell anyone else to see. The cinematography (by Ricardo Della Rosa) is absolutely stunning, and the accomplished lead performances by the real-life mother-daughter acting team of Fernanda Montenegro (Central Station) and Fernanda Torres are fully realized. There's always something nice to look at while the film moves along at a glacier's pace. Nothing ever gets better for any of the characters in this Brazilian spin on Three Sisters set in the middle of the desert and spanning 59 years. If you enjoy spending your money on downers, then by all means go. What is it about the words "house of sand" in a title that requires the plot to be relentlessly depressing? After this and 2003's House of Sand and Fog, I'm about ready for The Happy House of Sand Musical. When's that coming out? (NR) FRANK PAIVA Pacific Place: 7 p.m. Fri., June 16; 1:15 p.m. Sat., June 17. The Last Communist Discredited ideological systems plus song and dance always sounds like surefire entertainment, and the Russians did create some memorable musicals involving tractors and grain quotas during Soviet days. Making a documentary about a Malaysian rebel leader who never actually gained power, who's lived in exile for 40 years, who won't even allow himself to be filmed, is another matter. Even Lenin and Stalin understood the persuasive force of cinema. This could've been Chin Ping's big comeback at age 82, but instead he chooses to hole up in his Thai compound like Norma Desmond. So the filmmakers relate his futile life's struggle by visiting the villages and shops of his youth (where most have never heard of the cobwebbed lefty) and adding cheerfully amateurish patriotic anthems sung by women with an uncertain degree of irony. We can see that after World War II and British colonial rule, the country's probably no more equitable than during Chin's radical youth. Any evidence that he might've improved things, however, is invisible. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Broadway Performance Hall: 9:30 p.m. Thurs., June 15; 4 p.m. Sun., June 18. Live Free Or Die This very funny comedy has the same detached loser irony of Napoleon Dynamite but creates humor from good dialogue and great acting, not unnecessary eccentricity. A recent prizewinner at the SXSW Film Festival, Live Free is 90 lightning-fast minutes of fun. The movie tells the legend of John "Rugged" Rudgate (Tadpole's Aaron Stanford), a notorious New Hampshire criminal, if such a thing could really exist. Turns out it doesn't. Rugged is a wanna-be felon who sells "illegal" speakers out of his van that he secretly buys from a discount electronics store. Rugged is only guilty of misfortune and swagger, which makes his bizarre, burgeoning reputation all the funnier. A wonderful cast also features Michael Rapaport, Zooey Deschanel, and Kevin Dunn. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Neptune: 4 p.m. Wed., June 14. Broadway Performance Hall: 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 16. Man Push Cart Neorealism on the streets of post-9/11 New York, Cart certainly lives up to its title. A sad Pakistani immigrant, whose life story we only gradually learn, endlessly drags his gleaming, stainless-steel coffee cart along predawn Manhattan streets, taxis and trucks honking behind him. (Yes, he's like Sisyphus already; we get the idea.) Ahmad's daily customers are generally kinder as they wait for Danish and coffee, though others eye him with suspicion as he lugs his propane tank—for heating water in the cart—back to Brooklyn on the subway. Dark, bearded, terrorist—right? Yet while Ahmad's friends complain of anti-Muslim harassment, his story is anything but political. He's trying to save $5,000 to buy the cart, a yuppie from Lahore offers to help him reboot his old career as a pop singer, and a Spanish newsstand girl takes a shy liking to him. Remarkably concise and generally unsentimental (try to ignore the kitten), Cart describes a life that's both quietly heroic and mundane. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 9 p.m. Wed., June 14. . . . More Than 1,000 Words Another so-so documentary about a fascinating subject. The film follows acclaimed Israeli photojournalist Ziv Koren as he documents atrocities in the occupied territories. Words wisely eliminates political bias, focusing instead on the nature of Koren's work, which speaks for itself. Unafraid of making the world uncomfortable, Koren shows a strong drive to capture his own country's policies, no matter how ugly they may be. Solo Avital's film, however, doesn't tell us anything about the man or his family. Despite the danger inherent in photographing near the scenes of riots and bombs, Koren remains blasé, wooden when not talking about photography, and Avital can't coax any life out of him. (Even Koren's wife says she's less important than her husband's work.) The movie repeats itself often (perhaps to compensate for a dearth of interesting interviews), making 77 minutes seem long. An hour-long PBS version would be more appropriate. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Broadway Performance Hall: 9:30 p.m. Wed., June 14; 2 p.m. Fri., June 16. Starfish Hotel Although it can't decide among three or four different plausible endings, Hotel bumps along as a pretty effective J-horror pastiche—not a bad overview, really, of the genre today. You've got your Tokyo salaryman whose wife suddenly goes missing. Could he be the killer? He loves reading mystery novels. Could he be a character in one? (His favorite author pops up regularly, as does a scrofulous guy in a scruffy rabbit suit who leads our hero—where else?—to an underground sex club called Wonderland.) More bodies pile up as guilty secrets in the salaryman's past emerge. "Everyone has a story to tell," the writer reminds him, only this story leads to both indictment and exoneration. It's a handsome, airless muddle in which we're told, "Death is the only reality—the rest is a dream." Though it doesn't make much sense, Hotel has some of that same haunting power. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Harvard Exit: 9:15 p.m. Fri., June 16; 2:15 p.m. Sun., June 18. This Is Gary McFarland This locally made profile of a forgotten '60s jazz cat would've done better to locate a more compelling musical figure. McFarland (1933–1971) gained fame as a composer, arranger, and bandleader during the brief apex of what might be called the Hugh Hefner era of jazz—after be-bop and before the Beatles made his smoothly orchestrated sound the historical footnote it deserves to be. (Harvey Pekar is quoted in a rightfully disparaging assessment of McFarland's vocalese.) Tributes from friends and family are predictably fawning. McFarland worked with Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Certainly, he helped to popularize Latin-inflected jazz, but Jobim would've managed that on his own. Some cute computer-aided animation helps enliven the stills and few extant film clips of the man, but what's missing is any contemporary critical assessment of this proto-lounge-jazz figure's legacy. Is he back? Is he hip? Is a curio album like Soft Samba kitsch, make-out music for a bearskin rug, or what? (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 7 p.m. Wed., June 14. Time to Leave A man finding out he has cancer and spending his precious remaining time resolving the conflicts and desires of his life has been done a million times. Why normally quirky French filmmaker François Ozon would take such a routine premise is beyond me, but he pulls it off with an extraordinary level of grace. Unlike Ozon's last attempt at sincerity (2004's 5x2), you'll care about his new set of characters, led by dying Romain (Melvil Poupaud), a gay fashion photographer who makes a controversial medical decision regarding his future. Poupaud's performance is deceptively simple: At first he lets Romain's many conflicting personality traits confound us, until their unifying cause sneaks up on us with powerful effect. The film extends Ozon's fascination with the beach, a boundary zone familiar from Under the Sand and See the Sea. Worth the price of admission alone is Jeanne Moreau in a marvelous one-scene performance as Romain's grandmother. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Neptune: 7 p.m. Fri., June 16; 1:30 p.m. Sat., June 17. To Tulsa and Back: On Tour With J.J. Cale Dead rock stars make for better movies. They can't defend themselves against insinuations of drug abuse, infidelity, and trashing hotel rooms the way living artists can. At 65, J.J. Cale seems to have put his hard-living younger "Cocaine" years behind him, even if those would make for a much more entertaining doc. He's pretty much mum on the subject of his long absences from touring and recording, past wives, or the dolorous cynicism that seems to drive most of his songs. Fawning German director Jörg Bundschuh isn't one to press harder as Cale revisits his childhood Tulsa home or plays a series of gigs with a graying band grateful not to be put out to AARP pasture just yet. Though Cale claims he isn't so relaxed as his sound (he cites Billie Holiday and Mose Allison as influences), he's too cagey—or simply inarticulate—to speak candidly about old demons or disappointments. Filmed separately in a sit-down interview, Eric Clapton amiably gushes about the author of his signature hits: "461 Ocean Boulevard was my kind of homage to J.J." So is this movie, only not in a good way. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. Wed., June 14. Broadway Performance Hall: 11 a.m. Sun., June 18. Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) I predict a minor Amazon spike in music sales after more people see this effective Behind the Music–style documentary. It breaks no new ground but reacquaints a new generation with the late singer-songwriter (1941–1994), whose fruitful years precisely spanned the transition from '60s American folk to Beatles pop to '70s album-rock decadence. The great musical clips are many ("Without You," "Everybody's Talkin'," "Me and My Arrow," etc.), and the admiring testimonials of music greats are even more numerous (John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, etc.). From Brooklyn poverty to Malibu mansion, Nilsson had an amazing life, but the trajectory and analysis here are familiar stuff. After the pinnacle of 1971's multi-Grammy-winning Nilsson Schmilsson album came the plunge into alcoholism and drugs. He willfully destroyed his gorgeously expressive three-octave voice and career. Why? Abandoned by his father, Catholic guilt, low self-esteem—we get the usual speculation, none of it well-substantiated. From beyond the grave, his recorded voice, an alcoholic rasp, offers no clues as to what impelled the rise and fall of a man his friend Van Dyke Parks simply calls "the melodian." (NR) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 9:30 p.m. Thurs., June 15; 11 a.m. Sat., June 17. You and Me Lonely Ariane (Julie Depardieu) writes photo novellas about dramatic love affairs between similarly lonely women and rich, handsome men. Her sister (Marion Cotillard) is a cellist who expertly plays romantic classical music but lacks the passion to become a soloist. You and Me is a charming French ensemble film about real life creeping into art, and vice versa. Awash in a candy-colored glow, the movie splits its narrative in half. Part of the story unfolds in reality, while another part unfolds in single-panel frames with dialogue bubbles like a comic book. The conceit is quite ingenious, and very funny, but director Julie Lopes-Curval weighs it down by not keeping the real-time sequences as brisk as the imaginary ones. She also can't seem to decide whether her film is comedy or drama. Still, it's an involving and interesting diversion, the classiest kind of supermarket checkout material. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Pacific Place: 7 p.m. Thurs., June 15. Neptune: 1:15 p.m. Sun., June 18.

 
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