Waterfront Film Festival

10th Annual Waterfront Film Festival: Day Two (Jun 18)

The second day of the Waterfront Film Festival Film brought more films and an alarming level of sunburn. See, this is what you happens when you plan some free time into your day. Nobody gets sunburn when they’re sitting in the dark. Go out for a couple of hours, and your skin starts to smolder. There’s a valuable lesson there.

Also, I’m not saying that press passes would necessarily prevent sunburn, but I guess I have no way of knowing. Regardless, I saw four movies on Saturday, three home runs and one baseball metaphor that expresses ambivalence.

An Unlikely Weapon – A documentary about famed photographer Eddie Allen. I’d never heard his name, but I was surprised at how many immediately recognizable images are his. He’s best known for a famous shot of a Vietnamese soldier being executed, a picture taken after the bullet entered the man’s head and before it passed through. It’s a picture credited with helping end the Vietnam War, as it brought the brutality of the conflict into America’s living rooms. And Eddie, delightful old crank that he is, never liked the picture. “The composition is terrible, it’s the wrong time of day so the lighting is bad…”

The film is stunning – Eddie Allen is relatively unknown outside of his work, but he’s absolutely fascinating. The man was a combat photographer in 13 wars, which nobody else has ever done. He knew and photographed six presidents, and he had sessions with just about every major movie star of the last three decades. It turns out, he created the iconic image from the Unforgiven poster, which I maintain is the greatest movie poster ever.

Several of Eddie’s famous friends are interviewed for the documentary, including Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. Their affection for him certainly seems well-justified, based on the footage we see of him. Cranky old men have a special place in my heart, and Eddie comes off as a legitimately good guy who just happens to be angry about a lot of things. The man’s just as interesting as his work.

I’d rather not give too much away, but this doc had me in tears by the end. It’s legitimately beautiful and deeply touching. Even if this doesn’t make a wide release, I’m betting it’ll end up in heavy rotation on the History Channel. You owe it to yourself to find it and get to know Eddie Allen.

Half-Life – I’ll be honest with you. This was kind of a mess. It’s the story of an Asian-American family going through crisis, but it’s mixed in with a fair amount of apocalyptic imagery, and also there’s a little boy who seems to have magic powers. Writer-director Jennifer Phang suffers from a common affliction among first-time feature filmmakers – she seems determined to include every idea she has in the script, whether or not they sit comfortably together.

There are some good moments here. The actual characters and their storylines are well-handled and effective. Scott, a Korean man struggles with his homosexuality and his repressive adopted parents. His story is interesting, and there’s a nice touch where he himself is not entirely blameless when it comes to his situation. True, when it comes to repressiveness, his family doesn’t match Mrs. Kim on Gilmore Girls, the patron saint of shielding young Koreans from the world, but it’s still one of the high points of the movie.

Similarly, the relationship between brother and sister Timothy and Jenny is sweet and kind of heartbreaking, especially as they struggle in their own ways with their mother’s new, domineering boyfriend. But Timothy can sometimes teleport, which doesn’t add anything to the story, except providing a convenient deus ex machina for the conclusion.

There are harbingers of disaster, from the constant news bulletins on TV and radio to the dream sequences that shift to animation. None of it really adds up to anything, which is an unfortunate misstep. I am, of course, biased because the animated scenes are rotoscoped and I hate rotoscoped animation. It actually makes me a little angry for reasons I can’t really verbalize, but I just can’t watch it. Even if the animation had been by Pixar, it still wouldn’t have fit in to the story, but I would have been less angry.

In the end, despite the quality of some parts of the movie, it’s a muddled mess. I feel like Phang thinks she’s making an important point, but all the teleporting and dream sequences shoot down whatever it is. It’s too bad, but she seems to have the talent if she can just focus on a story. My one real disappointment of the Festival.

Man on Wire – Another great documentary at the Festival. It’s the story of Philippe Petit, a Frenchman who, in 1974 strung a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center and crossed it eight times before being arrested. Once again, another documentary about something completely unfamiliar to me.

Petit is a great character, even 34 years after his feat, he’s still sprightly and animated. It’s set up like a great caper movie, detailing his team’s attempts to set up the wire, and private video footage mixes nicely with reenactments. Even though much of the plotting and execution obviously had to be re-created for the movie, it doesn’t grate like you’d expect. Those scenes are expertly reconstructed and incredibly tense.

It’s interesting to see Petit’s crew, and their varying reactions to his plan. He alienates some of his longtime friends as his obsession grows, while others respect him even more and put themselves at ever greater risk. And Petit is genuinely fun – some of the archival footage makes him seem like a one-dimensional attention whore, like that guy on my street who rides a unicycle to the mailbox, but seeing him in the present, he’s really just a guy who enjoys a good challenge.

Most surprising to me, other than the tightrope walking, is how easily they were able to circumvent security. “Easily” is a relative term, I suppose, with all the planning and smuggling, and hiding motionless under a blanket while perched on a narrow beam over an elevator shaft while waiting for a security guard’s shift to end. Considering that this all happens at the World Trade Center is real irony in a world where we’re constantly at Threat Level Orange.

But there’s no mention of 9/11 anywhere in the movie. It’s not part of Petit’s story. He did something amazing in 1974, and that’s what they choose to focus on. True, we can’t see the Towers without thinking of that day, but Director James Marsh doesn’t have to remind us of it. He tells his story, and he tells it beautifully.

Bart Got a Room – My last film of the festival, this was a fun, crowd-pleasing comedy. It’s about a young man’s attempt to get a prom date, and all the pressure he creates for the situation. Starring newcomer Steven J. Kaplan, with William H. Macy (with the greatest man-perm ever), Cheryl Hines, Jon Polito, and Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat, it’s a solid, well-written comedy with excellent performances.

The prom comedy is a well-worn genre, but this just reeks of loser-dom, which is welcome and enjoyable. Danny is a pleasant kid, but kind of a schmuck. Let’s just say, it hits home. But there’s never really a reason to pity him. His best friend Camille (Shawkat) assumes they’ll go to prom together, and Danny goes to great lengths to avoid that fate. He’s obsessed with creating the perfect prom memory, a memory which he doesn’t believe includes Camille.

He remains likeable, even when he’s self-centeredly oblivious, which is a credit to Kaplan’s performance. That kid can sell it. He’s good enough that you won’t actually spend the entire movie thinking how great Michael Cera would be in that role. Sure, you’ll think it once or twice, but it’s hard to see a movie without thinking that.

Macy, who doesn’t do comedy nearly often enough, is hysterical as Steven’s recently-divorced father. A nice balance between sweet and pathetic, Macy comes off as the live-action version of Kirk VanHouten, which is just about the greatest thing ever.

Writer-director Brian Hecker does a fine job of exploiting the South Florida setting. I particularly like his repeated use of egrets. Egrets are funny. What can I say? Everything about this movie, right down to the swing soundtrack, is desperately unhip and deeply likeable.

Amazingly, Hecker said in a Q&A that the movie was filmed fourteen weeks earlier. That’s right, post-production took less than four months. He shot the movie, edited it, and got it on the Festival circuit in record time. Between his talent and his speediness, he should have a bright future. (He’s just been tapped to write the upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio biopic about the founder of Atari.)

All in all, it was another solid win and a great way to end the Festival. Despite a couple of clunks, this was another really strong line-up from the Waterfront. All in all, I think I can forgive them for the lack of a press pass, and I’ll be back next year.

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