A period piece -- set in Virginia in 1935 as a 99-year-old slave returns to his former plantation to die and be buried among kin -- was the stirring opening-night offering at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival.
Graceful and touching, "Shadrach" is highlighted by a splendid performance by Andie MacDowell and an appropriately surly turn by Harvey Keitel
. Prospects look best for "Shadrach" as an art house offering; however, the real afterlife of this luminous film will be on cable. "Shadrach" can win the hearts and minds of a wide range of viewers; namely, it can play just as successfully on the Sundance Channel as on the Family Channel.
Both spare and robust, the saga is, above all, a portrait of man's dignity and how respect is won and lost. Adapted from a William Styron
short story, the film centers on the open observations of 10-year-old Paul (Scott Terra
) and what he learns about life and death during one unforgettable weekend when his parents are away and he spends time with a ne'er-do-well clan, the Dabneys. Prosperous plantation owners in the 19th century, they've disintegrated to subsistence living, unable to scratch out a living on their tobacco-drained soil. But, as Shadrach remembers it from his youth, the Dabney plantation was once a great place, and he wants to be buried in the slave graveyard with his family and friends.
Abounding with raw irony and scrappy insights, "Shadrach" is a rich film about human failing and kindness. The central story is simple, and from this simplicity screenwriters Susanna Styron
and Bridget Terry
mine its kind themes. Admittedly, the duo sometimes overstretches with dewy fulminations on life and death, but these are minor quibbles. Under Susanna Styron
's steady directorial hand, the yarn is fleshed out through rousing technical contributions, namely cinematographer Hiro Narita
's telling compositions and composer Van Dyke Parks
' twangy sounds.
MacDowell shines as the beer-swigging wife of Vernon Dabney. Alternately sucking on cigarettes and guzzling beer, it's a grainy, intelligent portrayal of a poor woman somewhat overwhelmed by life's situation but whose spunk and dignity enrich those around her. As her beleaguered husband, Keitel ventures into new territory -- geographical, that is. Southern Virginia is a long way from Scorsese-land, yet Keitel's coiled frustration is perfect for his role as a father who doesn't have much more than a pot for pissing. As the elderly slave, newcomer John Franklin Sawyer
is well cast. His granitelike countenance belies an inner tranquility; through his stony eyes we see a being who has lived a full, abundant life. It's on the shoulders of Terra, as 10-year-old Paul, that the film rests, and the young fella is up to the weight. His bright performance smacks of a perceptive but ordinary kid, making his actions and observations all the more heartfelt.
PANTS ON FIRE
(Screened Saturday and Sunday)
This is a sleek attempt at a triangular black comedy in a middle-class, yuppie-American setting, but the storytelling is neither as savage nor as concise as it should be; none of the thorny, central issues is resolved. The pivotal character, Julie (Christy Barron), is having an affair and lying through her teeth about it, and as the fibs pile up and start to contradict, her people-pleasing grin turns stiff and desperate.
Writer-director Rocky Collins
supplies some sharp dialogue, and there are several deft performances, notably Harry O'Reilly as Max, the deceived husband, an ambitious attorney who is touchingly soft around the edges.
CITY AT PEACE
A stirring, emotional experience to watch, "City at Peace" is an involving but conventional documentary from the award-winning team of director Susan Koch and producer Christopher Koch. Focusing on several teenage members of the Washington City at Peace theater project -- who create, produce and perform in their own musical production -- the shot-on-video work is best suited for TV and cable, though limited theatrical exposure in major markets is a possibility.
One weeps for high schoolers Pam, whose brother is HIV-positive; Shanara, whose father is a terrible liar; and D'Angelo, whose brother was killed on the streets. These real-life stories and many more are incorporated in a lively stage musical destined to premiere at the restored Warner Theater, with most of the film following the mixed-race performers through sometimes-wrenching "exploratory exercises" and exhausting rehearsals.
"City" provides updates about the eight principal subjects, all of whom are talented and tough enough to keep trying to overcome troublesome pasts. The messages of never giving up hope, gaining self-respect, cultivating tolerance and promoting racial harmony come through loud and clear.
(7:30 tonight, DGA 1 & 2)
There are couple of good laughs in Noah Baumbach
's "Mr. Jealousy", a generally sluggish follow-up to his 1995 indie hit "Kicking and Screaming". An amiable comic turn by Carlos Jacott
as a good-hearted stuffed shirt of a Manhattan yuppie is responsible for most of the guffaws. In the strongest sequence, Jacott's Vince turns up at a group therapy session under an assumed name, sporting an ascot and a briar pipe, rattling on desperately in a fake accent that vacillates between high-toned Oxbridge English and Highland Scot.
The movie could use a few more interludes of pure, explosive foolishness; most of the time it mopes along, infected by the bummed-out mood of the title character, a sullen, blocked writer named Lester Grimm (Eric Stoltz
). He's a vacuum in human form, leeching the zest out of every scene he's in -- which is almost all of them. In fairness to Stoltz, the role is pretty narrowly defined; Lester's pathological jealousy, a lifelong ailment that happens to be focused at the moment upon the past affairs of his forthright girlfriend Ramona S(Annabella Sciorra), is practically all we know about him.
The group therapy subplot, at least, is consistently entertaining. Writer-director Baumbach has real flair for the comedy of embarrassment and social awkwardness, but he's burdened himself with a protagonist so opaque that not even wall-to-wall, voice-over narration offers much illumination. Jealousy can be such a baroque, extravagant emotion; it's a shame to waste it on a simp like Lester Grimm.