Tuesday, March 27, 2007

'Live Free or Die' has first Claremont screening

Following the screening Monday night of "Live Free or Die," the film shot in Claremont in November 2004, co-writers/co-directors Gregg Kavet Andy Robin were asked when the sequel was coming. Robin jokingly replied Bruce Willis was working on one.

More than two years after Robin and Kavet came to Claremont to film their offbeat crime comedy, the film is getting its theatrical release across New England Friday. But first the filmmakers brought the film to the Claremont Cinema 6 for a private screening for those who helped out on the production.

"It feels very satisfying, we're very proud of it, so it is nice to be able to show it off to the people that helped us make it," Robin said in an interview before the screening.

Nick Koloski, who found all the locations for the film, was eager to see the reaction of Claremont residents.

"I enjoy the people around town getting to see the movie and hear their reaction and see what people think," Koloski said before the screening.

Robin and Kavet were also excited to see the audience response to the film from the locals.

"We are going to get a weird mix of laughs tonight," Robin said. "We're going to get laughs at scenery."

As Robin predicted, the film earned knowing laughs as audience members spotted familiar locations around town, but the story of a small-time scam artist earned laughs in its own right as well.

The film earned a round of applause as the credits rolled and loud cheers when Claremont, N.H. appeared on the screen with a list of thank yous to all the businesses that helped the production.

After the screening, Kavet, Robin and actor Paul Schneider fielded audience questions. One audience member asked how wide the film's release would actually get. Kavet and Robin stressed that it all depends on what happens this weekend.

"This first weekend is really key," Kavet said. "If you like the film tell your friends, if didn't like the film tell your enemies to go see the film."

"Live Free or Die," which won top awards at the South-by-Southwest Film Festival and Seattle International Film Festival, is a small film, but Kavet and Robin cited the success of "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Garden State," which got their starts in about 10 theaters.

"If we get a good turn out this weekend we can build from there," Robin said in an interview before the screening. "We've done well at festivals. We do super well with college kids, so if we get the critical mass it'll just keep rolling."

The film opens in Claremont, Portsmouth, Manchester, Lebanon, Boston and Providence on Friday and in Keene April 6. Where it goes from there is still unclear, but Kavet and Robin are hopeful.

"It we get to New York that would be pretty sweet," Kavet said.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

'Seinfeld' writers go indie in New Hampshire

There is at least one thing to be learned from “Live Free or Die,” the film shot in Claremont in November 2004, and it may shock locals. Rutland, Vt. police vehicles are used to investigate New Hampshire crime.

Yes, clear as crystal, in the second shot of the movie is a New Hampshire officer operating a Rutland police car. It is a minor detail perhaps, but one that could amuse Granite State residents.

“It became an unfortunate theme choice,” co-writer/co-director Gregg Kavet said of the car seen throughout “Live Free or Die,” which was originally going to be shot in Rutland before Kavet and co-writer/co-director Andy Robin discovered Claremont. “It was really a fictional New Hampshire town we were trying to do.”

Locals will get to see Claremont on the big screen when “Live Free or Die” opens at the Claremont Cinema 6 March 30. The film will also be playing in other cities throughout New Hampshire including Lebanon, Manchester, Portsmouth and Keene as well as in Boston and Providence.

Kavet and Robin, two of the writers of “Seinfeld,” originally developed “Live Free or Die,” which won top awards at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival and the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival, as a sitcom.

“We were working on “Seinfeld” and we came off feeling that these revolutionary comedies like “Seinfeld” got on the air all the time,” Kavet said.

CBS executives told the writing team that their script for the pilot episode was funny, but that it would never get on TV because as Kavet put it, “it was too far out of the realm of what a sitcom is.”

After working on other projects, Kavet and Robin found themselves going back to the material that would become “Live Free or Die,” a film focused on the exploits of a wannabe tough guy (Aaron Stanford, Pyro in the “X-Men” movies).

“With this project we just tried to do something different, something that we didn’t have to pitch to a network and something that we could finance independently,” Kavet said.

Like most independent films, “Live Free or Die” has a tone and style that is more laid back than the average Hollywood movie. Kavet and Robin were working within a well-worn genre and crime movies, even comedic ones, come with audience expectations.

Viewers have been feeding on “CSI,” “Law and Order” and Quentin Tarantino movies for years now. We want our crime fast, hip, detailed and with a dark sense of humor. However, Kavet and Robin’s approach is closer in spirit to Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket,” which Kavet cites as an influence. They have crafted a crime comedy that is quiet, low key and surprisingly melancholy.

“We kind of wanted to make a movie we wanted to see,” Robin said. “There are a lot of comedies out now that just scream comedy at you and part of that is Hollywood has this formula that works pretty well where they spend a shit load of money marketing something that is really easy to grab on to and that they can describe in 10 seconds in a TV commercial.”

The duo wanted to make a film that was more realistic than the typical Hollywood fare. Their main source of inspiration in doing this was the Coen Brother’s “Fargo.”

“I think the original pilot was written as if the two guys from “Fargo” (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) were hanging out,” Robin said.

That basic concept morphed into the odd pairing of Rugged (Stanford) and Lagrand (Paul Schneider, “Elizabethtown.”)

Rugged is a small-time scam artist, who talks a bigger game than the one he actually plays. He thinks he’s latched onto a good thing when he runs into Lagrand, an old friend who has inherited his father’s storage business. Lagrand is a simpleton and Rugged takes advantage of this by trying to convince Lagrand to hire him as security.

“We didn’t want our lead to be super likable,” Robin said. “That was something we liked about “Seinfeld,” that the characters weren’t especially likable, they weren’t doing admirable sorts of things. They were a pretty selfish bunch.”

If Rugged isn’t necessarily likable, it doesn’t mean you can’t empathize with him. Rugged is a nobody, who desperately wants to be someone, but when he feebly attempts to impress Lagrand with his gangster abilities all he manages to do is set off a Murphy’s Law chain of events. Soon a series of misunderstandings has the local police pinning serious crimes on Rugged and Lagrand.

“The character we enjoyed writing the most in “Seinfeld” was George, who was constantly getting dumped on,” Kavet said. “I think we have a natural affinity to characters who have a tough go at things. Our humor sort of lends itself to that sort of situation.”

The dynamic between Rugged and Lagrand is the heart of the film. Their relationship goes deeper than the typical buddy film. They are both hungry for acceptance and respect and can only find it from each other. There’s an underlining sadness to that, which adds weight to the film.

“It is really just a horrible coincidence that each one has found attention and admiration in the other. Rugged’s stuck with the idiot and the idiot’s stuck with Rugged,” Robin said.

At its core, the film is about the importance and meaning of the legends that surround our every day life. Rugged’s tough guy act is merely a façade to hide the fact that he knows he’s going nowhere and yet maybe if he believes enough in his own myth, he can convince others he is everything he claims to be.

“We’ve always liked the idea that if you look too deeply at anything that is cool it really falls apart,” Robin said. “What everyone clings onto is not real or is random or accidental or fake.”

The film does a good job of capturing the anxiety of feeling trapped in a small town. Kavet and Robin deserve credit for sidestepping the redneck stereotype that New England is often slapped with in films.

“Andy had lived in New Hampshire and I spent a ton of time there,” Kavet said. “We certainly used a lot of experiences from growing up in Massachusetts and Connecticut and translated them a little bit to New Hampshire.”

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Coppola's latest lonely girl

Writer/director Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” was infamously booed at the Cannes Film Festival (this is the same festival that gave an eight-minute standing ovation to “Clerks 2”), but the film, in its own way, is something to cheer.

The blurb on the DVD describes the title character as history’s favorite villainess, but Coppola sees her as a tragic figure. The film fits nicely along side Coppola’s previous work “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” films about lonely girls who feel trapped. Marie Antoinette may have led a pampered life, but the halls of Versailles were isolating ones.

Marie Antoinette (Kristen Dunst, “Spiderman”) was married off to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman (“Shopgirl,” “Rushmore”) at 15 as an attempt to build an alliance between France and Austria. At 19 when King Louis XV (Rip Torn, “Men in Black,” “Dodgeball”) died she became the Queen of France.

Much of the first part of the film focuses on Marie’s culture clash. Initially, she is taken aback by the lavish life, numerous servants and rules of court. This is best portrayed in an amusingly awkward scene in which Marie is left standing nude as she learns the long process of her dressing from Comtesse de Noailles (the excellent Judy Davis).

Versailles is portrayed like an aristocratic form of high school. Gossip about Marie’s inability to consummate her marriage is constantly on the lips of members of court, which include “Saturday Night Live” alum Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson (Moaning Mertle in the “Harry Potter” series).

Marie gets no support from her mother Maria Teresa (Marianne Faithful), who blames Louis’ lack of interest solely on Marie and constantly pressures her to consummate the marriage or the union of France and Austria will crumble. That’s a lot of pressure for anyone, let alone a teenage girl in a foreign country. Dunst takes it all with a quiet dignity that makes the scene when she finally does breakdown all the more effective.

Dunst during these scenes does a nice job portraying the loneliness and naïveté of a girl living in unfamiliar surroundings with a man who is indifferent towards her. During these early scenes Dunst barely speaks and instead relies on silent stares, one of Coppola’s trademarks. There’s a wonderful shot in which Dunst stands alone on a balcony as the camera tracks back. It beautifully captures the isolation of Versailles.

Schwartzman’s Louis is a hilarious characterization. He plays him as completely aloof. Coppola crafts several amusing scenes at the dinner table and in the bed that Schwartzman plays to perfection. Louis’ only hobby is keys and locks. His reaction to a book he is reading about wooden locks is priceless.

The film shifts gears when Marie simply accepts her new life and embraces the overindulgence of her new existence. She parties long and hard and this is when we see the bubblier Dunst that we know and love (or hate as the case may be).

“Marie Antoinette” takes the “Amadeus” approach of using modern English instead of period dialogue or native tongue. For historical purists this may be unacceptable, but it is less controversial than the film’s soundtrack, which like “A Knight’s Tale” uses rock music throughout the film.

For some, the use of new wave and post-punk music will be completely intolerable, especially a montage of clothing and food set to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.” Yet, once you accept it for what it is, it works well at capturing a certain mood and atmosphere.

The “I Want Candy” montage is something that wouldn’t feel out of place in a teen movie, but that is the point. Marie was a teen girl thrust into a position beyond her years. She did what anyone at her age would do: she partied. But the first half of the film does a good job of showing her as more than just the Paris Hilton of her time.

Most of the songs that appear in the film are from the eighties, a time known for excess. The pop songs on the soundtrack are paired with a sparse score and compliment each other nicely. Together the help give the film a unique feel.

The film looks great. Coppola shot on location in Versailles, which she captures in long, well-composed shots. The hair, make-up and Oscar-winning costumes are all excellent.

Those hoping for a detailed look at the time will be disappointed. The film rarely leaves Versailles and there is little sense of a timeline. The film centers mostly on Marie’s early years at Versailles, but does span Louis XVI’s entire rule.

Louis and Marie were cut off and living in their own world. Coppola’s approach is to leave the audience just as cut off from the historical context in which the film takes place. This may make the film seem frivolous and shallow, but the film’s intent is more about capturing a feeling than chronicling the tumultuous history of the time.

Most of film is light and funny, but since we all know what is coming there’s an underlining dread. The mood switches quickly as the film approaches its abrupt ending. Coppola chooses to leave the French Revolution off-camera. Instead of showing Louis and Marie gruesome demise Coppola comes up with a poetic final shot that is deeply affecting and poignant.

Monday, March 05, 2007

It's good to be the 'king'

If you have ever seen Forest Whitaker in an interview, than you knows how truly amazing his performance in “The Last King of Scotland” is. Whitaker in real life comes across as soft-spoken, shy and passive. As 1970s Ugandan dictator Idi Amin he is the exact opposite: magnetic, charismatic, boisterous and ultimately terrifying.

Whitaker’s central performance, which deserves all the praise and awards it has received, anchors and elevates a good, but flawed film.

The film’s approach is to tell the story from the perspective of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, “The Lion the Witch and Wardrobe”), a fictional Scottish physician, who through a chance encounter with Amin becomes his personal physician and most trusted advisor.

Nicholas is meant to be the audience’s point of entry into a world that we are unfamiliar with. He is taken in by Amin’s charm, dynamic personality and the luxurious life that he is thrust into. McAvoy has a likable screen presence and when things take a turn for the worst you are concerned for him. The film occasionally sags though when it becomes too focused on Nicholas. A love affair with one of Amin’s wives feels forced and formulaic.

Whitaker’s performance is so overwhelmingly powerful that it overshadows everyone around him, but McAvoy’s performance is strong and puts him on the map as an up-and-coming actor to watch.

Nicholas is an interesting character because it isn’t that he knows what is happening and chooses to ignore it, but rather he doesn’t allow himself to see it because he wants to believe Amin is everything he says he is. McAvoy makes Nicholas’ descent from naïve and jovial to fearful and increasingly desperate to escape believable. He holds his own against Whitaker, which is no easy feat given the size of Whitaker’s performance.

Saying Whitaker’s performance is large doesn’t mean it is over-the-top, at least no more than it needs to be. Whitaker is playing an over-the-top figure, but what makes the performance so extraordinary is that doesn’t become broad or campy. Buried within the booming performance is subtleties, a look or a gesture, that go deeper. Whitaker’s performance doesn’t necessarily make Amin a sympathetic figure or excuse his horrific actions, but does reveal a man consumed by delusions and paranoia.

The structure of seeing and being taken into Amin’s world from an outside perspective is fine, but there’s a certain amount of pandering. At times it feels like it was assumed audiences would only accept this story if seen through the eyes of an Anglo, but this is a flaw of the source material, the novel by Giles Foden, not the film.

Foden moved from England to Africa with his parents when he was five, so it makes sense that his fictionalized account of Amin would take the approach it does. Amin really did have a close white advisor, a former British soldier, who according to a Bold Type interview with Foden “became part of his (Amin’s) apparatus of repression.”

The fictional Nicholas does not directly become part of the mechanism of death and destruction under Amin, but by choosing not to see it, he allows it to happen. When he can no longer remain blind and he finally begins to see Amin’s murderous, darker side he is in far too deep.

Director Kevin McDonald’s (“Touching the Void”) previous work is documentary based, but the style he employs here isn’t that of the currently popular pseudo-documentary. This is solid narrative based filmmaking featuring some beautiful cinematography of Africa.

The film’s pace is slow, and while Nicholas is in his bubble, relatively light, but once his eyes are open the film becomes increasingly tense. The final third is a literal palm-sweater. I soaked through my jeans.

Those expecting a detailed account of this time period will be disappointed. This is not a history lesson, but certainly does prompt the desire to look further into this dark chapter of recent history. Most of the Amin’s horrors happen off camera. The glimpses that are shown, particularly a torture scene, are gruesome, hard to watch and leave a lasting impression.