Tag Archives: indie films

Happy Anniversary, OJ

OJ: The Musical

by Hope Madden

Wondering how best to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that bat-shit white Bronco freeway chase? (That’s right- it’s been twenty years!) Jeff Rosenberg has you covered with his new film, OJ: The Musical.

This little slice of theatrical genius shadows aspiring thespian and/or nutjob Eugene Olivier via mocumentary as he follows his muse. Eugene leaves the Big Apple behind to take on that theatrical hotbed, Hollywood, recruiting old friends and attempting to put on the “next great American musical” – an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, reworked to mirror the OJ Simpson case.

Writer/director/producer Rosenberg has a degree in playwriting from Ohio University, and his insider knowledge of the theatrical process is put to good use here. His script is sharp witted but soft hearted, his attitude generous but entirely comical.

Eugene, played with manic good nature by Rosenberg’s longtime collaborator Jordan Kenneth Kamp, is a doughy ball of denial, vulnerability, goofiness and arrested development. His is a unique but entirely recognizable character, and Kamp nails it.

Rosenberg’s piece does not trod entirely new ground, despite the unusual stageplay at its center. You can’t help but measure it against other drolly comedic mocumentaries by the master of the genre, Christopher Guest. And with a musical at its heart, it bears a resemblance to much of the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone – heady company, but OJ holds its own.

OJ is not as dry as Guest’s work, nor as confrontational as the South Park output. Instead, it finds an understated, amiable place between.

Though the film is too slow in spots, it overcomes pacing lags with rampant unpredictability. And though Kemp is clearly the star of this show, the whole ensemble sparkles as it lovingly skewers the earnestness of that “show must go on” attitude.

The way the Bard’s tragedy, OJ’s case and Eugene’s journey come together is subdued brilliance. The play itself, in the final act, is hysterical, but nothing in the film draws as many laughs as the new idea brainstorming over the credits.

Brimming with insider insight, compassion, wisdom and humor, OJ: The Musical articulates the lovable absurdity of drama.


Two Indie Gems for Your Queue

Earlier this year the indie gem Frances Ha was released, not that the world noticed. Well, world, here’s your opportunity to make amends, because this loosely articulated but deftly crafted character study of a New York dork could come home with you today on DVD.

The creative pairing of unrepentant misanthrope, writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and unabashedly likeable writer/star Greta Gerwig, the film gives Baumbach the opportunity to explore the lives of damaged neurotics, as usual, but gifts us with a protagonist we cannot help but love. As Frances tumbles, limbs akimbo, out of her arrested adolescence and into her long-dormant adulthood, a delightful journey emerges.

For something as impressive, if not quite so effervescent, you must see Baumbach’s masterpiece of awkward family dysfunction, The Squid and the Whale. This dark, semi-autobiographical comedy follows a self-absorbed adolescent, his divorcing narcissist parents, and his perhaps irrevocably weird little brother. Baumbach’s wicked writing created endless opportunities for the film’s dream cast, boasting, among other triumphs, the most brilliant performance of Jeff Daniels’s career.


Tony Danza, Scarlett Johansson and Porn

by Hope Madden

Look at little Tommy Solomon! Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven himself a versatile actor in the years since his TV career in the guise of a pre-pubescent Earthling. With his newest effort, Don Jon, he exhibits surprising confidence and aptitude as both a screenwriter and a director.

The film follows Jon (Gordon-Levitt), a Jersey player who cares deeply about only a handful of things: his bod, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, his porn.

Guess which one of those gets him into trouble.

Maybe the best way to appreciate what Don Jon is, is to quickly cover what it is not. Don Jon is not a traditional romantic comedy. It is not a sexy romp, or a perfect flick for hangin’ with your bros.

No. It’s a sexually frank, cleverly written, confidently directed independent comedy/drama about our culture of objectification. It’s an alert comment on a society that fears intimacy, collects trophies, and looks to get more than it gives; a culture that raises girls to want to be princesses, and guys to collect sexual conquests. A culture where a fast food restaurant honestly advertises its newest sandwich by having an oiled up, bikini clad super model spread her legs while she enjoys the tasty burger.

The effort certainly carries its flaws, but JGL gets credit for upending expectations, and for brilliantly paralleling romantic comedies and porn – because, let’s be honest, they are equally damaging to our concept of relationship.

Writing and direction are nothing without a cast, and Gordon-Levitt proves just as savvy in that department. Tony F. Danza, ladies and gentlemen! Danza has fun as Jon’s role model father, while this season’s go-to girl Brie Larson – with barely a word – scores as his observant sister.

Gordon-Levitt’s own perfectly crafted swagger finds its match in a gum-chewing Scarlett Johansson, whose sultry manipulator is spot-on.

The fledgling auteur stumbles by Act 3 – quite a letdown after such a well articulated premise. The underdeveloped resolution would hinder the effort more were it not for the presence of Julianne Moore as the eccentric and wise Esther. The role may be a bit clichéd, but Moore is incapable of anything less than excellence.

It won’t be long before we’re saying the same of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Until the end, he proves himself an insightful observer of his times, a cagey storyteller, and an artist with limitless potential.