Williamstown Film Festival Part Two

Three Films Featuring Women: Cattrall, Hunt and Leo

By: - Oct 19, 2010


The emphasis of the Williamstown Film Festival is on the craft and cinema as an art form. There is little of the glitz one associates with a gathering of the glitterati. The actors and directors who attended a low key festival in a bucolic setting came to support projects which they believe in. They shared their passion for the medium with appreciative, knowledgeable, and attentive audiences.

We emerged from the first of two weekends of programming with a lot to absorb. The three features films Meet Monica Velour, The Space Between, and Every Day each conveyed richly humanistic stories with passionate and often stunning performances.

It conveyed the commitment of actors willing to take short money to appear in projects with compelling scripts. For the most part, these are ventures in which those involved will be lucky to break even, or, in the case of the actors, to pay the rent or mortgage for a couple of months.

The three films we viewed are still looking for distribution deals. The Space Between, which has a 9/11 theme, is in negotiation to be aired on TV during the anniversary of the event. This will assure far more exposure than the typical three and out circuit of festivals, a limited run in art houses, and then a DVD release available through Netflix.

These films represent enormous effort and risk for the producers and directors with slim odds of a major breakout. It happens, now and then. That said, these superb films are head and shoulders above the commercial fodder clogging the screens of your local, pop corn reeking megaplex. After these films, you are more likely in the mood for single Scotch and intense conversation. Make that a double.

Experiencing these films, in the esoteric context of a festival, begs the question of why individuals devote themselves to the roller coaster of  careers in the arts. For every star hyped and adored in the tabloids there are legions of others who struggle. The challenge is to find interesting projects and challenging roles. Too many actors have one and out Hollywood films or endless bit parts on TV shows like Law and Order. To confirm this, just check the credits in the playbill the next time you are in the theatre.

What happens when a long running TV show finally ends? Or several years after taking home an Oscar? During a talk back with Brian Dennehy, who played a supporting role in two of the films last weekend, he discussed the struggles of a career as an actor. At 72, remarkably, he is still working. With humor, the ersatz tough guy commented that, early on, his characters were shot or thrown out of a window. Now, his character usually dies. As was the case with Every Day.

Dennehy, with enormous compassion and insight, noted that, if it is tough for men, it is all the more so for women. With the exception of Meryl Streep who he adores as the “greatest film actor ever.” He also described her as a wonderful and much loved human being. As a case in point he talked about his co star in Every Day, former Oscar winner, Helen Hunt. He has known her since she was a teenager. Dennehy talked about how, after the Oscar, her opportunities dwindled. Appearing in an independent film is a means of getting back in the game. Too few women survive menopause in front of the cameras. While leading men like Sean Connery, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, or Paul Newman go on forever in romantic roles.

During the Saturday morning seminar The Kids on the Screen Steve Lawson led a session on the phenomenon of juveniles in film. Significantly, all three features during the first weekend of the festival featured young actors delivering well directed performances. There was discussion of the ability to sustain those careers. As well as the dilemma of being washed up while still young. There was a discussion of the studio system which had kids under contract like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Elizabeth Taylor. Too often with collateral damage as adults. Dennehy observed how many in the business just put their lives on hold to pursue careers. No wire hangers.

Meet Monica Velour
Writer/ Director, Keith Bearden
Cast: Kim Cattrall (Monica Velour), Dustin Ingram (Tobe Hulbert), Brian Dennehy (Pop Pop), Keith David (an artist), Jee Young Han (Amanda), Daniel Yelsky (Kenny).
Running Time: 97 minutes.

The vision of writer/ director, Keith Bearden, was to make everyone in this film look absolutely awful. Why would any actor consent to look so bad? During the talk back, Bearden revealed that all of the actors knew this up front. Including the star, Kim Cattrall, looking shockingly past her prime, as an over the hill porn star. When pitching the film to her Bearden stated that he wanted her to gain weight and that he would make every effort to make her look terrible. He succeeded.

Negotiating with Brian Dennehy the actor was told he would have to do a nude scene. His agent said no way. Then Dennehy called and said “I’ll do it.”  What a gamer. There is even a scene of the gangly, nerdy, skeletal teenager, Dustin Ingram, bouncing around in a red satin thong during an ersatz porn shoot which he crashes.

Why on earth would actors submit to being totally trashed? Well, to have great and compelling parts in a powerful and unique film.

For Cattrall, a woman of a certain age, and star of the long running Sex in the City, her role as the flabby, blown out Monica Velour is a total game changer. See this film and you will never think of her in the same way. This experience left me with total respect for her as a superbly gifted actor. The film left no doubt of her commitment to the craft and willingness to take one for the team.

The shot of her looking pathetic in her underwear will tear your guts out. If you ever get the chance to see this film in a theatre. Trust me, this will be a cult film and indy hit. Remember this come awards season. Of course, Cattrell will be buff by then.

As, apparently, she is currently in London, with rave reviews for Antony and Cleopatra. That’s quite a leap from the sleazy, over the hill, porn star, Monica Velour, to the Queen of the Nile. It’s light years since Samantha in Sex in the City. You go girl.

Remarkably, Ingram, at barely twenty, is a perfect match with Cattrell’s game changing, performance of a lifetime. We asked him about that and he commented on enormous support from Kim as well as coaching from Dennehy and the director, Bearden. He talked about shooting the film as a family. Recently, Ingram stayed with Cattrell in her New York apartment and commented, with humor, that they reverted back to their roles.

He is utterly believable as the coming of age, gawky kid who idolizes and fantasizes about his notion of a great artist. His room is filled with posters and memorabilia which he has collected on line. Later, she reveals to him that those cult classics (there are hilarious clips) earned her seventy five bucks and a few joints. In his delusional view she is a great artist and star.

As a high school graduation present Pop Pop gives him, not cash, but the family business; a vending truck with a giant hot dog on top. Tobe tries to sell it on line and finds a buyer if he is willing to hit the road and deliver. As luck, or the plot would have it, the same town where Velour, not her real name, lives in a trailer.

We don’t want to ruin the fun when and if you get to see this masterful film. But let us note a poignant moment between Tobe and the African American sculptor who buys the truck. It is a wonderful performance by the veteran actor Keith David. Put this film in the reserve list of your Netflix queue. It’s fabulous.  

The Space Between
Writer/ Director, Travis Fine
Cast: Melissa Leo (Montine), Anthony Keyvan (Omar).
86 Minutes.

In 2008, Melissa Leo, who is regarded as one of the finest character actors of her generation, was nominated for an Academy Award for a role in Frozen River. Since 2009 she had appeared in nine films including the lead in The Space Between. None of these films have attracted much attention. What an oversight.

Here she portrays a bitter, crabby, wretched, alcoholic flight attendant. The film begins with her cussing a complaining, male passenger. He surely deserves the tongue lashing but it almost gets Montine grounded.

While on probation from the airline her life collides with a young Islamic passenger, Omar, in a compelling and wise performance by Anthony Keyvan. Flying unaccompanied from New York to LA, where he will enroll as a gifted, scholarship student in an Islamic school, she is his designated escort. It is an assignment she accepts with testy diffidence. Particularly, when the fundamentalist boy refuses to let her touch him. It appears that Omar strictly follows the Koran and Sharia law, which creates many complications for the hard scrabble Montine, as circumstances bind them through an ordeal.

On their way to LA their flight is grounded. As are all flights that day, 9/11. Omar’s father works in the Four Seasons Restaurant on top of the World Trade Center. Before reluctantly parting with his son, the single father, says that they will keep in touch through their “special phone.” Omar informs Montine that they have “spoken” and that he is ok and waiting for the boy’s return to their New York apartment.

In the chaos of that terrible day Montine can’t find anyone to whom she can turn over Omar. She takes it upon herself to escort him from the Midwest back to New York. Her crusty behavior gets them thrown off a bus. She decides to buy a used car. Omar brilliantly hustles the car salesman and off they go. He’s a really smart kid.

Of course it gets complicated. Montine belts down the booze as they navigate the trail. Slowly, trust and a relationship develops which the director, Travis Fine, doles out in measured and effective increments.

There is a back story about how Montine became a drunk and wretch. This entails a side trip to attend, or not, the funeral of a father she despised, and an estranged brother. Like Omar, he is also a fundamentalist, a flawed preacher (Brad William Henke), for whom she has nothing but contempt.  

When, after many adventures, they arrive at an unoccupied apartment, the truth surfaces that Omar’s father perished. Why not take me to your apartment is Omar’s obvious question.

In one of the compelling sequences of the film Montine describes living in a cramped, dingy, crash pad, shared by flight attendants, who hot sheet the beds. They stagger home when the bars close. If the beds are occupied they sleep on the couch, or the floor. Sometimes, Montine just goes to the airport and takes the first flight to anywhere, stays in a hotel, then hops on a morning connecting flight.

It doesn’t seem like much of a life. Particularly for a fifty something, decades after the travel and adventure have lost their allure. We are actually relieved when she gets sacked for once more violating protocol.

Again, Lawson has given us a small, low budget, carefully crafted film with magnificent performances by an established and a juvenile actor. It reveals that Leo is a treasure, with the very young Keyvan showing a lot of upside.

Every Day
Writer/ Director, Richard Levine
Cast: Liev Schreiber (Ned), Helen Hunt (Jeannie), Carla Gugino (Robin), Brian Dennehy (Ernie), Ezra Miller (Jonah), Daniel Yelsky (Callen), Eddie Izzard (Garrett), Skylar Fortgang (Ethan).

Helen Hunt won an Academy Award for best actress opposite Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets (1997). Since 2001, including the lead in Every Day, she has appeared in just nine films.

For his first film as writer/ director Richard Levine, a veteran writer for TV, has assembled a superb cast to tell a story largely based on his own life.

In a confessional mode it is not a pretty tale. Ned (Liev Schreiber) is, you guessed it, a writer for a TV series, in a restrained, repressed, and measured performance. He takes a lot of shit from an over the top boss, Garrett (Eddie Izzard), who archly abuses a staff of writers to “shock me” with weekly episodes. Ned struggles to deliver but his creative well is running dry.

There is a lot to deal with at home including a menopausal, patient, anguished wife Jeannie (Helen Hunt) and their gay teen son, the easy on the eyes Jonah (Ezra Miller). There is another good kid, son Ethan (Skylar Fortgang), a cutie who is struggling to learn to play the violin.

If the fun has gone out of the marriage her response is what did you expect? The party is over as Ned slogs along trying to shock the decadent boss from hell. When he hits writer’s block Garrett forces him to team up with the nubile, sloe eyed, Robin (Carla Gugino).  You will recognize her as the tough agent competing for Vince in The Entourage. Robin suggests that they work out of her apartment starting with a dip in the pool, wine, and a few lines, to loosen the creative juices. You only live once is her seductive mantra as Ned puts up token resistance.

Meantime all hell breaks loose back at the fort with the arrival of Jeannie’s wheel chair bound, mean, and angry dad, Ernie (Brian Dennehy). He just wants to die taking the family down with him. It is her curse to be the care giver to the father she never even liked. In a poignant exchange, he tells her that he never even liked his own dad. And, he messes with the kids. He tells Ethan how to play with feeling. In a terrific dream/ drug induced scene he fantasizes about playing drums in a Count Basie tribute band. During talk back Dennehy revealed that he can’t play, the magic of cinema, and the cutting room. But his real life son is an accomplished drummer.

Levine has effectively combined the superb elements of his cast into a compelling and insightful drama. It is particularly well nuanced in the relationship between a father, who supports, but is concerned about his gay son. Miller gives a stunning performance as the adolescent struggling to find his sexual and romantic identity. He is a rising star. Remember the name, Ezra Miller.

While Every Day may not prove to be a comeback film for Hunt, the role does not convey the requisite intensity; it makes us anticipate more of her outstanding work. We respond to her concerns, but also share her anxiety about competing with young actresses, like the galvanic Gulgino. There’s lot more to it than just a plot point. Tough, but true.