Friday, April 24, 2009

Salem Film Festival 2009: Once More With Feeling (Jeff Lipsky)

Jeff Lipsky has been a stalwart of independent cinema -- the co-founder of October Films and Lot 47 -- his contributions to the medium are immeasurable as he was able to get indie films like Stranger Than Paradise wide releases that were not common in the 60's or 70's. Once More With Feeling is Lipsky's third film as a director, and with it he shows a great command over material that is pretty familiar and formulaic, and he turn it into something fresh, charming, and gleefully refreshing.

Lipsky's newest film is a charmer. A film about family, living your dreams, and all of the stupid mistakes we make in life; oh, and karaoke. Now, all of those elements sound like your basic ingredients for a pretty standard familial drama, but Lipsky's film exists in an alternate universe where the too-cutesy moments of films of this ilk are omitted, and in their stead are scenes of tremendously executed nuanced humor and warmth.

The plot concerns a psychiatrist named Frank Gregorio(Palminteri)and his family as they prepare for their daughters wedding. Frank once had a passion for singing, and his daughter has asked that he sing at the ceremony (we come to learn that Gregorio family has a history of crooning). As he prepares to sing a song for his daughter’s wedding, his fire is rekindled and the only appropriate outlet is through a karaoke bar located in the local bowling alley. He uses this location to practice, but soon the practice turn to an obsession -- an obsession not shared by his wife -- and he becomes engulfed in the world of karaoke.

This creates problems with the family as they wish they had more of their father around – he sees it as his family not taking an interest in what he’s doing and what he’s passionate about, and thus it inevitably leads to a romantic interest with Lydia (the always wonderful Linda Fiorentino), a quiet lurker in the bowling alley bar who sees talent in Palminteri. There are hidden secrets and truths and something else lurking behind the intentions of Fiorentino, but nothing overtly sexual; the film is too smart for that and doesn’t rely on Hollywood conventions.

The film parallels the relationship between Lydia and Frank (and the will they, won't they aura that surrounds them) with a story about his daughter Lana (the wonderful Drea de Matteo) who is also considering an affair with a local policeman. Lana feels invisible to her husband, so she tosses around the idea of plastic surgery, and in a hilarious scene asks the doctor if he can remove "everything".

There's also a hilarious scene where Lana takes her tow children to an amusement park. One of her kids refuses to come down a slide, so Lana must crawl up the slide to get him -- meanwhile Lana's husband is hitting on a 20-something employee of the park dressed in a mouse costume. As Lana retrieves their son from the slide she wonders where he husband was during this whole 'ordeal' (which probably seems normal for those who have kids), and the punchline to the scene is right on the money.

Also, the two child actors who play Lana's kids are cute without being too sugary sweet, and I am positive had this film been released by a major studio these actors would have been reduced to too-cutesy lines of dialogue. Lipsky does a good job of keeping a balance between how kids actually talk, and getting them to say lines of dialogue without them sounding too written (which is often the curse of having young children spout lines from a script). He reins them in just enough for them to be memorable without seeming phony, and the result is child actors who are actually cute instead of annoying.

The results of the formula are never really what's important in the film -- the karaoke, the affairs, the plastic surgery -- they're all backdrops for a film that has wonderful scene after wonderful scene, full of insight and warmth, and emit a glow from the screen that elates the audience. There's nothing that will blow you away about the aesthetics of this movie, but it's such a pleasant change of pace from the usual family dramas that clog up the cineplex that I didn't mind, and really, how often do we go to films like this expecting the film to be anything more than competently filmed?

What makes the film stand out is that the characters act like real people instead of written characters and that the results of their actions always feel based in reality. There are buried feelings and truths in the film, and Lipsky is wise as he takes his time in explicating them, never rushing for a big dramatic moment. There are moments of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, but unlike most mainstream films that contain those basic dramatic tropes, Lipsky's film is real and adult in the sense that yes, stupid mistakes were made, but (gasp) these characters talk them out in scenes that contain a certain sense of authenticity, instead of melodrama that's forced on the audience.

Lipsky’s film is touching and warm and had me smiling from beginning to end. There are moments that come from real life situational humor, moments that evoke genuine laughter – a kind of been there, done that tone to the punch line; I appreciated Lipsky's tact. Once More With Feeling is a warm, infectious film that is sure to put a smile on your face, and definitely worth a look if it comes to your town.

Jeff Lipsky was in attendance at the showing of this film. He informed the audience that all of the actors do indeed sing themselves. This is impressive as Linda Fiorentino has a tremendous voice, and Palminteri aint bad, either.


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