Tag Archives: Roadside Attractions

Touched with Fire (2015, Paul Dalio)

Somewhere early in Touched with Fire’s third act, it becomes clear there’s not going to be any performance potential from leads Luke Kirby and Katie Holmes. The movie doesn’t really want to be about them. Director (and writer) Dalio skips all the character development, leaving Holmes dulled and Kirby perpetually in between a Zach Braff impression and a Casey Affleck one.

Same goes for “special guest stars”–but in the low budget sense, not the late seventies melodrama one–Bruce Altman, Griffin Dunne, and Christine Lahti. While Dalio’s script shafts them all, it’s unequal. Altman has the smallest part, which is kind of best given Dunne and Lahti don’t get any character development either. They get a lot of dramatic setup for character development; once again, Dalio’s not interested.

In fact, Dalio’s never interested in anything long enough in Touched With Fire for it to stick.

Holmes and Kirby are bipolar young adults who just happen to be in their mid-thirties. They look good for it, but they still clearly are too old to have so few life experiences. They live in New York City, both supported by their parents. Dunne is Kirby’s dad, Lahti and Altman are Holmes’s parents. The film introduces the principals (including Dunne and Lahti), then contrives a way to get Kirby and Holmes together. They’re both committed, Kirby because of criminal behavior, Holmes because the doctor cons her into it.

Maryann Urbano is great as the doctor. It’s also one of the better written roles in Dalio’s script; Urbano’s behavior and actions towards Kirby and Holmes are consistent. No one else is ever consistent. They sway with the changing winds of scene need.

So after not liking one another, Kirby and Holmes soon bond over poetry. Holmes is formerly successful (and published) poet–the timeline on when is unclear–and Kirby is a rap poet. Though Dalio never gets into what he means by rap poetry. It’s associative rhyming. When the film starts, Kirby is popular at his performances, Holmes is not.

Kirby thinks being bipolar informs his creativity, Holmes… well, actually, it’s never clear what Holmes thinks. Because–even though the film shows her writing poetry a lot–her feelings about it are never even acknowledged. Unless it’s one of the scenes where Kirby’s telling her how she doesn’t feel about it. Those scenes are in that ramshackle third act.

Anyway. Kirby and Holmes fall in love (while committed) but circumstances separate them. When they do get back together, determined to embrace the creative benefits of being bipolar, the film turns into a series of montages. It already had a bunch of montages while they were meeting in the middle of the night, but there was at least drama there. They poison an attendant. They battle Urbano. Their respective parents dismiss them. There’s drama.

Not in the later montages. In those montages, as the film has already shown the dangers of their mania, have some drama as they get closer and closer to the disaster, but not really. Because all the self-destructive character traits Kirby exhibited before meeting Holmes? Gone. Does Dalio explore the change? Nope. It doesn’t really matter for Holmes because she’s now entirely defined by her relationship with her parents. Even though Dunne’s always along to disappoint Kirby, the scenes anchor around Lahti and Altman.

There’s also the film itself. It’s entitled Touched with Fire because of a book called Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison. Who appears in the film as herself, for a rather disappointing sequence. But the book is about famous creatives through history who were manic-depressive. Byron, Van Gogh (lots of Starry Night references in the film too), and many others. Kirby sees himself in that lot, mostly in the first and third acts.

Only Touched with Fire, the movie, never explores the characters’ creativity. Holmes doesn’t grow as a poet because of her relationship with Kirby. In fact, he controls her work. Or he doesn’t. It’s unclear. Because Dalio isn’t interested. So it’s a film about being creative without anything to say about actual creativity. Montages of being silly in public don’t cover it.

Both leads are disappointing. More Kirby because he’s got the bigger part. Dalio doesn’t give it anywhere to go. Holmes has somewhere to go–three times–and Dalio stays as far away from her as he can during them. Dunne and Lahti are great. More Dunne because Lahti gets some of the worst inconsistent behavior scenes. Altman’s fine. He’s got absolutely nothing to do except be present and Bruce Altman.

Dalio’s strength as a director in his ability to execute the production on its limited budget. His composition’s never terrible but sometimes predictable and never exciting. It’s boring without being tedious. He doesn’t direct the actors, which is a problem. The leads both need it. His musical score’s damned good though.

Editing and cinematography are both thoroughly competent. Better editing might’ve done wonders.

Touched with Fire has all sorts of interesting places to go and goes none of them. It frequently pretends the opportunities aren’t even there. And there was no reason for it to fall apart in the third act.

Watching Touched with Fire, you keep wanting it to get better or be better or do the right thing. It rarely does. And never when it counts.



Written, edited, and directed by Paul Dalio; directors of photography, Kristina Nikolova Dalio and Alexander Stanishev; music by Dalio; production designer, Kay Lee; produced by Jeremy Alter, Nikolova Dalio, and Jason Sokoloff; released by Roadside Attractions.

Starring Luke Kirby (Marco), Katie Holmes (Carla), Christine Lahti (Sara), Griffin Dunne (George), Maryann Urbano (Dr. Strinsky), Bruce Altman (Donald), Daniel Gerroll (Dr. Lyon), and Kay Redfield Jamison (Kay Jamison).


All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor)

All Is Lost is the harrowing tale of an unnamed man (Robert Redford) on his damaged yacht in the Indian Ocean. The film runs 106 minutes. It’s harrowing for all of them. Director Chandor knows how to harrow.

The film has a mundane reality about it. Redford has no back story, no character development, almost no “character” at all. The film opens with a mildly damaging voiceover from Redford; he’s doing a combination apology and goodbye. There’s no indication of who he’s addressing–wife, child, maybe he’s a CEO who sailed off on his yacht after Bernie Madoffing, it doesn’t matter. All Is Lost is about Redford’s struggle during a constantly harrowing experience, with failure more and more certain with each passing moment.

But the opening voiceover informs how the viewer perceives Redford and his actions. Well, except when Chandor’s just dirt cheap about it. Redford risks his life (more than usual) to save a package, opens to reveal a gift, then takes a long pause to consider whether he wants to read the note. Chandor dangles revelation and rescue in front of the viewer throughout. But Redford can’t see it, because then he couldn’t be stoic. And Redford’s stoicism is impressive.

Anyway, one damage is how the voiceover affects viewer interpretation of Redford’s behavior. He has maybe six lines of dialogue after his opening voiceover; five of them are on the radio and the sixth is a single word. The other damage is how that opening voiceover fits into the narrative. Voicever, film title card, then a title card setting the film back eight days. Presumably, Redford’s not going to make the recording for eight days. So what’s going to happen in between?

Lots of harrowing boating things, starting with Redford’s yacht colliding with a shipping container while Redford’s asleep below deck. Bad things frequently happen in the film when Redford’s asleep. He’s either a heavy sleeper or a slow waker.

Once the shipping container situation is resolved, which takes most of the “first act,” other disasters befall Redford and he has to try to figure his way out of them. Chandor does a fantastic job making Redford’s actions make sense. Redford’s not talking, most viewers aren’t going to understand his seamanship activites. Chandor’s juggling quite a bit. Redford’s strong performance makes it all work. While Chandor’s composition is good–though occasionally too fixated on the pretty–and Pete Beaudreau’s editing is phenomenal, Redford’s bringing the humanity. He never voices his fears or anything else, which is frustrating since the opening voiceover is very talky; Redford’s just doing it with his psychical perfomance, his expressions, how he moves around the yacht interiors and exteriors.

Going into the second act, the film downshifts. Summary storytelling is over for a while. Redford’s broken yacht is about to get hit by a huge storm. Is he going to survive? Is something else going to go terribly wrong?

And it does. And then something else. And something else. Redford’s sprinting through a micro-disaster movie (which actually might best describe All Is Lost), which changes the pace of the film quite a bit. Then Chandor changes it again around halfway through.

Redford can weather a lot of the pacing issues. Only because the film asks so little of him after a certain point. The more difficult Redford’s reality becomes, the more Chandor pulls away, only to dangle the narrative red herring again. But the movie’s in a far different place and Chandor and Redford have already had some successes. Red herrings can’t bring it home.

Though the herring is so well-prepared, it ends up righting the yacht enough to recover a bit.

Good music from Alex Ebert. Frank G. DeMarco’s photography is fine. The film goes for realism most of the time and DeMarco delivers it. Beaudreau’s editing is the technical standout.

All Is Lost has a great performance from Robert Redford. He just can’t save the ship–Chandor’s style and narrative clash throughout the film, without ever sustaining the right rhythm.



Written and directed by J.C. Chandor; director of photography, Frank G. DeMarco; edited by Pete Beaudreau; music by Alex Ebert; production designer, John Goldsmith; produced by Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, Justin Nappi, and Teddy Schwarzman; released by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.

Starring Robert Redford.


Good Hair (2009, Jeff Stilson)

I don’t write a lot of responses to documentaries on The Stop Button. There are many reasons for it, with the primary one being I’m not sure what constitutes a documentary film. But Good Hair is definitely the kind of documentary I respond to here on The Stop Button.

I first heard about it on Elvis Mitchell’s “The Treatment,” when he interviewed Chris Rock about it and Rock talked about how it was hard to get funding together, since the film’s about a feature of black culture and one, as the Rev. Al Sharpton points out in the film, specific to black culture (though the film does bring up weaves–hair extensions–being undiscussed when white women use them).

Talking about Good Hair on its documentary merits alone presents a certain difficulty. While the film follows Rock through his investigation into the business side of black hair products (the majority of the companies making the products are no longer black owned), it’s really about him and his daughters. It’s kind of like Foreskin’s Lament (Foreskin’s Lament is Shalom Auslander’s memoir about growing up as an Orthodox Jew and, more to the point, deciding whether to circumcise his own son. Read more about it here.).

Actually… it’s exactly like Foreskin’s Lament.

Rock’s decision at the end of the film isn’t particularly surprising, but it does make some of the interviewees seem rather vapid and shockingly callous. There’s no Charlton Heston moment here per se, but Nia Long comes real close.

A lot of Good Hair is played as a comedy (the joke, often, being on the interviewee or subject). With some more Foreskin… it really could have transcended the comedic documentary.



Directed by Jeff Stilson; written by Chris Rock, Stilson, Lance Crouther and Chuck Sklar; directors of photography, Cliff Charles and Mark Henderson; edited by Paul Marchand and Greg Nash; music by Marcus Miller; produced by Jenny Hunter, Kevin O’Donnell and Stilson; released by Roadside Attractions.


Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic (2005, Liam Lynch)

There are a few things I try not to do with these posts. First, I try not to use too many adjectives. I used to be better at this one. For fun, just go back and do a search for “incredibly.” I was using it twice a post, which is two times too many. Second, I try not to write the post before I even start reading or watching the text. With Jesus is Magic, since it’s a comedy concert with musical discretions, I had something I could say before I watched it. I could say, I had no idea how to write up a concert film. I’ve only seen a few (HBO comedy specials don’t count and neither does Comedian) and they were all music concerts and I had nothing to say about them after watching them (even though it was long before The Stop Button). So, I didn’t think I’d have anything to say about Jesus is Magic.

Luckily, Jesus is Magic isn’t good, so I can easily say quite a few things about it.

I was never a standup comic guy… I’ve never seen one live and between watching Comic Relief tapes in the late 1980s, I didn’t see any actual standup until Seinfeld’s I’m Telling You for the Last Time on DVD in 1999–so probably ten years, but maybe nine. I heard some (Chris Rock’s Bigger & Blacker) in 1999, actually, as well. The fiancée, however, loves standup (she thinks Seinfeld’s standup bits are funnier than the episodes of “Seinfeld”). She’s reintroduced me to Carlin and we’ve watched all the Chris Rock HBO specials. I’m somewhat familiar with standup now and–especially after Comedian–I have a real appreciate for good standup. Sarah Silverman is not a good standup comic. She’s also not a good singer and songwriter, but I’ll get to that part in a paragraph or two.

Jesus is Magic is funny–the title line comes from a funny joke about Silverman and her Catholic boyfriend having kids (“Mommy is one of the Chosen People and Daddy believes Jesus is magic”)–but not really… Silverman has outrageous setups and awful closes. She’s faithful to her shtik above all–she’s an egocentric Jewish girl who talks about race and sex and smokes pot–but her observations about race and sex are old hat. I’ve seen all of Silverman’s jokes on “Family Guy,” except maybe some of the Jewish ones, and they work better on “Family Guy” because it does visual presentation of comedy. Most of the glowing reviews I read online–I was excited for Jesus is Magic from the great preview, but from the first three minutes I could tell how it was going to go–most of the reviewers hung out with Silverman after the screening, before they wrote their reviews. I hate using they. English needs a male plural. Besides men. I need a masculine form of reviewers dammit. I think I should brush up on my French and start publishing The Stop Button in French. Not a fan of the contractions, but it’s a nice language. Anyway, I didn’t hang with Silverman. I wouldn’t like her, I don’t think. We wouldn’t have anything to talk about. Liking her standup is buying into it–you’ve got to part of the group. Silverman only tells jokes she knows her audience will find funny. She plays only to her demographic. In other words, you’ve got to be the white person who thinks he or she isn’t racist so you can laugh at Silverman’s race jokes. It might work better in the film if there were any Asian people visible in the audience. I think I saw a black guy, but I might be wrong. Or maybe Silverman really is funny and the joke is white people laughing about racism….

Then it would be funny. Instead, it’s “Family Guy,” only not good.

But Silverman’s set is only about forty-minutes out of the seventy minute movie. The rest are either scene–the terrible opening five minutes–or musical numbers. The musical numbers are well-produced, the songs just aren’t any good. It’s some of the jokes in the songs. It’s not funny. Especially when Silverman does a song recounting material she just did… They’re superfluous. Though the editing is nice. The editing is about the only technical aspect of Jesus is Magic I can find something nice to say about. The direction is bad. It alternates between an overhead long shot, close-up, and a torso shot. Silverman doesn’t move very much and I kept thinking the director should have been watching some HBO specials. There’s also no transparency about the making of the film. There’s a dumb story and dumb song about she throws it all together in one day, but there are four or five cameras on her. That grandiose camera setup is not part of jokey agreement of the film. It’s slick and the film never says it’s going to be slick.

When the film actually came out last fall (all the glowing fanboy reviews were from festival screenings), Jesus is Magic did not get good reviews. The critics were offended, in particular, by 9/11 jokes. They should have been offended by the film, not those jokes. Those jokes were pretty damn funny… but the film isn’t.



Directed and edited by Liam Lynch; written by Sarah Silverman; director of photography, Rhet Baer; produced by Heidi Herzon, Mark Williams and Randy Sosin; released by Roadside Attractions.