Feature: Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best

Photo courtesy of the company

Actors Ryan O’Nan and Michael Weston have extensive film and television credits, but these days they’re best known as the Brooklyn Brothers. That’s the name of the unusual band they play in the quirky new indie film comedy Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best, which has just opened in New York City. They recently sat down with me to chat about the project, which the enterprising O’Nan also wrote and directed.

“It’s an ode to that time of my life when I was a musician says O’Nan about the film, which depicts the often contentious relationship between band mates Alex (O’Nan), a singer/songwriter still depressed over a recent break-up, and Jim (Weston), an eccentric musician who specializes in playing Fisher Price-style children’s instruments.

Naturally, some musical experience was required. That wasn’t a problem for O’Nan, who spent several years performing in a punk band before becoming an actor. But when he met Weston at an audition for a film role neither of them got, he had no idea that his future co-star could play.

 “I had resigned myself to the idea that I was going to hire the best actor and have somebody off camera play the instruments,” recalls O’Nan. “But after I had given him the part, I asked very politely, do you happen to be able to play any music at all? And he was, like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been playing piano my whole life.’ We were at a restaurant, but I jumped up and hugged him in front of everybody. I held him for a long, long, time.”

 “He didn’t spring on me the fact that I’d be playing baby toys in front of people until way later,” adds Weston. “I did attend the Fisher Price Conservatory. I’m licensed now.”

It turns out that those instruments are not as easy to play as they look.

 “It’s really fucking hard, man, I’m not going to lie to you,” says Weston. “My fingers are way too big for those keys.”

 “They’re not meant to be played for large groups of people, I’ll tell you that,” chimes in O’Nan.

The film--marking O’Nan’s directorial/screenwriting debut--was shot for under a million dollars.

 “Most of that went to my salary,” jokes Weston. “Very little of it ended up on screen.”

 “It’s a very interesting time in film right now,” O’Nan points out. “I recently acted in three big-budget movies in a row and they were all done with the exact same camera I used on my second movie, Chu and Blossom, which I just finished shooting. Anybody can make a movie now, so there’s a huge proliferation of films that’s just going to make for more competition.”   

Brooklyn Brothers features a stellar supporting cast, including Andrew McCarthy, Jason Ritter, Wilmer Valderrama, Christopher McDonald and Oscar winner Melissa Leo. Getting them required O’Nan to call in a few favors.

 “Hell, yeah,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe what I had to do to get this cast.”

The two men are not letting the experience go to waste. To promote the film, they’ve been playing live dates around the country, and the soundtrack has just been released on Rhino Records.

 “It’s even coming out on vinyl, which has been one of my lifelong dreams,” enthuses O’Nan.


Review: The Sons of Tennessee Williams

For a film about gay men who love to dress up in outrageous costumes, The Sons of Tennessee Williams is surprisingly bland. Tim Wolff’s documentary exploring the history of gay Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans offers occasionally moving testimony from those who suffered under the homophobic prejudice of the 1950s and ‘60s. But despite its imaginative title, the film is too unfocused and lackadaisical to make much of an impact.


Making the fairly dubious argument that the New Orleans movement represented the earliest civil rights for gay people in the country, the film traces the development of gay krewes, or private social clubs composed of members celebrating the annual Carnival season. The first, organized in 1959, was inspired by the acquittal of three Tulane University students for the murder of a gay man.


Subject to police harassment and public condemnation, that club soon disbanded. But eventually others sprung up to take its place, and the social climate gradually thawed to the point where they were able to operate relatively openly. One such club is profiled at length, with interviews with many of its members recalling their past struggles interwoven with archival footage and scenes of the extensive preparations for their 40th anniversary ball.


What will no doubt be a highlight for many viewers are the displays of the incredibly elaborate outfits worn by the attendees, which more closely resemble parade floats than costumes.


Neither informative enough to serve as a valuable history lesson nor entertaining enough to compare with, say, the similar Paris is Burning (1990), The Sons of Tennessee Williams is destined to be a minor footnote in the ever expanding canon of gay and lesbian-themed documentaries.   

Review: Programming the Nation?

Geoff Tate (©Cavu Pictures)Watching Programming the Nation? is likely to increase your paranoia level exponentially. Jeff Warrick’s documentary about subliminal messaging in advertising and other forms of communication will make you question your motivations every time you make a decision, especially of the consumerist variety. 


As with so many documentaries, the film is a bit overreaching in its approach. The director approaches his subject from so many angles and includes so many interviews with such a dizzying array of figures sensory overload starts to kick in.


But along the way, there are endlessly fascinating bits of information. The main focus is on advertising, especially the hidden images supposedly embedded in visual ads. But there also segments devoted to such subjects as backward lyrics in popular music (remember the “Paul is Dead” Beatles controversy?); the experimentation with subliminal images in such horror films as Hitchcock’s Psycho and Friedkin’s The Exorcist; subliminal anti-theft audio messages in department store sound systems; the mini-scandal that engulfed Disney when sexy images were discovered in some of their animated features and endless more.


The proceedings feature some clichéd elements, such as the filmmaker’s Michael Moore-style attempts at confronting ad agency executives who, not surprisingly, refuse to talk to him. The film never satisfactorily explores the question of whether or not subliminal messages really work at all. And some of the interviewees--such as Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who rails against the Bush administration’s propaganda techniques to rally the public to war—go seriously off topic.


But overall I have to say that Programming the Nation?--for all its lack of focus and unanswered questions—kept me fairly riveted from start to finish. Or maybe it just contained subliminal messaging that made me think that it did. 

Review: Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story

© Michael J Maloney

In recent years there have been documentaries chronicling fanatical devotees of scrabble (Word Wars), crossword puzzles (Wordplay) and video games (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters), among other things. You could call it the genre of obsessive trivial pursuits, although to the best of my knowledge that particular board game has not yet come under scrutiny.


Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story is the latest example of this quirky cinematic trend. Now playing at NYC’s Quad Cinemas, it’s a diverting study of the world’s most popular board game.


As with most other films of this type, Kevin Tostado’s documentary focuses on the game’s most dedicated players, in this case several participants in the 2009 Monopoly World Championships in Las Vegas.


(Yes, even Monopoly has inspired a world competition.)


Presided over by, who else, Mr. Monopoly (actually Phil Orbanes, a former executive at Parker Brothers, the game’s manufacturer), the event features a grand prize of $20,580, which corresponds to the total amount of play money available in a set.


Among those profiled are a sixth grade teacher who uses the game to teach his students math skills; a Norwegian teenager eager to show up his adult rivals; the defending U.S. champion, who has a Vegas showgirl girlfriend despite his undeniably dorky obsession; and a New Zealand banker whose nickname is “The Nimble Thimble.”


While these eccentric figures are certainly colorful, they are ultimately little different from the sort of fanatics on view in other films of this type. Not to mention that Monopoly is not exactly a spectator sport that makes for compelling viewing.


The film is most interesting when it delves into the history of the game, which began life in 1905 as “The Landlord’s Game,” created to illustrate the evils of capitalism. Over many years it evolved into its present form, which ironically serves to celebrate the exact opposite in the most brutal of terms. This is, after all, a game in which a player’s goal is to have his opponents declare bankruptcy.


Fascinating tidbits are dispensed along the way, such as the fact that Monopoly sets distributed by the Red Cross during World War II were used to smuggle cash and maps to prisoners of war. And did you know that the longest continuous game lasted no less than 70 days?


By the time this entertaining if slight documentary reaches its conclusion, you’ll no doubt be rooting through your closet to dig up that well-worn set from childhood so you can revisit the game’s pleasures yourself.

Review: And Everything Is Going Fine

Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh chose exactly the right voice to tell the story of Spalding Gray in his new documentary portrait And Everything is Going Fine. It’s that of Gray himself, who forged a distinguished career as a master monologist who mined his own alternately mundane and troubled life for a series of highly acclaimed theater pieces spanning a quarter of a century.


Culled from some 120 hours of footage given to him by Gray’s widow Kathleen Russo, this deeply moving film--which is currently receiving an exclusive theatrical engagement at NYC’s IFC Film Center--represents a final autobiographical commentary by Gray, filled in his typical fashion with a disarming mixture of wry humor and raw emotion.


Lacking contextual narration, it makes no effort at being a comprehensive biography, making no mention of his dramatic suicide in 2004 when he threw himself into icy waters from the Staten Island Ferry.


But the specter of that tragic death haunts the film like a ghost, especially with its mostly previously unseen footage shot after the Ireland automobile accident that left Gray physically impaired and clearly seriously depressed.


Soberbergh, who made the film version of one of Gray’s most popular stage pieces, Gray’s Anatomy, uses a cannily chosen mixture of footage from stage performances from throughout his career (the video/film quality varies wildly); media interviews with the likes of Charlie Rose and MTV; and touching home movie footage, including a wry discussion between Gray and his elderly father.


The film chronicles its subject’s life in roughly chronological fashion, from his upbringing at the hands of a troubled mother who herself committed suicide to his inauspicious beginnings as an actor to his career and life-changing stint with the avant-garde theater company the Wooster Group, where he developed the monologue form that he would continue to refine for the rest of his too brief life.        


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