Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
While major headliners like “Long Shot” are “Us” are getting attention at the huge Paramount Theatre in Austin, independent films premiere across town at theaters like the Alamo and Zach. I made it to a pair of them on the Monday of this year’s festival, and they both come from ambitious places but falter when it comes to execution. They’re both films about which I can say that I would totally watch what their filmmakers do next even if I can’t recommend what they did this time.
“Run This Town” is the rare independent film that feels like it bites off way more than it can chew. Most independent films suffer from a lack of ambition, often betrayed by budgets and simplistic storytelling, “Run This Town” tackles enough narratives for an entire season of television. It’s basically about all the people who orbited around the unstable planet that was the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford (played by a heavily made-up Damian Lewis, looking disturbingly like Fat Bastard from the "Austin Powers" movies). Debut filmmaker Ricky Tollman comes at the story of Ford not from the inside but from the circle just outside the chaos—the journalists who broke the story of his bad behavior, the aides who tried to protect him, and the cops who investigated aspects of his administration.
One of these arcs stars Ben Platt as Bram, a young reporter at a Toronto paper who gets what he thinks is a dream job from a boss played by Scott Speedman. Pretty quickly, Bram learns that modern journalism isn’t what students imagine it to be and he’s stuck writing lists like the 10 Best Hot Dogs in Toronto. When downsizing hits the paper, he intercepts a call coming into a the desk of a recently-fired reporter. The man on the other end has a video of the mayor doing crack.
There’s enough story there for an entire movie, but “Run This Town” also comes at the same story from the angle of the leading assistant to the Mayor, Kamal (Mena Massoud). He’s seen all of Ford’s repellent behavior, including sexually harassing a new employee played by Nina Dobrev, but he excuses having to cover it up with his belief that Ford’s “man of the people” persona is something the city needs. He may be racist and sexist, but he’s doing good work by changing the reputation of the Mayor’s office. And so Kamal tries to protect Ford…until he can’t any more.
Produced by the great J.C. Chandor, “Run This Town” often has the same rat-a-tat rhythm of something like Chandor’s “Margin Call,” but I’m not convinced that was the right approach here. The quick pace of the dialogue feels like a front, as if Tollman convinced himself that speaking quickly is the same thing as having something smart to say. It’s not. I’m eager to see what he does next because this truly does feel like an ambitious project, but it’s just one that I wish he had waited about a decade to make or focused more on one aspect of this very complex story. As is, it’s that odd dynamic in which it feels like both too much and not nearly enough movie at the same time.
Irishmen Micke Ahern and Enda Loughman’s “Extra Ordinary” is certainly a whole lot of movie too. It’s a defiantly odd piece of work, one that comes from a very unique sense of humor that works for most of its running time, even if this is the kind of thing that likely connects with the funny bone more on late-night cable than it does in the theater.
Maeve Higgins plays Rose, a genuinely sweet driving instructor whose deceased father (Risteard Cooper) was a famous ghost hunter. It turns out that Rose inherited her dad’s abilities to contact the other side, but she has tried to ignore those talents, something that becomes harder to do when a local man named Martin Martin (Barry Ward) needs her help. Martin’s daughter is in trouble after a spell is cast on her by a one-hit wonder named Christian Winter (Will Forte), who has made a deal with the devil to get another hit. Winter needs to sacrifice a virgin and he’s targeted Martin’s daughter. Can Rose save the day?
“Extra Ordinary” is defiantly quirky, relatively carried along by the commitment of its cast, particularly Ward, whose timing gets to really shine when he’s possessed by the spirit of his irascible dead wife. Forte is in extreme caricature mode here, and, as much as I often like him, he grated on my nerves, as did a number of the repeated bits in “Extra Ordinary.” This is the kind of film that should have played at midnight, where its odd hybrid of supernatural comedy might have connected better. When you do eventually get around to watching it, maybe wait till late at night to do so.
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