Moriarty @ AFI Fest! TRISTRAM SHANDY, AFTER INNOCENCE, THE LOST CITY, SCREAMING MASTERPIECE, JESUS IS MAGIC And FUCK!!
Published at: Nov. 11, 2005, 5:39 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
And, yeah, I know FUCK’s a dirty word for a headline. That’s sort of the point of the film. We’ll get to that in a few. First, let me back up a few steps. It’s been a really hectic week (and what isn’t, these days?) but I’ve got this press pass that allows me to walk into any of the AFI Fest Screenings. Seems like a waste if I don’t try to make at least one or two films a day, and more if my schedule permits. I pre-screened a few films thanks to the press screenings over at the AFI, and you can read my reviews for those films here:
So far, I’ve done okay. I’ve missed as many things as I’ve managed to see, but most of what I’ve seen, I’ve really enjoyed. Instead of giving you a boring day-by-day of the fest so far, I thought I’d just hit you with my reactions to the films, in order:
You can follow the link above for my initial review, but I had to go again so I could see the film from the start. Turns out, I only missed about three or four minutes, but even that little bit made a difference. The film grabs you from the opening frames, and I am struck again by just how much control Gavin Hood exhibits as a filmmaker. It’s remarkable, and the response has been so good that they’ve added one more screening, this coming Sunday. If you’re in LA, you owe it to yourself to make it to this remarkable film now, so you don’t have to wait for March, when Miramax is set to release it.
THE LOST CITY
This has been a pet project for Andy Garcia for the past 16 years, so he’s got to be feeling pretty good about having finally finished it. It began when he met G. Cabrera Infante, a fairly important Cuban novelist who lived in exile in London for many years. He wrote VANISHING POINT, a cult road movie in the ‘70s, under the pseudonym Guillermo Cain, but when Garcia approached him in 1990 to write “something,” what he gave the actor was a 300-page screenplay based loosely on THREE TRAPPED TIGERS, one of his best-known works. What Garcia eventually made from that 300-page script is a film that tells the story of the Cuban revolution as seen through the filter of one family, and, in particular, one man. Fico (Garcia) just wants to run a song-and-dance club in Havana, a place for people to unwind and listen to great music. The film’s got an amazing soundtrack, packed with song after song, all of it a background to a movie that plays like a cross between THE GODFATHER and CASABLANCA. Which isn’t to say it’s as good as either of those iconic touchstones... just that it aims high. Garcia’s a good director. Not great, but obviously passionate about his subject and determined to do justice to a fairly big topic. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro show up as peripheral characters, but Garcia wisely keeps the focus on the family and what happens to them as, one by one, they are pulled into revolution against their will, the entire fabric of their lives changed by the events unfolding all around them. Fico’s the last man standing, and the only one to get out of the country once he sees the writing on the wall, and he has to turn his back on love to do so, hence the tragedy. It’s wisely underplayed, even in the coda in the States, and what remains is a nostalgia for a Cuba that never was. Garcia and Infante acknowledge that Cuba before the revolution was a mess, but a different kind of mess. The revolution grows from genuine seeds of dissent, a desire to make something better. The Cuba that they were promised by the revolution seems to be what Garcia and Infante long for, a promise broken. I’m sure when this finally opens, they’ll sell it using star cameos like Dustin Hoffman (who plays Meyer Lansky in a few quick moments) and Bill Murray (known only as The Writer, a sort of sardonic Greek chorus in terrible shorts), but don’t be misled. This is a sprawling family drama, and at times, it’s a very good one. You certainly have to admire the naked ambition on display.
If I have any primary complaint about this furious documentary by Jessica Sanders, it would be that the title is misleading. It suggests that the thesis of the film is really about how you rebuild your life once you are fully exonerated of a crime for which you were sent to prison. It happens more than you’d think now, thanks to advances in the way DNA evidence can be gathered and used in court. That’s certainly part of what the film is about, but the movie is also a bit of a love letter to The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic and criminal justice resource center. Basically, they represent innocent people in their efforts to get DNA evidence admitted into cases where it can prove definitively that the person in prison is not the person who committed a crime. Much of the movie focuses on the story of Wilton Dedge, a Florida man who is proven innocent, but who isn’t released from jail because the state of Florida actively decides to ignore this evidence so they can maintain the conviction. It’s infuriating stuff, and Dedge looks like he’s drowning slowly every time you see him, like a man trapped in a nightmare he can’t wake from. So many of the other men come across as strong guys who withstood hellish situations, only to come out the other side of things unequipped for their reassimilation into the world. Some of them can’t let go of their anger, and I’m sure I’d feel that way, too, if I woke up one morning in a world that felt like a Hitchcock movie. Seeing this, seeing all of these men tell their stories, it’s enough to shake whatever faith I still had in the criminal justice system in our country. Still, my tiny nitpick about the title aside, this is a fascinating film, and I think it’s actually playing theatrically in some parts of the country right now. Even if it’s not open near you, track it down at some point, at least so you have some idea of what can happen to anyone if the circumstances are wrong.
In the original Icelandic, the film is actually called GARGANDI SNILLD, which seems slightly less pretentious because, perhaps, I do not speak Icelandic. Again, though, I’m going to try not to get hung up on the title.
This is a documentary about the Icelandic music scene, covering some very well-known performers like Sigur Ros, Bjork, The Sugarcubes, and some slightly less well-known performers like Mum, Bang Gang, Mugison, Minus, and Slowblow. I’ll admit it... I went primarily because I love Bjork and wanted to see the live footage. What surprised me is how much I liked the majority of the music in the film. The film makes a strong case for the idea that Iceland has one of the most original and tight-knit music scenes in the world, but it never quite gets around to figuring out why that’s the case, and that’s a shame. So much of the film is so entertaining that I don’t really want to bag on it. If you’re a live music fan, this is pretty close to a concert experience, more so than many concert films I’ve seen. This movie captures the feel of being at a live performance incredibly well, and you’ll feel your ribs kicked in with all the power that a Dolby 5.1 mix can muster, and these are some pretty remarkable performances. I’m going to pick up the soundtrack, but I’ll also be buying the film when it eventually hits home video, because the film is frequently as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to. All told, it’s not a particularly incisive film, but it was still an amazing way to spend a couple of hours.
Yep. That’s the whole title. And it knows that it’s a confrontational title, a title that most newspapers can’t print, and that they certainly won’t take advertising for. The whole point of the film, though, is to make you confront that word and deal with it and, if it works, laugh about it as well. This documentary by Steve Anderson can almost be seen as a companion piece to this year’s THE ARISTOCRATS, but I doubt FUCK would make my wife cry. Basically, this is a fistful of celebrity interviews about the word “fuck” and all its uses, connotations, meanings, origins, and significance, and it also uses the word as a springboard to the discussion of free speech. That’s an ambitious goal for a documentary, and to the credit of writer/director Steve Anderson, he does a nice job of explaining without lecturing, and he keeps everything light. This is a very funny film, and I’m sure part of that is the way he juxtaposes interview subjects like Ice-T, Tera Patrick, and Pat Boone.
The real question I have is how they plan to play this film outside of the atmosphere of a festival. They’ll never get any Blockbuster shelf space with that title, and changing the title or self-censoring it seems to fly in the face of what the movie’s about. It’s a tricky Catch-22 for a distributor, but FUCK is a good enough movie that someone needs to step up and figure it out.
So I missed all day Tuesday and all day Wednesday. I did manage to sneak in a show of KISS KISS BANG BANG (loved it) and a DGA event about MASTERS OF HORROR, though. It wasn’t until Thursday that I made it back for a double-feature of comedies.
TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK & BULL STORY
When I walked out of the theater earlier tonight, I knew that I really liked this film. But now that I’ve had several hours to digest it, I think I sort of loved this film. It certainly reaffirms my belief that Michael Winterbottom is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working anywhere in the world today. Basically, he’s made his ADAPTATION here, a movie about the making of a movie based on an unadaptable novel. Anyone who knows me knows that one of my biggest pet peeves are movies about the making of movies or set against the backdrop of movie making. I can’t even explain why it bugs me so much... but it does. When LIVING IN OBLIVION came out, for example, I heard that it was hilarious and “really gets it,” and I went into it hoping for the best. Instead, it just irritated me pretty much start to finish. When I showed up at the Arclight tonight, I didn’t realize this was a comedy about filmmaking. All I knew was that Steve Coogan was in it, and Winterbottom directed.
Tristram Shandy is a bizarre nine-volume English novel that is basically one giant digression, the titular character setting off to make a point and following his own bumblebee-busy train of thought wherever it takes him, through family stories and philosophical flights of fancy. It’s absolutely unadaptable because it’s not about anything in particular. You could make a film of parts of it, certainly, but in a very strange way, you could only approach the essence of the novel by doing what Winterbottom and screenwriter Martin Hardy have done here: throwing it out almost completely.
This film is about Steve Coogan (played by, appropriately enough, Steve Coogan) and Rob Brydon (played equally appropriately by Rob Brydon), as well as the rest of the cast and crew who are attempting to make a film version of TRISTRAM SHANDY, and for the first 15 minutes or so, the film is simply a telling of the story. By the time Winterbottom finally breaks reality by including a camera crew in the shot, you’ve already bought into the fact that this is a credible movie they’re making. I would have watched the adaptation. What we see happening to Coogan as we follow him through a few days of production parallels the structure of the novel, one digression after another taking him further and further away from the things that are important. In this case, his girlfriend Jenny (an extra adorable Kelly McDonald) and his newborn baby are the things he can’t quite seem to find time for, and what makes this film so affecting is the way that relationship is never treated as a joke. At times, the film is fall-down funny, but there’s a reality to it as well, and Winterbottom seems determined to make this count. Coogan’s come a long way from his Alan Partridge days, and he manages to find real depth in what could easily have been another send-up of vacuous celebrity. Overall, this is a tremendous ensemble piece, and I loved moments like the introduction of Gillian Anderson, the late-night walk across the battlefield, and Coogan trying to soothe his baby to sleep with a song. It’s a wonderful, surprising film at every turn, and I have a feeling I’ll have to see it again to fully absorb why it hit me as hard as it did.
SARAH SILVERMAN: JESUS IS MAGIC
Finally, we come to a movie that’s already gotten a lot of press, and I find myself in an awkward position here. See, I’m already sold on Sarah Silverman. I’ve liked her as an actress for a lot of years, and anyone who spends time in and around the LA comedy scene has been aware of her for a long time. I think she’s genuinely funny. I thought she stole THE ARISTOCRATS from some much bigger names. I think she can craft a deadly one-liner.
And I thought this movie was sort of a bore, a one-note over-extended comedy sketch that makes some too-familiar points and, even at 71 minutes, overstays its welcome.
I hate being the Grinch here, but I think I was just shocked that I didn’t like the movie more. If you read a lot of online press, you’d think Sarah Silverman was about to take over Hollywood. She’s gotten a lot of column inches in the last few weeks, and I get the impulse to anoint her and tell America what they’ve been missing. But JESUS IS MAGIC is really only about 30 minutes of good material, and the other 41 minutes you have to sit through burns a lot of the goodwill that her good material earns her. Also, if I hear one more person compare her to Lenny Bruce, I may have to kick them in the pussy. Sarah Silverman’s a cute girl who talks dirty, and she gets a lot of comic mileage from that. She’s not breaking new ground, though, and she’s not dangerous, and she’s not in any danger of going to jail or being blackballed from performing because of a particular stand she’s taken. She got yelled at for saying “Chink” on network TV. It’s not really analogous to what happened to Lenny Bruce. I think Bill Hicks was the last guy who can even begin to lay claim to Lenny’s legacy, and even he was still just standing on the platform that Lenny built for everyone else, building a few new steps at best. I take stand-up comedy very seriously, and I can tell that Silverman does, too. Her best bits are well-crafted, impeccably performed. She does one trick a few too many times considering the relatively brief running time here, and I wish she’d just chosen the best version of the joke. She’ll start by being very candid. She says something that seems heartfelt, and then she gets emotional about it, almost to the point of tears. Just when she’s got the audience really feeling sorry for her, she twists it all into a joke. Once, it works great. Twice, it works. The third time, it starts to grate. It’s just a little too similar, and it’s obvious she can do more if she wants to. I wish she didn’t think of herself as a topical comic, and that she would focus instead on the scathingly dirty surrealism, which is her real gift. She is a keen enough observer of behavior that she can twist things in a weird and original way, and I’m far more interested in that than I am in being lectured about Jews driving German cars for nearly five minutes without a punchline. Although she can sing, she’s not a singer. The songs are not her strong suit, and they stop the movie cold for me. What really surprised me is how cheap much of the film looks, considering all the hype I keep hearing about Liam Lynch. I hope he turns out to be the real deal, because I don’t want TENACIOUS D IN THE PICK OF DESTINY to be a visual let-down the way this film is.
The framework of the film is another of the problems. I get it. I get that there’s a whole onion of irony here, sincerity wrapped in mock-sincerity wrapped in mock-mock-sincerity that’s genuinely sincere. Sarah Silverman the comic is making fun of Sarah Silverman the character who wants to be the Famous Sarah Silverman, but in doing so, she’s created a showcase that is supposed to make Sarah Silverman the comic famous for making fun of the Famous Sarah Silverman. The moment where she gets so into her own reflection in her dressing room mirror that she starts to make out with herself is meant to deflate anyone who is so into themselves that they would do such a thing, but JESUS IS MAGIC is undeniably All About Sarah, and she goes out of her way to glam up for many sequences. There comes a point where post-modern hipster ironic detached disinterest towards celebrity becomes exhausting, and you just want to hear some fucking jokes. Besides, this ground was covered in similar fashion by Sandra Bernhard in WITHOUT YOU I'M NOTHING, so Silverman can't even claim this as particularly original territory. In the end, as a comedy buff, I think I prefer the simplicity of the Louis CK episode of ONE NIGHT STAND that HBO aired a few months ago. At least that isn’t trying to be something more. It’s just a great comic performing some great material and doing it well, and not begging for attention in the process.
I’m off to interview Steve Gaghan in the morning about his remarkable new film SYRIANA, and I’ll have that for you this weekend, along with those set visits I’ve been working to transcribe. I’m also determined to make it to at least four or five more films at this festival before it’s over on Sunday night. We’ll see how well I do. Until then...