Moriarty’s Post-Thanksgiving Pre-BNAT Overload! PRO-LIFE, 12 New Reviews, And A Look At The Rest Of 2006!!
Published at: Dec. 15, 2006, 4:56 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Let me start by saying I’m flattered. You guys made me blush, all that love in one place. You’re gonna give me a big head if you keep it up.
MASTERS OF HORROR is great fun because of what the producers offer the writers and directors: freedom. As long as you can make your episode for just under $2 million, and you can shoot it in ten days, and you can shoot it in Vancouver with a mostly Canadian cast, then you have total freedom.
In other words, you don’t have total freedom. There’s no such thing when you’ve got ten days and just under $2 million. The freedom you have is the sort where people aren’t second-guessing you. When Scott and I were writing this film, we had to satisfy an audience of one: John Carpenter. He was the final word on every word in the script, which is how it should be. He was the guy who had to actually shoot what we wrote.
I loved the experience of making PRO-LIFE this year. The day Ron Perlman did that particuarly terrible thing that he does to Bill Dow was my birthday, and between takes, we were eating cake, which makes the scene incredibly surreal for me when I watch it now. As with CIGARETTE BURNS last year, there are things about the episode that absolutely kill me, that make me want to crawl out of my skin. There are things that just don’t work in way for me as a writer. I can see clearly what I did wrong in many places, and it makes me crazy. But ask any filmmaker about anything they do, and hopefully they’ll see room for improvement.
There’s a lot of the episode I like. And that encourages me quite a bit. When Ron Perlman’s really cooking, he’s great. I like his scenes with Bill Dow quite a bit. I think he’s great with his kids. I love his moment of realization at the end. I really, really, really like what KNB did for us, and I wish we had another $2 million just for them for the last 20 minutes of the episode.
I know my co-writer made an intentionally tongue in cheek inflammatory comment to Herc before the show aired in which he said we were intentionally "sticking it to the pro-choice wackos", but I actually think our episode is the opposite of “Homecoming.” It’s a litmus test. The title suggests an issue film. People yell slogans about issues back and forth at each other. But I don’t think the movie is about the issue at all. Instead, I think it’s about how crazy that issue makes people on both sides of the fence. We don’t take a position because it’s not important to the story we’re telling. Which way you read the film depends largely on what you bring to it.
And, hey, if you really did hate it, then mazel tov. Thanks for watching it, and as Ed Wood said, “Well, my next one will be better.”
It’s interesting that our own talkback ran about 100% scathingly negative, while other forums like DreadCentral or Fangoria or the IMDb all seem decidedly mixed. The most common complaint is that the ending just sort of unravels. Guilty as charged. Just when the film should build to an apocalyptic crescendo, you can practically hear our UPM yell, “We’re out of money! Turn off those cameras! Put that spider baby puppet away, please!”
Reading the negative responses has been more interesting than unpleasant. I wish people didn’t feel like they have to be insulting in order to express why they didn’t like the episode, but I read everything, and I’m learning just as much this time as I did after the reactions to CIGARETTE BURNS. Well-written, well-reasoned reactions, even if they’re negative, are always worth reading. It’s easy to ignore a response that includes personal insults about my family or my AICN work, since it’s obvious that person isn’t even reacting to the movie. But only an idiot would ignore every negative reaction. It’s obvious that this one divided the horror audience far more than the first season episode did, and I’m definitely interesting in learning why.
My first professional experience back in ’94 was a theater festival in Los Angeles, where a one-act play I co-wrote was produced to pretty hefty critical acclaim. We won some awards, and we got some development deals out of the experience, and when the festival decided to do a second year, we were invited to contribute again.
The second time, we were just as happy with the work, and had just as good an experience with our cast and our director, but the response was hotly divided. And back then, I took each negative review much harder. It was hard to understand how you could feel the same way about two pieces of work and yet the audience could feel so different about them. It was also an important lesson in the way your own work never plays for you the way it does for anyone else. It’s why I feel comfortable looking at someone else’s work and discussing it with an objective eye. I have no baggage about someone else’s work. I didn’t sweat over a scene or rewrite an effect for budget or lose a character because of the clearance reports, so I can just watch the film for what it is. It’s totally different looking at a film I wrote, knowing full well that any conversation about my own work would be colored by those thousand things that no audience would ever see. I can see the flaws in my own work, and I can understand why I made the choices I made, and I can work to learn from those mistakes the next time I write something.
And, of course, in the end the point is that I’m hanging my balls out there to get slapped. I’m not only putting my theory about film out there anymore. Now I’m putting that theory into practice, and that inevitably complicates your reactions to what I write here.
Take it for what it is. I’m not trying to mislead you about who I am. I’m a working filmmaker, continually trying to get better at my craft (because in my case, it’s nowhere near an art yet), and I have an opinion about the industry that I love. I have an opinion about film that is informed not only by my love of them and my work on them, but also by the sheer volume of them that I ingest.
Right now, I’m starting the process of putting together my end-of-the-year list for 2006. In order to do it well, I have to keep a running list all year long of every new film I see, and all the films I need to see to feel like I’ve accurately sampled the year’s offerings. I’ve seen 170 new films so far, and I think I absolutely need to see at least 40 more to feel like I’ve done my job right. One of the things that helped was the AFI Fest that I recently attended. I didn’t see as many films as I wanted to, but I saw quite a few, and I’ve reviewed about half of them so far.
Let’s run down the other films from the festival that I haven’t reviewed yet:
TEN CANOES reminds me of ATANARJUAT – THE FAST RUNNER, the Inuit-language drama from a few years ago. Like that film, this exists largely to document a vanishing way of life by dramatizing it. It’s an anthropological record as much as it is a movie. And having said that, it’s also very entertaining.
Rolf de Heer’s had a pretty wild and varied filmography. It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who made BAD BOY BUBBY, but in recent years, he’s grown into a sort of respectability. Speaking to him in person, he’s got a flinty, gruff personality, but he’s obviously very serious about his craft and very proud of this film. He says he didn’t choose to make this movie. Instead, he says it was the Aboriginal Ramingining community that chose him. They approached him and said they wanted to make a film about their past, about their storytelling tradition, about the time when Australia belonged only to them. De Heer struggled to figure out a way into the film until he saw the photography of Dr. Donald Thomson, done during Thomson’s field work on Arnhem Land during the mid-1930s. Much of de Heer’s film is based directly on the imagery in Thomson’s photographs.
The film unfolds as a story within a story. On the one level, there’s a faceless Storyteller, heard but never seen, who is voiced by David Gulpilil, probably the most famous Aboriginal actor. You’d know him from WALKABOUT or THE LAST WAVE or CROCODILE DUNDEE or THE RIGHT STUFF or RABBIT-PROOF FENCE. In many ways, he’s always been “the” face of the Australian Aborigine, so it’s only fitting that he’d narrate this film. He’s funny, too, inviting you from the very start to sit back and enjoy because he plans to digress. A lot. And he does. His story starts in the distant past, then goes to the distant, distant past, and then ping pongs back and forth between the two. One of the film’s driest jokes is how there’s basically no difference between the two time periods.
Gulpilil’s son, Jamie Gulpilil, is the star of the film, playing characters in both timelines. In one, he’s a young man having trouble because of his attraction to an older man’s wife. He asks another older man for guidance, and the story he’s told is what we see as the story in the distant, distant past. The two timelines bounce off each other thematically, but the stories also ramble quite a bit. Based on the way The Storyteller’s narration is written, I assume that’s one of the main characteristics of Aboriginal storytelling. It also makes this a fairly unique film in terms of the way it handles drama. It doesn’t build to the sorts of crescendos that we’re used to seeing in conventional drama, and that becomes one of the film’s charms.
Ian Jones, the film’s cinematographer, has worked with de Heer since BAD BOY BUBBY in ’93, and they’ve really grown together as artists. Working with Thomson’s period photos as a guide, Jones plunges the viewer into another world and another time. It’s pure cinema, and you can lose yourself in the film even if you don’t find yourself engaged by it. I think it’s an engrossing film, and well worth seeking out. It’s never going to be a blockbuster, but for adventurous viewers looking for something that pushes the definition of filmmaking, this is a genuine treat.
THE HISTORY BOYS
This one opened in limited release last weekend, and it’s been heavily touted as a potential player in the Oscar season. Having seen it, I can safely say that is not the case.
Alan Bennett’s play won awards in London and in New York, and I hear the play was at least an hour longer than the film is. Maybe that extra time would make a difference for me and fill in some of the missing pieces, but I strongly doubt it. I have some pretty fundamental problems with the way the piece works, which I’ll get into further into the review.
Nicholas Hytner is a hugely successful stage director, but his record on film is a little less consistent. He made his film debut with THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE III, and followed it up with a grimy, hyper-serious adaptation of THE CRUCIBLE, both of which were strong films.
Since then, he’s stumbled through THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION (awful), CENTER STAGE (turgid at best), and now this. Adapting your own Tony-winning stage production is always a tricky proposition because of the extreme differences in what works on film and what works on stage. One of the reasons DREAMGIRLS works so well as a piece of cinema is because Bill Condon is enough of a fan of the original stage production to try and recreate some of the magic of the way Michael Bennett staged it, but he’s enough of a filmmaker to reinvent it in a way that could only work on film. Hytner uses location as his way of opening up HISTORY BOYS, spending as much time as possible showing off the atmosphere of the various English schools that are the settings. Beyond that, though, it doesn’t appear that he’s really changed the material much.
But what bothers me about the film has nothing to do with Hytner’s visually flat presentation of the drama. It’s inherent to Alan Bennett’s script. It’s the story of a group of Sixth Formers, all of them hoping preparing to test for possible admission to Oxford, and the various teachers who play major roles in their lives. The great Richard Griffiths plays Mr. Hector, and as a teacher, he’s outstanding. His methods are invisible to anyone watching one of his classes, but his results are undeniable. The boys are all bright, funny, quick, and loaded with surprising nuggets of knowledge that practically tumble out in cascades during every conversation.
Mr. Hector has a problem, though. It seems that he really likes to touch his students. Specifically, their genitals.
Certainly that’s the stuff of good drama. Or, in Bennett’s hands, it seems to be the stuff of good wicked comedy. Particularly when a new teacher, Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), is brought in to make sure the students all qualify for Oxford, something which offends Hector to no end. Mr. Irwin also turns out to be gay, and the film contrasts Irwin’s struggle to control his desire for one student in particular with Hector’s overall urge to fondle them. Edgy material, certainly.
Where the film loses me is in the way it lets Hector off the hook, absolving him of any wrongdoing by virtue of how good a teacher he is. I expected all the students to end the film by standing on their desks for a heartfelt round of “O, pedo, my pedo.”
I think the film contains many potent moments and some great performances, and it’s brisk entertainment overall. But the difficult sexual politics of the piece unravel towards the end. What does the piece appear to be saying? All gay teachers are going to harbor desires for their students, and that’s just life? As long as you’re a good teacher, you can do whatever you want to or with your students? As much as I think there is good work here, it still feels muddled, and Bennett’s dialogue, juicy as it is, sounds like the perspective of a middle-aged man looking at the state of the modern English educational system. That’s a big enough subject to tackle, and I think the film’s ambitions ultimately drown it.
It is extraordinarily rare for me to walk out of a movie. Any movie. At home or in a theater.
The last time I did it was when MISS CONGENIALITY was in theaters. I was on a date, and the girl I was with chose the film. Twenty minutes into it, I turned to her and said, “I can tell you every beat of the rest of this film sight unseen. And if I see Sandra Bullock fall down again, I’m going to punch someone. Do you mind if we leave?” Before I even finished, she was up and moving, thanking me for suggesting it.
And now, I can add AFTER... to the very short list of films I’ve walked out of, and that’s a real bummer. I feel bad about it, but it was a physical thing. I literally couldn’t sit through the entire film. I’m not terribly delicate as a film viewer. IRREVERSIBLE didn’t bother me. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT didn’t give me motion-sickness. I don’t have any problems with watching shaky-cam or rapid cutting. I know people who do, but I’m not one of them.
There’s a limit, though. Director David L. Cunningham made a stylistic choice with this film that is, I believe, catastrophic, and it cripple what I think is actually a pretty great idea for a film. Urban exploration is a fascinating backdrop for a movie, especially a horror movie. David Morrell wrote a sensationally creepy book that used urban explorers as the hook called CREEPERS that I highly recommend you pick up. When I read that book, I did a little bit of research into the world, and if you run a Google search for the term, you’ll get about three million results. Certainly, someone’s interested in it.
The script by Cunningham and Kevin Miller is about a group of friends who, following a mysterious personal tragedy, decide to go to Moscow to search the underground metro system built by Stalin. They have a website where they post their adventures, and so they record everything using body-mounted cameras, which is the main device that Cunningham uses to shoot the film. And that is the problem. The movie is quite possibly the least visually coherent film I’ve ever tried to watch, and after thirty minutes or so, it finally overwhelmed me. The script is okay, but not great, but it never stood a chance.
I won’t harp on the film because it’s not fair. I didn’t see the whole thing, and I think I’ve explained why. What a bitter disappointment.
Dear Zhang Ziyi...
I’m not sure how to tell you this, but I think I want to see other people. Specifically, I think I’d like to see Zhang Jingchu. It’s nothing permanent... I just want to explore my options a bit.
And, hey, we’ll always have CROUCHING TIGER.
THE ROAD is the single most heartwarming and nostalgic film I’ve ever seen about how great it was to live in Communist China back in the day. And I’m not trying to be glib about it, either. It’s obviously heartfelt and it’s incredibly successful at transporting the audience to a specific time and place. It makes a sincere case for the way Communism offered the promise of a better life.
What keeps it from being unpalatable is the way director Zhang Jiarui uses a very intimate personal story to show the way that promise soured as people saw their lives and ambitions destroyed in the name of the party. Set in the Yunnan province and starting in the early 1960s, this is the story of a long-distance bus and the people who drive it and use it, and the way the changes in their nation affect them. The driver of the bus, Old Cui (Fan Wei), is well-known by everyone because he was once photographed shaking hands with Chairman Mao. He’s assisted every day by Li Chunfen (Zhang Jingchu), who takes the tickets and helps people at each stop and basically makes the days bearable. Unsurprisingly, Old Cui is smitten with Li, and so is almost everyone who rides the bus. She’s sunny, sweet, an adorable pigtailed girl who brings a sense of joy to even the most thankless task.
Things are complicated when Liu Fendou (Nie Yuan) enters the picture. The son of a rich family, he’s a doctor who travels between provinces, using the bus frequently. Li finds herself falling in love with him, something that Old Cui can’t help but notice. Then the Cultural Revolution kicks in, and suddenly Liu is sent to a work camp to be reprogrammed. Li can’t forget him, though, and she actually sneaks into the work camp to see him. It’s a tricky sequence because of the way the director mixes humor and sadness and genuine erotic heat, all of it culminating in a single kiss that costs them everything.
Liu is sent away, and Li is forced to sign an official statement that officially labels the encounter “rape.” Li is damaged goods, and she’s almost sent away herself. Old Cui calls in every favor he can on her behalf, though. When the party approaches him and tells him that they would like for Old Cui to marry, he chooses Li as his partner.
The film spans over 40 lives in the lives of these characters, and that allows the actors room to really grow into their parts and etch memorable portraits of what time and politics does to them. Zhang Jingchu in particular does tremendous work. To watch her age from fresh-faced teen to a woman truly crushed by life is heartbreaking, but she never gives in to cheap sentiment or tries for easy tears. And the result is a performance that deserves to be seen in a film I hope doesn’t go completely overlooked.
THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING
In many ways, THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING is Egypt’s answer to CITY OF GOD, a sprawling multi-character story based on an enormously popular novel that attempts to show the world both the good and bad of life at a particular time and place.
The novel, OMARET YACOUBIAN, is one of the best-selling novels in modern Egyptian history, and I would imagine it’s because it tries to deal with the full spectrum of life in Egypt at the moment. Egyptian society is very conservative, very religious, and the things that are pulling that society apart are all represented here: marital infidelity, rampant homosexuality in the midst of Islamic fundamentalism, a total lack of faith in the way government works, and even drug abuse.
As a result, the film has been very controversial in Egypt, but I think director Marawan Hamed and screenwriter Wahid Hamid made an interesting choice in tone that helps make this potentially difficult mix something that even the most hardline audience can enjoy while still dealing with those issues, and here’s where the film is 180 degrees away from CITY OF GOD. They pitch this as comic melodrama, and Hamed’s shooting style is very traditional, with no rapid cutting or shaky cam or anything that would mark this as “cutting-edge.” In telling this huge, sprawling story over the course of three full hours, they take their time. They let it breathe, and it feels more like a novel as a result. Even so, fans of the novel felt brutalized by many of the adaptation choices, furious at how major storylines and characters were pushed to the background or turned into mere mentions in the film. Having not read the book, I found it both leisurely and surprisingly slight. I don’t think the film accomplishes the depth that it’s trying for, but it manages to be consistently entertaining for pretty much its full running time. The title refers to a building that was once a beautiful jewel, but which is now a microcosm of Egyptian society, with apartments inside, each floor a different social strata, and a rooftop packed with the extremely poor living in tiny structures originally built as storage units for the apartments below. Each of the storylines in the film has some tie to the building.
I think the film will bore some viewers, but if you want to get a sense of what modern Egyptian life is like, and if you want to understand what the frustrations are for Egyptians who feel like they are losing the country they love, this is definitely a film you should hunt down when you get the chance.
Lucy Walker’s last documentary was DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND, about the Amish tradition of Rumspringa, a coming-of-age in which young people are allowed to leave the community and experience the outside world without any restrictions on them. It’s a solid movie, and it’s keen sense of empathy for every one of the kids in it is what made it work.
With BLINDSIGHT, I think Walker’s made an even better movie, but I’m not sure it’s the film she set out to make. There are two major forces at work in the movie. One is Sabriye Tenberken, a remarkable woman who opened a school for the blind in Tibet. I never knew how specifically mistreated the blind are in Tibetan culture, but it’s part of the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. The blind are believed to be working out karma from an earlier life, and they are assumed to have been terrible people who deserve their blindness in this life. As a result, they aren’t even second-class citizens. They are simply considered trash, useless, beneath contempt. Tenberken’s idea of how to change that is brilliant. She trains the blind students at her school in modern technology and makes sure that they are incredibly well-educated overall so that by the time they graduate, they will be invaluable to their villages, perhaps the smartest, most tech-savvy people there, and their villages will have no choice but to treat them better. The other major player here is Erik Weihenmayer, famous for being the first blind person to ever make it to the summit of Mt. Everest. For all I know, he might be the first person to ever try, but that takes nothing away from his accomplishment.
The film is about what happens when Tenberken, inspired by reading accounts of Weihenmayer’s climb, invites him to speak to her students, which in turn inspires him to invite them along on their very own climb of Everest.
Sounds like a good idea... doesn’t it?
Walker’s film works because she maintains a distance from her subjects, and no matter how well-intentioned both Tenberken and Weihenmayer are, the film is unafraid to show them as prickly, difficult at times, and even occasionally as selfish and wrong. That made me love the film because I loathe the way Hollywood treats the disabled as noble and saintly simply by virtue of their handicaps. Even in a film like SCENT OF A WOMAN, where Al Pacino starts the film as a big loud jerk, he’s eventually revealed to be a marshmallow on the inside. Weihenmayer may come across as inspirational at first, and his excitement about meeting the blind Tibetan kids seems genuine. But as the film progresses, one gets the sense that Weihenmayer and his team are doing this more for themselves and the statement they’re going to make than they are for the individual kids involved, and as they press further and further up the mountain, they begin to actively endanger the lives of these kids out of sheer arrogance. This leads to some explosive arguments between all the adults involved, and Walker never once looks away. She catches it all.
Ultimately, there is an inspirational message to BLINDSIGHT, but it’s the children who moved me. The adults all end up looking like they are more interested in their own agendas than anything else, but even so, those kids are the real deal... survivors, and the way they approach their daily lives is amazing to me. Walker catches everyone in her film as human beings, not mere symbols, and like last year’s MURDERBALL, that gives her film real weight.
AIR GUITAR NATION
I’m going to run an image here, courtesy of our friends over at Cinema Strikes Back, instead of a poster because I think this image pretty much sums this film up:
Yeah. That’s a Hello Kitty backpack. Swanky, eh?
Alexandra Lipsitz has made a warm, human, hilarious documentary about one of the craziest pastimes I can imagine. Sure, GUITAR HERO is a lot of fun, and we’ve all busted out the occasional air guitar lick. I think it’s even something that is genetically encoded in us, since my son, who is only 17 months old, is obsessed with playing the guitar, and he’ll use anything even remotely shaped like one to do his own air guitar act. But the idea of an international air guitar competition makes me laugh, and seeing footage from the festival, it’s exactly as absurd as you expect it to be.
There are two main air guitarists that the film follows. David Jung, who you see pictured above, dubs himself C-Diddy, and his main opponent at the New York regionals is Dan Crane, also known as Bjorn Turoque. C-Diddy wins the regionals, then heads to LA for the nationals. Bjorn won’t take no for an answer, though, and also goes to LA to compete again. When C-Diddy is named US champion, Bjorn still won’t accept the decision. Their rivalry is part joke, part serious, and it perfectly encapsulates how weird the entire air guitar community is.
Lipsitz manages to make this film hilarious without ever once making fun of her subjects, and it makes this film something special. I walked in expecting something obvious, but AIR GUITAR NATION is surprisingly layered. As silly as the whole thing is, there’s no denying that for some people, any chance to shine or excel is a good thing, and there’s a purity to this form of expression that you can’t mock. They get up on that stage in front of those people, and they can’t help themselves... the joke becomes real and they hand themselves over to the energy and the excitement, and for a few moments, they are rock gods. You can laugh with these guys, but after seeing this movie, I’m betting you won’t laugh at them.
THE DEAD GIRL
Karen Moncrieff’s BLUE CAR was a strong and stylish debut, and as sad a truth as it is, the fact that she’s a female director marks her as important right now. Even in the indie world, that’s still not the norm, and Moncrieff, a former actress, writes her own films as well as directing them.
With THE DEAD GIRL, she’s made a huge step towards the sort of mainstream significance that will ensure her the long career she obviously deserves. This is an accessible film, but it still maintains a very personal point of view, and it proves that Moncrieff has a unique voice that should be nurtured. Told in a series of seemingly-unconnected chapters, each one focusing on a different woman, this is the story of a young woman who died and the ripples her departure leaves in the world and in the lives of people who never even met her. Toni Collette, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Rose Byrne, Giovanni Ribisi, Mary Steenburgen, and Piper Laurie are some of the actors who contribute uniformly good work to the picture, but a few performances stand out and deserve special praise.
Mary Beth Hurt has been working fairly steadily for the past 30 years, but she’s a chameleon. Looking at her in this film, it’s impossible to reconcile this woman with Garp’s wife in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP or with Laura from CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER. It’s not just age, either. When she was young, there was a sly, playful intelligence about her, and in her recent work, she has an entirely different presence. In THE DEAD GIRL, she plays a woman married to a strange, sullen, private man who may well be a serial killer. And not a cool mastermind Hannibal Lecter Hollywood bullshit serial killer, either, but a grimy, weird, grey and featureless guy who is practically invisible, even in his own home. Watching Hurt wrestle with the dawning realization of what she may be married to, she never once makes an easy choice. I believe her in every moment of the chapter, and thought she played it just right.
Marcia Gay Harden is a consistently great actress, but she’s not always given the right material. Here, she absolutely nails her role as the mother of a girl who was killed by the serial killer I mentioned before. She travels to the city where her daughter lived and starts to sort through the remnants of her life. In the process, she meets Kerry Washington, and the work between them is electric and wrenching and real. Washington is a prostitute who turned tricks with Harden’s daughter, and as their conversation unfolds, Harden learns that there may have been more between them. She also learns a secret that offers her some sort of hope even in what seems to be an impossibly dark moment, and it’s that resolution that keeps this from being unbearably sad and oppressive.
Finally, there’s the dead girl herself. Brittany Murphy has done some truly awful work on film, and it’s easy to dismiss her as a mainstream ding-dong based on stuff like LITTLE BLACK BOOK or JUST MARRIED. After you see her here, though, I doubt you’ll dismiss her again, because she seems to shake off all the bad habits and annoying tics and cutesy crap that has made some of her work so unwatchable. Here, she cuts right to the heart of this girl, this street hustler who just wants to finish a simple task. She just wants a ride to Downey. And that simple need of hers, communicated so eloquently and so desperately, is what finally puts her in the wrong car at the wrong time. Murphy has never done work like this. She’s a train wreck, but you get the sense that she knows exactly what she’s doing in the way she reveals the various nuances of this sad and broken woman.
Moncrieff’s film is about finding dignity and beauty and strength in women who are marginalized or crushed or otherwise put upon, and it makes its points with subtle grace. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much Dr. Seuss to my son lately, but what this makes me think of most upon reflection is a line from HORTON HEARS A WHO: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Murphy’s character is, by society’s standards, as small as they get, but Moncrieff knows better than to look down at her, and that’s important stuff. When First Look starts to roll it out in limited release at the end of December, hunt it down. It’s deeply felt and contains some of the finest ensemble work this year, and I hope we see Moncrieff’s next film sooner rather than later.
The last film of Jafar Panahi’s that I saw was the delightful THE WHITE BALOON eleven years ago. Much of what we get here in America from Iranian cinema is serious, ponderous, and hard for me to warm up to, but Panahi is totally different than that. He’s a sort of a one-man-band, since he writes, produces, directs and even edits his films, and you can sense a tremendous sense of compassion in his work... for women, for children, for people of every faith, for the mentally ill. He doesn’t judge his characters, and he doesn’t deal in naked political metaphor.
Instead, he works to find the intimate human stories even within a politically charged setting, and that makes his movies universally approachable. Wisely, he uses humor as a potent political tool, because after you’ve laughed at the absurdity of a situation, it’s hard to ever take it seriously again. In this case, Pahani and his screenwriter Shadmehr Rastin have turned their attention to the ridiculous notion that women are not allowed to attend any public sporting event in Iran. Ostensibly, this is to protect their delicate sensibilities from all the vulgarity at such an event, but in reality, it’s just one more way to strip even the most basic human rights from women in their society. As Iran made its run at the World Cup in 2005, the most important game for them was the last qualifying round versus Bahrain. The winner of that game would move on to play in the Cup, so national pride was at a fever pitch leading into the match.
Pahani shot the film at and around the stadium as the actual game was being played, so there’s a remarkable sense of atmosphere and energy to the whole endeavor. His story is simple: several women try to disguise themselves so they can make it into the stadium and watch the game, and they’re caught and gathered in a holding pen under the supervision of three young guards. The women refuse to be beat down, though, and the back and forth between them and the guards becomes quite funny over the course of the film. These are strong women who have decided that they won’t be part of an oppressive system anymore, and the guards aren’t so sure there’s anything they can do about it. In setting up this simple situation, Pahani allows the larger metaphor to play out, and he keeps it entertaining and engaging throughout. The performances in the film are strong, and the movie looks good, even though it was shot on digital video. Sony Pictures Classics is rolling this one out in April, so give it a try. It’s a great look at a culture in flux.
Evidently, all you need to do to become an Oscar front-runner these days is survive long enough.
My favorite film of all time is LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Peter O’Toole, who classes up even the dreariest films he’s appeared in. I also greatly admire director Roger Michell, who has good taste in material (ENDURING LOVE, THE MOTHER, CHANGING LANES) and a clean, unadorned style, and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi is a guy whose work I’ve greatly admired since his first film, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE.
So why doesn’t this add up to more for me?
Peter O’Toole stars as Maurice, an aging actor with a decent reputation and a small bit of fame, and he spends most of his days talking with his best friend Ian (Leslie Phillips). They drink together, walk together, and basically share time as they wait for the inevitable. Ian decides he needs someone to take care of him, and he arranges for a niece to come stay with him as a caretaker/cook/made/whatever. When Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) shows up, she’s not at all what Ian expected. She basically just used his request as an excuse to move to London, where she proceeds to run wild, a young girl away from home for the first time. She’s a sarcastic, ill-tempered little cupcake, and from the moment Maurice lays eyes on her, he is smitten. He loves her youth, her energy, her temper. He can’t help himself. He finds excuses to be near her, to drink in her essence, and in doing so, he finds some sort of late-inning reprieve from the misery of aging.
What didn’t work for me is the script itself. O’Toole’s charming in the film, but it’s basically the same performance we’ve seen him give time and again. The only difference between this and MY FAVORITE YEAR is that he’s older and more frail. Jessie is written as such a miserable character that it makes Maurice seem pathetic that he keeps chasing her around. There are a few moments where something genuine almost sparks between them, some sort of friendship, but it’s always undermined by just how rotten she is. Whittaker gives a complex performance, and my problems are more with the conception of the character than with her work.
I know there’s a rising tide of sentiment, people ready to hand the Best Actor Oscar over to O’Toole for this, but in my mind, that’s more insulting than if he were to die without winning the award at all. This is not the triumphant conclusion to a distinguished career. It’s a deeply flawed little film that squanders its promise early and wears out its welcome well before the closing credits roll. Based on all the buzz I’d heard before I saw the film and the obvious talent involved, this turned out to be a fairly major disappointment.
THE FOUNTAIN Revisited
Two gala screenings were held in the final weekend of the festival, and the first allowed me to finally take my wife to see THE FOUNTAIN, which she’s been hearing about for (literally) years now. It was my second chance to see the film, and I found it an even more impressive experience this time around.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that so many of the cynical fuckheads in our talkbacks (yes, ZombieSolutions, I’m calling you out, you miserable, joyless bastard) have rejected this film in such ugly ways. That’s not to say that you’re wrong if you disliked it... I’m just amazed at how angry some people seem to be over it, and how awful they are about attacking those of us who were moved by the film. Maybe it’s the fact that we live in a culture that loves to keep emotiona at a distance. Everything now strikes the same sort of disaffected self-aware tone, as if actually feeling something has become verboten. The film is sincere to the point of being uncomfortable in places, and there’s not a cynical moment in the film. Darren Aronofsky lays himself bare with the film, and despite the scale of the picture, it’s one of the most intimate movies of the year. It’s really just a two-person movie, and all of the visual stylization and all of the narrative twists and turns are in service of the notion of what happens when the person you love is dying and you can’t do anything to stop it.
This was never going to be a movie for everyone, but I’m still bowled over at the support that Warner Bros. showed the movie, and that one act has earned them immeasurable goodwill in my book. If more studios realized that they can take chances like this amidst all their giant potential blockbusters, it would make the cinema world that much more interesting.
Love it or hate it, THE FOUNTAIN wasn’t like anything else released this year, and I have a feeling I’ll be enjoying it for years to come. In the meantime, if you want to revisit my actual review, you’ll find it right here.
William Friedkin doesn’t have to worry about his cinematic legacy. Thirty years down the road, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE EXORCIST, SORCEROR, and TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA are all holding up just fine. They retain every bit of the blistering wit and bold imagination that made them so potent when they were first released. But it’s been a while since Friedkin mattered in terms of new material, and that has to wear on a filmmaker. Watching him limp through garbage like JADE or THE GUARDIAN or BLUE CHIPS or RULES OF ENGAGEMENT is just demoralizing, but the problems with those films started at the script level. Friedkin’s movies looked like his heart just wasn’t in it anymore. At least with THE HUNTED, his last film in 2003, there was a pulse, some indication that Friedkin was still in there, still capable of something great.
Well, now he’s finally gone and done it again, made something that will (pun fully intended) get under your skin, thanks to an excellent, taut script by Tracy Letts adapted from his own play. I can see how this was obviously a stage piece first. It still feels like one to some extent, but what Friedkin does so well is draw you into the dirty, freaky paranoia that consumes both Agnes (Ashley Judd) and Peter (Michael Shannon). He’s a veteran of Iraq, and at first glance, he appears to be quiet, polite, a little distant. Agnes, who has plenty of sorrow of her own that she’s dealing with, feels sorry for him and allows him to stay with her in the dingy motel room she calls home. Part of it is because she’s afraid of her ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), who just got out of prison. Part of it is because Agnes is still running from the memory of her missing child who disappeared a decade earlier. And part of it is simply because these are two lonely souls who recognize something in one another.
But sometimes the combination of two people can be toxic, and that’s the case here. Peter’s got some strange delusions about insects, and although Agnes thinks he’s strange at first, the more she starts to depend on him, the more she starts to buy into his paranoia. Eventually, the two of them cut off all contact with the outside world, retreating into a tinfoil-lined room where they are free to be as deranged as they want to be. It’s a difficult ride to watch, and I heard many people after the film ended who were upset that they sat through nearly two hours of madness. That’s what I appreciated about it, though. Friedkin doesn’t try to make this more audience-friendly. If anything, he rubs your nose in it. He loves to see just how much tension an audience can take before they break, and some people might say he goes too far. Personally, I thought he got great work out of both Judd and Shannon, both actors who need a strong director in order for them to really shine. Judd’s having a great year between this and COME EARLY MORNING, and it’s nice to see that years and years of working in awful Paramount “thrillers” didn’t ruin her completely. She does brave work here, completely unglamorous, and although she does some nudity, it’s completely unerotic. Same thing with Shannon... this guy just lays himself out there, and you can tell that he’s had time to really internalize this role, having played it on stage as well. Peter’s terrifying, but not because of any external violence towards anyone else. It’s because you can see the evolution of his madness, and it feels authentic. It’s just one little step, then another, and the next thing you know, he’s trying to peel his own skin off and babbling about government experiments.
BUG isn’t a timeless work of art, and I doubt it’ll play for a lot of audiences. It’s got the authentic stink of crazy on it. But it does work in the same sweaty way that the best of Friedkin’s early films work. It controls you, turns up the tension bit by bit until it’s almost unbearable. And it’s a thrill to see the director demonstrate that even at this late date, he’s still in touch with the gifts that make him such an important figure in ‘70s cinema. I just hope he knocks his next one, BOOK OF SKULLS, out of the park while he’s in this mood.
WHAT DO I NEED TO SEE NEXT?
That’s the question now.
The year’s coming to a close. When I get back from BNAT, I’ll be entering that end-of-the-year blur of activity as I try to hunt down around 40 films that I feel like I’ve missed this year. There are a lot more than that which I haven’t seen, but like I said at the start of this article, there are about 40 that I feel like I absolutely have to see before I can speak with any sort of authority about 2006 as an overall year in film.
Because of that, I’m going to toss a list of those film out to you guys now, and I’m going to ask that if you’re associated with any of these films, you get in touch with me. Some companies have been sending me Academy screeners, and some haven’t. I’m going to try to go to see as many of these as possible on the bigscreen thanks to Guild screenings, too, but that’s not always feasible. Some titles won’t be screening at all, and there are only so many screening times available between now and the end of the year anyway.
I love writing my end-of-the-year list just as much as I detest all the ridiculous Oscar talk that pollutes the internet for six months of every years. I’ve never really understood why people obsess over the decision-making process of an awards show that everyone professes to disagree with anyway. For me, writing a list at the end of the year isn’t about saying, “I AM RIGHT AND YOU ARE WRONG!”, and it’s not about trying to say that I’m able to create any sort of objective list of what’s “best.” Instead, it’s a chance to set a full year’s worth of cinema into context, and a way to point out the things that really make this worthwhile for me each year. We all have completely subjective experiences with the world of movies, and what I love might be totally different than what you love. Making a list simply allows me to gather all these moments in the dark that have moved me in the last twelve months and freeze them in amber, so to speak. I consider it a pleasure to be able to revisit all the things I’ve loved over the course of the year, and trying to determine what affected me most means revisiting those films in some cases, something I’m happy to do when I’ve really enjoyed a film. It’s a lot of work doing a list like this the right way, and I want to give everything its day in court. To that end, please contact me if you’re able to help me out with any of the following films:
THE GOOD SHEPHERD
PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER SCOOP
NOTES ON A SCANDAL
RUNNING WITH SCISSORS
BREAKING AND ENTERING
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA
CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN
A SCANNER DARKLY
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
FAST FOOD NATION
THE GOOD GERMAN
CATCH A FIRE
WE ARE MARSHALL
THE BLOOD DIAMOND
SLEEPING DOGS LIE
GHOSTS OF CITE SOLEIL
THE US VS JOHN LENNON
I know I’ll be picking up the following titles on DVD before the end of the year, so I consider those safely covered:
TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY
12 AND HOLDING
STRANGERS WITH CANDY
ALL THE KING’S MEN
BROTHERS OF THE HEAD
LOUDQUIETLOUD: A FILM ABOUT THE PIXIES
Right now, I’m keeping a running list of everything I’ve seen over at the Zone, so if you check that list and you see there’s something I haven’t seen but you think I should, and it’s not on the list above, then drop me a line about that, too. I would appreciate the heads-up, because I hate missing something due to pure oversight.
In the meantime, I’ve still got plenty of stuff to write about. Obviously, I’ll be writing up my BNAT experience, and that includes reviews of the two films that are going to bookend the event, PAN’S LABYRINTH on Friday and CHILDREN OF MEN on Monday. I’ve also got a review of CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, which was the closing night film of the AFI Fest. I have enough to say about it that I didn’t want to include it in this piece with everything else. I’ve also got more set visits to write about, some interviews to do, and much more.
For now, I’m going to go write a quick review of APOCALYPTO, and I’ll try to get a few hours sleep (something I almost never accomplish before flying), and then it’s straight to the airport at 6:00 AM. This’ll be Toshi’s second time in Austin, and his first BNAT weekend. My wife’s as excited as I am about some of the surprises in store for the BNAT guests, and I can’t wait to see all my friends there.
This really is the most wonderful time of the year.
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles