Toronto – Day 5 – capsules
ALL THE KING’S MEN (Steve Zaillian, USA, 4)
Not as craptacular as some of the early reports, from Noel Murray, Jim Ridley and others. For one thing, I wasn’t terribly bothered by the admittedly scenery-chewing performances from James Gandolfini and from Sean Penn outside his stump speeches, which really ARE gratingly over-the-top. Both men are playing a type of “redneck” Southern male not unknown in real life who has a “big” personality with which he tries to fill the room and play to the back row. Penn and Gandolfini are also never without twinkles in their eyes to leaven everything. Some of the individual sequences are powerful. The visit to the judge’s home, both in how it’s set up at the film’s in-media-res beginning and how it plays out once happened. Also, Jude Law and Anthony Hopkins do quite well with their typed parts — audience-ID and movie’s-conscience; and the last image is powerful. That said, KING’S MEN has some severe problems — the hyperactive and fanfare-addicted horn section needed to put a frickin sock in it and the plot is very sketchy For example, Huey Long Willie Stark really WAS a corrupt summvabitch — something KING’S MEN barely more than makes note of; you’d be forgiven for thinking the legislature was impeaching him on trumped-up lies.
I am curious about one thing, though. The movie’s timeframe is moved up from the 30s of real-life and the Robert Penn Warren novel/film, to the early 50s. Why? Not only is there no discernable reason, but it adds two distinct problems: (1) economic populism would not have played as well during the post-war prosperity and the post-New-Deal state as it did during the Depression; and (2) the film makes no mention of what was in fact the biggest issue of Southern politics in the early 1950s, the civil-rights movement.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (Christopher Guest, USA, 7)
Guest drops the mockumentary format, but this film about Oscar season is so steeped in film discourse and different levels of reality (onscreen/offscreen; cutaways to interviews; and clips from a variety of faked shows) that it hardly makes a difference. FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION is not even trying to be realistic and always parodic, so it makes no more sense to complain that HOME FOR PURIM as shown would not be an Oscar contender, nor be retooled so quickly into HOME FOR THANKSGIVING than it does to complain about the absurdity of the lyrics on “Smell the Glove.” Fred Willard is doing exactly the same act here that he always does on Guest’s movies and it’s never not funny. (For Your Skandie Considerification: Willard’s Oscar Day interviews segment). The suggested posters for HOME FOR PURIM is a gag Guest has never not done and it’s still funny. I know that “funny is funny” isn’t much of a review, but there’s not much more to say about this. There isn’t a moment of pure emotional joy that the Mitch & Mickey reunion in A MIGHTY WIND was, nor does CONSIDERATION reach the Everest peak of SPINAL TAP.
FAY GRIM (Hal Hartley, USA, 7)
Maybe I’m a pushover by this point in a festival, but I also thought this movie, a sequel to 1998’s HENRY FOOL (the only other Hartley film I unambiguously like), pure midless fun as well. It has little in common with HENRY other than the characters and some of Hartley’s characteristic deadpan absurdity in the content of the script, but the delivery is totally different. Instead, it’s basically THE THIRD MAN from the POV of Alida Valli, but done as a screwball comedy, with Parker Posey as the titular heiress. Think about the parallels with Carol Reed’s masterpiece — every shot in FAY GRIM is tilted; it’s primary plot is about the search for a character who doesn’t appear for 4/5 of the film’s running time; when he does appear it’s for one lengthy dialog scene and for a wordless chase scene. There’s a lot of political material in both films — the opening obsession with the details of Vienna’s political status; every secret political action since 1970 appears until the FBI has convinced itself that Henry’s Confessions were a coded blueprint for a nuclear bomb.
But here’s the most important parallel — that’s all classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin. It no more matters in FAY GRIM what’s in Henry’s “Confessions” book than the details of the Viennese penicillin trade or uranium sands or whatever the colorful NORTH BY NORTHWEST was all about. It’s about the Valli-Cotten-(memories of) Lime triangle, or whether the abandoned Fay will get together with Henry. The great difference is that Reed does take his material somewhat seriously, but Hartley doesn’t — eventually, the viewer, though nobody in the movie, realize that Henry’s “Confessions” is the classic post-modern text. I knew right away that none of this was meant to be serious — a pornographic viewing device gets passed around several educated religious men and they can’t even realize what is the alphabet for some text written on the wall behind an orgy, with each making guesses using languages that use different alphabets and so can’t possibly be mistaken for one another. So I just sat back and laughed at everybody in the movie’s eforts to “make sense” of it all.
Everything in FAY GRIM exists to be milked for laughs — to hear Jeff Goldblum (brilliant), Posey, James Urbaniak, etc., rattle off Hartley’s arch dialogue, which the strange delivery and the canted camera feed off of. In my dream of dreams, I hope the genesis of this project was that someone offered Hartley a lot of money to make a (unneeded) sequel to HENRY FOOL, and he decided to surround the only thing that could matter — the Fay-Simon-Henry triangle — with a lot of absurd guff, signifying nothing.
I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE (Tsai Ming-liang, Malaysia/Taiwan, 2)
I have no doubt that this grade reflects in larger part disappointment at a film by one of my favorite directors than objective badness (though I genuinely did dislike it). By about the hour point, the only thing that was in my head was — why? I tried to think about why I respond so favorably to most Tsai movies and yet could not bear this one.
I decided that the degree to which I like a Tsai is almost directly proportional to how funny it is. With his parched-dry style — no camera movement, no cutting within a scene, very little dialogue (GOODBYE DRAGON INN had fewer than 15 lines not from the film screen) — Tsai needs the leavening of humor or absurdly artificial musical numbers to keep his films from collapsing into tedium. In I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE, not only is there very little humor (and all the music just songs on the radio), but the best of what little there is comes at the end. For example, with about 20 minutes to go, Kuala Lumpur gets hit by a dust storm and that causes some very funny complications, such as two characters trying to have sex while wearing those public-breathing masks. “At last,” I think, “here’s the director I love,” remembering how often Tsai’s Taipei got hit by storms, floods or droughts, with which the chataracters in DRAGON, THE HOLE, THE RIVER, and THE WAYWARD CLOUD have to cope — bailing the apartments, the value of watermelons, trying to shoot a porn-film shower scene with no water.
Other mistakes — without the standard dialog (or at least the sound of voices), and the usual editing cues, it gets hard to juggle more than three or four significant characters without obvious connections, as he tries to do here. He needs a densely-concentrated universe, rather than semi-portrait of a city thing. It was also a mistake to cast Lee Kang-sheng in two different roles and have one of the roles being comatose in two different places (I was thinking for the first half-hour that there was time-juggling going on). Frankly, I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE just lost me in its failure to create characters and situations that mattered. Ryan Wu once predicted in a private e-mail, before I’d seen any of Tsai’s movies, that I wouldn’t be much of a fan. He turned out to be wrong, but after seeing this film, I can see where he could have got that opinion.