Rightwing Film Geek

Toronto – Day 5 – capsules

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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September 13, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Toronto – Days 6 and 7

Well, I got my computer a few days ago, so I am now officially back. I had hoped to have my first post back be capsules for all the remaining films I saw at the Toronto festival, but I have come to realize that if I do that, I’ll probably never start up again. And I do want to get into the routine of posting regularly, so I’ll just start right now with the ones I have done, and a separate post on a few other subjects.

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GOOD BYE, DRAGON INN (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 2003, 8 )

This one might be strictly for the Tsai Ming-liang fanboys — but I am one, so bear with me. The typical Tsai scene, for those unfamiliar with his work, is of a single shot with the camera at rest and just looking for a very long time, on average more than a minute, I’d guess. Rarely do the characters even speak (I counted fewer than 15 lines from all the characters of GOOD BYE DRAGON INN).

GOOD BYE DRAGON INN takes place in a movie palace that seats about 1,000 people, but has only three or four in it, watching the 1960s Chinese martial arts classic DRAGON INN. And they get on each other’s nerves in the most unexpected ways. His characters are mostly alienated from the world and each other, and Tsai’s framing traps them in social space. His minimalist style makes every tiny gesture and sound effect take on enormous significance. Tsai makes us just *look* at the world for the sake of seeing, and he is so good at playing with our expectations of screen space that he makes us aware that we are looking.

Oh, I’m sorry … I’m making his films sound to the uninitiated like the kind of arid, pretentious crap I usually hoot at … (Victor adjusts his critical lenses) … ummm,

GOOD BYE, DRAGON INN was really pretty funny, which is what makes it worth seeing and what separates Tsai for practitioners of this “master shot” style, most of whom I can’t abide. He has a very precise and apropos sense of humor — dry, wry, understated, self-aware. Both this film and WHAT TIME IS IT THERE have some of the qualities of Steven Wright’s comedy routines. They’re both so understated that the understatement eventually becomes part of the joke. There’s one shot involving three people at a urinal that goes on and on and on for so long that you start to laugh because you start having subversive thoughts like “how big ARE the drinks in Taiwanese theaters.” Dramatically speaking, the scene goes on for far too long, and that’s [part of] what’s funny about it. This film is even funny where there are no punch lines — you know you’re in the hands of a genius when you look at a burning cigarette for two minutes, waiting for the ash to hit its mark. What I thought was the last shot (it lasts about eight minutes and nothing happens in it) is such a sad lament that it brought a lump to my throat — it has the poignance of a man imagining his own funeral (and Tsai is barely 45).

GOOD BYE DRAGON INN is definitely slow-moving and not to every taste, and it probably isn’t the best place to start an inquiry into Tsai’s ouevre (too many of the laughs are self-parodying in-jokes that depend on at least general knowledge of his other films). Tsai is definitely a taste worth acquiring, but I’d recommend starting with THE HOLE, in which his style is applied to … a musical.

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AT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran, 2003, 4)

This could have been the MIRACLE IN MILAN of the Iranian flavor of neorealist social protest films. Like MIRACLE (my favorite of Vittorio De Sica’s films) it had a comic-absurd premise — in this case about a young Afghan woman who secretly goes to school, against her traditionalist father’s wishes, and decides to run for president of her country now that the Taliban is gone. It could have made a subtle, pungent fable about the state of women under Islam, especially if flavored with the magic realism of which De Sica’s film was a precursor. Actually, Miss Makhmalbaf’s mother Marziyeh Meshkini already has made such a film — a trio of featurettes called THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN.

Instead, FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON stays with the style of simple miserabilism, while plotwise just blurting off in various directions — a boy courts her, there are other girls at the school and they debate liberal feminism vs. deifference feminism, she tries to get her photo taken for her presidential campaign, refugee families feud over chickens and radio volumes, she meets a French soldier, she changes shoes, her father doesn’t want to return to Kabul because it’s a den of sin, more refugees arrive. It contains a lot of things, but never really succeeds in being about any of them. The basic premise about running for president is so outlandish that the film needed to be tightly-wound and focused to work as an comic fable, like Miss Makhmalbaf’s segment in the September 11 omnibus movie, about a teacher trying to explain the terrorist attacks to some Afghan refugee children in Iran. Instead FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON feels more like a rambling, rough draft of a film than a film.

The film has one other problem — but it’s a major one, and one that may ruin good memories of other Iranian films. For more than a decade now, The Charter Member Of The Axis Of Evil has had one of the world’s most internationally-respected and artistically-successful film industries. Quite a few of its prize-winning films, just like AFTERNOON, featured nonprofessional actors and impoverished backgrounds — A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES, KANDAHAR, THE WIND WILL CARRY US, CHILDREN OF HEAVEN, and such early Abbas Kiarostami films as WHERE IS MY FRIEND’S HOME. But AFTERNOON was the first film for which I felt a qualm others have had before, and that is that most of the acting is quite bad. In fact, sometimes painfully bad. I repeatedly noticed the lines were written/delivered in an overly repetitive, overexplanatory style (a sample from the father: “Bin Laden should not be sent to the infidels because they will kill him. Because he is a Muslim, he is our guest. So he should not be turned over to the American infidels to be killed.”) And I could “see” the actors “acting” and in an extremely stilted, mannered way, as though they were reciting written speeches to the camera.

This would be unfortunate enough in itself if it were just AFTERNOON, but this is a complaint that others have had about some of these Iranian movies, but which only occurred to me at certain sequences in KANDAHAR — the several scenes in that earlier film that were in English. Not being able to speak a language (as I do not Afghan or Farsi) hampers your ability to tell whether someone is delivering his lines convincingly — it’s all just sounds with a subtitle. After AFTERNOON though, I’m now afraid to give another look to some of these earlier Iranian movies, several of which resemble AFTERNOON in the ways noted, but which have been prominent in and around my Year-End Top 10s. Ignorance may have been bliss.

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THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (Richard Linklater, USA, 2003, 7)

Jack Black plays a broke schlub who’s been kicked out of his rock band. So when he answers a call from a rich-kid school intended for his substitute-teacher roommate, he decides to muscle in on the well-paying gig, even though he can’t teach and knows nothing. But with his attitude and the energy of rock, by the end of the movie, his class is a hit at a local Battle of the Bands, he’s won over the teachers and the kids’ parents.

This movie is really stupid, since this scam wouldn’t last five minutes. (Don’t posh schools ask for credentials or at least check IDs?) SCHOOL OF ROCK takes place in that alternate universe where Battle of the Bands contests take place during weekday school hours and it takes just five minutes to change from school uniform into rock band costume. Not a single plot event is believable (he wins over the teachers with the Whitney Houston philosophy of education — “I believe the children are our future,” etc.), and it has a really distasteful subtext about how stupid is academic success and how you gotta be pissed off at the world (check out Theo on this point). I also had to watch it sitting next to this grown man with a 2-year-old son sobbing like a little girl throughout.

I enjoyed this film immensely.

Just speaking personally in the context of seeing SCHOOL OF ROCK at a festival, if you’re gonna see 40 films in 9 days, you’ll go insane without a couple of breaks with 100 minutes of Hollywood brain-candy. While it’s clearly obeying the same feel-good rock movie formula as, for example Justine Bateman’s SATISFACTION, SCHOOL OF ROCK uses that formula as well as it can be used. The high-achieving kids whom Black’s character melds into a rock band give uniformly excellent performances without one of them ever being showy, and Joan Cusack is not completely wasted in the school-principal role, usually a black hole in movies not named FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (all hail director Richard Linklater).

But SCHOOL OF ROCK is basically “The Jack Black Show” and he, or at least his comic persona, was born for this role. Showily rude but at heart a coward, infantile, self-centered, hyper-knowledgeable about one thing in life (rock music, in this case), he’s playing the Gen-X uber-slacker that he defined in HIGH FIDELITY. While SCHOOL OF ROCK is not aiming for the throat — it’s too much a commercial feel-good film for that — it’s more critical of Black than we might expect. For example, consider one of the biggest laugh lines — “Sell my guitars,” he says, all indignant. “I’m an artist. Would you tell Picasso to sell his guitars?” Part of the joke is the absurd self-regard of comparing himself to Pablo Picasso (and we’ve seen him perform, so we know he doesn’t even compare to Pablo Cruise), but part of it is also that he doesn’t seem to know Picasso was a painter — he’s just “Famous Artist” for Black to name-drop. But then compare that to the fanatically detailed curriculum on the history of rock of which we get an glance, albeit unfortunately brief. Speaking as someone more or less Black’s age who remembers most of the plots from “The Jeffersons” and has favorite seasons depending on cast members and character trajectories (it jumped the shark when George and Tom became buddies, BTW) … ouch.

October 12, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment