Telluride is still Telluride, even if you must suffer the indignities and humiliations of holding an Acme pass, which is the festival equivalent of a scarlet letter. Only instead of adultery, your crime is an unwillingness to part with a few extra hundred dollars so that you can attend screenings at all locations, rather than being ghettoized at the Chuck Jones cinema in Mountain Village. Don’t get me wrong, Chuck Jones is the best theater in Telluride to watch a screening, but spend too long in one place and you start to feel not so much a part of the festivities as the bastard child of the town whore. The Acme pass does entitle its bearer to two town shows, but such limitations hamper scheduling and make those TBA’s much more important than they have any right to be. I begin my annual recap with this minor rant because, for the first time ever, the festival felt compromised; endured at times, rather than thoroughly enjoyed. The setting is still breathtaking and the long weekend still one of the best escapes for cinephiles, but because of scheduling, we had to spend our final day frantically trying to avoid paying an extra twenty dollars for a ticket because we had already used our in-town punches.
Add to that a decidedly mediocre line-up, despite the fact that it looked so promising at first glance. But when Penelope Cruz is the recipient of the festival’s highest honor, it stands to reason that they’re far from setting the world on fire. As it appears that few other stars cared to stop by, the screenings themselves reeked of sloppy seconds, an increasing reality given Toronto’s new standing as the Cannes of North America (held within days of Telluride’s conclusion). Of course, there was greatness where we least expected it, and it’s always a delight to be the first audience in the world to witness a particular film. And that’s why we come, after all; to live with that sense of privilege that is lacking in so many areas of our non-cinematic lives. So curse the Acme pass; and I vow on this day never to return with its second-class stench hanging from my neck. I want to glide with confidence and attitude, not slink around the darkness with a neon sign reminding everyone in my vicinity that while I love film, my love is not strong enough to upgrade my pass.
Still, 2006, while the not the best year for film in this mountain community, did provide a highlight that will stand as both a happy, random accident and the biggest (and most thankful) near-miss in my thirty-odd years on this earth. Taking the gondola around midnight Saturday, my wife and I looked up in that last bit of light before scaling down the mountainside and saw the one-and-only Werner Herzog, along with his bimbo wife, who must be no less than thirty years his junior. It seemed almost surreal to be locked in that small box with one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, but his thunder was quickly stolen by his other companion, some insufferable “artist” who yammered so obscenely about his craft that one could only hope that Herzog had seen fit to clear his throat, grab the poor sap by the lapels, and remind him who in fact held the talent between them. But Herzog remained silent, except for a few sneezes and the occasional unstifled yawn.
My fascination was quickly overwhelmed, however, by a looming bowel movement that threatened to fill the gondola with sounds and smells that would force Herzog to invent even more colorful metaphors regarding nature’s fury. I rumbled silently, however, and at each point a shit threatened to either crawl or cannon blast its way forth into my waiting Jockeys, I shifted about, saved at difficult moments by the sound of the craft pushing through its checkpoints. The obnoxious filmmaker droned on, I began to sweat with ever-greater beads, and the night air also filled with Ms. Herzog’s lame attempts to justify her own “art”. At that moment I thought I detected a hint of exasperation in Werner’s eyes, though I’m sure now that it was the moonlight betraying a slip of my impending wrath that had gone undetected in my near trance-like concentration. Fortunately, all ended well, and Herzog and his crew went into that good night without my gyro dinner mixing with the breeze. I bid adieu, but only in my mind, as my world at that moment became the sum total of my dash to the nearest toilet. And now, the films:
Given his bizarre life and equally unpredictable career, I had to expect that one day Robert Downey, Jr. would play Chewbacca, although I hardly anticipated the role being featured in a quirky love story about famed photographer Diane Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman). Downey is Lionel, a wolf man of sorts, though it would be more accurate to say he’s a dog-faced boy all grown up, who is now living in a New York City apartment right above Ms. Arbus. She had yet to gain celebrity when we first meet her, and she is little more than an assistant to her talented, yet slightly dull husband, while also the specimen under glass for her well-to-do parents. She is decidedly of the era; clean, respectable, decent, and of course, dreadfully mediocre. Who knew that she’d ever encounter a man literally covered in fur, and that that same individual would be the inspiration she had been looking for?
Downey as Sasquatch is, of course, ridiculous on its face, and he had me giggling from the word go (I doubt I‘ll see a more bizarre performance all year). He’s at his most ludicrous when dressed to the nines in a suit and tie, offering Diane a cookie while gingerly sipping tea. In many ways, the movie has no business ever recovering from this turn of events, especially when we are so accustomed to the conventional tricks of biographical storytelling. We are supposed to witness a childhood, subsequent trauma, trial by fire, and the beginnings of the genius we all now take for granted. The arc is so obvious and expected that every year, Hollywood churns them out like sausage in order to receive the expected Oscar nominations. We all love a true story, and never more so than when they play by the rules. Fur, on the other hand, dispenses with the rules at the outset, announcing that the events to follow are not “historical biography”, and that the tale is an “imaginary re-telling” that seeks not absolute truth, but hopes to resonate just as deeply. Needless to say, this revelation, while admirable in its honesty, scared the living hell out of me, as I had visions of performance artists rushing to and fro, drinking menstrual blood, and slamming daggers into assorted images of overbearing fathers and weak, bourbon-sipping mothers. I had no idea how wrong I’d be.
Instead, we do not get the Arbus of legend, nor do we get a straight shot from her photographs to the obligatory suicide in 1971, but rather a conscious fabrication; a sketch of emotions and shadings that attempts to explain what turned an Eisenhower dullard into America’s most celebrated champion of freaks, weirdos, and fringe oddities (such as midgets, armless chicks, nudists, and cross-dressers). Diane is first stunned, then fascinated by, and eventually attracted to Lionel, perhaps because he is everything her family is not, and more to the point, because he is her ticket to the only real freedom she has ever known; a relationship without judgment, pettiness, or the typical grumblings of mainstream couplings. Sure, this relationship likely never existed in Diane’s actual life, but I admire the courage of the filmmaker to suggest that something of this sort was the initial spark for a full decade of revolutionary portraits. If we are left to wonder, as we often are in the world of celebrity, why not take an enormous risk and invite outrage and disgust? Sure, the movie is a bit overlong and may have taken one left turn too many (did it require an extended, full-body shaving sequence?), but at its core, it celebrates everything I have come to love about film festivals, especially Telluride. Take what you know, challenge it, turn it on its head, and churn out something wholly unrelated to what you’re likely to see in a given week. More than that, I’m not interested in a Diane Arbus that lived as all artists must; I’d rather look deeper, and have the art be in the telling as well.
The Last King of Scotland
The sad, violent, disturbing reign of Idi Amin is one worth telling, but not at the expense of the country that felt his wrath. Uganda suffered greatly under Amin; a man of great charm and charisma, who also happened to have a taste for mass slaughter and, if you believe the rumors, human flesh. He was the stereotypical African dictator, after all — a military thug who used swagger and black nationalism to secure power before abandoning his promises to build schools and hospitals, while simultaneously lining his pockets with the nation’s wealth. And of course, the image would not be complete without the bear of a man lounging around the pool while the rest of the nation starved and lived in perpetual fear. Such a story might not revolutionize the medium, but at least it would allow Africans to tell an African story; on their own terms, and with their own sense of responsibility. Instead, Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland is Amin as imagined through the eyes of a white man; proof once again that audiences are not expected to set foot on the Dark Continent unless accompanied by a pale-faced interpreter. More than being paternalistic and racist, however, it’s simply unimaginative and tired, and a trend that deserved to be retired long ago.
The central figure, then, is not Amin, but Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan, a young chap who resists the stifling mandates of his father and rejects the family practice for the wilds of Africa, eventually becoming the dictator’s personal physician. Nicholas is typical of his age — idealistic, brash, and is just the sort of do-good hippie who has ruined the planet at every conceivable turn. And there’s the essential weakness: what we witness for two full hours is not the internal politics of a nation gone mad, but the destruction of that very idealism that is expected to translate for largely white audiences. It might even speak to dozens of former Peace Corps volunteers, though few had the opportunity to sit at the right hand of a world class killer. But it takes Nicholas quite a bit of time to reach this disillusionment, even offering up the excuse that “violence must be met with violence”, as if the little fuck would ever utter such words if warring whites were butchering each other en masse. It’s like the straight-from-central-casting British sot who utters, “That’s all Africans understand….a firm hand” — we in the West don’t recoil in horror at the assorted holocausts of the area because we’ve set the bar so low that we’re apt to applaud them for using starvation rather than automatic weapons as their instrument of elimination.
Forest Whitaker is quite good as Amin, as he expertly conveys the attraction such a man would hold, especially in a part of the world desperate for even the slightest hint of leadership. Uganda, as every other African nation post-colonization, was screwed from within, but expecting a George Washington to appear mere years after being virtually enslaved from without is a tall order indeed, even more so when these countries are desperately poor to begin with. No excuse should be offered, though, for the succession of generals and fascists who have continually raped the continent, but it’s time the story was told by the people who were forced to live under their thumbs for so long. Nicholas is a well-drawn, intriguing character in his own right (he turns a blind eye, as well as impregnating one of Amin’s wives), but he’s far better served in the background; a remnant from the recent past, but not a vital piece by which the story turns. When he’s boarding a plane at the end to escape certain death (his betrayal has been discovered at last), we shouldn’t care about his plight, even though the soundtrack insists that we do. I couldn’t help but wonder: what of the thousands left below? When will they have their nail-biting finale?
The U.S. vs. John Lennon
Only a fool believes America has made a lick of progress since the Nixon administration, and as much as David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s documentary is about a particular war and a very specific celebrity, the arguments, frustrations, and objections heard throughout the film are as depressingly applicable to these here United States, circa 2006. Dissent, it seems, has always been synonymous with treason. John Lennon, during his time one of the world’s most famous human beings, was bugged, followed, harassed, intimidated, and pressured for nothing more than speaking his mind, though it is clear that if his case was of concern to Richard Nixon, John Mitchell, and J. Edgar Hoover, he was perceived as a legitimate and dire threat to order and stability. Even now, many might argue that Lennon’s true violation was daring to speak about a country not his own, but as any scholar of the Constitution will tell you, its protections are not suspended because you were not born within U.S. borders. Besides, someone of Lennon’s stature (love him or hate him, his vast influence on popular culture is beyond debate) is more a “citizen of the world”, and it’s reasonable to suggest that art need not be bound by fences and nations.
Sure, this film never questions Lennon’s legacy or his talents, though it does prove conclusively that above all, he was a master of public relations. He understood the press and his role as a media darling, and used it to full effect. Even the silly bed-ins were acknowledged by Lennon himself to be naïve and pure hype, but if the cameras were flashing wherever he went, why not push it to an extreme? The point was, people were talking about him, publishing his words, and at the very least, the word “peace” appeared in the papers alongside body counts and other bad news. The film certainly believes in Lennon’s authenticity regarding his social views, and though I always temper my thoughts with the knowledge that celebrities fixate on self-promotion first and foremost, I would never suggest that Lennon was a phony. Yes, he was rich, beloved, and powerful enough to get others to take notice, but he could have easily rested on his laurels and lounged by the pool. Self-aggrandizing and obnoxious as he could be, at least he was in the streets and standing by his statements. In our current age when very few musicians, actors, or athletes take a position on anything lest they jeopardize sales, it is refreshing to witness a time when balls were not in short supply.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon doesn’t present anything we don’t already know, but it nonetheless stands as an important and well-made chronicle of a time in our past when a musician could force the most powerful men in the country to take action. Fine, we’re a bit different as a country in that he didn’t disappear in the night or face a firing squad, but merely because we don’t resort to outright barbarism doesn’t make deportation hearings and illegal surveillance any less outrageous. Through it all, Lennon always maintained his trademark sense of humor, remarking to a reporter after the case had finally been dismissed (and most of the Nixon administration had retired in shame or sat rotting in jail), “Time wounds all heels.” He made serious points, ran with even more serious people (Bobby Seale and Abbie Hoffman among them), and never wavered in his commitment, but he never lost his smile. He always had enough money, but for a time, he was willing to risk his reputation and even his status in this country in order to highlight our nation’s wrongs. And while he should never be forgiven for marrying the humorless, talent less, and pathologically annoying Yoko Ono, she did help transform him from a shaggy-haired pop star to a voice of consequence and relevance. So instead of the ten rounds that should have been pumped into her chest and abdomen by Mark David Chapman, I’ll be kind just this once and make it a single bullet. Still dead, then, but no need for overkill.
Any movie involving a dying old man and the young object of his affection should, by definition, be unendurable pap, but such a sweeping generalization fails to take into the account the presence of Peter O’Toole, a legend so effortlessly charming that he could make a bowel movement the stuff of high drama. In many ways, he’s the whole show here, and had a lesser talent been involved, it’s unlikely that the script would have even seen the light of day. Suitably, O’Toole plays an aging, yet beloved actor named Maurice; a man still recognized around London, but who has now been reduced to playing corpses and expiring grandfathers. It’s work, after all, and he’ll do what he can to earn a paycheck. His good friend (played with a high level of grouchy resignation by Leslie Philips) has decided to employ a young, snotty caretaker, who quickly catches Maurice’s eye, even though there’s not a goddamn thing he can do about it, as his prostate problems have rendered him impotent and more fit for the slab than anything resembling a bed. Still, he’d like to think he can have a grand exit, and if he can sneak a few kisses now and again, it’s worth the effort.
Normally, the prospect of a sagging bag of bones flirting with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter would raise eyebrows as well as whatever one had for lunch, but it’s never pathetic or perverted with O’Toole on board. His obsession is harmless anyway, as his lust has more to do with a stab at immortality than anything resembling a reasonable courtship. The girl in question is typical London trash; bad grammar, bad attitude, and wholesale ignorance unapologetically on display, which might have something to do with his attraction. After all, what have women of his own class ever brought him but undying grief? She’s also convinced she’s going to be a model, so Maurice finds her a job taking off her clothes for art students. Needless to say, Maurice wants to sit in, but is forced to watch from the wings, leading to a particularly humorous scene that brings out O’Toole’s physical, as well as verbal gifts. But with that tone of voice and those unforgettable blue eyes raging, O’Toole lends everything gravity, and his bearing — and desperate need to cling to some of his past glory — leads us to believe that this is how a man of his station would be spending his final days.
The movie proceeds much as we would expect: the girl is hostile at first, warms up a bit, brings him grief, then shows up to take that final walk to the sea, so it won’t win any prizes for originality. Regarding its plot, it’s a story that pits youth versus age in ways that are time-tested past the point where anyone should bother to care. Cantankerous old fools would kill to see one last set of tits, regret outweighs contentment, and few things suck as hard as the aging process — these things make the rounds and surprisingly, we’re glad to see them. Pleasant diversions are deadly in bunches, but during a festival, they can often be exactly what one needs after listening to assorted cinephiles yammer endlessly about their own, coming-never-to-a-theater-near-you projects. And let us always be the sort of people who say to our aged, if you’ve survived disease, illness, depression, and loss, and still have an interest in putting your arthritic claw on some bird’s knee, you have our blessing.
Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu is one of the world’s most electric filmmakers, and each of his new releases brings the possibility of continued greatness. Above all, he’s a director who insists on connections among the human family — direct or indirect lines from people of a wide variety of classes, ideologies, and races, that rarely intersect unless by accident. Once again, with Babel, he presents seemingly unrelated stories and characters in their own environments and on their own terms, although as we move along, we are left to draw our own conclusions. Here, we visit four different parts of the world: Japan, Mexico, Morocco, and briefly, the United States. As such, we hear four different languages, and the expected failures of communication that result. Still, despite the language barriers that cause confusion, distrust, and rage, it is the inability to understand within a common tongue that has the potential to bring about the greatest harm.
Uniting all of these characters together is a single rifle — first purchased by a Japanese man who has lost his wife to suicide, then presented as a gift to a Moroccan man after a hunting trip, later sold to a Moroccan family as a method to eliminate jackals near their farm, and finally used to accidentally shoot an American tourist, which itself spurs further tragedy for all involved. The Americans (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, refreshingly blending in with the rest of the cast, rather than trying to be the “stars”) are in Morocco for unknown reasons, though it is clear that the wife would rather be anywhere else. She brings her own silverware, won’t use the local ice, and harbors numerous resentments against her husband. A child of theirs had been lost, but we suspect that there’s more to the estrangement than a single, identifiable tragedy. Back home, the couple have left their kids with their live-in Mexican nanny, who has a wedding to attend to Tijuana, but is forced to alter her plans when her boss calls with news of his wife’s shooting. Her decision to bring the kids along holds potential tragedy as well, though not in ways we might expect.
The movie begins in fits and bursts, and admittedly, it wavered from frustrating to fascinating over large parts of the first half. It always remained captivating, however, and my failure to put it all together was my problem, not the screenplay’s. Still, the Japanese section of the story, one involving the father, but also his alienated, deaf daughter who is experiencing psycho-sexual confusions of her own, is the weakest of the lot, although it presents a fascinating portrait of modern Tokyo. This is a movie, of course, and the camera is a limited tool of exploration, but from all appearances, Tokyo has fully internalized the Western mantra of “when in doubt, add neon”, yet one can still sense the old Japan continuing to fight the push of Americanized commerce and youth culture. But like the other regions we see, nothing stands out as obvious, and any theme Inarritu pushes could be thoroughly debated. Is it a meditation on barriers — literal and those we create to feel secure — in a world careening out of control? Because a weapon is the link across oceans and continents, is it a howl in the darkness against the increasing likelihood that at some point, the only thing we’ll have in common is our murderous impulse? Thankfully, Inarritu isn’t about to hand us the lecture notes.
I’m convinced that no one returns from the sea unchanged, and more than any other form of adventure available to the ever-curious human animal, it holds the greatest risk of madness and death. The lust for exploration is built into our very DNA, and we the timid owe a great deal to those who pushed beyond their borders to better the lot of mankind. But now that the conquering spirit has been tamed by our modern age, all that remains is adventure for its own sake — contests, competitions, and collisions of ego that might hold vicarious thrills for spectators, but by and large are little more than senseless trips of vanity. So if we are to concern ourselves with these stories any longer, there must be an insight into the human experience that moves beyond mere winners and losers. Thankfully, Deep Water is just such a tale; a documentary that begins with a now-forgotten competition (a 1969 London Times-sponsored event that would bestow a cash prize upon the first man to complete a solo boat trip around the world), and winds up as an examination of man’s fragility so profound that it leaves us stunned.
Donald Crowhurst, a well-liked, easygoing sort of chap who earned his bread as an engineer, but was far from an expert in seafaring, is the central focus of the story, and it is his bizarre end that makes us wonder why he ever agreed to set sail in the first place. Because he was forced to seek financing for his boat, he remained contractually committed to finishing the race, as a clause stipulated that if he bailed out or failed early on, he would be forced to re-pay the loan. Needless to say, this would have resulted in financial ruin. That fact alone might explain his subsequent behavior, but the isolation of the vast ocean is arguably more to blame, and we are fortunate to have home movies of his voyage, as well as extensive diaries and ship logs. It turns out that while the other competitors were pushing from England to the Cape of Good Hope and beyond, Crowhurst was adrift near the Brazilian coast. A leaky boat played a part, but as the race moved from one dreary month to the next, Crowhurst cut communications in order to prevent home base from being able to track his position. Evidence revealed after the fact showed that he clung to the shore because as his fellow travelers rounded Cape Horn for that last push to the finish, he would join them and pretend that he’d completed the same journey himself. Was his deception a calculated effort to win money and prestige, or had he simply lost his mind?
Crowhurst must have known that close scrutiny of his logs would have revealed his lie, so it appears that that very realization forced him to try instead for a second place finish. He would save face, but no one would bother to look more deeply at a man who had lost. But in a stunning turn, the actual leader sunk as he neared England, and because the others had either dropped out or gone mad (one competitor turned away suddenly and decided to go around the world a second time), he was left alone to collect the top prize. Faced with that reality, Crowhurst disappeared, though his boat was later found. The record he left behind reveals a man besieged by loneliness, self-pity, hopelessness, and existential fury, but no clue as to how such a mild-mannered man went so rapidly off the rails. Could the British obsession with stiff-upper-lipped pride have been enough for a man to willingly leave behind a wife and family? Whatever the cause, this is documentary filmmaking at its finest; dramatic, thrilling, and always remembering that the best stories are often little-known events placed in a larger, deeper context. A must-see, if you can find it.
2006’s version of Telluride was underwhelming in many ways, but never more so than for managing to find a way to make world-class director Pedro Almodovar boring. I never thought it was possible given his previous efforts, but for the first time, I felt as if I was watching an Almodovar film that could have been directed by anyone. About twenty minutes in, I realized with a jolt that had the famous name not been attached and the language not been Spanish, there’s a good chance I would have walked out. As expected, the movie is bursting with bold colors and passionate performances, but everything is too controlled, as if he thought it would be a good idea to stray from Sirk-like melodrama for a change and lighten the overall load. In essence, the film was neither bold nor passionate enough, and while a single prostitute makes an appearance, the story needed her more often, as well as a few dozen other eccentrics, maniacs, and freaks. Almodovar’s films have always been about risks to the point of absurdity, but here, he’s just too accessible for his own good.
Penelope Cruz (inexplicably one of the festival’s honorees) plays Raimunda, a spicy little number who works hard to make ends meet while raising her sassy daughter. When we first meet Raimunda, she is taking care of her mother’s grave and visiting her aunt, a half-blind, nearly dead old woman who is trying to live on her own as best she can. Soon, she does in fact die, and a strange woman pays a visit claiming to be Raimunda’s mother, despite allegedly being dead and buried herself. She’s tucked away for a time, but then comes clean to her daughter, explaining that she killed her husband and the mother of another character, Agustina, in order to execute a long-overdue revenge for infidelity. After the murders, she went into hiding, until such time she felt comfortable appearing before her loved ones. Agustina is not aware of what happened to her mother, believing that she had disappeared, and having no clue that she was killed in a fire for sleeping around. In the telling, it sounds zany and crazy and even a little fun, but the actual execution is labored, pointless, and the polar opposite of entertaining. It all seemed so defiantly ordinary; sadly lackluster and inert.
Initially, we think the story is going to pay more attention to the fate of Raimunda’s husband, an abusive, drunken lout who attacks Raimunda’s daughter and is knifed to death for his trouble. She does stick him in a freezer and, with the aid of the prostitute, bury him in a large hole, but it all seems an afterthought, and not all revealing of anything important. They are mere events on a screen — simple, unmotivated behavior — not spontaneous actions of living, breathing people. Raimunda also works in a restaurant, feeding a film crew on location for a shoot, but this too seems tacked on. In every Almodovar film prior to this one, I felt as if the characters had depth, shading, and hidden secrets under the surface that could both shock and enlighten. Here, they talk a great deal and Cruz shows off her stupendous rack, but it all doesn’t add up to a picture of heft and weight. Sure, it might have been a charming slice of life, or a way to highlight the need for some to confront past demons, but we’re never brought into these families in a way that justifies the output of time. They remain distant, detached, and inconsequential. With Almodovar, I expect a circus, a wild party, and a soap opera, not simply the latter.
Ghosts of Cite Soleil
If Haiti is hell, Cite Soleil, a ghetto inside the city of Port-au-Prince, is the hot poker up the ass within hell’s gates; a neighborhood so violent and depressing that the United Nations recently saw fit to label it among the world’s most dangerous areas. It’s an astounding distinction in light of the world’s current depravity, but after Asger Leth’s sobering documentary, the “honor” is indeed well-earned. Fortunately, Leth lets his camera run and never attempts to interpret the events that play before us, and he lets his subjects speak without inhibition or spin. The central figure, a gang leader who goes by the moniker “Haitian 2pac”, is, under the circumstances, a charismatic figure, but a young man so immersed in the madness of his country that we sit and wait not for his future, but the hail of gunfire that will surely end his life prematurely. But 2pac knows this, and speaks openly and matter-of-factly about the destinies of his brethren. “Without a gun, you have no power,” he states, and this is never more true than in a country where leadership consists of one failed president after the other, all of whom either resign in shame, end up dead, or flee in yet another coup attempt.
2pac is the head of a gang known as “chimeres” (ghosts), armed thugs paid by President Aristide’s regime to intimidate the opposition, with deadly force if necessary. It’s quite remarkable that the country’s poor have been co-opted by the ruling classes, but hunger has a way of erasing moral and ethical lines. The gangs are interested solely in survival, and given what we see of the city, it’s a wonder anyone lives long enough to have children. The images and words of Cite Soleil are balanced with reports of the dying regime; accounts that show how ex-loyalists now known as “The Cannibal Army” seek to overthrow Aristide and, presumably, install a government that will no doubt begin their reign with calls for idealism and reform, only to descend into greed and murder in a matter of months. But Haiti goes through the motions of this sad dance nonetheless, which makes the whole scene that much more heartbreaking. People want to believe progress is possible, but kids like 2pac know better. “Haiti will never change”, he says, and, in a twist, the mouths of babes speak with ultimate authority.
If there’s a weakness to the film, it is the very monotony that is necessary to convey the desperation. While we cut to street demonstrations, random gunfire, and power plays among Aristide and his men, we spend most of the time with 2pac and his minions, reiterating the same points again and again. And if there’s a hidden story here, it is that of Lele, the French relief worker who falls in love with 2pac, despite the fact that he’s a cold-blooded murderer. No, I’m not advocating that yet another white face tell the story that non-whites can do for themselves just fine, but I couldn’t help but wonder how this woman — who we never get to know in any real way — came to Haiti, entered a literal war zone, and found love and romance with a young man who worked as a hitman for Aristide. What on earth happened to her sense of duty to a greater cause? Furthermore, is she still employed? That Haiti is a horribly brutal place with no hope or possibility of development is so well-established as to be obvious. Why not, then, take viewers in a direction they never would have expected? That said, I never anticipated an appearance — even via the telephone — by Wyclef Jean. His words of advice to 2pac regarding a music career, given 2pac’s later death, seemed both cruel and a saving grace. After all, it’s all the poor boy ever really had.
Poor Douglas McGrath. While slaving away on his film about Truman Capote, how was he to know that the 2005 release Capote would become a critical smash, earning Philip Seymour Hoffman an Academy Award and rendering any further efforts null and void? Infamous, while not wholly without merit, will never escape its predecessor’s clutches, and the timing is compounded by the fact that on the whole, it’s the lesser film. Toby Jones is quite good as Capote — even managing to be more physically suited for the role — but there’s something trivial in the performance; he manages to make Truman seem less a literary force than an eccentric bore. Capote was a raging narcissist who never failed to use his image to shock, appall, and garner attention, but at the center was a gifted writer who changed the face of the publishing industry with a single book. Jones is more buffoon that titan, which diminishes the accomplishment that was to cement his reputation for all time. By the time In Cold Blood is completed, this movie seems to think that the book is less important to Capote than an unrequited love affair with one of its subjects. The previous film saw clearly that Perry Smith was simply a means to an end, and any alleged “love” was but a ploy to secure information.
Infamous takes that extra step and actually shows Smith and Capote sharing a passionate kiss. Perhaps this did occur, but it fails to follow through by offering any clues as to why an educated, literate man would fall head over heels for a career criminal. It teases us with possibility, then leaves us hanging. The Capote we know from the earlier work is intolerable and vain, but at least we understand his motives; and the resulting achievement, frankly, justifies the ruse. Moreover, the Greek chorus of friends and acquaintances does little to flesh out the man, offering only insanely trite “insights” that sound scripted and rehearsed rather than authentically pure. As such, the tone was off from the opening scenes, turning a serious examination of a crime into lighthearted fun. And, for no reason whatsoever, the Kansas murders were re-created for this film, when we know damn well that the 1966 Richard Brooks release will always remain the final word on that subject. It’s as if they had to throw blood and gore into the mix to add a level of importance that they knew it was missing.
And while we’re on the subject, who on earth decided to cast Daniel “007” Craig as Perry? The record is clear — as well as previous cinematic treatments — that Smith was a mere shell of a man; pathetic, shy, and so unimposing as to be weak and withdrawn. Because of this, his bursts of violence are that much more shocking. But Craig is well-built, commanding, and masculine, thereby making him less interesting as a killer. This is a guy who looks like he might enter the Golden Gloves, not a beaten down twerp who felt ground beneath society’s boot heel. And Sandra Bullock fails to register as Harper Lee (the accent is the very definition of a stretch), while Sigourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hope Davis, and Peter Bogdanovich stop by and impersonate their favorite stars. Sure, it’s impossible to know how I’d feel had this movie come first, but I’m confident I would have logged its weaknesses nonetheless.
It’s not the fact that the prestigious Telluride Film Festival selected a slasher pic as among its offerings that bothers me, but rather that they found one so bloody mediocre. From all the buzz surrounding the festival, I expected a wild, even revolutionary ride; a sharp tongue-in-cheek romp that took parody to new, dizzying heights of fun and sophistication. And when “hilarious” and “hysterical” are thrown about with abandon, it’s only natural to rub your hands together and get ready for an unparalleled experience. But I should have known. If the Telluride faithful can be counted on for anything, it is their knack for blowing everything out of proportion; for being so ready to piss their pants with maniacal applause that they’d be more than willing to bow before an empty screen so long as it came with a hefty price tag. After all, if those in charge of this Labor Day party saw fit to dirty its schedule with a film usually suited for the sticky floors and faded seats of a suburban cineplex, it must be just shy of greatness, right?
Instead, Severance is a dry, unnecessary effort that acts as if the horror renaissance of the past decade had never occurred. It’s self-aware and winking like a mental patient with a tic, but it shoves one obligatory scene after another down our throats with such force that it feels more like self-importance. The bus load of employees from Palisade Defense industries is the tried and true mix of stereotypes and stock figures that we’ve come to expect, so why does the screenplay think it’s funny to play it out yet again? Even the Eastern European location was previously mined in Hostel, which managed to be one of the few of its genre to say something new while having fun with our expectations. Here, corporate drones are slaughtered in turn by a group of renegade, Soviet-era assassins who resent Palisade’s intrusion into the region. This gives the film a few welcome jabs at the defense industry (including a strikingly true-to-life marketing video shown aboard the bus), but it fails to exploit that ripe subject for all it’s worth.
Worst of all, this shit just wasn’t funny, and when a big-titted prostitute with an open shirt and a big gun to match isn’t enough the close the deal, we know we’re in rare territory. So perhaps it was the screening audience that sealed the film’s fate; those knowing young minds, so hip and insightful, who rolled in the aisles because, well, it’s so obviously a joke, right? “Isn’t it amazing how they redefine the genre and undermine the very essence of horror?” I can hear them now, kvetching over coffee and low fat pastries, how “cool” it all was, and how we can laugh at brutality and death because our own age, post 9/11, has eradicated any serious contemplation of mortality not tinged with irony. Bullshit, and a curse upon your $300 sandals. Any and all of the unconscionable praise for Severance assumes that the viewer only attends the cinema in a festival context, and that self-parody is, in and of itself, a virtue, even when it is as smug as the subject it is attempting to subvert.
Best Film: Deep Water
Worst Film: Severance
Best Performance: Peter O’Toole, Venus
Worst Performance: Peter Bogdanovich, Infamous
Biggest Disappointment: Volver
Biggest Ego: Paolo Cherchi Usai, for using an entire 12-minute gondola ride to talk about his own worthless film while Werner Herzog is, like, right fucking there
Biggest Loss: not taking advantage of a rare 70mm print of Jacques Tati’s Playtime
Biggest Gain: not spending 2 ½ hours with Jacques Fucking Tati