Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Some films most excellent, at ’08 Phx Film Fest
Tom McCarthy, also a ‘Wire’ actor, follows ‘Station Agent’ success with a new, top-notch offering
By David Tell, Messenger Editor
Here it is eight years later and the Phoenix Film Festival is a real Event. Has been for several years, actually, drawing credible, high-profile films, celebs, money people, stars and other players. And film buffs. (And glam chicks who regard the Event as the apotheosis of the Scottsdale clubs scene, with a chance to get discovered, too!) Robert Altman, rest in peace, would have a field day.
Much credit is due to Laurel and Hardy—uh, Lamont and Carney—the duo whose brainchild Phx Film Fest is. (We don’t apologize for the comparison: the pair ham it up quasi-comically in their appearances kicking off the event and the opening night film, etc.; not that there’s anything wrong with that—it could be more painfully pompous, as when dignitaries do de rigueur honors giving the event its official proclamations. This year it was Vice Mayor Peggy Neely, in whose district the festival takes place—virtually in Scottsdale, at the Harkins 101 Cine Capri, as we’ve noted ad infinitum. But what’re you gonna do? As much as we preferred the previous venue at AMC Theaters Arizona Center, the event has probably outgrown that space. Maybe not. We do know the downtown business community was irked at losing the event. So, they should have stopped the move. Shame on them.) Anyway. Reviews of festival film entries follow.
One pleasant surprise was the opening night film, by—who else?—another alum of HBO’s excellent, just concluded, urban Baltimore series, “The Wire.” (Readers of recent issues will know we rubbed elbows with a number of other players from that show, who were in town—downtown—for the screening at the Almost Famous Short Film Festival of an awesome movie they created, kind of ensemble: “Sympathetic Details,” by writer-director Benjamin Busch (Colicchio on “The Wire”). The opening PFF work was "The Visitor,” starring Richard Jenkins, late of HBO’s "Six Feet Under" (though we think of him fondly from his role in “The Witches of Eastwick”—in which he beats his wife to death with a fireplace poker—and from various installments in the Farrelly brothers’ oeuvre).
Tom McCarthy, writer-director of the phenom “The Station Agent” a couple years ago (set in Newfoundland, N.J., where yours truly hails from), played a disgruntled, overambitious reporter at the Baltimore Sun in the final season of “The Wire.” In that role, he not only gets caught up in cop Jimmy McNulty’s fabricated murders of homeless men (staged to get funding to resume investigations into other murders, put on ice due to city budget cuts), but, egged on by an out-of-touch mentor, goes on to completely make up spinoff “Dickensian” articles about the lives and travails of the homeless.
Needless to say, the guy’s likely got a lot more integrity than his “Wire” role, as his films display a humanity and sensitivity to the subtleties of character and situation that commends them highly, among other factors. We spoke briefly to McCarthy after his film’s screening, and told him it struck us almost as “Missing” meets “Year of the Dog.” “I was in ‘Year of the Dog,’” he replied. “Oh, yeah, you were the [Laura Dern’s] husband”—part of an overprotective, politically correct parental duo, and not the one who wears the pants—we acknowledged. We elaborated on our comparison, saying we found his and Mike White’s film to have had a similar affectionate, slight distance, yet a closely observant feel in regard to their characters, as well as a running, lightly humorous tone, even in the face of sobering realities. McCarthy acknowledged the point, while adding he still found the comparison strange. (That’s all right—we find his characters despicable ... though again, it’s probably a testament to his talent that they are so viscerally dislikable, as he’s probably nothing like them.)
More apt, perhaps, is the comparison to “Missing,” by Costa-Gavras. A political drama like his iconic “Z,” “Missing” is about events surrounding the 1973 coup in Chile that toppled popularly elected Marxist leader Salvador Allende, replacing him with the CIA-backed villain Augusto Pinochet. In the film, Jack Lemmon plays an American businessman called to Chile by his daughter-in-law (Sissy Spacek), when his son gets caught up in the political turmoil. Lemmon plays one of his classic “dawning awareness” roles, as in “The China Syndrome,” where he goes from a implicit faith in the system to a grudging realization that the institutions he believes in are not always so benign. Likewise, that evolution loosely describes Jenkins’ character’s progress in “The Visitor,” as he deals with problems related to the immigration status of some new friends. But, like Peggy the bereft secretary (Molly Shannon) in “Year of the Dog,” Jenkins’ character, Walter Vale, is also experiencing a loss of connectedness to places, people, work that have barely been his mooring for years—and so he finds new sources of life, passion and belonging. From its soundtrack to the cinematography; pacing, casting, acting and story, “The Visitor” is virtually flawless. (Except, however, as to a technical musical detail: When Tarek is starting to teach Walter drumming, he warns him African drumming is based on a “three-beat,” not four. What he really means is, there is syncopation and other “exotic” tendencies; however, the rhythm he and Walter then start working with is a “four-beat”—actually, more or less a half-time meter, in which there’s two beats to the measure and a quarter note gets one beat. Or something like that.)
Speaking of casting, Danai Gurira as Zainab, reminds us, perhaps oddly, of Samantha Morton. Maybe it’s the shape of her closely cropped head, like Morton’s as the lead empath in “Minority Report”; then again, maybe it’s something in her eyes. But Morton in Jim Sheridan’s fine “In America" plays a role more similar to Gurira’s here, as an illegal in New York City. Too, Haaz Sleiman as Tarek is perfect as one of those eager-to-please, happy-go-lucky, live-for-the moment kind of people, who endears himself to the viewer every bit as much as he does to Walter. But we were fondest of Jenkins as Walter, who is a little formal, doesn’t smile much, is sometimes tough on others yet self-excusing, and so has to endure others’ (especially the female characters’) guardedness, even hostility, well after he has really shown himself to be kind, gentle, caring, generous—in his low-key yet self-respecting way.
The Life Before Her Eyes
The closing night film was also wonderful. It was directed by Vadim Perelman, from an adapted screenplay based on the novel of the same name by Laura Kasischke. (Perelman directed the moving, tragic “House of Sand and Fog," released in 2003, which we raved about at the time.) “Before Her Eyes,” like last year’s Sandra Bullock vehicle “Premonition,” is what I call a women’s film—which is decidedly not the same thing as a check flick. It’s a serious look at issues women face, through a woman’s eyes, from women’s perspectives. That’s not to say men won’t like and be thoughtfully stimulated by it too. The film is visually poetic right from the credits, with images, close-ups of flowers melting away through lenswork or computer tricks or both. The film’s axis is a massacre at a high school by a disturbed young man—hardly an untopical event these days. It follows a couple of female, teen-age best friends up to and well beyond the bloody events of that day. Rachel Evan Wood plays “Diana,” one of the two girls—a restless, sexually active, smart, alienated, self-willed and somewhat confused young woman, whose friend Maureen presents a counterweight to those qualities.
Uma Thurman plays Wood’s character as a grown-up, an art history teacher with a husband, a child, and memories of the day that changed everything. We’ll avoid spoilers, since right up to the end of this film, the viewer has been led to look at the film one way, and it may not be the right way. That said, there’s a “Sophie’s Choice” element at its crux, though one less gratuitously in its framing and in its consequences than I’ve always considered that hinge of Styron’s book (and of the film made from it). However, against the decisive turning point represented by the massacre, the film examines what seem to be a number of uniquely female preoccupations and dilemmas: For instance, there’s the question of sex. Men are generally all impulse, expressing the conatus of Leibnizian philosophy; women are the gatekeepers of sex. Women, adolescent girls deal with the good girl-bad girl issue: They can say no, and are expected by parents, by society to do so; but how long can they and keep a man they may want? So they deal with guilt. They deal with the pressure, and then, often the rejection, even by the same source of the pressure—young boys who then taunt their conquests as “sluts.” The blood of their period is akin to, can lead to, the blood of an abortion: this is the blood of Christian-viewed sin, not of “the redemptive blood of the Lamb.” Men, for the most part, hold power of life and death over other living beings, the “born”—they send others to war, to their executions. Women hold that power over the unborn. Maybe it’s a fair division. But maybe few would like to have either power, if they could avoid it.
Women are taught, socialized to make a relationship, a marriage, a home. If those things fall apart, they are told, in myriad ways, to look first to themselves to blame. Even with a philandering husband. Even with a child who’s simply programmed to behave, act out, resist, rebel; among other reasons, as part of the eternal cycle of mother-daughter conflict. As Thurman’s Diana says, “I thought if I cared for my child, helped my students, loved my husband, everything would be all right.” But doing those things, the right thing, doesn’t necessarily control outcomes, bring ultimate happiness.
It’s interesting how as an art teacher, Diana’s lessons focus on Gauguin—like Philip Roth’s early, seminal novel Goodbye Columbus. I’ll leave the lessons of that reference, that inclusion for the viewer to explore themselves, as with the Blake poem Diana reads to her daughter to soothe her to sleep. Likewise the ubiquitous imagery of water in the film; while young Diana, looking at the spray from a fountain, wonders where the boundary is between its mist and the air it is dissipating into.
There are a few false notes, as in the somewhat hokey dialogue about “the heart being the strongest muscle in the body.” Some other witty exchanges reminded me of the improbably smart, ready-for-the Dorothy-Parker-book-of-quips utterances by Ellen Page’s precocious teen in last year’s phenomenon “Juno.” But they’re infrequent, and dissolve quickly in the potent, larger mix. The title and final plot twist are in fact a hoary cliché—and a clue ... though one most people, I feel, are unlikely to crack. (The repetition of an old Zombies song, in various forms, is also a clue.) At least, I didn’t—the whole weight, momentum of the film are so forceful on behalf of a different supposition.
A gorgeous, thoughtful, disturbing film, one that—like “Being There,” last year’s “Perfume,” “2001: A Space Odyssey”—one can hardly imagine being anywhere near as effective in a non-visual medium. Which is why we have film these days, and why, in these pages at least, you’ll find it analyzed as the serious literature it sometimes is.
Then She Found Me
A film to have overlooked at our peril given its all-star cast, this was generally a crowd-pleaser—a well-made romantic comedy and to some degree a chick flick, and a female mid-life crisis film “with heart”—which is not to say it was great. Watchable, touching, funny ... ultimately, not my cup of chai. (But nowhere near as bad as “The Holiday,” that Nancy Meyers abomination of a couple of years ago, though that film could have some of the same nice things said about it, and has a similar feel ...)
I hate to be cruel, but it’s also about the only way Helen Hunt, who may be missing the days she seemed genuinely youthful and desirable—say, ca. “Mad About You” days, or even playing the two-timin’ Bree in “Dr. T and the Women”—is going to get to play the romantic lead to someone like Colin Firth: write and direct it herself (actually, she co-wrote the script with two others, listed first on IMDb).
I mean, this woman was never especially my kind of babe, but—nothing personal, no fault of hers, it’s her genes, she’s just not aging well—she looks awful. Occasionally, she rises to “pleasant-looking.” She’s just haggard, sorry. I’m sure she’s a nice person.
Anyway, —No, I’ll say this, too: Bette Midler plays her mom, and the actresses’ actual ages may even work. You could say, OK HH got more of her father’s genes. But, you know, I’d do Bette WAY before I’d do Helen. OK, got that out of the way.
This is a Jewy film, and of course, I like that. It starts out with a Jewish joke, which is the theme: People will set you up to trust them, then they will pull the rug out from under you, uncovering a trapdoor to a circle of hell you should subliminally have girded yourself to expect, to deal with, after all—but it’s still no picnic.
But the Jewish mother is wise, the Jewish brother is wise, the b’racha over lighting the Shabbat candles is heartwarming. (Interestingly, I think—I’ll swear, I’ll bet—that’s Salman Rushdie playing the ob-gyn in the film. He’s not in the credits, I’m sure he insisted he be left out. What, he wants another fatwa, a death edict from those crazy militant Muslims now, again, for appearing in a Jewy film? Examining HH’s private parts, no less? What’s he even thinking?)
Colin Firth is unaccountably smitten with HH, but he gets taken on a ride over her biological clock issues, her on-the-rebound issues, and, to top it all off, her “my biological mother, who is a major wack job, suddenly appeared in my life” issues. To the writers’ and their character’s credit, ole Colin does not suppress his anger over his mistreatment by HH, though he also apologizes for same and then lets himself in for more of the same. But he’s not totally contemptible.
Helen Hunt’s character kind of is, as she succumbs to the occult charms of her childlike ex, played by Matthew Broderick, just when things are getting seriously rolling with Firth. Anyway, there’s some nice lessons here, in the end: As usual, a woman has to acquiesce in the idea that she doesn’t know as well what she wants and needs and what’s good for her, and for everyone—rather than her being overweeningly selfish—as she thinks she does.
One cool thing is that Bette Midler’s character—who plays a kind of local-to-the-New York-market, Jewish Oprah—at one point alleges HH is a product of her union with Steve McQueen, and refers to his having been involved in the film “The Sand Pebbles” at the time of their dalliance. “The Sand Pebbles” is a now-somewhat-obscure film that was Candice Bergen’s first shot at fame, and is based on the novel of the same name by talented author Richard McKenna, who died untimely and whose novella Fiddler’s Green is the basis for our screenplay, “The Thirst,” which we have been trying to get produced since 2000. If they keep bringing up stuff of his, maybe someday my awesome sci fi-adventure-occult “’The Matrix” meets “Apocalypto” meets “Interview With the Vampire” etc. etc. will get produced.
Starring Kevin Nealon and Tom Arnold, and a couple of unknown kids in prominent roles as well, this was a clever, edgy film where multiple plot lines and disparate agendas on the part of various characters are neatly tied up, turn out by the end of the film to have been enmeshed all along. Be that as it may, the film still has the kind of low-budget, cavalier, in-your-face feel of a project a bunch of formerly high-profile celebrities got together to make because they miss the spotlight and didn’t have anything else particularly worthwhile going on at the moment.
Kevin Nealon plays a TV talk show host who learns his wife is cheating on him and who is being canned after a long successful run, by the new guys at the network. Tom Arnold plays a PI documenting low-level sleaze who bumps into a young woman making a living by ambulance chasing and posting the morbid photos she takes on a pervert website (she’s one of the unknowns). The other unknown is a kid—a stoner—who gets sucked up by a Tony Robbins-type infomercial success scam, and ends up committing manslaughter. Etc., etc., blah blab blah. It all comes out in the wash. This is not, however, of the caliber of the Tom Arnold vehicle that premiered at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2005—Don Roos’ “Happy Endings” (one of the approximately 2.8 million films that year calculated to remind me of the dispiriting midlife misadventure I’d gone on in 2004). So, apropos of that circumstance, I raced back to the Q&A following the film when my dear wife Marci chided me for not getting Arnold’s autograph for her. The Q&A was still going on. A last question was solicited by the producer. “Me me me, call on me!” my flailing arm said, quite eloquently, but insistently, for an arm. I got called on. “Tom, a few years ago a young woman tricked me into getting her pregnant, like your character in ‘Happy Endings.’ Did you do anything like that to prepare for that part?” Tom said no, and embarked on a rambling soliloquy about how Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in that film was after his money, but his character didn’t care, and so on ... The producer volunteered he hadn’t done anything like that either to prepare for ... I don’t know what! Then, as a sly follow up, the kind President Bush recently tried to rule out at his press conferences, I asked Tom, “Hey, Tom! Aren’t you kind of young to pairing yourself up in your films with every young cupcake of a wannabe actress you can find?” He misunderstood the thrust of the question and started to say, “You mean, ‘Too old ...’” because he didn’t let me finish: “No, I mean, like Woody Allen has been doing the past dozen or so years: Tea Leoni, Mira Sorvino, Scarlett Johansson, Debra Messing ... you’re too young to have to prop up your fragile male ego like that, don’t you think?” But I really didn’t get to hammer that point home, in its full articulation. By then, I was able to just go up to him and get him to sign his autograph on a copy of The Midtown Messenger, to the dear wife who’d been mistreated by my 2004 perambulation ... he was very kind. And, possibly, stoned. But a nice guy. I asked him if he was still Jewish (he converted upon his marriage to Roseanne; there was coverage of his unit having to be ritually nicked, since, as a good hygienic American male of my generation, he was already circumcised). “Always,” he said. “All right!” I commended him. And by the time I got out to the party tent to bestow his autograph upon Marci, he had already meandered out there and signed her festival program. Drat!
Roman de Gare
This looked interesting based on the title, which seemed to me a pun on “Roman de guerre,” which—it seems to me, who faked it all the way to French IV in high school—to mean something like, “story of war,” as roman a clef means mystery novel, etc. Anyway. What is it with these French films with middle-aged murderous novelistas? Like “Swimming Pool” a few years ago, with Charlotte Rampling and the delightfully saucy, naked Ludovine Sagnier (who also played the saucy, retro-garbed, tiny little luminous Tinker Bell in the great 2003 live-action “Peter Pan”). This was clever, and well made, if no masterpiece. But the interesting thing besides the labyrinthine plot was Dominique Pinon as the male romantic lead??? The nasty, cretinous guy who played the assassin in “Diva” 25 years ago??? I’m not kidding. Oh, the other cool thing was the likening of “the Writer” to God. I can relate.
Another must-see, we realized, since it got made by the producers snagging Minnie Driver in a lead role. Great film; shot with lighting and/or film stock that conferred a washed-out, bluish graininess to reflect the drear, grim thrust of the story. Reminded me of the filmic feel of last year’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” reviewed in this space a few months ago; then we had to defend our dwelling on Marisa Tomei’s extended frontal nude scene in it in a later issue. “Take’s” gist was, crime victim (Driver) is on a road trip, on her way to witness the execution of the guy who caused her loss. That guy—what a loser. Much of the film follows his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Which gets worse and worse that way as a consequence of his bad choices, granted. Like in “Devil.” But. The narrative arc of convergence of convict on victim or victim on convict is paralleled by the story-within-the-story of the convergence of the two on the infamous day of the crime. We didn’t stay for the Q&A, but I wanted to ask the producer or director, did you see this as an anti-death penalty film? Because it seemed to me to say, “If the victim can forgive the transgressor, what business does society have insisting on its vengeance?” (As a hyper-rational guy, I recognize that’s an emotion-based argument, not a logical one. I have other, unassailable reasons for opposing the death penalty.) Anyway, an excellent film; maybe, along with “The Visitor,” the best of the fest. (Won “best ensemble film” at the Fest, which shows they don’t know what “ensemble” means. Even in English.) But, an awesome acting job by Jeremy Renner, as the down-and-out, reprehensible, hapless Saul. I’m just damn glad they didn’t name him that because he was going to have a “Paul on the road to Damascus come-to-Jesus conversion” as his execution drew closer. In fact, he put up a pretty good fight, argument, against the chaplain sent in to give him final rites, solace, theodicy, what-have-you. A fine film—almost caustic to watch, but full of integrity, intensity.
Uncross the Stars
Well, there had to be one film we couldn’t stand to sit though, like last year’s “Ten Inch Hero.” This, like the initial screening of that one (at which all the aging friends of the director’s Scottsdale parents, the McKays, dominated the audience demographic), was heavily attended by residents of a senior community where a lot of the film takes place, and was shot. There’s nothing that will kill your interest in a film quicker than all the old people laughing at the sexual double entendres by a “Golden girl” wannabe hungering for the buns of a hot young guy. Only about a quarter of the way into the film somebody playing with their fancy new wireless lapel mike or something had their “Let’s see how this works ... See how great it picks up?” etc. picked up by the theater’s sound system, obliterating the film’s soundtrack. Hooray! But they stopped it, were going to fix it and run it back to where it started getting messed up. For me, it was pretty messed up from the get-go. We’re outta here!