In this second installment, Stuart Henderson reviews films from Michael Moore, Terry Gilliam, Atom Egoyan, and Ricky Gervais. Also, he mostly dismisses something called "Bitch Slap".
Navigating through a major international film festival is never easy. First of all, it involves a great deal of planning if you intend to see a lot of stuff. The Press and Industry schedule for this year’s fest is a complex grid of competing screening times, multiple locations, and frustratingly few showings of key films. Many of the movies that everyone wants to see are playing only once in theatres not quite big enough for all of us to get in. There are, in fact, two lines for many of the movies: one for the Priority Press (which means, sort of by definition, not me) and one for the Other Press (including a correspondent for the Huffington Post who was decidedly nonplussed about finding herself there, and who made embarrassing noises about it, like, in front of the rest of us, as if she didn’t realize that what she was upset about was that she was being treated just like the rest of us, all of which led to an awesome moment when a youthful festival representative came over to deal with her and admitted that she wasn’t familiar the HuffPo. “Canadians have never heard of the Huffington Post!” the critic responded, indignant and amazed. “No, I have never heard of it.” Yeah!) And so but anyway you have to wait in line a lot, and thus you have to plan to be at screenings long before the scheduled start, which means that you can’t safely bump from one show right into the next. Though I have, so far, been able to get into everything I’ve lined up for, I certainly haven’t been able to see everything I wanted to see. I mean, one of the theatres is a subway ride away from the other two!
There are two basic ways to approach a film festival. On the one hand, you can go to a fest with the intention of seeing every major film that stars lots of famous folks and which will invariably set you up for the big releases for the next few months (which, for reviewers, is good because a head start is nice). On the other hand, you can go to a fest planning to see only little movies which might not find a distributor, and thus may never again play on the big screen, in the hopes of discovering some unwashed gem. This latter option happens to be the “cool” way to go to a fest, since all I have overheard from “cool” looking film people is how they didn’t go to see some Hollywood flick because they can “see that anytime” and instead watched something weird, quirky, and interesting, that hasn’t got a hope in hell of being picked up for distribution. And, while I am drawn to that approach, I am also acutely aware that the former option provides the best possible chance of catching Golden Globe and Oscar stuff before the rest of the world gets in there, which is kind of thrilling. Anyway, there are actually three ways of approaching a film festival, since you can also just plan your days around what stands out when you thumb through the program, and then do the math to make your day work time-wise. This is what I decided to do. I was told by some guy when I said that I sat through Jennifer’s Body instead of seeing a semi-obscure French film (that he adored) that I was going to “regret” this approach. Film people can be very weird.
Capitalism: A Love Story (dir. Michael Moore, 2009)
Michael Moore has made a career out of skewering the hypocrisy of American greed. Though his films have been about apparently diverse topics (gun laws, 9/11, health care), they have all been, in a radical sense, concerned with the gross inequities of power and wealth that define modern America. The United States, one of his interview subjects complains, doesn’t have a middle class anymore – to him, it’s been reduced to a duality of the people with nothing alongside the people with everything. Moore’s film sets out to demonstrate that this isn’t the result of bad management or poor public policy under the Bush administration, but rather that it’s the logical outcome of capitalism. Without interviewing many real experts – one of his commentators is the guy who said “inconceivable” in The Princess Bride – Moore takes most of his evidence from everyday Americans whose experiences of life in the capitalist system have been nasty, brutish, and sad. Forced evictions, life insurance scams, worker exploitation, government payouts – Moore invokes a litany of inequities in an effort to expose the central problem that America is an “egalitarian” country in which the top 1% hold more wealth than the bottom 95% combined. An unfortunate blind spot on Obama mars the final section of the film (since Moore wants to paint him as a savior when anyone who’s been watching knows that he has so far offered more of the same), but overall the effect here is powerful and convincing. As always, Moore performs a few cute stunts, and employs a bunch of great old newsreel footage to impressive comedic effect. No longer pretending to be all things to all people (since that was never going to work in the polarized US political climate these days), this film is a rather explicit call to arms, an attempt to make people who already agree with him angry enough to get up and do something about it. We’ll see.
Bitch Slap, one of those tiny movies with a bit of buzz here this year, is the story of three voluptuous vixens who are trying to stay ahead of a murderous mob boss. Filled with lingering, celebratory shots of their sweaty breasts (which are hugely ample, and absurdly pushed up), dialogue rife with corny vulgarities (“watch it, axe wound!” and “you shot off my teabag!”), and lots of campy camp, this really should have been a lot more fun. A riff on grindhouse sexploitation pictures should actually riff on them – not merely fall lazily onto their sexist rails. I mean, no matter how you cut it, this is still a movie with a simplistic plot during which the audience spends most of its time looking at women in various stages of undress. Surely this could have been an opportunity for the film-makers to re-tune those old formulas into something more feminist, more pro-sex, more empowering? Strippers-who-kill just doesn’t meet these criteria. Ultimately, the question posed by a movie such as this is straightforward: is this homage to those old movies any better, cleverer, more necessary, more fun, than the originals? Tarantino, for all of his excesses and eccentricities, has answered this question at least three times now (Kill Bill 1 and 2, Death Proof), each time making sure to temper all of his irony with a sense of purpose. Because, if not, if all you are doing is retreading, updating, replacing soft real flesh with hard bulbous silicone, then why bother?
This terrific disappointment from Canada’s Atom Egoyan—his second major misfire in a row—might just mark the final time I’ll line up for his work. As with his last movie (2005’s awful Where the Truth Lies), his subject here is sex. In fact, the plot feels lifted from a standard B-grade skin flick: Julianne Moore (a stuffy gynecologist who dismisses orgasms as “just a series of muscle contractions”) becomes convinced that her husband Liam Neeson (a dashing flirt of a music professor who not-so-subtly happens to be teaching Don Giovanni) is cheating on her, so she hires a high priced call girl (a perfectly beguiling Amanda Seyfried) to test her hypothesis. And then things get saucy. Hard as the actors try—and they really do try—no performance can raise this kind of material any higher than the waist. In the past, Egoyan has been guilty of squandering good work from his actors, burying them under smothering over-direction, cloying scores, and unnecessary plot contrivances, but this is ridiculous. Whatever spell he might have cast over us with the stylized sex scenes and protracted shots of the huge green moons that are Seyfried’s eyes is shattered when, all of a sudden, a thriller breaks out of this little bedroom drama and starts throwing its unearned weight around. The final “revelation” had my packed theatre laughing right out loud.
The Invention of Lying (dir. Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, 2009)
Ricky Gervais’ new film has a lot going for it. A great cast (including Tina Fey, Louis C.K., Rob Lowe, Jennifer Garner, Ed Norton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Jason Bateman) combined with a can’t-miss comedic premise (a world where there is no such thing as a lie) should have been enough. After a truly hilarious intro – which demonstrates that without lying there can be no irony, no acting, no manipulation, and no politesse – we learn that Gervais’ everyman character is about to lose his job and his home. Pushed to a breaking point, he snaps, suddenly able to tell a lie. Soon enough, he realizes that telling lies gets him places (including back into his apartment and his job), and indeed seems to be enough to get him just about anything he desires. Because there has never been a lie before, people have no capacity for dealing with untruth, so everyone believes whatever he says, without reservation, no matter how bizarre or unlikely. Case in point: before long, he successfully invents religion. Fitting into a long line of films which explore what happens when truth and perception are tangled (think everything from Being There to Groundhog Day to Liar Liar), brings little new to the table. In some ways, in fact, it is derivative of these earlier comedies – especially of , of course . Some of the best laughs in the film come from the dead honesty of advertisers, for example – “Pepsi: When there’s no Coke” – but that pit was already well mined in the Dudley Moore vehicle Crazy People back in 1990. As always, Gervais is effortlessly funny, and his winning presence makes up for a lot of the ho-hum material. But, ultimately, there is little left in the tank by the too-sentimental ending, and one comes up more than a little disappointed. It could have been so much better.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (dir. Terry Gilliam, 2009)
In Terry Gilliam’s world, the imagination is king. There has never been any doubt – not since the world first witnessed his gloriously peculiar cartoons with Monty Python back in the late 1960s – as to his boundless creativity. The problem has always been with reining him in. Prone to hugely expensive flops (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Tideland, The Brothers Grimm) and the occasional modest success (The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Gilliam frightens a lot of people in suits, and his latest is unlikely to win their confidence. A mostly nonsensical yin-yang battle between imagination and temptation, tells the story of an immortal man (a game Christopher Plummer) and his band of carnies as they travel around modern day London performing an indescribably weird roadside attraction in which people enter Dr. P’s mind and then experience all sorts of wacky stuff. But it seems that Plummer’s Parnassus has lost a bet with the devil (a charming Tom Waits), and now has to hand over his daughter (Lily Cole, whose eyes are almost too far apart for her to be human) on the occasion of her 16th birthday, which would mean that she’ll become his sex slave (or something – this is a bit unclear). Heath Ledger, whom Parnassus and co. discover hanging from a bridge and decide to bring along with them, is a scoundrel looking for a second chance, and hoping to find it with this band of oddballs. He plays his role with characteristic commitment, but it is no secret that his death left the filmmakers scrambling, trying to figure out a way to complete the picture without him. Their solution was to replace him in each of his “imaginarium” sequences with another actor (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, respectively) which is, finally, totally distracting. Oh, and Verne Troyer (of Mini Me fame) has a ton of screen time, which effectively wrecks a third of the film since he delivers his lines without a trace of authority. Also: how exactly are temptation and imagination in opposition?
Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu