The AFI Film Festival returned to Hollywood this year, where it has been based for over three decade, albeit in a slightly diminished capacity. Proving that no one is immune to the economic downturn of the past few years, the festival relocated from the palatial Arclight Cinema at Sunset and Vine to the decidedly more econo-class Mann's Chinese 6 at Hollywood and Highland (as well as a couple days in Santa Monica to coincide with the feeding frenzy known as the American Film Market).
It's not simply location that's different about this year's edition though. Showcasing a streamlined selection of titles that leans heavily on films that premiered at Cannes and Toronto, AFI has been re-baptized as a "festival of festivals" which is something of a plus and a minus. For film fans who haven't had their passports stamped in France and Canada this year, the festival serves as a summation of many of the art films sure to litter year end best of lists while giving Oscar contenders a showy gala unveiling at the neighboring Grauman's Chinese theater. The downside however is that AFI becomes the latest festival to turn its back on showcasing unheralded, smaller films that lack prior festival cache.
But the show must go on and there are still films to be seen and appreciated. And free films at that! In one change of policy that everyone can get behind AFI has decided to forgo a traditional box office and has given away tickets to all of their screenings, including their gala events, relying upon sponsorship dollars to off-set the cost of lost ticket sales. It's an admirable acknowledgment of people's shifting priorities even if it has resulted in the strange occurrence of frequently half empty auditoriums and non-existent rush lines.
As for the films themselves? They remain, as with any film festival, a mixed bag.
The festival finally gave me an excuse to see Werner Herzog's lovingly batshit Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Ever since a hastily edited trailer was leaked online this summer, introducing the expression "lucky crack pipe" into the vernacular and promising wall-to-wall Nic Cage scenery chewing, the film has been anticipated with bated breath from a certain segment of the film community. Specifically those who needed to find out whether Herzog had, in fact, turned Abel Ferrara's uncomfortably primal and guilt-ridden tale of a morally bankrupt police officer at crisis into a Tommy Wiseau film.
It comes of something of a relief and with a major honking caveat that the film is all I could have hoped for: a straight up hijacking of a direct-to-DVD vehicle by two singularly insane artists who don't care about your preconceptions or how many European territories the distributor has pre-sold the film to.
First of all, dispense with all attachments to Ferrara's original; the two films have as much in common as National Lampoon's Animal House and National Lampoon's Senior Trip. Cage stars as Lt. Terence McDonagh, a homicide detective with chronic back problems an escalating gambling debt and a high class hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes) who all too happy to help him scam her johns out of drugs and cash. McDonagh gets roped into a multiple murder investigation and all that comes with it including an on edge partner (Val Kilmer, doing God knows what, then thankfully departing for much of the film) reluctant witnesses, meddling bosses and pesky Internal Affairs officers.
On paper there really is not much here. The script by cop show veteran William Finkelstein is so moldy it borders on kitsch; the film actually finds room for variations of both the weary black captain telling our antihero "his cowboy antics won't work this time" as well as McDonagh being ordered to turn over his gun because he's on suspension. Yet Herzog and Cage treat the script as merely an excuse for someone to sign their checks and the set as their own personal playground to explore whatever dimensions of the character fits their fancy that day.
Cage feels like switching to a different accent halfway through the film without provocation or explanation (it sounds somewhere between Jimmy Stewart and Al Pacino from the first Godfather after Michael's had his jaw broken)? Go for it! Herzog is in the mood to go off on a 90 second tangent where we view the action from the point of view of a couple of (imaginary) iguanas? Hey we've already hired the animal trainer, might as well get some bang for our buck! Entire scenes seem to exist exclusively as private jokes, employing bizarre linguistic shorthand or playing out in canted angles as though they were downloaded from an alien mother-ship and loosely re-translated. I'll put it another way: it's the kind of film that you a) fully expect Michael Shannon to show up in an uncredited role and b) when he does he's one of the more lucid characters in the film.
Frequently coked out of his mind and a slave to various nefarious masters pulling him in every direction, Cage gives a swinging from the chandeliers performance of slowly unnerving insanity that's a joy to behold if for no other reason than it's completely impossible to tell what he'll do next. It's the sort of role where simply shaving with an electric razor carries as much comedic menace as cutting off an infirm, elderly woman's oxygen.
Herzog treats the story with what could be charitably called an efficient perfunctoriness (the film's brusque resolution is sure to enrage most people) forcing you to set it aside and dig for a larger meaning. What emerges is the tale of a man driven by his demons to madness; unable to turn back or escape he is forced to plow forward. Bad Lieutenant by all traditional standards isn't "good" per say but it's never boring. A letter grade for this one feel almost beside the point, but let's go with a B.
Lest Bad Lieutenant corner the market on comically over-long titles there's also Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. The darling of the festival circuit (the film has won audience awards at Sundance and Toronto amongst others), the film is being positioned as this year's little film that could; an out of left field indie sensation that announces itself as not only a critical favorite but as a legitimate awards contender. And in hindsight this makes complete sense, because, as are most little indie films that could, it's a complete and total fraud.
Part Dangerous Minds part minstrel show, all manipulative button pusher, Precious tampers down the phony uplift under mountains of suffering and ugliness yet the redemptive, rise up formula is firmly in place. It's a film for people who equate squalor with integrity and can make it through Paul Haggis' Crash without doubling over in laughter.
The film stars newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as Clareece Precious Jones an illiterate, morbidly obese black teenager living in Harlem in the mid 80's. Precious (even the poor girl's name falls into the cruel irony category) lives well below the poverty line with her shrieking harpy of an abusive mother (comedian Mo'Nique who appears to have only been given the direction of "act like a dragon") who in addition to berating her daughter and frequently hurling heavy projectiles at her head is dependent on her daughter for the welfare checks she commands (casual racists are gonna have a field day with this one). Precious, only 16 and already held back several grades in school is pregnant with her second child, both children the result of being raped by her now absentee father. I could go on with the indignities she's forced to endure but clearly the point has been made, that life for this girl could be better.
But into all of this darkness comes a little light (literally) in the form of the beautiful Ms. Rain played by Paula Patton. Mrs. Rain teaches at a remedial school--the kind often filled with colorful cut-ups and flunkies who can serve as the film's version of the Sweathogs--and seems to take an honest to goodness interest in Precious, building up her self confidence and finding a place for her to live after she escapes her mothers clutches. Yet with so many outside factors weighing on Precious, is there any chance she can escape and start a new life?
In the first of *many* groaners found within the film, the opening credits for Precious are in hand-written scrawl of misspellings and child-like scribbling, setting the tone nicely for the pandering and on the nose melodrama that's to come. More importantly though it contains the wholly extraneous subtitle which sums up what makes Precious so odious in the first place. This is not a faithful retelling of a real person's life, honoring every horrible detail as it happened. This is a complete work of fiction now in its second iteration, ladling on human misery and degradation so that the upper middle class white people in the audience can feel alternately superior to and horrified by the living conditions of poor blacks.
The film is a Takashi Miike film for the Oprah Winfrey crowd (who not coincidentally is one of the film's executive producers and biggest champions), twisting human suffering into a game of unblinking one-upsmanship, feeding upon the stunned gasps of audiences: not enough that her mother just berated her and threw a heavy object at Precious' head? What if we make her fall down the stairs... while holding a newborn infant... then drop a television on their heads from above?
No ugly cultural stereotype goes untouched in painting a picture of Precious' hardship. Precious resents her skin color, fantasizing herself as a skinny pretty white girl and daydreaming about a light skinned boyfriend. It must be something of a perverse joke on director Lee Daniels' (Shadowboxer) part that instead of the typically white savior who usually shows up in these films to lift up our black hero, Precious is populated with attractive biracial guardians (including Patton and musicians Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey) who stand up for her instead.
Daniels wallows in the more unsightly details of Precious' life: the dank, decaying walls of her apartment, a crock of bubbling pig's feet cooking on the stove, a hunk of fried chicken hanging from Precious' face (I swear to God, I'm not making this stuff up). This is all the better to contrast them with Daniels' stylized, brightly lit fantasy sequences where Precious envisions herself at movie premieres and photos shoots. The film intends for these sequences to serve as a form of escape (in one instance the results of an STD test are abruptly pushed to the side to make way for a daydream about a modeling session) but they ultimately come across as mocking and disingenuous.
Precious rewards the audience for clucking its collective tongues on cue and feeling empathy for a young girl whose suffering falls somewhere just short of Jesus-on-the-cross level martyrdom but to what end? Is there anything to take away from this experience other than, yes, it's conceivable that one person can endure this much sorrow? Precious is fiercely well acted and will no doubt find its fans far outweighing its detractors. Everyone involved may end up with an Academy Award for their troubles. But make no mistake, the film is misery porn no matter how big a bow you tie around it. My grade: D+
A far less histrionic but much better film about a teenage girl in crisis is Fish Tank from Scottish filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Arnold isn't quite a household name in the world of art cinema despite racking up an Academy Award and two jury prizes from Cannes in the past six years, but she's already building an impressive reputation and comparisons to the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach for her films about working class modern day Britain, albeit from a specifically female point of view.
Fish Tank follows in the footsteps of 2006's Red Road and it serves as an amplification of that film's strengths as well as weaknesses. Like Precious, Fish Tank centers around a poor 15-year-old girl, Mia (first-timer Katie Jarvis), living with a self-involved single mother (Kierston Wareing, tellingly only 12 years older than Jarvis in real life) as well as a disarmingly foul-mouthed younger sister (Rebecca Griffiths) in a cramped apartment. Mia's an angry young woman who fights with her mom and sister constantly. She seems to have isolated herself from all of her friends and has flunked out of school; her only release is to practice hip hop dancing by herself in an abandoned apartment in her complex.
But into all this unchecked estrogen enters mom's new boyfriend, Colin (Michael Fassbender, last seen too briefly in Inglorious Basterds). Colin represents something of an enigma, to both Mia and the audience: free-swinging and juvenile enough to be mom's new boy toy but also sensitive and considerate, encouraging Mia when no one else seems willing. Mia, likewise feels conflicted by the presence of the new man in the house, lashing out at him in one instant, then sweetly asking him for money or help as it becomes apparent he's one of the few people who seems to care. Yet the longer he remains in the house the more the barriers of their relationship are tested, placing the two of them onto a messy collision course that arrives in a predictable place but not in the way we expect.
Much of Fish Tank's strength is derived from the ever shifting interplay between Jarvis and Fassbender, feeding off of the queasy sensuality Arnold cultivates throughout the film. Thematically similar to but far less chaste than An Education, Fish Tank simmers with tension as the anxiety of impropriety looms over nearly every scene. Even the most tender of moments (Colin carries a pretending to be asleep to Mia to her bed, slowly removing her shoes and sweat pants before tucking her under a blanket) pulses with unease as two people, one who clearly should know better, seem destined towards transgression.
In fact Arnold does such an exemplary job of building and maintaining this tension (which technically is "sexual tension" but I feel dirty even referring to it as such) that by the time she finally addresses the issue head on, the film utterly deflates. Unfortunately Fish Tank continues for another half an hour after that, which is where it loses its way. A gifted director but mediocre screenwriter, Arnold relies upon clumsy plot mechanics and too-obvious-by-half symbolism (the last shot in particular is a howler) which equates a lot of strum and drang but not much progression or enriching of the characters. Fish Tank climaxes with a good deal of frenzy and angst but it seems to have been imported from a blunter, far less carefully observed film.
This may dull the overall impact of the film but doesn't quite negate it. Filmed in 4x3 Academy ratio, the film emphasis claustrophobia and tightly composed frames as though Mia can't even escape the small box she's been placed in on screen. It's a household where everyone lives on top of each other. Where everyone shows up to the breakfast table in various stages of undress and thin walls barely disguise the lovemaking in the next room. Arnold's unadorned style consisting of long, peering takes places us in the role of the voyeur, catching stray moments of both sadness and humanity as they unfold.
Jarvis gives a raw, animalistic performance, like a beaten dog backed into a corner. It's a performance built around rage and distrust and the film's at its most touching when we see Mia able to let down her guard enough to merely peacefully coexist with her family. But the story of the film is Fassbender who, I suspect, will not be a secret for much longer. With soft eyes and a boyish grin, Colin lets his thoughts run away from him, relating to the insecure and feral Mia as his contemporary as opposed to the burden her mother views her as. There's a decency to Fassbender's performance in a very difficult and complicated role; Colin is unmistakably acting inappropriately in the film yet it's easy to see how both he and Mia could fall into this trap. Between his work here, in Basterds and this past winter's Hunger, Fassbender has become the break-out actor of 2009, a performer who seemingly can do anything well.
Arnold has enormous upside as a filmmaker and her work with actors is second to none but I do wish however she'd gravitate to someone else's material. This is now the second straight film from her that derails in the last act as she struggles to incorporate unwieldy tonal shifts and dramatic plot turns, when her gift is clearly for understated character drama. Still, Fish Tank is a film to keep your eye out for; it opens early next year. My grade: B