Final Festival Round-Up

E.I.F.F. 2008.

Today was Best of the Fest day — or “What prints are still in town?” day, to give it its informal name. But there was plenty of good stuff on, so I tooted over to Filmhouse, discovered that my press pass had officially expired, and shelled out some cash for movies for the first time in ten days.

WALL-E was first. I felt guilty about seeing something non-rare like this at a festival, but quite good about missing all the ads that will precede it when it goes on general release. I started to wonder if I was in a fragile emotional state as it went on, as I found myself having an exaggerated response to EVERYTHING. I spent much of the film close to tears. Then i decided that, no, I’m no more fragile than usual, it’s just a deeply beautiful film.

It’s kind of sweet also that Michael Crawford finds himself in one of the biggest films of the year, without actually doing anything (he appears in the clips from HELLO DOLLY, Wall-E’s favourite/only video). Opening in space, with Crawford’s voice ringing out, before descending towards a litter-strewn Earth upon with only North America is visible, Andrew Stanton’s extended C.G.I. homageto Douglas Trumbull’s SILENT RUNNING actually has a beautiful, live action, ’70s long-lens, misty, smoggy look, like the titles of SOYLENT GREEN, for all its terrestrial scenes. Roger Deakins consulted on the virtual lighting, and expressed his astonishment in Edinburgh at the joy of position virtual lights in a virtual set and not having to worry about hiding them.

Did I like all the film equally? No, but things don’t have to be perfect. Enough of this was. And it was interesting to see Fred Willard spoofing President Bush: “Stay the course!” This must make Bush the first U.S. president to have been slammed by Disney while in office, unless I’m forgetting something major.

Pixar’s hit-rate is so high it could almost get monotonous. I seriously dig how they mainly avoided dialogue here and would suggest they get even braver and make an entirely wordless feature next.


I jumped from Filmhouse to the Cameo, grabbing a sandwich, and plunged into the art deco world of MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, a ’30s farce which fails as a comedy (for me) but which seemed to just about hang together as drama. The material is far from the level of Wodehouse, although the story is acceptable. The dialogue and situations fail to deliver the expected comedy (although the audience I was with laughed kindly a few times). Director Bharat Nalluri, from high-end Brit T.V., avoids overkill and restrains the visuals, but there’s neither a refreshing, modern attitude nor any evocation of an old-fashioned film style. and the performances refuse to gel in a way that’s kind of fascinating.

McDormand and Adams.

The extras — several terribly over-eager perfs from background artistes, something you don’t often see.

The stars — well, there aren’t any big ones, which ought to mean Nalluri had the pick of non-famous thespian talent at his disposal, with no commercial pressure, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Frances McDormand — a talented comedienne, as we’ve seen before, here she can only manage to generate a few warm smiles, and most of those are snatched solo. Whenever she has to interact with fellow performers, she’s hampered by the unevenness of tone. Any scene with more than two co-stars leaves her torn between wildly different acting styles, since she’s the only performer paying close attention to her fellows. But she makes an appealing Pettigrew and that sympathy holds the proceedings together at least somewhat.

Amy Adams — plays the whole thing in a fake Marilyn Monroe voices which in 1939 had yet to be invented. Anachronistic and more than a little annoying. She’s CONSISTENT, but her tropes get shopworn fast. There’s talent there, but it lacks guidance.

Tom Payne — another terribly self-conscious British prettyboy. I didn’t like his HAIR — was any man wearing it that long? He’s ruinous to any scene of farce that requires timing. He has appeal, and may well become a decent actor, but asking him to do anything that requires precision is madness. He gets all the script’s Bertie Wooster archaisms, as if all the movie requires is one character who talks ’30s. He gets away with the “don’t you know, what?” stuff better than anyone could reasonably be expected to when surrounded by non-period-specific speakers, so he deserves some credit for that.

Lee Pace — from his first scene I thought he was a truly horrible actor. By the end I kind of liked him. Then I discover he’s American, which I hadn’t suspected. Suicidal of the filmmakers to have saddled themselves with yanks in Brit roles. They’re already attempting farce, which rarely works on screen, and ’30s screwball reconstruction, which generally dies like a dog (AT LONG LAST LOVE?) so they didn’t need to kneecap themselves before even starting. What’s odd about Pace is that although he seems awkward and out of place, he seems exactly like an awkward out-of-place Brit. He doesn’t slot into place with the others because he’s too naturalistically gawkish for the milieu. Interesting but wrong.

Ciáran Hinds — really sweet. The only actor who can talk to one character and then to another without making himself or them seem like a stray alien. His perf is so low-key and gentle it almost disappears before you, but he’s the one you remember.

Mark Strong — he was the best thing in Polanski’s (rather good) OLIVER TWIST, as the usually-deleted character Toby Crackit. Here he could actually get away with going more O.T.T. as he did there, but I don’t blame him for holding it in, surrounded as he is by erratically varying styles and pitches. He makes a good cad though — I need to check out some of his other work (SYRIANA, STARDUST).

Shirley Henderson — is a very dangerous woman. Versatile to the point of omnipotence, she can produce effects beyond the range of any earth-creature. Being fallible like the rest of us, she’s quite capable of making bad choices though, and playing them to the hilt so as to torpedo a whole movie, as in DOCTOR SLEEP. Here she does her Cruella-type villainess as if on helium, which is wildly impressive (if it were anyone else I’d assume she had computerized assistance, but NO, this is Shirley we’re talking about) as a technical feat, slightly distracting much of the time, but serves as a possible clue as to how all the other roles could have been played — with gusto, speed and sharp timing. Is this really so impossible today?

I’m usually a sucker for WWII stuff — MRS MINIVER slays me and the novels of Patrick Hamilton lay about my heartstrings with rusty saw-blades, but this fest I’ve seen two flicks set around wartime, this and THE EDGE OF LOVE, and neither really got me at all.


Out of PETTIGREW, bagel across the road, then back into the Cameo for my third helping.

ELEGY is directed by Isabel Coixet, whose episode of PARIS JE T’AIME was quite enjoyed round our place. This movie seems to relate quite closely to it in plot terms, too. But I.C. needs to wean herself off the V.O., which doesn’t add anything to this movie AT ALL.

Nicholas Meyer scripts. Remember him? As a novelist and film director he had a definite personality, tackling romps like TIME AFTER TIME (H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper in his time machine) and THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (Sherlock Holmes teams up with Freud). He also managed to make a going concern out of the STAR TREK franchise, directing entries 2 and 6 (remember, the even-numbered TREKS are the good ones). In this movie he’s adapting Philip Roth, and there’s nothing to relate this to his earlier films — but quite a lot to connect it to THE HUMAN STAIN, another Roth adaptation by Meyer.

Sir Ben Kingsley, who will always be Handhi Bendhi Gandhi to me, falls madly in bed with Penelope Cruz, whose breasts he declares, not unreasonably, to be the best in the world. A lot of this film revolves around those breasts, so it’s a good job they were able to cast such a convincing pair. There is actually a surprising chemistry between the two stars. Sir Ben is on top form, managing to be real and surprising at the same time. Why hasn’t he played Picasso? He has a big bald head and his torso, which he staunchly parades here, is a dead ringer.

Ben can’t believe his luck with P. Cruz, which leads him to sabotage the relationship. Bad Sir Ben! It probably doesn’t help that he’s getting his romantic advice from Dennis Hopper. There might possibly be better people to listen to. What’s Robert Blake up to these days?

“Do you know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fucking GUN.”

So the beautiful Cruz missiles go out of his life, only to return with a tragic twist (ouch). The perfs are exquise, the situations adult and interesting, only the cinematic qualities descend to cliché. Walks on the  beach: the couple together, then, morosely, Bendhi alone. That bloody voice-over. I have nothing against V.O., but try taking it out and see what happens. My guess: nothing. Erik Satie on the soundtrack. I was just watching Welles’ THE IMMORTAL STORY, as part of the Moreau retrospective, and thinking what a shame the Gymnopedies have been so overused since then, and here they come all over again.

Just before the festival a student asked me “What does ‘cinematic’ mean?” During the festival I heard various people debating it. Generally we agreed it was a tricky word with no set meaning. In ELEGY, Sir Bendhi quotes A.E. Houseman’s line about not knowing what poetry is, but recognising it at once when he sees it.

ELEGY is well-acted, written, and photographed, but I don’t recognise it as cinematic.

14 Responses to “Final Festival Round-Up”

  1. I passed on going to the All-Media for Wall-E. It’s breaking records and friends of mine who’ve seen it have wept buckets. This alone is inspiring me to stay away. Endless war, AIDS worse than ever and we’re all suppsoed to cry about a cute little robot.

    Did we do this already with A.I. ?

    Still I’m fascinated that more people will see Helo, Dolly! as a result of this film than saw that singing Cleopatra when it came out. Great stories about it in John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio. My favorite being the climax of Walter Matthau and Barbra Streisand’s mutual antipathy. Little Jason was playing around Matthau’s trailer and the dyspeptic genius barked him away. Terrified, Jason ran to Mom. Enraged, Mom ran to producer Ernest Lehman — who being the co-creator of Sweet Smell of Success knew more than a few things about show business. So he heaved a world-weary sigh and called Matthau to his office. More than ready, Matthau stormed in and let loose with aria about the Babs-abuse he’d suffered since the damned thing began. Lehman listened with the patience of saint and then calmly said. “I know how you feel and believe me I sympathize, but as you also know the title of this picture is not Hello, Walter!.”

    I didn’t actually see Dolly when it was released. Years later a West Side New York leather bar whose name I forget (it was next to the Spike beneath the West Side highway) that screened movies on Sundays showed Hello, Dolly!. In that setting and under those circumstances (wisecracking leather queens whod’d slept with several members of the supporting cast) it was mildly diverting

    My greatest affection is for the massive set which dominated the front of the Fox lot for years. Many better films used it. When DeNiro walks out of the club where Liza sings the title song in New York New York he’s leaving the “Harmonia Gardens.” Now it’s all gone save for the side streets which have been used as all-purpoee New York streets for great new sitcom How I Met Your Mother (starring the beyond fabulous Neil Patrick Harris.)

  2. I’m not absolutely sure, but I don’t think my emotion was for the robot, so much as for the late, great, planet Earth. The post-mankind city portrayed is a haunting spectacle.
    There is certainly an AI link, and it’s amazing nobody pointed to the connection and nixed the movie. A near-wordless film set on a post-apocalyptic Earth? Ideal family entertainment?
    Although the ecology of the film doesn’t make literal sense, it is an ecological message movie, and holds Bush accountable for what may yet turn out to be the biggest catastrophe of his career.

  3. Did you see Encounters at the End of the World? I loved it. It won the doc prize too. Wanted to make everyone I knew go and see it

  4. My favorite robot — whose career is sadly up the spout.

    My second-favorite robot is of course Jude Law. After that, Daryll Hannah and Rutger Hauer. (“Hi Roy!”)

  5. Lemme see…thumbs up to all your choices. I like Yul Brynner in Westworld, showing Arnie how it should be done. I automatically like all robots that look like big toys, so Devil Girl From Mars and Miyazaki’s Laputa score highly, as does Robby.

    Actually, I hate Transformers and everything they stand for, so scratch that last remark.

    I hope Osment can make a comeback.

  6. Mary, I missed the herzog but it’ll certainly come back and I’ll make a point of catching it. I always enjoy an hour or two with Werner’s voice hissing gently in my ear. A friend suggested it’d make a great ringtone, of which one would never grow weary.

  7. I hope Haley Joel comes back too, but the overwhelming majority of child actors end up as road kill. He’s quite tall now, and has had run-ins with the law relating to controlled substance abuse problems.

    Dean Stockwell was asked fairly recently would he encourage his kids if they wanted to act, and he said he’d build them a stage to play on in the backyard. And nothing else. Obviously quite bitter abotu the whole thing, and not without reason. It took him decades to re-establish his carrer after pre-pubescent adorableness departed.

    Recently Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Neal Patrick Harris have managed the transition smoothly. But it’s no walk-in-the-park for most kiddies.

    I wonder what the future holds in store for Abigail Breslin.

  8. Re: “fails as a comedy […] but which seemed just about to hang together as drama” …

    Sometimes I think that a whole separate category should exist: films that Do Not Function At All as comedies and yet, once one has forsworn any notion of laughter, present a kind of interest nonetheless. Two example that come to mind, for that, are the Neil Jordan “We’re No Angels” and Boorman’s “Where The Heart Is.”

    As far as seeing films in leather bars is concerned … that brings to mind my first viewing of “Lawrence of Arabia,” which was in the ’70s projected on the wall of leather bar. SHADOWPLY ain’t exactly the appropriate venue for details, but … let’s just say that the response to the Jose Ferrer scene remains memorable.

  9. Do Tell Michelle!!!! “Mainstream” critics almost invariably point to that scene as the one in which Lawrence’s sexuality is “revealed.” They pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to the Arab boys in the film’s first half, one of whom dies in spite of Lawrence’s best effort to save his life. Nor do they mention the significance of Lawrence insisting the officer’s mess serve his surviving boyfriend.

  10. Everybody started coughing into their hankies?

    Jordan and Boorman are both distinctly lacking in humour, but Boorman is particularly interesting at times (I’m less convinced of Jordan’s merits) so it makes sense their comedies would succeed indirectly. I keep meaning to look at Bergman’s All These Women…

    I wonder if there exists a single film that wouldn’t be amusingly transformed by screening in a leather bar? Apart from the ones that are already “that way inclined”, of course.

  11. I’m crazy about All These Women. It’s the Bergman most seriously in need of rescue and re-appreciation. Woody, with all his Bergman-worship, could learn a lot from it. Seriously it’s his apologia pro vita sua for womanizing. (“The first thing you must learn about playing the cello is to open your legs.”) And several of his most important mistresses star in it. Of course this was pre-Liv, but still. It would make a great insane double feature with 8 1/2.

    And you can never think of “Yes We Have Have No Bananas” in the same way again.

  12. It was in a Los Angeles establishment that’s listed in The Leatherman’s Handbook: The Hayloft, on Ventura Blvd in Studio City. [Moment of silence in commemoration of its passing.] I was still in what passed in my salad days, and told myself that what I came for was the movies.

    The Lean was shown during the evening. People talked and milled about and behaved like bar patrons. But then came the Jose Ferrer scene, which reduced everyone to attentive silence …

    … except one male voice which I distinctly remember calling out “TWIST THAT TITTIE!!”


    Other films that I remember seeing there include “A Foreign Affair,” “Sweet Charity,” and “Lady From Shanghai.” Not a bad line-up, actually. Spouse#1 and I were half of an audience of four watching an early-evening screening of the Welles, and I remember him laughing at a cut between a shot of a snake in the river and Rita Hayworth’s face.

  13. I suspect that cut was a Columbia editor’s idea, rather than Welles’…

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