Okay, so it’s 1 a.m., I’m working off four hours of sleep last night, I have a 9 a.m. screening tomorrow morning, and the last two days have been loaded with disappointments. What does that mean for you, dear reader? A bunch of quick hits, with my fingers never leaving the keyboard. Day 5 was my shortest and worst day here so far—three films, one middling and two outright embarrassing.
First up was Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, which may well be the artiest film released by a major studio since Solaris, and not in a good way. I appreciate Aronofsky’s audacity and vision; with its intense, unrelenting miserablism, Requiem For A Dream pushed the form nearly to the breaking point. The Fountain isn’t nearly as in-your-face (to its detriment, really), but it goes out on a limb again, interweaving multiple timelines and even a peculiar metaphorical bubble to tell a story about the search for eternal health. Yet for all its considerable pretensions, it’s really just about a guy trying to stave off his wife’s death. This entails Hugh Jackman weeping a lot, sometimes with no hair. Only the closing minutes hit the operatic highs of Requiem; the remainder is tedious beyond reason.
With few appealing press screenings all day—the big drawback of a top-loaded schedule are maddening conflicts on the first weekend and blank spots thereafter—I decided to wrap things up early with a pair of forgettable slot-fillers. The Half-Life Of Timofey Berezin opens in the former Soviet Union in 1995, where a nuclear plant technician (played beautifully as always by Paddy Considine) gets exposed to a massive dose of radiation. When he discovers that the level of exposure is lethally high—a fact covered up by his employers, who add insult to injury by firing him for negligence—Considine steals some plutonium and smuggles it to black market dealers in Moscow. His chief contact is a scruffy low-level gangster (Oscar Issac, also fine) who runs with a crew of comically bungling thugs. The film cuts between the two main characters before they eventually come together and they may as well be in separate movies: Considine is on an earnest quest to score a financial windfall for his family before passing; Issac and his boys bounce from one hare-brained scheme to another, fucking them up at every turn. In the end, the mix of tones grows to be disappointingly incongruous.
Omnibus horror films (or omnibus films of any kind, for that matter) are usually a mixed bag, but Midnight Madness entry Trapped Ashes doesn’t even manage that, despite a pedigreed list of directors that includes Ken Russell, Joe Dante, and Monte Hellman. Dante handles the thankless task of directing the wraparound story fairly well, though it certainly won’t make you forget Homecoming, his brilliant entry in Showtime’s recent Masters Of Horror series. Russell’s puerile contribution, about a would-be Hollywood starlet with killer breasts (literally), could not be a cruder example of camp horror, but at least it might engage the midnight crowd with cheap laughs and T&A. Noel found some things to like about the Hellman, which is a tribute of sorts to his “friend” Stanley Kubrick, but I thought it went hand-in-hand with the other three entries, which lacked style and purpose, or even the goofy hooks of an average Tales From The Crypt episode.
I didn’t think I’d see a movie at the festival worse than the stillborn All The King’s Men, but along comes All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, a risible Midnight Madness film that inspired some madness from Dimension Films, which apparently picked it up for $4 million. (That makes it the most lucrative pick-up at the festival to date, which is too depressing to think about.) Like Cabin Fever, which closed the festival a few years ago, Mandy Lane is a throwback to those ‘80s stick-horny-teenagers-in-the-middle-of-nowhere slasher movies, but it goes about its business without a hint of irony or perspective. It’s established early and often that the gorgeous, virginal teen of the title drives boys (and girls) wild; nonetheless, she heads off with a group of them for a weekend of boozing, pot-smoking, and fucking on a ranch. One by one, they stupidly set themselves up for the slaughter, and in keeping with the film’s retrograde Friday The 13th sexual attitudes, they’re punished for their promiscuity. After a girl gets a double-barreled shotgun jammed in her mouth mere moments after blowing her boyfriend—shades of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls—I probably should have fled while I had the chance.
Following years of enormous cachet as a grad-school hero—for the longest time, I thought his films existed to help English majors get laid—Hal Hartley has been on the downward slope for some time. So it’s especially curious to see Hartley make Fay Grim, a decade-removed sequel to Henry Fool that treats the Hartley universe a little like Kevin Smith’s Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back. But does anyone still care? Fortunately, Hartley’s self-reflexive movie has plenty of laughs, especially in the first half, and it evolves into a reasonably fresh goof on the international spy thriller. But the thing about goofs is that they’re too inconsequential to sustain much more than 90 minutes and Fay Grim goes on another 30 minutes more, thanks to Hartley’s (again, Smith-like) inability to trim the fat.
The losing streak finally ended with Black Book, director Paul Verhoeven’s returns to filmmaking after a six-year absence and his first film made in his native Holland since 1983’s The Fourth Man. Some naysayers might write the film off as Verhoeven’s The Pianist, a bid for middlebrow respectability from a filmmaker renowned for his perversions. But what a surprise to witness a rousing, old-fashioned WWII spy thriller that’s still recognizably a Verhoeven film—lots of kink, a little degradation, and a lead performance by a beautiful (dyed) blonde (Carice Van Houton) that’s every bit as iconic as Sharon Stone’s in Basic Instinct or Renée Soutendijk in his early Dutch work. Though Verhoeven sneaks in some sly political commentary about shifting wartime allegiances and the endless persecution of the Jews, Black Book is first and foremost a rip-roaring spy thriller—and one with a gloriously loose association to the “true story” on which it’s based.
The evening ended with a one-time-only added screening of Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life, which won top prize at the Venice Film Festival a few days ago and was hastily added to the schedule here. Jia (Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World) is a superstar among many alt-weekly critics and cineastes I respect, but I still have some persistent reservations about him. Put succinctly, I think he excels at evoking time and place, but his characters are generally walking zombies, so wracked with ennui that they’re doomed to wander a narrative that’s completely unmoored. Still Life is the fictional companion to Dong, a documentary that’s also at the festival (and that I haven’t seen), and it takes place in the areas surround the Three Gorges Dam, a massive public works project that, when completed, will submerge much of the surrounding area in water. The film’s images of dispossession and demolition are frequently awe-inspiring; now, if Jia had just nudged those characters of his out of the frame, he’d have himself a masterpiece.