“An unknown gunman assassinates George W. Bush.” So opens the program description for Death Of A President (a.k.a. D.O.A.P.), which entered the festival on a wave of media-generated controversy and should leave it with a considerably more measured response. It’s a fantasy scenario that not everyone wants to entertain; even the most virulent Bush-hating leftist probably won’t see a silver lining in the dawn of the Cheney Administration. Yet in a festival spiked with cheap political provocation, D.O.A.P. stands out for its discipline, focus, and aversion to the sort of point-scoring jabs that draw whoops from the converted. Whatever this skillful “mockumentary” has to say spins off from a plausible and technically scrupulous depiction of the events leading up to and following the President’s assassination. The action takes place in Chicago in 2007, where Bush and company tool past a particularly aggravated group of protestors en route to a speech to supporters at the downtown Sheraton. The tragedy—and the shooting is, without question, treated as tragedy—is relayed through talking-heads interviews and expertly staged fake documentary footage. The half leading up to the assassination is far more riveting than the aftermath, and not coincidentally, it’s the least political. The identity of the killer, and the manner in which the investigation plays out, is where the film brings the hammer down, with particular focus on the erosion of civil liberties and Bush’s legacy of obfuscation. But anyone expecting to leave red-faced and righteous will be justly disappointed.
The day’s most anticipated film for me was Time, the latest by prolific Korean director Kim Ki-duk, who started his career as a sex-and-death provocateur (The Isle, Bad Guy) and has recently evolved into the serene sensibility behind Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…And Spring and 3-Iron. Time takes a page or two from Hitchcock’s Vertigo in following a woman whose belief that her long-term boyfriend has lost interest in her leads her to get plastic surgery, disappear for six months, and return as a stranger with a new face. Kim doesn’t seem entirely on top of his game here, but the lengths his characters go for love—and the sobering fact that passion can never be sustained over time—deepens the film enough to where I question my ho-hum response to it.
Some of that ho-humness, frankly can be attributed to sleepless nights finally catching up to me. (I can’t comment officially on Johnnie To’s Exiled, because I snoozed through 95% of it, though the moments I saw through dropped eyelids looked pretty awesome.) Sleeping during Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait isn’t much of a crime, since the film follows the great Zinedine Zidane (and Zidane only) over the course of a 90-minute Real Madrid game and features a mellow Mogwai score that smothers the action like a child’s comfy blue blanket. It’s beautifully photographed, but I think the film needed to be either more conventional (allowing us a broader perspective on the action, say) or more experimental and impressionistic, like Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia.
First it was volcanoes. Then it was asteroids. Now the Earth-leveling force that is Truman Capote has competing biopic, only here the two films—last year’s Capote and this year’s Infamous—cover the exact same territory, namely the period in which Capote wrote his seminal true crime book In Cold Blood. At the time, I had dismissed Capote as a respectable but unadventurous and disappointingly middlebrow treatment of the material, but after seeing Infamous, I confess now to underrating the gravity and artistry of the previous film. That’s not to say that Infamous is a bad movie, exactly; it’s funnier and zippier than Capote, and a considerably less damning portrait of the writer. But that lightness makes the film seem frivolous, especially in the way it grossly overplays the fish-out-of-water aspects of the elitist, gay, funny-talking New Yorker in dyed-in-the-wool rural Kansas. And just about element of the production falls short of Capote: Toby Jones may look and sound more like the man, but his performance lacks the pathos of Philip Seymour Hoffman's; I’ll also take Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins, and Chris Cooper over Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, and Jeff Daniels, respectively. Sad to say, Infamous is the redundancy everyone feared it would be, albeit an entertaining one.
A week ago, if you had told me that a two-and-half-hour documentary about abortion from the director of American History X would be my favorite film of the festival, I’d have guffawed and thrown a bowl of hot poutine in your face. But that’s why actually watching movies can be more illuminating than casting judgments on them beforehand. 16 years in the making and completely self-financed, Tony Kaye’s Lake Of Fire is surely the last word on the hottest of hot-button issues in America. The running time may seem daunting, as will the graphic footage of abortion procedures that appears near the film’s bookends. But Kaye justifies the sprawl through an extraordinarily scrupulous (and, in the end, deeply moving) treatment of the issue: He deals with the philosophical arguments on both sides, the shifting state of abortion rights post-Roe vs. Wade, and the impassioned and sometimes militant efforts of right-wing groups determined to stop what they call an American “Holocaust”—all this before closing with a simple and heartbreaking story of a woman who chooses to terminate her pregnancy. Two things that particularly resonated with me: 1. The fact that years of violence, harassment, and legislation from Roe vs. Wade opponents truly has significantly whittled away a woman’s right to choose. 2. That even without the harassment, the choice to terminate a pregnancy (and the process of doing so) is an agonizing and painful one for all women, and never the frivolous affair that anti-abortion activists would have you believe. Despite a generally enthusiastic response here—our pal and Time Out New York critic Josh Rothkopf tells me that it got a three-minute standing ovation at his screening—no intrepid distributors have stepped up yet. As Chef Gordon Ramsey would say, “Find your bollocks!”
There probably hasn’t been a year at the festival without at least one new film by prolific J-horror goremeister Takaski Miike (Audition), but the presence of Miike’s Big Bang Love, Juvenile A in the Visions section rather than Midnight Madness is the first hint that he’s trying something different. Indeed, Big Bang Love is unlike anything I’ve seen from Miike, a boldly conceptual (bordering on avant-garde) Rashomon story set at a violent juvenile detention facility. It’s an extremely bizarre piece of work; in one sequence, for example, the questions in an interrogation appear as text on the screen. I’m not convinced that Miike’s arty flourishes are rewarding for more than their novelty, but it’s nice to see him trying something new.
Having given The Cell a miss, my only exposure to single-monikered director Tarsem was his video for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” which was memorable for its super-saturated colors, hilariously obscure symbolism, and those goofy Michael Stipe dance moves. The colors and the goofiness are intact in Tarsem’s The Fall, a sweet-natured fantasy that was shot in 23 countries and yet seemed to fly completely under the radar until landing at the festival. I don’t expect it to remain unknown for long; a sort of art-damaged The Princess Bride, the film has the quality of a whimsical bedtime story that parents make up as they go along. The preciousness was too much for me to take at times—mileage on that front will definitely vary—but it’s as hard to resist as it is to take seriously.