America is a great sporting nation, but none of our grandest spectacles—the World Series, the Super Bowl, that hot dog-eating contest in Coney Island on the Fourth Of July, etc.—have the magnitude of the World Cup. World Cup fever suffuses Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Offside, which is set nearly in real time around an Iran-Bahrain qualifying match that could secure Iran’s place in Germany in 2006. Government policy dictates that Iranian women are not allowed into stadiums (women from visiting countries are exempt from such restrictions) and the film follows a group of young girls who are caught trying to sneak in. Panahi makes a simple plea: What’s the big fucking deal? It isn’t a surprising attitude from Panahi, whose The Circle strung together a number of vignettes about female suffering under repressive patriarchal law. Offside makes a far less strident—and, in the end, quite joyful—argument that soccer (and the stirrings of national pride and fervent passion that go along with it) should not be denied to anyone.
You know what else shouldn’t be denied to anyone? Hardcore, unsimulated sex in theaters around the country. Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell’s liberated follow-up to Hedwig And The Angry Inch, fulfills the long-tabled dream that adult films would gain some legitimacy and permanence on American screens after the brief XXX craze in the ‘70s. And I’m convinced that this movie could open the floodgates: The sex scenes are full of acrobatics and “aberrant” couplings, yet I can’t imagine the curious-minded fleeing the theater. And that’s not just because the scenes are merely sexy, but because they’re real in other respects, too; the characters are trying to find pleasure and sometimes love, but they don’t always get there in conventional ways, if they even get there at all. Mitchell’s actors are occasionally shaky and he has yet to develop a particularly fluid visual style, but Shortbus feels like an adult movie for its time—which, to quote the master of ceremonies at the underground sex club of the title, is “like the ‘60s, but without the hope.”
During last year’s Oscar season, Sony made the odd decision to pull All The King’s Men from the release schedule and retool it for ’06. This obviously set off some alarm bells: Here’s a major project based on one of the great American political yarns, with an all-star cast (Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Anthony Hopkins, et al.) and top screenwriter Steven Zaillian at the helm. But Sony did something unusual: Rather than just dump the thing in January or February, it held the film an entire year and are now launching it at the start of Oscar season, which makes you wonder if it was really a good film that simply wasn’t ready in time for December ’05. Um…no. This has to be the most stultifying prestige picture I’ve seen in years; it just sits there like a dead fish that did all its flapping in pre-production. It’s hard to identify what torpedoes the film most: A cast that wrestles so mightily with their Louisiana accents that they lose grip over the rest of their performances; the peculiar decision to follow Jude Law’s weak-willed compromised journalist character instead of the charismatic Huey Long-type played by Penn (who’s awful, but still); James Horner’s oppressive percussion score (bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum….clang!); or the total lack of narrative energy. These cacophonous elements come together like a middle-school symphony.
The evening ended with Catch A Fire, which I saw for review when it comes out in October; I’ve save most of my thoughts for the review, but suffice to say, this continues a futile tradition of white dudes commenting on the subject of apartheid. Liberal earnestness doesn’t usually make for great art.
Another four-movie day today and one planned tomorrow, too. I feel like such a wuss, but those five or six-movie days take a toll physically that rarely pays off in artistic enrichment. You hope that by packing the schedule, you’ll get a chance to squeeze in that little discovery that nobody knows about yet, but I’m content to follow my own instincts and buzz from reliable sources. I’m lazy that way.
It helps to start things light. Christopher Guest’s comedy For Your Consideration is a welcome break from the trio of mockumentaries (Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind), but the troupe remains the same, as does Guest’s empathy for has-beens and never-wases who are on the fringes of the business. Like Noel, I laughed frequently, and also like Noel, I was left with an aftertaste as sour as a 500 milliliter can of NutraSweet. The big problem here is that Guest isn’t just dealing with fringe-dwellers, but that his satire is just as clueless as they are. The Hollywood depicted in FYC isn’t even a halfway reasonable approximation of the real thing; the film-within-a-film, Home For Purim, would never get made and the other films competing for Oscars wouldn’t qualify for a Daytime Emmy nomination. So what’s being satirized, exactly? There are plenty of funny lines and performances here, though Guest made this same movie much better when it was called The Big Picture.
Nearly 20 hours after seeing Little Children, In The Bedroom director Todd Field’s skillful adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s book, I still can’t get the butterflies out of my stomach and I’m not sure that’s a good thing or not. Having read every other Perrotta book but this one, the material doesn’t seem to play to his strengths for low-key observational humor; many of the peripheral characters seem to fall into familiar suburban types—specifically, uptight housewives who fret over their kids. The film follows two narrative strands—one about a dissatisfied intellectual mother (Kate Winslet) who’s drawn to a handsome Mr. Mom type, and the other about a registered sex offender who’s monitored so closely by his neighbors that he’s basically under house arrest. Each of these strands is developed with exceptional care and a writerly attention to detail that it makes the film far more vivid than the usual story of suburban rot. And yet when the inevitability that they’ll come together at some point down the line is the Sword Of Damocles that hangs over the whole movie and I’m not sure they collide in a way that really justifies the unsettling children-in-peril scenario. That said, Field confirms his considerable gifts behind the camera and the film gets an extraordinary performance from Jackie Earle Haley as the sex offender; you might remember Haley as Kelly in Bad News Bears, but he’s grown into a gaunt figure who projects both vulnerability and terrifying menace here.
Every few days in a festival, you hit a wall. For me, that wall was Benoit Jacquot’s The Untouchable. I made it through about half an hour of the film—an extremely disappointing half-hour from a director who I used to admire more in the past than now—and then, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. I’ll refrain from any official damnation of the film, but it’s at least partially Jacquot’s fault that his movie played Mr. Sandman.
There was no chance of sleeping through I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, the latest from one of my favorite directors Tsai Ming-liang (What Time Is It There?, Goodbye, Dragon Inn), though he unfortunately provides the uninitiated with a chance to do so. Many of the recognizable Tsai hallmarks are present—long, beautifully composed master shots; urban characters whose lives are suffused with loneliness and longing; the symbolic presence of water everywhere; etc.—but the first 80 minutes or so feels like a disappointingly static retread of Vive L’Amour. Then smoke from a huge fire drifts into the frame and the film becomes an exceptionally poignant look at suffocating characters reaching out desperately to the object of their affection. This is probably Tsai’s weakest film to date—what I really missed was his deadpan sense of humor, which at its best makes him a natural successor to silent (or near-silent) filmmakers like Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati—but it ends beautifully and that helps a lot.