2005 TIFF Update #5: "Hell Day"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Monday, September 12, 2005

Some days, you should stay in bed. I have had bad days at festivals, but never one quite like yesterday. It was as if some conspiracy had set everything up so my film choices turned out to be mediocre, bad, and worse. As I said in my introduction Thursday, all festivals have their shares of stinkers and, without looking too hard, every dedicated viewer will find at least one. I have seen worse films in Toronto (the all-time champ being last year's A Hole in My Heart. But never two in the same day. Never back-to-back. And never without a good film either before or after to cushion the blow and aid the ability to forget. So, as I sit here before breakfast, I am forced to recount the trauma of yesterday.

It didn't start out too badly. A weak satire called Thank You For Smoking opened the day. After I got out of it, I remember thinking that if the festival didn't have anything worse to offer, I was in good shape. Little did I know... After a short break, it was into hell. Terry Gilliam's all-time worst movie, Tideland, followed, and then things got even worse with Mr. Madonna's Revolver. Let me take them one at a time.

Thank You for Smoking is the feature debut of Jason Reitman, who has assembled an impressive cast. In addition to Aaron Eckhart, who has the lead, the credit list includes the following names: Katie Holmes, Cameron Bright, Sam Elliot, Rob Lowe, Maria Bello, William H. Macy, and Robert Duvall. Now, that's star power! While so much wattage doesn't guarantee a home run, a double or triple should be the minimum requirement. Yet, at best, Reitman delivers a bleeder up the middle. It is a disappointment.

There are few things less inspiring than flabby satires. And that's what Thank You for Smoking is. It chooses easy targets (What's less controversial than going after big business, cigarette manufacturers, politicians, and lobbyists?) and lobs soft bombs. There's nothing hard-hitting about any of Reitman's material. His blades are dull and most of his attacks echo those done in more edgy material. Good satire demands envelope pushing. There's nothing like that in Thank You for Smoking. It plays it safe (although Reitman would probably argue otherwise). In fact, as an attack on the practices of American corporations, it lacks half the punch delivered by the recent Enron documentary.

Nick Naylor (Eckhart) is a spin master par excellence. As a spokesperson for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, he is viewed as a "yupppie Mephistopheles" and is often called worse. In the publicity war being waged by Big Tobacco, he's weapon #1. But the road ahead is not smooth. A dying tobacco baron (Duvall) wants him to bribe the cancer-stricken original Marlboro Man (Sam Elliot) to keep him from badmouthing the cigarette companies. He has to convince a Hollywood exec (Lowe) to make smoking sexy in movies again. He has to spin an expose being written by a reporter (Holmes) with whom he's having sex. And he has to babysit his son (Bright). All this, plus a kidnapping and a subpoena to testify in front of a Senate committe chaired by a Vermont moralizer (Macy).

Just because it isn't edgy doesn't mean it's not funny. Thank You for Smoking delivers some laughs, and there are a few instances when Reitman sinks his teeth into a worthwhile concept. For example, the trio of Nick, an alcohol lobbyist, and a firearms lobbyist, comprise a group nicknamed the "MOD Squad." "MOD" stands for "Merchants of Death." And the scene in which Nick talks Mr. Marlboro out of pursuing his grievance against the Big Tobacco is slickly written. Unfortunately, the high points don't obscure the instances when Reitman becomes sloppy or doesn't push the material hard enough.

The acting is solid. Aside from Eckhart, who is in top form, special notice should be made of Lowe and Macy, each of whom steals most of the scenes in which they appear. The only one who seems out-of-place is Katie Holmes, who lacks the brio required to pull off her backstabbing part. Or maybe the problem is that she's overexposed at the moment. Whatever the reason, she's the lone acting misfire. Yet, despite its many strengths, Thank You for Smoking hovers around mediocrity, and its lasting impression is like a puff of smoke that is dissipated by a strong gust of wind.

Next up on my schedule: Terry Gilliam's latest film. Unlike the critially-reviled The Brothers Grimm, this one received no studio interference. Gilliam had total creative control. So there was every reason we could expect a "return to form." What we get, sadly, is easily the worst production Gilliam has ever been involved in, either behind the camera or in front of it. Tideland is, by turns, a complete bore and a creepy experience. And I don't mean "creepy" in a positive sense.

Things start out with some promise. Engaging young actress Jodelle Ferland plays Jeliza-Rose, the daughter of two drug addicted parents (Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly). Jeliza-Rose lives in a world that is half-real and half-fantasy. Her headless dolls have conversations with her, she imagines bog-men roaming around the house, and she dreams of living her life in Jutland. After Mom OD's, she and Dad head out to a big house on the prairie, the run-down domicile that was once the property of Jeliza-Rose's grandmother. Soon, Dad takes one "extended vacation" too many, and ends up inviting flies to join him as he stinks up a rocking chair. Meanwhile, Jeliza-Rose imagines a neighbor (Janet McTeer) to be a witch and the neighbor's retarded brother, Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), to be her husband. There are talking squirrels, Alice in Wonderland references, and taxidermy. And some unsavory considerations about the relationship between a little girl and man who may or may not have "a thing."

Tideland sounds better on paper than it is to watch. This is a two-hour snoozefest. The imaginative parts are curtailed by the low budget. There's no point to the experience, and it's a chore to get through. One of the problems is the presence of the adults. It's easy to imagine how a better movie could have been made centered around Jeliza-Rose on her own, exploring magical fantasy-worlds of her imagination. Yet this seemingly obvious Wizard of Oz approach is not one that Gilliam explores. And some of the experiences Jeliza-Rose goes through while in the company of her deranged neighbors are difficult to watch. For example, she gets to watch the witch perform fellatio - good education for a young girl.

It's hard to say for whom this movie was made. I can't think of a demographic to which it will appeal. Another critic suggested that Gilliam probably made it only for himself, which is likely the case. But, if this is a picture that the filmmaker really wanted to produce, it raises questions about the creative direction of his career. It's hard to believe that the man who made The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, and Brazil (not to mention his Monty Python stuff) has gone off the deep end, but if he doesn't have anything better than Tideland to offer, there could be a problem. This is a rare movie about which everyone seems to share an opinion: it stinks.

Yet, as bad as Tidelands is, it's got competition for the "Worst Movie of the 2005 Festival" award, and that competition comes from Guy Ritchie's Revolver. To date, Swept Away was universally viewed as Ritchie's worst effort. Revolver is supposed to be his comeback - a return to the genre in which his success was born (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch). With this movie, we are supposed to believe that the remake of the Lina Wertmuller film was an aberration. But, surprise of surprises, Revolver turns out to be worse than Swept Away - and not just by a little bit.

I have to wonder whether the difference between "old" Ritchie and "new" Ritchie is Matthew Vaughn. Vaughn produced both Lock Stock and Snatch before going on to direct Layer Cake. His name does not appear on the credit list for Revolver - in fact, it has been replaced by that of French schlockmeister Luc Besson, who seems to have his hand in every non-Hollywood action movie. Or maybe Ritchie's recent infatuation with Kabbalah is to blame. Whatever the reason, Revolver is a misfire of shocking proportions.

As with Tideland, the premise sounds promising. (This is why relying on summaries in festival program books can lead to bad experiences.) An ex-con, Jake Green (Jason Stratham), is released from prison and decides to take revenge upon the crime boss, Macha (Ray Liotta), whom he blames for putting him inside. After publicly humiliating Macha, Jake thinks he has evened the score. But Macha is pissed and puts out a contract on Jake's life. Enter Avi (Andre Benjamin) and Zach (Vincent Pastore), who act as Jake's guardian angels. It turns out that Jake has a fatal blood disease and will die in a few days but, if he signs over all his money to these two guys and agrees to work for them, they'll keep him alive until his ailment eliminates him. This all leads to incoherence, an unbelievably drawn-out ending, and a "twist" that even an inattentive viewer will see coming. None of the cleverness, dark humor, or wit of Ritchie's first two offerings are to be found. There is violence but, with the lone exception of hit-man's conscience-spurred spree near the end of the movie, little flair.

I wanted to like Revolver - wanted to so much, in fact, that I stayed rather than bailing to see another festival movie. My patience was not rewarded. Ritchie begins cheating about half-way through the movie, refusing to play by the rules he has established, then blaming it all on an unreliable narrator. Even by cheating, however, he is unable to sew up all the holes he has created. And as things make increasingly less sense, Revolver devolves into little more than yelling, opera singing, and overacting. (Ray Liotta gets the crown in that department.) This is Ritchie having the cinematic equivalent of a nervous breakdown and regurigating it onto the screen. And it's not just incoherent violence. There's plenty of mystical, pseudo-intellectual verbal diarrhea. Self-indulgent doesn't begin to describe it.

I don't know whether Revolver will catch the eye of some distributor (such things are unpredictable) but, if it ever shows up at a multiplex near you, stay away.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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