2006 TIFF Update #5: "Familiarity"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Monday, September 11, 2006

Familiarity - it's a word that can be used in many ways when describing films and film festivals. For example, during festival week, celebrities can be seen wandering the streets along Bloor Street between the Park Hyatt Hotel and the Varsity Cinemas. The more familiar they are, the more attention they attract. A relatively unknown Korean or Ukranian actor may pass unnoticed. A B-level American/Canadian/Australian/British actor may cause a few double-takes and attract some autograph seekers. However, a bona fide star can create such large crowds that they spill out into the street and literally stop traffic. Such was the case over the weekend with Brad Pitt. The crush was so bad that I was forced to cross the street in order to make my way to my next screening. Some time, I'm going to write about the cult of celebrity and how it turns normal, rational people into gawking, vacant-eyed zombies. But that's for the future.

The desire for familiarity in movies can lead to sequels and re-makes, but that doesn't always have to be the case. It can also mean the use of storyline that everyone sitting in the theater knows. That brings us to today's lead-off movie. A Good Year is a respectable retelling of the "back to nature" story, in which a selfish individual becomed seduced and saved by a pastoral setting and a pretty woman who lives there. Sound familiar? Although there's nothing surprising in Ridley Scott's version, gorgeous photography and strong acting keep the formula from becoming stale. For those who don't mind pictures that fall into predictable rhythms, A Good Year represents a pleasant diversion.

Scott is a director who feels equally at home filming epics and smaller character-based dramas. A Good Year is an example of the latter. After the disappointment of Kingdom of Heaven (which was re-edited into something far more powerful on DVD: Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut), Scott wanted something lighter - an easy shoot in a idyllic location. The result is a mix of Sideways' man-meets-wine infatuation and the Diane Lane endeavor, Under the Tuscan Sun. There's also a romance between a big city foreigner and a local girl that has been done more times than I can count. At least there's some originality in the way they meet, as well as a cautionary note about standing on diving boards extending over empty pools.

Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) is a financial whiz based in London. He's a self-proclaimed "greedy bastard," but that may be giving him too much credit for showing traits ascribed to human beings. His specialty is making money by screwing over others. In fact, therein lies his only real talent. Take away his high-pressure world, and he's lost. One day, he receives word that his once-beloved uncle Henry (Albert Finney) has popped the cork on his final bottle of wine. Because there was no will, Max, as his closest living relative, inherits his entire French estate, which includes a dilapidated villa and a huge vineyard. Max's intention is to unload it as quickly as possible, for the best price he can get, so he travels to France to put things in order. There, assailed by memories of summers past (cue the flashbacks) and beguiled by the beauty of fiesty Fanny (Marion Cotillard), he begins to lose his focus. Enter Kristy (Australian Abbie Cornish, doing a flawless American accent), Henry's illegitimate daughter, whose appearance introduces a new wrinkle - not only about the future of the vineyard but about Max's standing as a man with no family.

Russell Crowe's bad-boy reputation serves him well in establishing Max as a jerk. The transformation to a younger version of Henry is believable because it happens gradually. (One could argue that making that statement gives something away about how the movie ends, but is there really any doubt?) There's a connection between Crowe and co-star Marion Cotillard, allowing us to accept this relationship. Their scenes together are some of the best in the movie. Albert Finney is in top form in the small but crucual role of Max's childhood mentor, whose lessons haven't been forgotten, just buried.

As with all films that are ultimately about redemption, the protagonist must first be established as someone in need of saving, then as someone worth saving. Scott accomplishes the first aim with the scenes of Max in London, coldly driving down the price of a stock by selling, then buying when it's at the bottom. The second objective is achieved via the sun-dappled flashbacks. Redemption comes from two sources: the love of the land and the love of a woman. It's nice to know that, even in a movie that fits the formula to a "T", Scott can get us to care about the characters and forget (if only momentarily) that we know how everything is going to turn out.

Candy is an Australian film that also offers a huge portion of familiarity. It's one of those drugs-are-hell movies that follows the time-tested path of watching two generally likable characters embark upon the road to self-destruction that results when recreational drug use tips over the edge into addiction. There are two things the bleak Candy has going for it: the characters are more self-aware than in most similar films (there's no denial - they're junkies and they know it) and the acting couldn't be better. Heath Ledger is as good as he has ever been, Geoffrey Rush is his usual reliable self, and Abbie Cornish is a dynamo. (Cornish, by the way, plays a lot different part than the one she essays in A Good Year.) The movie, from Aussie director Neil Armfield, states its thesis early, and sticks to it: "When you can stop [drug use], you don't want to. When you want to, you can't."

Poet Dan (Ledger) and painter Candy (Cornish) are living a carefree life as young lovers, despite the disapproval of her parents, who think Dan is a loser. They don't make much money, so they live off love - and heroin. It doesn't take long before the drugs become their driving motivation for getting up in the morning. At first, they borrow money to buy the drugs, then they resort to pawning just about everything they own. Finally, Abby ventures into prostitution and Dan starts stealing and scamming. Her pregnancy encourages them to get serious about quitting but, without the necessary aid from an outside source, they are doomed to failure before they start.

Ledger and Cornish are so good it's possible to forget the familiarity of the script. These are two tragic characters traped in a decaying orbit. They do the same things repeatedly, every time with less precision. The movie is divided into three acts, each of which is titled: "Heaven," "Earth," and "Hell." The first title is misleading; even before "Heaven" is over, the fall from grace has begun. Abby has sold her body for a bag of smack that turns out to be baby powder.

As is typical for movies of this sort, Candy is not a happy viewing experience. It in no way glamorizes drugs; quite the opposite, in fact. Although it tries to provide a glimpse of the upside that leads to addiction, it doesn't do so with much success. This is all about the collapse. Those hoping for new insight won't find it here. There's nothing in Candy that can't be found in better, more gut-wrenching offerings, such as Requiem for a Dream. Despite being well made and supremely acted, Candy is a true feel-bad experience.

When it comes to familarity by way of re-makes, there's nothing more high-profile than All the King's Men, a new version of the 1949 film of the same name. In actuality, writer/director Steven Zaillian claims not to have based this on the earlier movie, preferring instead to return to the original source material. Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the King's Men is a loosely fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Louisiana governor Huey Long. Regardless of what inspired the screenplay, it's a bad fit. All the King's Men is a patchwork of poor choices and uneven results, the most obvious of which is its pacing. With inappropriate flash-forwards and badly placed flashbacks, All the King's Men lurches unsteadily forward amidst variable performances and impressive cinematography.

All the King's Men follows the rise to prominece of the "governor of the people", Willie Stark (Sean Penn), who wins the governorship of Louisiana in the early 1950s by a landslide victory. His pro-education, anti-business agenda earns him some powerful enemies, and charges of cronyism and corruption abound. Despite starting his political career as an idealist, Stark has become a ruthless politician, using blackmail and other forms of coercion to crush his enemies. His right-hand man is former journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law), who comes from money and is torn between supporting his friend and betraying his roots. Stark's most dangerous enemy is Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), who is Jack's godfather and refuses to bend when Stark attacks. Also in the mix are Jack's former flame, Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), and her brother, Adam (Mark Ruffalo). Anne's closeness to Stark deals a blow to Jack.

I have heard it said that Sean Penn delivers a great performance as Stanton, but that impression is in error. Channeling the pulpit-pounding essence of Jonathan Edwards, Penn spits fire and brimstone in one of the most laughably over-the-top portrayals of his career. With the exception of I am Sam, I have never been embarrassed by one of the actor's performances until now. Penn's work is so one-dimensional and cartoonish that there's no hope of Stark becoming more than a blustering caricature. Adding to the probem is that Jack, the character at the film's emotional core, has no personality. Jude Law underplays the role, leaving us with a personality void. Kate Winslet's contribution is negligible. Only Anthony Hopkins emerges unscathed. The few scenes in which he participates are virtually the only ones in All the King's Men that ring with any degree of authenticity or urgency.

Although structure and tone are two of the movie's most glaring problems, there is another serious flaw. The relationship between Jack and Anne is inadequately developed. Since this is the fulcrum upon which many subplots rest, the cavalier manner in which it is presented (primarly through a bunch of throw-away flashbacks) is indefensible. It undercuts too much of the film's potential power. Further damage is done by a nattering voiceover narrative that quickly becomes annoying, although hardly more so than the overly melodramatic score contributed by James Horner. The only technical aspect worth singling out for praise is Pawel Edelman's cinematography. All the King's Men looks consistenly great (although I could have done without the black-and-white directorial "flourish" employed during the climactic scene).

Part of the underlying problem with All the King's Men is the inherent difficulty of adapating such a complex novel into a screenplay of reasonable length. (The 1949 film suffered from some of the same problems.) As good a writer as Zaillian is, the task is beyond him. There are some very good scenes (the key interaction between Jack and Judge Irwin is compelling), but the overall story feels paradoxically both rushed and overlong. Those familiar with the novel will undoubtedly agree that reading it is a more satisfying experience than watching this disappointing film. One expects more - much more, in fact - with cast of this caliber.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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