2006 TIFF Update #7: "True or False"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

It is the hottest ticket in Toronto. In addition, it was considered a longshot to get a U.s. distributor until Newmarket paid $1 million for the rights. It may also be the biggest con to come along this year. I'm referring to the pseudo-documentary Death of a President, which has received an inordinate amount of media coverage and has been tagged with the label "controversial." For this movie, as for Snakes on a Plane, the hype dwarfs the reality. Death of a President is a waste of time. It's neither interesting nor convincing. It's the kind of thing that makes for decent copy in a column like this, but it doesn't warrant more time or space than what I have devoted to it here.

Give the filmmakers credit for drumming up interest in their film. The story is simple enough. In the near future (October 2007, to be precise), a sitting U.S. president is assassinated while attending a fund raiser in Chicago. His assassin is hunted down. Could it be a left wing militant? A pro-Syrian businessman who has traveled to Afghanistan? Or a disaffected ex-military man? The movie is presented like one of those History Channel documentaries, with faux interviews and news footage of the President's last day. The hook, and the only reason anyone is writing about this movie, is that the sitting president is George W. Bush. Death of a President is about the fictional assassination of a man who's still alive.

Does the film cross a line? Perhaps. It's certainly exploitative. If this was a serious examination of the possible long-term ramifications of George Bush's current foreign policy, or if it had anything interesting to say about Bush's legacy, it might be justifiable. But that's not the case. The decision to use Bush rather than a fictional representation of him is for no reason other than self-promotion. That makes Death of a President crass in addition to being dull and sloppily assembled.

I am not a supporter of President Bush (as long-time readers are well aware), but I was dismayed at the knee-jerk positive reaction to this film by some Bush detractors. A bad movie is a bad movie, whether it supports your political position or that of the opposition, and Death of a President is a bad movie. It says nothing profound. Ironically, it doesn't take much of a political position at all. It doesn't deal with the potential consequences of how the world might change if Cheney replaced Bush. (There are vague references to the passage of a Patriot III Act, but no explanation of what that entails beyond "expanding the powers of the Executive Branch.") Death of a President seems exclusively interested in indicating that if you're a suspect in an assassination, being a Muslim might not be a good thing.

The film uses doctored, archived news footage of Bush, Cheney, and others to create its fictional 2007. There are two problems with this. First, anyone who watches enough CSPAN will recognize some of the sound bytes as having come from real speeches. Secondly, the alterations are ineptly done. It's possible to see where dubbing was accomplished. For example, in one instance, Dick Chaney's lips are forming one name while his voice is saying "George Bush." It's so badly executed that there were titters in the audience. Director Gabriel Range may have a vision, but he lacks the experience or ability to adequately bring it to the screen.

Death of a President is airing on British TV next month. The U.S. release date has not yet been set, but Newmarket may want to strike while the iron is hot. After that, the movie will hopefully vanish into obscurity where it rightfully belongs. If you get a chance to see it, expect to be unimpressed. It is tedious (especially the post-assassination investigation) and superficial, although I'm sure the filmmakers believe they are making an important political point. I am disappointed that Toronto chose to show this movie. The level of quality evident in the production is much below what we have come to expect from the festival, but there are always a few stinkers that slip through the cracks.

Death of a President isn't the only false documentary airing this year at Toronto. Talk of this genre inevitably leads to one name: Christoper Guest. Here's a man who has made his reputation in the arena. From This Is Spinal Tap (which he co-wrote but did not direct) to A Mighty Wind, Guest has turned his camera on a variety of subjects. The term "mockumentary" was coined to descibe Guest's work and that of those who have copied him over the years. The 2006 festival features not only Guest's latest, but a production from someone trying to imitate him. In this case, however, imitation may not be the most sincere form of flattery. First, For Your Consideration...

Although Guest is the unquestioned King of the Mockumentaries, with For Your Consideration, he steps back from his trademark approach. For Your Consideration is a satire, but it's not set up as a faux documentary. Instead, this send up of the movie industry is constructed as a series of largely inprovised you-are-there scenes interspersed with fake TV clips. The result is often amusing but rarely uproarious, making this one of the softest of Guest's recent oeuvre.

The first two-thirds of the movie take place on the set of the indie production Home for Purim, which is established from the beginning to be an overwrought melodrama. We meet all the principals (most played by members of Guest's regular troupe: Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge) - the actors, the director, the publicists, and various "entertainment reporters." Rumors of Oscar nominations begin to circulate on the Internet, and these are exploited by the tabloid TV shows that feed on movie news. The film's final third is devoted to the Oscar season, with a short "where they are now" epilogue.

In its barbs directed at movie making and the Hollywood culture, For Your Consideration is noticeably refrained. Guest is often referred to as being "affectionate" to his characters, and this is evident here. He pulls a lot of punches, which places For Your Consideration at a disadvantage when being compared to more acerbic looks at the material such as Robert Altman's The Player and Guest's own The Big Picture. One aspect of the publicity process that gets its just desserts is the superficiality of TV shows like Entertainment Tonight. Fred Willard is perfect as the vacuous host with the bad hairdo.

For Your Consideration has plenty of great one-liners and contains strong individual scenes (a tribute to the comedic aptitude of those involved). Catherine O'Hara is wonderful as an aging actress worried about appearing too old or haggared, even though her character is dying. Eugene Levy is hilarious as a clueless publicist. And Ricky Gervais has a small but memorable turn as a studio head who "suggests" that the title be changed to Home for Thanksgiving to "tone down the Jewishness."

For Your Consideration will not go down as one of Guest's crown jewels, but it's nevertheless watchable and entertaining. It's about on par with A Mighty Wind, or perhaps a little below. Fans of Guest's movies know what to expect, and they get it: an easily digestible lampoon that offers enough clever moments and genuine laughs to justify the price of admission (or at least a rental). One has to wonder, however, whether the well is running dry and whether Guest might be better served by changing his approach for his next effort.

Confetti is an excellent study of what happens when someone botches Christopher Guest's mockumentary format. A supposed satire of extravagant weddings and reality shows, Debbie Isitt's feature displays little in the way of wit or insight. It's long and tedious, and amusing only on rare, widely spaced occasions. Unlike Guest's films, which show affection for the people being mocked, Isitt treats her cast of mostly unlikable characters with contempt, then attempts to redeem them with third-act character-building scenes that are steeped in melodrama.

The premise sounds tailor-made for a mockumentary, so the problems are in the execution. Confetti magazine is running a contest to see who can stage Britain's most unusual wedding. The winning couple will get a new house. There are three finalists, and the film follows them down the rocky road to the happy day. There are Matt (Martin Freeman) and Sam (Jessica Stevenson), who want a wedding with a Hollywood musical theme. Tennis buffs Josef (Stephen Mangan) and Isabelle (Meredith MacNeill) want to incorporate their passion into the ceremony. Nudists Michael (Robert Webb) and Joanna (Olivia Colman) want to the proceedings to be clothing optional. The magazine recruits wedding planners Archie (Vincent Franklin) and Gregory (Jason Watkins) to supervise things, but they quickly realize they are out of their depth.

Confetti is one of those Murphy's Law motion pictures where everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, before being sorted out to facilitate a reasonably happy ending. Yet the movie manages to take potentially madcap situations and drain them of humor. Confetti offers occasional, half-hearted chuckles, but there isn't even a single moment of explosive or inspired comedy. There are the usual gay jokes, gags about naked people, and problematic in-law situations. Everything in the movie is expected, from Matt's confrontation with Sam's bitter mother to Michael and Joanna's decision to defy the nudity ban at their naked wedding. When married with cleverness, predictability isn't necessarily a bad thing, but Confetti has the former while mostly lacking the latter.

Perhaps Isitt's biggest mistake is to do an about-face midway through the movie and attempt to inject some drama. The movie's satirical structure, failed though it may be, doesn't support this. Her attitude toward the characters during the first half wavers between scorn and condescension, then she suddenly changes her mind and expects us to care what happens to them. Not only does it not work, but it underscores Confetti's artificiality. Her big points appear to be that the wedding process has gotten out of hand and that reality shows are stupid. It would be hard to find two more obvious statements, and we don't need a movie - especially this movie - to confirm them.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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