2007 TIFF Update #9: "The Newbie and the Vets"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
For Friday, September 14, 2007

One curious fact about film festivals is that the potential for disappointment is exponentially greater for an established director than it is for a first-timer. There's an expectation that filmmakers with proven track records will produce something that, if not memorable, is at least of high quality. Debut filmmakers, on the other hand, rarely generate such lofty levels of anticipation. Consider the following three cases: a long-time filmmaker who does something fresh and is greeted with universal kudos, an acclaimed director whose new picture is tired and derivative and is greeted with derision, and a newcomer who opens eyes and turns heads.

Alan Ball is the newbie, although that label can be misleading. Nothing Is Private is Ball's directorial debut, but he has a notable resume as a writer - his credits include the Oscar-winning screenplay for American Beauty. This film, like that one, is a dark satire, although Nothing Is Private isn't as nihilistic or blistering. The movie focuses on issues of tolerance and race while challenging notions about stereotypes. It also asks a question about whether any act, no matter how apparently unselfish it may be, can truly be considered altruistic.

It's 1990 and Jasira (Summer Bishil) is a thirteen-year-old Arab-American girl living with her mother (Maria Bello). Mom isn't the most stable of women and she's more interested in keeping her boyfriend than her daughter. This results in Jasira being shipped off to live with her strait-laced Lebanese father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi). Rifat has a long list of rules for Jasira to follow: don't use a tampon, don't wear make-up, don't associate with black boys (black girls are okay), etc. It doesn't take long before she violates nearly every one of his precepts. It isn't that she's a bad girl but that his expectations are unreasonable for a non-repressed girl growing up in America. Her sexual awakening involves two people: a (black) boy at school (Eugene Jones) and the redneck reservist next door (Aaron Eckhart). Rifat is unable to deal with Jasira's emerging sexuality and the rebellious nature that accompanies it. His reaction is to resort to physical abuse. When a nosy neighbor (Toni Collette) notices the bruises, she threatens to inform the authorities, so Rifat changes his tactics.

At the center of Nothing Is Private is Jasira's use, abuse, and manipulation by everyone around her. Her parents vie for her affections as a tangible sign of victory in their ongoing battle against one another. Her boyfriend is hungry for sex. Her pedophile neighbor plays on her emotions in an attempt to find a path to fulfill his forbidden fantasies. Even the liberal do-gooders who take her in have their own agenda. They admit they do it as a means to avoid the inevitable guilt they would feel if something happened to her. Jasira is in many ways a tragic figure, but she is portrayed as survivor who can rise above all the bad things happening around her. And the screenplay's occasional forays into black comedy take some of the sting out of the grueling incidents that mark her existence.

Anti-Arab feeling wasn't as strong in the early 1990s as it is today, but Ball uses the backdrop of the Gulf War to emphasize that the prejudice is not entirely new. The boy next-door, who has learned from his close-minded parents, calls Jasira "towelhead," "camel jockey," and "sand nigger." (Schoolmates use similar terms.) Everyone assumes that because Rifat is an Arab he supports Saddam. In fact, he's a loyal and patriotic American who believes the war doesn't go far enough. He wants Saddam ousted. He's ultra-concerned about keeping up appearances. His reason for denying his daughter the right to see a black boy is because such a liaison will reflect badly upon him.

Yet, for all the cruelty evidenced by the characters, Ball is careful not to demonize them. There is at least an element of decency in each of them. Guilt haunts many of those who wrong Jasira; she's practically the only one in this movie who is immune to this emotion. Strong performances from Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckhart, and Toni Collette provide a strong skeleton for the characters. The only uneven portrayal belongs to Peter Macdissi, who is unconvincing during the quieter, more dramatic moments. Bishil is great - she captures the essence of her character perfectly - a sassy, horny girl who tries to live as normal a life as she can in abnormal circumstances.

The title Nothing Is Private refers to the doctrine of the suburbs - everyone knows everyone else's business. In the end, nothing stays hidden - not Jasira's loss of virginity, the pedophile's advances, or Rifit's abuse. Ball uses the movie's prism to show the double-edged nature of this loss of privacy. Not coincidentally, it parallels issues in today's news - do we give up some of our privacy for greater security? Ball may not have the answers but he eloquently and forcefully explores some of the potential ramifications. The ending may be too pat, but the journey to get there - bitter, spicy, and poignant - more than compensates for any last-minute fumbles.

George Romero is a known quantity. A veteran best known for his zombie films, Romero has spent a career chronicling a world in which the dead walk. He has been spoofed, ripped off, and aped by talentless hacks and talented trailblazers. In recent years, Romero has been losing steam. His previous venture into the realm of the living dead, Land of the Dead, was tired and derivative. Not so this latest movie, Diary of the Dead. Here, Romero executes a clever re-boot of the series, postulating what might happen if the dead began to rise in an era where everyone has a video camera and the Internet is awash in home video clips. The film is not only a zombie movie but a commentary on how we get our information in an age when traditional media sources are self-censored and ineffective.

Diary of the Dead poses as a fake documentary called The Death of Death - something that has been compiled and edited by a group of university film students who employ video cameras to capture horrifying images of the beginning of the end. Like The Blair Witch Project, the film does nothing to break the reality. The perspective is first-person. We see how things start, how society begins to crumble, and how those filming these things must come face-to-face with personal demons. Diary of Dead is not without hints of comedy, although much of it is of the gallows variety. Chief among the humorous elements is a kick-ass Amish man who is unfazed by the fact that the corpses are not remaining in their graves.

Of course, since this is Romero, there's plenty of gore but, in this film, it seems more like icing than the cake. The film's faux-doc approach dilutes tension, so there's not much of that. In attempting to do something a little different, Romero has injected an element of sophistication into his approach. That's not to say that Dead-heads won't get a thrill out of the movie, but it isn't just another regurgitation of Night of the Living Dead. This movie has something to say, and the message comes across loudly and clearly. It's a twofold condemnation: of the media for lying about the severity of the outbreak and of the government for dealing with it ineffectively. This is Katrina multiplied by one thousand. While TV follows the party line about it being some kind of disease or hoax, clips posted to the Internet show the truth. There's also a little philosophy here: "God had changed the rules on us and we were playing along."

All-in-all, the intelligence of the approach combined with good old-fashioned zombie blood-and-gore (as opposed to the slicker, sicker torture porn variety) makes this not only the most satisfying motion picture Romero has made in a long while, but one of the best of his career. This is one veteran filmmaker who has met expectations.

Sadly, the same claim cannot be made of Woody Allen. With Cassandra's Dream, we may finally be seeing confirmation of what many have suspected for years: that Allen's period of greatness is over. A few years ago, Match Point provided hope that we might be seeing a re-invention of the filmmaker - that he was turning away from neurotic comedies to more weighty material. Match Point revisited Crimes and Misdemeanors, and did so in spectacular fashion. Now, in the wake of the complete failure of Scoop, we have Cassandra's Dream, a movie that returns to the essence of Match Point like a dog to its vomit.

This is a lame psychological thriller with an obvious story trajectory. It's a wannabe film noir with no atmosphere whatsoever. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play brothers Ian and Terry - two men bound not only by blood but by friendship. They also both need money. Ian dreams of moving to California with his girlfriend (Hayley Atwell) and starting a business and Terry is saddled by ever-growing gambling debts. Enter their wealthy, successful uncle, Howard (Tom Wilkinson). He promises them whatever they need if they'll do one "little favor" for him. A former colleague has information that could ruin Howard, and he needs to be "eliminated." Thus do Ian and Terry agree to become hitmen. Once the deed is complete, Ian is able to enjoy his life but Terry enters a guilt-fueled downward spiral.

The central theme of Cassandra's Dream is rather obvious: killing someone is not a deed undertaken lightly because of the scars it can leave. This isn't all that different from the core message of The Brave One, but Neil Jordan's film hit with an impact that Woody Allen doesn't come close to. Cassandra's Dream is missing nearly every element that could make this a good movie. It's humorless and lifeless. The romance is flat and the "thriller" elements lack tension and excitement. The charge that made Match Point so suspenseful is absent. Everything (except perhaps the ending, which is tinged with irony) is predictable.

The casting is imperfect. Ewan McGregor is fine but Colin Farrell, playing against type, is woeful. His Terry isn't wounded and sympathetic; he's an irritating whiner. Hayley Atwell is sexy but doesn't show much in the way of range. Tom Wilkinson is as wonderful as always; Cassandra's Dream might have been more watchable if he had been in a few extra scenes. As it is, he functions as more of a device to move the plot along than a real character.

One interesting aspect of the movie is the way that planning and committing the crime bring Ian to life. At one point, he remarks to Terry, "I think I know how you feel when you're facing a big hand." Unfortunately, this is largely abandoned as the screenplay turns its focus to Terry's emotional collapse. The moral ambiguity of Match Point - one of that film's most tangible assets - is missing here. Cassandra's Dream has a conventional outlook, and it's not especially interesting.

One has to wonder whether Allen, seeing how Match Point was lauded and Scoop derided, set out consciously to replicate the former film. Whether intentional or not, Cassandra's Dream feels like a false echo, a failed and somewhat sad attempt to recapture a recent glory (the only film of Allen's in perhaps the last 15 years that critics have praised). We see a lot of movies like this every year they're a dime a dozen. It's just that most of them don't come from respected veteran directors like Woody Allen.

© 2007 James Berardinelli