This was an all-movie, celebrity-free day, so this particular post is for the cinephiles.
Late last night I took in The Last King of Scotland, fulfilling one of my cardinal moviegoing rules of Gillian Anderson = yes. (This also holds true for Jodie Foster, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Laura Linney and Holly Hunter.) Anderson, as is her thing these days, has a tiny role as the British wife of a doctor working in Uganda in the 70s, who finds herself attracted to young new Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, who looks so much like Ewan McGregor that he could play even younger Obi-Wan in Star Wars 13. You think it’s not coming?). But that arc gets little time to play out when Nicholas suddenly finds himself the personal physician to the new president of Uganda, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker).
Based on a true story, Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void) uses Nicholas as a way into the story of a charming man whose brutal regime ultimately killed over 300,000 of his own people. (Amin died in 2003, “in exile in Saudi Arabia,” as the title card says.)
Great performances, gritty and gorgeous cinematography and just the right amount of brutality---what’s there will stick with you---makes The Last King of Scotland a fascinating look at this political event. It opens wide on September 29.
This morning began with me getting up at 7am so as not to get fucked by the inevitable hour line for my most coveted film of the festival, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing. Co-directed by Barbara “Harlan County USA" Kopple and Cecilia “Daughter of Gregory” Peck follows the trio from their political controversy in 2003 through this spring when they released Taking the Long Way, which defied expectations by debuting at number one in April.
Bumping back and forth between 2003 and 2005, the film follows the Chicks as they deal with the fallout of Natalie Maines’ offhand comment -- “We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas” -- to a London crowd in March of 03, and into the studio as they try to work out their new record. What’s most shocking about this documentary is that it’s the latest in a line of unconventional decisions by the Dixies -- as a major label artist, when your record sales plummet and tour dates get cancelled, the last thing anyone would advise you to do is to continue to bring up the incident that got you there. But the Chicks have kept this at the forefront of all of their publicity for this record, which itself features several references to the fallout, along with the video for “Not Ready to Make Nice,” which features the women in black, defiant and fighting, and now this doc.
Like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, you don’t have to be a fan of the music to find Shut Up and Sing compelling. (Though it does feature more than a dozen beautiful demo versions of Taking tracks and bits of live performances.) There is footage, previously unseen by me -- and in this age of YouTube, that is remarkable -- of Maines making the comment. She says it, the crowd cheers, she laughs and keeps going with the show.
A couple of days later the girls are in a hotel room with their manager, Simon Renshaw, who informs them that their two official websites have been shut down and they need to craft an apology. As they talk it through, Maines tells bandmates Emily Robsion and Martie Maguire that she will take the blame fully, saying “I” instead of “we” in the statement.
“It has to be ‘we,’” Renshaw says.
Maines cuts eye contact with Maguire. “Sorry,” she says softly.
Typing up the statement, Renshaw says, “Wouldn’t it be great of we had, like, burning CDs?”
Cue the ironic laughter.
Maines, as in the band, commands central attention for most of the doc, and she’s the loudest, sweariest of the three. (Bush is asked about the Chicks, and he says, “They shouldn’t feel bad that their feelings got hurt…” Cut to Maines reading the statement aloud, incredulously. “What a dumbfuck,” she says. She looks into the camera. “You’re a dumbfuck.”) There are slight allusions that maybe the sisters aren’t so stoked about this -- Maguire tells producer Rick Rubin in the early stages that she and Robison are worried about what their roles will be on the album -- “I don’t want to just slap a fiddle on there for the sake of fiddle, but…” -- and there’s an exchange between Maines and Maguire about lead singers that speaks loudly to the group’s dynamic.
But what the film illustrates so elegantly is the bond between the girls -- Dixie Chicks have been around since 1989, picking up Maines in the early 90s -- and how they support Maines even when she offers them an out. On Taking’s “Everybody Knows,” Maines sings “You’ll never see me cry,” but Maguire does, providing the film’s heart when, after death threats, demonstrations, Entertainment Weekly, Diane Sawyer and a complete overhaul of their career, she says that if Maines could no longer go on in the face of it all, she would agree to the end the band.
I could go on forever about this movie, but I’ll stop now. It was purchased by The Weinstein Company so it’s very likely it’ll hit town, and I will talk much more about it then.
I finally trip across my colleague Shayla Howell at Jindabyne, an Australian film that fulfills the Laura Linney rule. Based on the same Raymond Carver short story as the Huey Lewis chunk of Short Cuts, it stars Linney as the wife of Gabriel Byrne, who with three fishing buddies finds the naked, mutilated body of a teenage girl in a river. Instead of taking the girl out of the woods, they tie her to a tree so she won’t float away and report it upon their return three days later. The girl is Aboriginal, and so her family and the media turn on the men, accusing them, essentially, of racial profiling. (Director Ray Lawrence’s treatment is much darker than Altman’s.)
The movie is OK, something you’d watch on A&E on a Sunday afternoon. It’s like a horror movie in that it infuses you with a sense of dread from frame one, when we see the girl get caught by her killer. It’s unsettling, but there are about 70,000 fades throughout the two hours, which didn’t work for me, stylistically, and it could’ve been 20 minutes shorter.
I decided it was time for my Wild Card Pick, and chose S&Man because it started in half an hour and, honestly, because I thought it would be about a dungeon master or something.
It was a documentary on the appeal of underground horror -- we’re talking ultra-low-budge, art-free, talent-free, culty horror that makes Troma look like early Craven -- and voyeurism and why we watch such brutality onscreen. S&Man is pronounced “Sandman” and, while it has nothing to do with Neil Gaiman, it has a lot to do with a fucked up, grossly ambitious, shameless “filmmaker” called Eric Rost (AKA Eric Marcisak), whose series S&Man features him stalking girls with a shaky-ass, low-grade video camera, and then killing them.
The problem, which director JT Petty tries valiantly and often amusingly to solve, is that Rost will not admit whether the girls ever know that he’s following them. He tracks the most minute details of their lives -- walking around, at work, eating, fighting with friends. He’s even got some footage of them in their houses. He says that what he does is no different than what Petty is doing with his camera -- “I asked you,” Petty points out -- and eventually he has a falling out with the filmmaking team after he catches them following him (he won’t put them in contact with any of the girls in the movies) and says he wants out.
Then, after a lengthy discussion about porn versus snuff and whether any of the sources including a sexologist, a professor and ZZZ-director Bill Zebub (really) have seen a snuff film, Rost sends Petty his latest episode of S&Man.
It’s an apartment where a girl lies on the floor, back to us, bound with duct tape at her hands and feet and over her mouth. Rost, hood up, comes into view and drags the girl into a sitting position directly in front of the camera. She’s kicking her legs over and over in a such a way that it looks fake -- not that I've been abducted -- plus the area she’s sitting on has been protected by taped down plastic.
All in one shot, as she’s screaming through the tape, Rost walks a few feet to the kitchen counter, comes back with a big knife, and slits her throat, sending blood pouring down the front of her shirt. She stops kicking. She stops screaming.
Did I see a snuff film today? I’m not quite sure. And I think that’s the point.
Immediately after this I had my palette cleansed by hometown girl Camelia Frieberg’s debut feature A Stone’s Throw, which you can read about in more detail in tomorrow’s paper. It was so nice to see familiar names, and hear Jill Barber, and recognize winter days found only in Nova Scotia.