D: Danny Boyle
I would dispute Ebert's claim that Millions is overlooked; it did quite well, and seemed to play forever at our local theaters. Families will go to anything in droves so long as it's rated G or PG. Everything these days seems to be rated PG-13, including a lot of films that aren't really PG-13, but owe their hearts to a PG or an R. PG-13 is the miserable middle ground, market-tested.
Millions (PG) is directed by Danny Boyle, one of the best British stylists working, though he's often suffered for lack of good material. His debut was Shallow Grave, a thriller in the darkly comic Blood Simple mode, and it starred his DeNiro, Ewan McGregor. McGregor's career took off the same time Boyle's did, with their film Trainspotting. In England, Trainspotting is like Pulp Fiction: it's a cult film that men of a certain age quote incessantly, and watch obsessively. An adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel about Scottish heroin addicts, it was an art house hit in the States; despite its grim subject matter, the film is bright, alive, and constantly imaginative with its hallucinogenic visuals. Given the keys to the kingdom, Boyle blew it with his follow-up, A Life Less Ordinary, with its hitmen angels and impromptu musical numbers and Claymation ending credits. Imaginative, yes; coherent or entertaining, no. I haven't seen 2000's The Beach, but at least when it flopped, the attention went toward Leonardo diCaprio, fresh off Titanic. Boyle slipped away, did some side projects, and returned to the big screen with 28 Days Later, a zombie film that, as its fans will annoyingly remind you, has no zombies in it. Though derivative as hell (see I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, or its two movie adaptations, Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man; or George Romero's zombie films, Day of the Dead in particular), it was considered the most effective thing he'd made since Trainspotting, and helped initiate a new surplus of modern horror films. The difference between Boyle's horror film and those that followed is that his had heart. You cared about the characters. His next film, Millions, draws from this attribute that permeates much of his work.
Millions is a children's film. It's not just about children, but envisions the world through a child's eyes. Two boys, Damian and his slightly older brother Anthony, move with their widowed father into a new home, which is part of a suburban planning project. Damian quickly builds a surrogate home--out of cardboard boxes--by the train tracks in a nearby meadow, so that when the train roars by, the boxes shake like a rocket about to launch. Out of the sky, it seems, one day tumbles a large bag filled with English pounds. Damian, who has frequent visions of Catholic saints, wants to give the money to the poor (or, really, anyone who wants it); the more cynical Anthony would rather use it to buy off bullies and purchase expensive electronic items. Just about every possibility the bag of money presents is explored in full by the end of the film, with a deadline looming: the pound is about to be converted into the Euro, which will render their cash worthless. The script by Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 Hour Party People) is wittier than you'd expect of a children's film--it's highly possible that the adults in the audience enjoyed the film much more than the kids, in this free matinee--but it's also infused with a child's logic and optimism. After the Q&A (with local elementary school kids), I overheard a few attendees endorsing this as the best they'd seen at the festival. It's certainly the loveliest to look at.
Claire Dolan (U.S., 1998) * * * 1/2
D: Lodge Kerrigan
Hopefully all the children left the theater by the next screening. Claire Dolan is one of those films that has no rating but, nudge nudge, we all know what it would get if it applied for one. Claire is a prostitute working in a New York shot with bleached tones; the apartment and office interiors all seem to glow white, and a chill drifts from the screen. We watch Claire try to escape from her lifestyle: she struggles to pay off the debt to her pimp, who has paid for her mother's medical care; she seeks a protector and a guide out by forming a commitment to a taxi driver, Elton (Vincent D'Onofrio); she buries her mother; she works a day job doing manicures; she keeps some money aside for herself, hidden in a box under the sink. But every moment in this movie, it seems, is interrupted by sex, either with a client or with Elton. We see how she treats the clients--telling them whatever they want to hear, but with a stiff, mask-like expression. With Elton, we can study the subtle ways she trusts him, gives more to him, appreciates his presence. Much of their relationship is illustrated within the sex scenes, either together, or when she is with another man. The way the bodies move speaks volumes, and how they are filmed. Every explicit moment is warranted, and contributes to the story; even when something seems gratuitous or repetitive, director Lodge Kerrigan is involving us in the unrelenting nature of her profession, and preparing us to understand how desperate is her final flight from the city, even though actress Katrin Cartlidge barely shows a glimmer on her steeled features.
Kerrigan seemed mildly embarrassed by the film (he doesn't watch his movies, he says, and only returned to the theater when it was over); he assures us he's moved toward a subtler form of storytelling, with less of a reliance on dialogue and more concentration on behavior. That in itself seems like one of his droll jokes. Claire Dolan is a spare film with hardly any dialogue, and the story pivots on the behavior of the characters, whether it's the way Claire's pimp, played by Colm Meaney, callously drops her cat out of a window while she gets him tea from the kitchen (the moment is never commented upon again, and Meaney only wipes the cat-hair from his clothes in mild disgust), or the manner in which Elton is emasculated by the pimp in a later scene, letting Claire down for good. And, of course, much of the weight of the storytelling is turned over to naked bodies interacting in chilly apartments in a verbose variety of manners. An impressive film.
Junebug (U.S., 2005) * * *
D: Phil Morrison
Junebug, on the other hand, I'm not so sure about. I enjoy it, I laugh with it, I admire its worldview. This is the second time I've watched the film--it was part of our Oscar crush in February--and I thought I'd change my opinion more favorably, but it didn't quite happen. My wife can't stand my resistance; it's one of her favorite films of 2005, and her highlight of the festival was meeting director Phil Morrison and co-star Scott Wilson (from In Cold Blood), and getting them to sign her DVD. Hey, I liked Morrison and Wilson in person, too; it's hard to strongly dislike anything associated with this film.
Embeth Davidtz (of Schindler's List) is Madeline, who works for an upscale art gallery in Chicago, where she meets and instantly marries George (Alessandro Nivola), a country mouse in the city. When the opportunity to visit George's homestate of North Carolina emerges--Madeline wants to woo an eccentric artist to exhibit his work in her gallery--George decides she should meet his family, too. Much of the film concentrates on the culture clash between Madeline and George's family: his mother (Celia Weston), father (Wilson), and younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), but especially Johnny's pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams, who was nominated for an Oscar in the role). Adams is hilarious; wide-eyed, anxious, and deeply in love with her husband, who doesn't seem to quite return her affection, and certainly isn't as enthusiastic about having a baby.
The comedy is all expertly crafted by writer Angus MacLachlan. My only problem with the film is in its later acts, when suddenly the film grows critical of Madeline, and has George turn on her for not having her priorities straight. George, meanwhile, is absent for most of the film (he seems to be off getting gas just about always). As a result, our sympathy is with Madeline, since we (a) view the family through her eyes, and (b) witness her complete openness toward the family, particularly Ashley and Johnny, whom she's even willing to tutor (which proves a mistake anyway). It seems to me the screenplay is out of focus, however well-observed are its final scenes. In the Q&A, Morrison said most of the criticism toward the film was directed at the way George is left undeveloped, but that he justified it because George was an "everyman," and so similar to the urban audience that will see Junebug that he didn't want to waste too much time with a man they already ought to know. But I didn't even know that George is an urbanite. He's so absent from the picture that I didn't accept him as my stand-in; that role went to Madeline. And so I couldn't buy George's late-act criticism of his wife--I wanted to turn the tables on him and ask what he was doing getting gas for several days straight. (Let's face it, he's probably having an affair.)
I still like Junebug; my criticism only pertains to a small, if pivotal, element of the film. It's still well worth the journey for the performances and the unusual amount of warmth afforded the characters. Naturally, the next film to be screened was Bad Santa. Whiplash yet?
Bad Santa: Director's Cut (U.S., 2003) * * *
D: Terry Zwigoff
Ebert introduced the Saturday night screening of Bad Santa as the "Really, Really Bad Santa" cut (the DVD had the "Badder Santa" cut). Then Terry Zwigoff, sitting in an aisle seat in the VIP section, shouted out "Better Santa!" with a grin. So maybe you can call this the Better Santa Cut. One way or another, it had its world premiere at Ebertfest this year, to be rolled out on DVD (with possibly a short theatrical release) later on.
Bad Santa is still a pretty tough comedy, in whatever version you watch. Billy Bob Thornton, in what might be his definitive role (because his role in Sling Blade, however memorable, isn't exactly Billy Bob), plays a perpetually drunk Santa who, with his teammate Marcus (Tony Cox)--a dwarf who plays his elf--works a scheme every Christmas of taking a job at a department store, spending a miserable month with snot-nosed, smelly toddlers on his knee, and then, on Christmas Eve, dismantles the security system after hours and robs the place. Thornton, as Willie, is in a thoroughly ravaged, almost suicidal state as the film opens, but he still has no qualms over following a worshipful kid to his parents' house to rob it; the home is occupied only by a senile grandmother (Cloris Leachman), who offers sandwiches despite the fact that Willie is wearing a ski mask. Eventually, when he feels the cops might be staking out his apartment, he moves into the kid's home, and even has sex with his Santa-obsessed girlfriend (Lauren Graham) in the jacuzzi. Meanwhile, the department store's head of security (Bernie Mac) is onto Willie and Marcus' scheme, and tries to extort them; and the store's manager (John Ritter, in his last role) is in complete neurosis over Willie's increasingly unhinged behavior around the children.
The fact that Bad Santa is a one-joke comedy is beside the point. It's just terrifically funny and cathartic to see what Thornton gets away with in this role, and you keep watching to see how far he and Zwigoff take the material (which originated, in a roundabout way, with the Coen Brothers, who produced). It's clever and it's funny, and to paraphrase Mel Brooks, it rises below vulgarity. In the Q&A, a gracious but deadpan Zwigoff explained the troubled filming, which took place partly in an abandoned department store with no air conditioning, and partly in real malls where Zwigoff would shoot the scene as quickly as possible--minimal coverage--before parents could complain and mall security descend.
I enjoyed Bad Santa when I saw it theatrically, but I haven't seen the "Badder Santa" home video cut, so I can't compare the differences to what I saw on Saturday night. It seemed that Bernie Mac's death was more brutal, but the biggest difference was in what had been deleted: the whole business about the advent calendar that the kid gives to Willie, for example, a joke about why Marcus doesn't drink, and the epilogue. Zwigoff said that he was asked by the studio to shoot extra material to soften some of the film's hard edges, and I assume that the advent calendar was part of that effort. What you get, in this raw form, is a very cold-hearted comedy in which the main character's moral arc is almost microscopic...which is all part of the fun. Still, it doesn't touch his previous film, Ghost World, which would have been a more appropriate selection for an Overlooked Film Festival.