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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

New reviews: Fast Food Nation; Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus; For Your Consideration, Shut Up and Sing!

fastfood.jpgReviews of four new releases, two of which are swell, and two of which are pretty awful. Read on: Fast Food Nation; Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus; For Your Consideration and Shut Up and Sing! (Plus: read my interview with Daniel Craig about becoming Casino Royale’s new Bond.)

Fast Food Nation (2006, *** ½)

Richard Linklater’s heartening, lucid polemic, Fast Food Nation, is so much better than the reception it got at Cannes when it debuted earlier this year. Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book, “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal,” with over 1.4 million copies in print, is nonfiction. Schlosser is also a produced playwright, and that profession shows in his collaboration with Linklater, with its sense of focused outrage, which is always dramatically parsed without the extended, overly pointed monologues of, say, John Sayles’ work, and with succinct wit, such as describing the central problem this way—”I’m saying there’s shit in the meat.” (See also: “Marketing 101: don’t kill the customer” and “There’s a reason it only costs 99 cents.”) The e. coli-infested meat leads its Slacker-style vignettes from the boardroom of the fictional but too-easy-to-imagine “Mickey’s” hamburger chain, to Colorado ranches and slaughterhouses, to keystroke-surveilled Mickey’s chain stores, to clutches of student activists who think they can free the cattle, but don’t realize the cattle have customs of their own. Fast Food Nation parses an elemental dilemma of the American working class today: everyone wants some sort of change, but each character, from whatever profession or life experience, falls short in one way or the other. Linklater is an admirer of the great French director Robert Bresson, and “Fast Food”’s characters are just as naïve as the titular donkey in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar: it’s Bresson with a side of fries. There is attention to sound and image here that produces some of the most quietly sophisticated work that Linklater has done yet, and in some ways, it is a dour masterpiece, examining the terrorism, the emotional and moral mastication of a food chain gone very, very wrong. The film’s not at all depressing: it’s just very, very serious and gratifyingly thoughtful. (Hawke’s character is a complex wonder.) The ending recalls a particular documentary by another French filmmaker named Georges Franju; if the next-to-the-last scene strikes you, search for his name along with the subject matter. The final shot is a brilliant punch in the face. Co-financed by Participant Productions—brainchild of beneficient eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll—which also made An Inconvenient Truth. The large cast, all of whom do excellent work despite carping from a number of shallow reviewers, includes Patricia Arquette, Bobby Cannavale, Luis Guzman, Ethan Hawke, Ashley Johnson, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Avril Lavigne, Esai Morales, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Lou Taylor Pucci, Wilmer Valderrama.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006, *)

furb_34.jpgSeveral false starts preceded this paragraph on Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, the second collaboration, after girl-popular S&M soaper Secretary, between director Steven Shainberg (Hit Me) and writer Erin Cressida Wilson. (None of them are imaginary but all were more splenetic than this one.) Drawing from Patricia Bosworth’s biography of the famed photographer and suicide (for which Shainberg’s uncle, Lawrence Shainberg, was a major source), Shainberg and Wilson work up phantasmagorical versions of the artistic libel that Arbus’ work is about cruelty and perversion. (Arbus’ estate denied any employment whatsoever of her imagery, but there are Mary Ellen Mark and Matt Mahurin photographs strewn about.) This uneasily confected “Arbus” discovers her muse in the form of a mysterious new upstairs tenant whose body is covered with fur, a precious wolf-boy played by Robert Downey, Jr. with belladonna-wide eyes. He introduces her to midgets and marijuana, to masochists and dominatrixes, and kewpie-wide eyes are opened wider. As in Secretary, the bold production design suggests a Lower East Side boutique afflicted with unsightly gigantism. David Lynch is already David Lynch, and the Rev. Charles Dodgson beat Fur to many of its pallid, pulled punches. The final shot, like that of another ambitious, hermetic Nicole Kidman vehicle, Birth, is perfect in its own way, but neither shot is earned by the movies that precede them. (A similar criticism I have of the final five minutes of Secretary, which are cogent in a way different from the rest of that movie.) Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score will make a lovely soundtrack album. Bill Pope, whose credits include The Matrix trilogy, shoots and frames beautifully, but the wallpaper and the bold costumes keep getting in the way. Oh, and the relentless borrows from Jean Cocteau’s Belle et la bete (Beauty and the Beast). The only bete here, however, is noir: This is a stinker that gives ambition an unusually high order of odor.

For Your Consideration (2006, ½ *)

Someone’s in the corner over there wanting to talk about “Waiting for Guffman” or “Best in Show”: Sometimes I have to say this upfront in conversations about movies when this fairly common sort of proselytizer is afoot: I don’t like Christopher Guest’s movies, the bitterness of which feels largely curdled and glib. For Your Consideration may be his lamest effort yet, a malnourished small wean, but it does have the courage of its cruelty. A bookend to the 58-year-old writer-director-musician-curmudgeon’s first feature, The Big Picture, which suggested that ambitious young filmmakers were idiots, For Your Consideration follows the making of a grotesquely lordhadenguest_35.jpg implausible caricature of an “independent” picture in which the supremely untalented but limitlessly vain actors (Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer) become convinced via a single line on the internet that they will become Oscar contenders for “Home for Purim,” a 1940s melodrama about lesbian Parker Posey bringing her girlfriend home for the holidays. (The Big Picture has Martin Short’s brilliantly ADD caricatyure of an agent; FYC has Eugene Levy spraying his proferred tootsies with borrowed foot spray.) Here’s of Guest’s more aggravating bits of clumsiness: he shows a single shot being set up, say, with the camera within the film moving, then cuts the scene together with traditional, if indifferent, cutting patterns as if four or five cameras are shooting at once. It’s not something average filmgoers might notice, but it’s typical of the thin, nonsensical “wit” of most of the movie: making fun of a process or an impulse the filmmakers or improvisers do not care to understand. The movie’s also one of the drabbest things all year, shot by Roberto Schaefer in a ghastly green pallor like it was developed in a bath of recycled Scope mouthwash. (Schaefer also shot one of the most beautiful-looking pictures of 2006, Stranger than Fiction.) O’Hara indulges her magic frazzle, but the material’s not worthy of the Shakespearean weft of her drunk scenes and brilliant lack of vanity. The overtly brutal five minutes when the actors are thumped is the cruelest thing Guest has ever done, and shines with more clarity of his entire career. The final shot, a grubby hand-held 16mm shot that a manic, wild-eyed O’Hara stumbles toward only makes you want to murmur Guest’s real name, after his cheap allusion to the end of Sunset Boulevard, “I’m ready for my close-up, Baron Haden-Guest of Saling.” With Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Dooley, Ricky Gervais, Guest, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, Larry Miller and dozens more.

Shut Up and Sing! (2006, *** ½)

Shut Up and Sing! is Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s stirring documentary about three years in the life of the Dixie Chicks: is this the wilderness or a new world for them after their brush with infamy? 85950-31923.jpgBefore seeing Shut Up, I’d heard the Dixie Chicks’ music and seen stills of the three band members, but never really paid attention. I thought that Natalie Maines was striking-looking in a fairly goofy way, but on screen, she’s a fiery singularity: such presence and passion, even when slouched across a couch listening to one more marketing strategy, is indelible. There’s no condescension in wanting to call this trio “patriots with ponytails”: you always hope for but just don’t expect this level of informed and indelible dudgeon from a musician, a mother, a wife, a political activist, who’s also seen on screen on the phone consulting with her psychic after a particularly rotten threat. She calls herself a “big mouth” and she’s glorious. Kopple and Peck’s intelligence lies in their willingness to stand back: finding fierce central figures and following them through the brackish backlash to Maines’ extemporaneous comment at London’s Shepherd’s Bush venue in 2003 that she’s ashamed that George W. Bush is from Texas (a statement equally offensive to others, considering that the New Haven-born Bush is a Texas-transplanted carpetbagger.) So many things are right about Shut Up And Sing, but the incendiary heart is mainly Maines’: a central scene shows the group and their manager’s reaction to and precautions against a death threat in Dallas (didn’t John F. Kennedy get a few of those?). The police have brought a photograph. (The man’s features are blurred on screen.) Out of Maines’ mouth: “He’s kind of cute. He’s good-looking. He wants to kill me?” Complicated, loyal, devoted, troops-supporting, nationalistic and one hell of a responsible, respectable grown-up: I know there are more Americans like her.

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“Ten years ago at Telluride, I said on a panel that theatrical distribution was dying. It seemed obvious to me. I was surprised how many in the audience violently objected: ‘People will always want to go to the movies!’ That’s true, but it’s also true that theatrical cinema as we once knew it has died. Theatrical cinema is now Event Cinema, just as theatrical plays and musical performances are Events. No one just goes to a movie. It’s a planned occasion. Four types of Event Cinema remain.
1. Spectacle (IMAX-style blockbusters)
2. Family (cartoon like features)
3. Horror (teen-driven), and
4. Film Club (formerly arthouse but now anything serious).

There are isolated pockets like black cinema, romcom, girl’s-night-out, seniors, teen gross-outs, but it’s primarily those four. Everything else is TV. Now I have to go back to episode five of ‘Looming Tower.'”
~ Paul Schrader

“Because of my relative candor on Twitter regarding why I quit my day job, my DMs have overflowed with similar stories from colleagues around the globe. These peeks behind the curtains of film festivals, venues, distributors and funding bodies weren’t pretty. Certain dismal patterns recurred (and resonated): Boards who don’t engage with or even understand their organization’s artistic mission and are insensitive to the diverse neighborhood in which their organization’s venue is located; incompetent founders and/or presidents who create only obstacles, never solutions; unduly empowered, Trumpian bean counters who chip away at the taste and experiences that make organizations’ cultural offerings special; expensive PR teams that don’t bring to the table a bare-minimum familiarity with the rich subcultural art form they’re half-heartedly peddling as “product”; nonprofit arts organizations for whom art now ranks as a distant-second goal behind profit.”
~ Eric Allen Hatch