This week’s new releases include two movies based on true stories, the first half of a double-bill movie, which was released on DVD a month after the second half, a movie from one of France’s leading directors, and an HBO film new to DVD. So let’s get to it!
In 1970, Clifford Irving, a novelist and biographer of celebrated art forger Elmyr de Hory, decided to have a go at a bit of fakery of his own. He and his writer friend Richard Suskind decided to write an autobiography on Howard Hughes, the half-mad multi-millionaire tycoon who had cut himself off from the world. On the theory that the ever-reclusive Hughes wouldn’t dare to challenge any claims of authenticity on his part, Irving went to his publishers, McGraw Hill, with three forged letters from Hughes that he claimed granted him permission to tell Hughes’ life story. McGraw Hill, of course, accepted Irving’s word, and the rest is history. Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hoax attempts to tell this tale, but it may have been too big for him.
For starters, Irving is played here by Richard Gere. Gere has proven to be best when he plays someone with either evil thoughts (Internal Affairs) or amoral ones (Primal Fear) in his head, and Irving would seem a lock. He certainly has the wig for it, and gives the impression of going for broke, especially when he enthuses to Suskind (Alfred Molina) that the more outrageous he sounds, the more gullible everyone is. The problem is, there’s something too calculated about Gere’s approach. Granted, a con artist also has to be calculating, but the approach needs to seem effortless, and Gere can’t pull that off (while it’s refreshing Gere has allowed himself to age, it hasn’t made him more expressive). And as in Primal Fear, his character softens up, this time through love (he’s married to Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), who at first eagerly participates in Irving’s scheme, but still lusts after Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy), the actress best known for her role in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye), which makes him feel guilty and conflicted. It’s a heaviness the film hasn’t earned. It doesn’t help that Delpy has nothing to do, and while Harden starts off well, she soon plays Edith as one-note.
More importantly, while the first half hour or so zips along, thanks to the comic tone (sustained by other actors, particularly Molina and Hope Davis as Irving’s editor), the film runs aground when Irving gets delusions of paranoia, specifically of Nixon. While Nixon and Hughes had little to do with each other by this time, Hughes, while initially a booster of Nixon, was apparently disenchanted enough with Nixon he sent Irving files which he hoped would ruin Nixon. And apparently, one of the causes of the Watergate break-in was Nixon’s concern about the Irving book, which apparently would have enough to ruin Nixon. This may all have been true, but it comes off as far-fetched, and Hallstrom plays it as if he isn’t sure whether to play it straight or satirically. And again, this change in tone doesn’t feel earned in any way. Irving himself was one of the subjects of Orson Welles’ documentary F for Fake; maybe this project needed a Welles to completely capture this mad story.
The other docudrama coming out on DVD this week is Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, about Marianne Pearl’s effort to find her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered by an extremist group in Pakistan in January of 2002. It also focuses on the police who tried to help Marianne, mostly a Pakistan detective known simply as Captain (Irfan Khan), and Randall Bennett (Will Patton), an American government agent who’s along to help. Although the film was justly praised by critics for Winterbottom’s direction (he and writer John Orloff make this more like a procedural thriller rather than a political film), most of the attention was on Jolie’s performance – specifically, whether she was right for the part at all.
I haven’t always been a fan of Jolie, but there’s something inscrutable about her at times, and I think that works with this performance. After all, in the book this movie is based on, Marianne Pearl didn’t try to elicit any cheap sympathy for her story (in the movie, we see her TV interviews, and a technician marveling – or speaking disdainfully? – that you’d never know her husband had been kidnapped), and the movie respects that point of view. The only time Marianne becomes unglued is when she’s told of her husband’s death, and the camera stays behind her at a respectful distance, instead of wallowing in her grief. It’s this dignity Jolie brings to her performance. She also brings out Marianne’s innate curiosity about people, particularly the Captain (Khan, an actor best known for Bollywood films, is similarly dignified). Jolie isn’t the only reason to see A Mighty Heart, which is one of my favorite films of the year so far, but she’s every bit as good as the movie needs her to be.
One month after Death Proof was released on DVD, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, the first half of the Grindhouse double feature, follows suit. Most of the critics I read seemed to prefer Death Proof (directed by Quentin Tarantino), while most of my friends preferred Rodriguez’s film. I have to side with the critics on this one. Admittedly, aside from the original Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead, I’m not a big zombie film fan, and I’m not a fan of Rodriguez, but I really don’t understand the appeal of this film.
I will say this; for the first time since his debut film El Mariachi, Rodriguez has given us characters to care about, and while Rose McGowan is hardly my favorite actress, she’s actually pretty good here as the heroine (and, of course, there’s the whole thing with having a machine gun leg, which admittedly is pretty cool), as is Freddy Rodriguez as The Ex-Boyfriend Who Still Cares. And it’s always nice to see actors like Michael Biehn (who plays the sheriff). And whatever faults Rodriguez has, you can’t accuse him of being a cynical filmmaker; he clearly is in love with what he’s doing. But his efforts at humor here are decidedly mixed (the machine gun thing, of course, is funny, but the Crazy Babysitting Twins – played by the Crazy Babysitting Twins – are one-joke characters that weren’t that funny to begin with), the political subtext (Bruce Willis plays an Army lieutenant whose platoon was infected while trying to get Bin Laden) seems tacked on, and while some found the excessive gore either fun or artful, I found it wearying.
Four years ago, Patrice Leconte directed Man on the Train, a terrific crime dramedy about two middle-aged men, one a retired schoolteacher, the other a criminal in town to pull a bank robbery. Leconte returns to the subject of friendship with My Best Friend. In this one, Daniel Auteuil plays Francois, an antiques dealer who seems cut off from everyone. At a dinner he was with colleagues, his business partner Catherine (Julie Gayet) challenges him to name at least one friend he has. Instead, Francois bets he can reproduce a friend in 10 days, and the bet is a vase he bid on at an auction (of course, the vase has a painting on it symbolizing friendship).
At this point, my heart sank, because it seemed like Leconte was making a sitcom out of the very subject he treated so seriously, yet comically, in his previous, much better film. Things don’t get any better with the character he eventually hires to teach him friendship skills, Bruno (Danny Boon). Bruno is a cab driver (natch) who loves to spout arcane trivia on all kinds of subjects (when they first meet cute, Bruno is giving Francois a cab ride, and tells him what famous people live, or lived, on the street they’re on), but also seems to be able to get along with people. Yet he lives with his parents still. This eventually turns into the kind of lighthearted farce the French theoretically are still good at, but it becomes wearisome here. Admittedly, were it from a director other than Leconte, I might not care so much. But in addition to Man on the Train, Leconte has made other great movies about lonely people, like his terrific Hitchcock-esque film Monsieur Hire, and even his misfires (The Hairdresser’s Husband) show obvious talent behind them. This movie shows an enervated talent. What’s worse, Leconte apparently no longer wants to do the serious-minded movies he’s known for, and for his last few movies before he calls it quits, he just wants to enjoy himself. I hope he did, cause I sure didn’t.
In 1995, HBO asked New Yorkers – as well as tourists – to submit their favorite true story about riding in the subway. The network then picked the ten best stories they got out of thousands, and the result is Subway Stories. As the movie came out in 1997, some of the segments may seem a little dated, even quaint, but the themes (people on the subway are crazy, white people don’t trust minorities, and vice versa, subway cars sure do smell) are still relevant today. Rosie Perez exec-produced the show, and she also appears in one of the best segments, “Love on the A Train,” directed by Abel Ferrara, about a businessman (Mike McGlone) who ends up giving satisfaction – in more ways than one – to a mysterious woman (Perez) every morning on the train. As you might expect, some segments are better than others, but at 80 minutes, the movie doesn’t wear out its welcome, and the best segments (my personal favorite is Bob Balaban’s “The 5:24,” about a young businessman (Steve Zahn) who wonders if the old man (Jerry Stiller) giving him stock tips is for real, or a con artist) are a lot of fun.