Beyond the Multiplex

Terry Gilliam's "Tideland" marks the final, ugly implosion of a one-time maverick's career. Plus: Three ambitious, fascinating New York Film Festival premieres.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 12, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

This is one of those crazy, overcrowded weeks that film distributors want to avoid, because there are too many new films. (I guess this is the same problem once identified by Yogi Berra: Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore; it's too crowded.) The New York Film Festival is premiering "Marie Antoinette" and "Pan's Labyrinth," two of the fall-winter season's likely hits. Full Salon reviews are forthcoming, and I've had my say on both at Cannes: Blah to the former, big old yay to the latter.

Stephen Frears' "The Queen" and John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus," based on sensational first-week returns, look like ironclad Indiewood smashes that may play well in many corners of our happy land through the Christmas season. These results may surprise some folks, but never underestimate the American public's abiding interest in the British royal family. And in rampant, randy sex. Now, if someone would only make a movie where -- no, never mind.

It's also the season for upscale Hollywood movies like Todd Field's "Little Children" and Martin Scorsese's much-praised "The Departed" (apparently the biggest hit of the director's career), which bring the indie audiences back to the malls. So it just isn't a good time to release some delectable little morsel that needs special care and feeding. Hence, perhaps, the under-the-radar release this week of Terry Gilliam's "Tideland," a film that marks the final, ugly implosion of a one-time maverick's career.

We'll get back to that one, unfortunately. There is happier stuff to cover this week. Three ambitious, fascinating and flawed foreign flicks premiere at the NYFF before (eventually) moving on to theatrical engagements, a lovely immigration saga rises from the plains of the Gopher State, and a Japanese documentary about Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said tries to capture the entire Middle East conflict within one film.

NYFF update: The passionate life of the mind makes "Poison Friends," love decays into sadness in "Climates," Hong Kong's crime lords face a new era in "Triad Election"
I'm not sure anybody has quite captured the overheated intellectual intensity that can arise between college friends who all believe they're about to change the world the way Emmanuel Bourdieu does in his new film "Poison Friends." Maybe it takes a Frenchman. (The original title, "Les Amitiés Maléfiques," conveys a certain pretentious, poetic quality the English title lacks.) Bourdieu is himself a former philosophy professor, and also the son of eminent sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, so his intimate knowledge of the academic world is one no outsider could possess.

Still, there's nothing dry about "Poison Friends"; it's a brainy but twisty psychological thriller with a distinct debt to Hitchcock, as well as to more recent friendship-gone-wrong films such as Dominik Moll's "With a Friend Like Harry..." Bourdieu has written scripts for Arnaud Desplechin, the current critics' darling among French directors, and if "Poison Friends" is arguably more formulaic than Desplechin's work, it has much of the same vividness and passion.

The film's core lies in the relationship between the shy but idealistic Eloi (Malik Zidi) and his charismatic pal André (Thibault Vinçon), a manipulative rogue who banishes friends and girlfriends from their circle for the heinous crime of trying to write poetry or stories. Eloi's mother is a slightly batty famous writer (marvelously played by Dominique Blanc), and he aspires to follow in her footsteps. André is full of reasons why it's arrogant and stupid to try to write before one has lived enough, and read enough. He's not entirely wrong about that, which is one of the movie's tricks, but like all obsessive manias, this one becomes destructive.

Bourdieu's cast is terrific throughout. Any fellow academic brats out there will especially appreciate Jacques Bonnaffé, one of the greatest French comic actors, in an imperious turn as the severe, guru-like professor Eloi and André must duel to impress. As in most thrillers, there are plausibility issues and a conventional resolution, but the whole ride is expertly conducted. (The movie has been acquired by Strand Releasing, but no U.S. release date has been announced.)

I'd heard so much hype about Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Climates," as it made its tour of major world film festivals, that I went in expecting the cloned offspring of Bergman and Renoir. Let's take it down a notch. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, "Climates" is not a masterpiece, a word that gets pompously thrown around a lot at pictures few paying customers actually want to see. It is, rather, a meticulous study of a crumbling relationship, marked by many luminous small moments and a startling interruption of violent eroticism.

Ceylan himself, a doleful, handsome fellow in the vein of Robert Mitchum or Jean-Paul Belmondo, plays Isa, an Istanbul university professor (it's academic week!) who seems stuck in adolescent patterns. On an Aegean seaside vacation, Isa breaks up with his girlfriend Bahar (Ebru Ceylan, the director's real-life wife), and somewhat later, after a steamy interlude with a friend's sexpot girlfriend, he flies to a remote snowbound region of eastern Turkey to try to win her back. That's pretty much it. There's not much talking and even less back story, although we gather that the pal's gal with the slinky stockings has played a role in the drama before.

More than anything, "Climates" is a pictorial mood piece, slightly reminiscent of Antonioni but with more warmth and sadness. We watch Isa clambering through ruins (he studies ancient architecture) or Bahar sitting alone staring out at the ocean. The mood is essentially one of loneliness and despondency; whether this couple is getting back together or not seems, frankly, like a meaningless question. Every visual and sonic detail is managed with tremendous skill, and this is a memorable film on a relatively small scale. It's not Ceylan's fault that too many international critics are using his picture to demonstrate their superior patience and taste. (Opens Oct. 27 in New York and Nov. 10 in Los Angeles, with other cities to follow.)

Veteran Hong Kong director Johnnie To remained in the city after it was returned to China in 1997, and stayed on after the near-collapse of Hong Kong's legendary film production system. While John Woo, for instance, has failed to make a distinctive mark in Hollywood and has become an increasingly isolated figure, To has become one of the biggest names in Chinese-language cinema. I don't know whether "Triad Election," his ambitious new crime opera, will draw American viewers or not, but it's a rich spectacle.

There are clear similarities between "Triad Election" (known in most of the world as "Election 2," a sequel to To's 1995 "Election) and Francis Coppola's "The Godfather Part III," but To insists this is more a matter of convergence than imitation. Jimmy (played by Hong Kong fashion model and pop star Louis Koo) is a suave young business leader anxious to escape his criminal past and jump into some Trump-scale real estate deals. His uncles in the shadowy Triad organization aren't so sure; they want him to defeat the power-mad current Triad chairman, Lok (Simon Yam), who is defying tradition and running for reelection.

That's right: Jimmy wants to get out, and they're dragging him back in! Full-fledged gang war erupts (somewhat confusingly, I am afraid, for the Western viewer), and our ardent young capitalist winds up with blood on his hands, both literally and otherwise. To has mastered the Scorsese trick of staging poetic acts of brutal violence to music, and the gruesome climax of "Triad Election" is not to be forgotten. To can be grateful that Chinese authorities have left Hong Kong's movie biz alone; I don't think his portrayal of corrupt, criminalized mainland authorities will be playing in Beijing anytime soon. (Opens nationally in January.)

"Tideland": Terry Gilliam's blimp crashes amid pointless sadism and cliché Americana
You might think that combining "Alice in Wonderland" with "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" would make an intriguing premise for a midnight movie. Well, I guess. If your problem with the current wave of coldblooded horror movies is that they're insufficiently mean-spirited, let me point you toward Terry Gilliam's "Tideland," the misanthropic nadir of the director's crash-and-burn career.

Sure, I loved "Brazil," and the ill-fated "Adventures of Baron Munchausen" had a genuine visionary madness about it. Those films are two decades in the past, people, and since then Gilliam has vacillated between a roster of never-completed projects, some forays into underwhelming Hollywood tricksterism (sorry, "12 Monkeys" fans, but it's crap) and half-baked sentimentality ("The Fisher King," "The Brothers Grimm").

What's frustrating about "Tideland" is that Gilliam's talent for striking imagery remains intact, but the part of him that always embraced the "grotesque, awful [and] tasteless," to use his own phrase, has driven out everything else. Ooh, Terry, you're edgy, you're an outsider, you've chosen the darkness. We get it. You're also 65 years old, and it's getting tired. This film reminds me of Asia Argento's alarming adaptation of JT LeRoy's "The Heart Is Deceitful in All Things," but without the sheer stupid Eurotrash authenticity that gave that picture some verve.

In "Tideland," a little girl with a stagy Southern accent named Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) is abandoned by her abusive junkie parents somewhere in the American heartland, where she has a series of constricted, half-imaginary adventures with her severed doll-heads and a local family of deviants. Her neighbor Dell (Janet McTeer) looks like a witch but practices taxidermy on all manner of formerly living things (yes, to what you're thinking), as well as sex with the delivery boys. Dell's brother, Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), is a lobotomized, stammering half-wit with a few sticks of dynamite under his bed and a lascivious interest in Jeliza-Rose.

I guess "Tideland" does have a certain integrity, in that Jeliza-Rose remains indomitable, no matter how Gothic, disgusting and depressing her situation becomes. But her "adventures" feel like pointless sadism, verging on child abuse, and the fact that she doesn't know enough to be frightened makes it no better. Gilliam's attempts at humor here are moldy stereotypes about the inbred character of Middle America, and the film has nary a gram of human reality or compassion anywhere in it. He's described himself as "old and bitter and curmudgeonly," and I can't put it any better than that.

Opens Oct. 13 at the IFC Center in New York; Oct. 20 in Chicago and Los Angeles; Oct. 27 in Austin, Texas, Boston, San Francisco and Washington; and Nov. 3 in Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis, Palm Springs, Calif., and San Diego, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Inspirational immigration saga "Sweet Land" rises from the plains; "Out of Place" pursues the elusive Edward Said
I'm not going to pretend that Ali Selim's "Sweet Land" is the best movie I've ever seen. It's winsome, sentimental and lovely in a minor-key way. But you can't help rooting for it: Made completely outside the normal production system, this fable of early 20th century immigration is written and directed by the child of much more recent immigrants. If its drama of German and Norwegian newcomers on the plains of southern Minnesota is modest enough, it's also clearly a labor of love.

Elizabeth Reaser and Tim Guinee play Inge and Olaf, strangers in a strange land who meet for the first time in Minnesota around 1920. Inge is Olaf's mail-order bride from Norway, except she turns out to be German instead. Anti-Hun sentiment runs strong in the aftermath of World War I, so they can't get married. But living together, even in total and awkward chastity, makes them the accidental pariahs of their rural community. The story is told both forward and backward, partly through the eyes of their grandson, who inherits their farm in 2004 and must decide whether to sell it to developers and leave all its memories behind. (You get one guess.)

Selim has built a career directing commercials (this is his first feature film) and that leads both to a distinctive confidence and to some overt cuteness. As the sunny, whimsical couple next door with a zillion kids, Alan Cumming and Alex Kingston may make your teeth ache. But Selim's got a fine cast, also featuring John Heard, Ned Beatty and Lois Smith (who plays Inge as an old woman) and even with a sugar level this high, the elegant structure and wonderful wide-open spaces of "Sweet Land" will keep you watching. (Opens Oct. 13 in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn; Oct. 18 in New York; Oct. 20 in Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud, Minn.; Oct. 27 in Phoenix and Washington; Nov. 3 in Boston and Fargo, N.D.; Nov. 17 in Dallas, Los Angeles and Palm Springs, Calif.; and Nov. 22 in Chicago, with more cities to follow.)

For a long time, I couldn't tell why Makoto Sato's "Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said" seemed to be spending so much time on subjects of tangential relevance to the late Palestinian-American intellectual who was such a force in cultural and political debate. Sato wanders through a refugee camp in Lebanon where Said almost certainly never set foot, visits an Israeli kibbutz where Said definitely never set foot, converses with an Arab tobacco merchant in a largely Jewish town. If you want a straightforward biography of Said, or a sober assessment of his importance, this isn't it.

But really, Sato's film is a marvelous exploration of the meaning of Said's life, which is the human condition of exile and displacement, as it applies to Palestinians and Jews but also to the rest of us. She visits the house where Said was born in Jerusalem (and where the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber later lived), and others of his homes, in Cairo, Lebanon and New York. She tries to meet real people along the way, wherever she happens to be, who will cast light on his central, and ambiguous, ideas about self and identity. We hear his writing read aloud, but only see him in childhood home movies and photographs. She shows us Said's empty office at Columbia University a couple of times, and it's somehow inexpressibly perfect and sad. By the end, I felt I understood Said far better as a man and a thinker than ever before, in a film haunted by his absence. (Now playing at Anthology Film Archives in New York, with other cities to follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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