Darkest Hour stands apart from more routine historical dramas.
TORONTO--The enormity of the attack on the World Trade Center struck many artists dumb; what can be said, and how? Anne Nelson's play "The Guys," which was quickly produced in New York and has starred many actors, reduces the story to two people: one who remembers his fallen comrades, and one who wants to help him word his memories. Now it has been made into a film, which premieres on 9/11/02 at Toronto.
"The Guys" stars Anthony LaPaglia as a fire captain who will need to eulogize his friends at memorial services and worries about what to say. Sigourney Weaver is the professional writer who volunteers to help him. As a long day darkens into evening, Jim Simpson's film shows these two people in conversation about the captain's friends--their quirks, their strengths, their humanity. (Coincidentally, a stage version of "The Guys" just opened Tuesday night in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre; it's a co-production with the North Shore-based Northlight Theatre.)
At breakfast Tuesday in Toronto, Simpson said he studied Louis Malle's "My Dinner with Andre" for ideas about how to keep the conversation alive. His camera is subtle and his framing exact as the two people speak, and the film wisely avoids news footage, depending on words to make us see these men who went into the towers and never returned.
Weaver (who is married to Simpson) spoke about the slow process by which the writer sets the captain at ease, so that his first stilted words loosen into a flow of memories. And Nelson said the play was an idea that fell into her life: "I had done something like the writer in the story, and it occurred to me that this was a way to approach the loss we all felt."
There was sadness Monday night at the dinner before Mike Leigh's "All or Nothing," because Leigh and his actors, Timothy Spall and Leslie Manville, had worked with and loved the great actress Katrin Cartlidge. She died Saturday, at 41, suddenly, of septicemia resulting from pneumonia; she had been in hospital only two days. Cartlidge, an actress of power and grace, starred for Leigh in "Naked," "Career Girls" and "Topsy-Turvy," and took courageous chances in Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" and Lodge Kerrigan's "Claire Dolan."
Leigh and his friends learned the news after arriving in Toronto; he quietly passed around a respectful obituary from the Guardian. What he said I will not quote, because it was personal and heartfelt.
Leigh's "All or Nothing" is a tender, wonderful film starring Spall as a minicab driver, married to a Safeway cashier; they have two pudgy children, one a lonely caretaker at an old folks' home, the other a profane and rude couch potato. We also meet friends and neighbors in a story that deals with the small dramas, hopes and fears of life in poverty.
Then a family crisis breaks the dreary pattern, and leads to a great scene between Spall and Manville, as his wife, which in terms of heartbreaking simplicity says as much as can be said about why it is worthwhile, or not, to slog on through a difficult life.
You may vaguely remember the controversy over Fortunate Son, J.N. Hatfield's 1999 biography of George W. Bush, which alleged that the future president had been arrested for cocaine possession, and that charges were dropped after the intervention of his father. The book was a cause celebre and a best seller for about a week; then it was revealed that Hatfield had served time for attempted murder, the book was pulped by its publisher, St. Martin's Press, and the charges were forgotten.
"Horns and Haloes," a documentary at the Toronto Film Festival, continues the story as a portrait of Hatfield, a loose cannon. Directed by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky, the film follows Hatfield as he finds another publisher--the Soft Skull Press, run by Sander Hicks, a 29-year-old guerrilla who operates out of basement offices in the New York building where he also serves as the janitor.
Hicks republishes the book, gets Hatfield on "60 Minutes" and takes him to the Book Expo in Chicago, but once again the author becomes his own worst enemy; a new introduction written for the Soft Skull edition inspires a lawsuit by a former associate who, he alleges, was involved with him in the murder scheme.
Hatfield's own story is tragic, as you will find if you see the movie. He was much criticized after the first edition for using anonymous sources for his story of George W. Bush's alleged cocaine use. So, at a Book Expo press conference, he names as a source none other than Karl Rove, then and now political adviser to the president. Can this be true? The movie raises substantial doubts about Hatfield's reliability. But he sure came up with a humdinger.
Justin Lin's "Better Luck Tomorrow," one of the best films in this year's festival, arrives in Toronto for a fall launch after its controversial Sundance premiere. It's a knowing, deeply cynical view of the success ethic among adolescent Asian Americans in an affluent California community, who begin by selling exam answers and gradually escalate into drugs and murder. The hero considers turning himself in, but "I couldn't let one mistake get in the way of everything I'd worked for."
After the Sundance screening, a member of the audience angrily asked Lin, "How could you make such a bleak, negative, amoral film? Don't you have a responsibility to paint a more positive and helpful portrait of your community?"
Lin replied that he had made the film he wanted to make, the way he had wanted to make it. He felt it depicted a reality among teenagers of any race. I usually don't speak during the Q&A sessions after screenings, but I couldn't restrain myself. I told the man I thought he was being condescending: "You would never make a comment like that to a white filmmaker." Lin's responsibility, I felt, was to make the best film he could. To limit minority filmmakers to "positive" stories is a form of racism.
No better documentary has been made in recent years than Steve James' "Hoop Dreams" (1994), about two inner-city Chicago kids who dream of the NBA and are recruited by a rich suburban Catholic high school. Filmed over the course of five years, it had the drama of fiction.
Now comes James' new documentary, "Stevie" (2003), which is playing at Toronto. This one doesn't have the neat, almost poetic ending of "Hoop Dreams," because sometimes life doesn't turn out that way. James tells the story about how when he was in college he was a Big Brother to an 11-year-old named Stevie Fielding.
When he graduated and left Stevie behind, James says, he felt there was unfinished business. More than a decade later, he went back to find him. One would like to hope, as James originally does, that a well-intentioned outsider can make a difference. But what he finds is a family so profoundly dysfunctional that it's likely Stevie never really had a chance. The movie is deeply sorrowful and impossible to forget.
Stop watching movies made by assholes. It'll be OK.
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