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Column Thu Jul 03 2014
Tammy, Life Itself, Deliver Us From Evil, Snowpiercer, Earth to Echo, Begin Again, A Hard Day's Night & Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
Not that this should influence your like or dislike of Tammy, the new film starring and co-written (with her director husband, Ben Falcone) by Melissa McCarthy, but this was supposed be McCarthy at her most pure and unfiltered — a raw, R-rated, take-no-prisoners variation of the McCarthy personality (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Identity Thief), birthed in improv performances in New York and Los Angeles, and put up on the screen like the perfect trophy head mounted on a hunter's wall. This was supposed to be the best that she's got. Oh boy...
A very famous comedic actor once confessed to me that some producers give him shitty scripts and say, "We'll fix it with improv when we shoot," and it almost never works. You still have to have something on the page, even if you don't use it. You don't have to like a lead character, but you at least have to understand her (in the case of Tammy), and then you have to do something to make her interesting and in some way relatable, so that we care what happens to her. Even in her previous starring roles, McCarthy has been paired with someone to essentially balance out her spirited, slightly insane gifts. But in Tammy, there's no one to fill that role. She's alone, ripping up scenery (sometimes literally) and being generally unpleasant to a host of equally unpleasant characters.
Tammy is meant to be a road picture, putting McCarthy as the recently jilted wife of Nat Faxon's Greg, taking a trip with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon). She gets fired from her fast food job and comes home to discover Greg having a lovely romantic dinner with their neighbor/his mistress, Missi (Toni Collette). In one of the films funnier running gags, the fact that Greg and Missi don't even seem to care that Tammy catches them doing nothing more than normal couple things is mildly amusing. Tammy retreats to her parents house (about two doors down from her place), looking for a functioning car to run away in. When Grandma volunteers her car and a bit of much-needed cash, Tammy is on board; let the hilarity commence.
I said that McCarthy has no partner in comedy crime in Tammy, and if you said to yourself "I thought Susan Sarandon filled that role," think again please. Sarandon is such a non-entity in the story, you almost feel sorry she's even in this movie. I'm not sure I've ever found Sarandon especially good at comedy, but she's a fantastic actor seemingly trapped, flailing for attention as a sex-crazed alcoholic, who falls off the wagon on the trip and ends up getting seriously ill (those chronic illness jokes just write themselves, do they not?). The pair suffer through one agonizing stop after another that offer nothing in terms of deepening their characters or the supposedly horrible upbringings they both endured. I'd say that I don't remember the last time I felt less sympathy or empathy for people in a movie, but that wouldn't be true because I saw the unbearable Identity Thief last year.
At one stop on their journey/escape, the ladies meet potential love interests Earl and Bobby, a father and son played by Gary Cole and Mark Duplass, one of the only genuinely decent people in this trainwreck. Earl just wants to get drunk and cheat on his wife with grandmom, but Bobby seems genuinely interested in Tammy's dilemma and history, and Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister's Sister) infuses his character with far more depth and personality than was likely in the screenplay.
I sat through an entire 90-plus-minute film about Tammy, and aside from having the tendency to overreact to every slight she imagines she's suffered, I couldn't tell you the first thing about what makes her tick. There are hints that she's endured some childhood suffering (often because drunk grandma can get nasty when she drinks), but the details are so sketchy, we're unable to connect to her. Were her parents (Alison Janney and Dan Aykroyd) mean to her? It doesn't seem so. If anything, Tammy comes across as someone raised spoiled, who is simply used to having things done for her or handed over after hours of screaming about wanting it. Tammy is an overgrown child most of the time, and I'm not even sure that being treated kindly by someone changes that.
Tammy seems to relax somewhat at their final destination, the home of a lesbian couple (Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh), who happen to be throwing a Fourth of July party, where Sarandon gets loaded and humiliates Tammy once again. The most substantial problem with Tammy is that it feels like a vehicle for McCarthy, rather than an actual movie with a plot. Everyone else is more or less playing it straight, leaving room for McCarthy to do her schtick without interruption. Even the best physical comic or improv master needs some direction, and Falcone — as strange as it seems — isn't up to the task.
Tammy, the film and the character, is loud, grating, sloppy and ill conceived from the first frame. There is an army of talented, proven performers surrounding McCarthy, and only Duplass seems interested in, let along capable of, making this a watchable exercise. Outside of this and Identity Thief, I remain a McCarthy believer. In supporting parts (such as the upcoming, encouraging-looking St. Vincent, starring Bill Murray), she shines. When she's in the hands of capable, knowledgeable filmmakers (like Bridesmaids' and The Heat's Paul Feig, who is shooting next year's Spy with McCarthy right now), she excels. When she surrounds herself with people who are afraid to contradict her instincts to flail at every occasion, we get Tammy.
It's fairly simple, actually. Roger Ebert become the world's most famous and read film critic because he opened up a little piece of himself with each review. Sometimes it was a surprisingly personal detail, other times it might have been a small sliver of insight into a theme or idea brought up in a film that his life experience afforded him some alternate way of looking at. Most critics do this, by the way, but few do it with a true humanitarian's voice the way Ebert did. And what director Steve James' (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) loose adaptation of Ebert's memoir Life Itself does is capture the parts of the his life that infused both his world view and his writing.
Gracefully bouncing back and forth between what ended up being the final months of Ebert's life (he died on April 4, 2013) and more standard-issue biographical material, Life Itself moves briskly from Ebert's childhood in downstate Urbana to his time as editor of his college paper, to his earliest years at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was assigned the job as film critic (he didn't ask for it). What's most telling about these brief sequences is that there are long-standing friends providing commentary at each stage. Ebert's life was full of such people, and the film makes it clear that once you were his friend, you were one for life.
James tells us right up front that his time filming and asking questions of Ebert (via email, primarily) was cut short by his unexpected death, so we know going in how this story ends. But it's clear from Life Itself that the journey is the most important part of the trip, not how you come into or go out of this world. It's impossible for me (and many critics) to come to this film impartial. There are just too many personal memories wrapped up in the material, once we move from Ebert's early newspaper days (including a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism) into the "Siskel & Ebert" years. To say that the pair were influential doesn't quite cover it; they had an impact on film, culture, television and generations of would-be critics, some of whom packed their bags when high school was done, moved to Chicago to be at the perceived center of the critical world, and never looked back.
The Siskel years are by far the most pure fun to relive and, in some cases, unveil. As in Ebert's life, a huge section of the film is devoted to his years with Gene, and for a time, James turns his attention squarely on the Chicago Tribune critic, who was Roger's primary nemesis in the early years of the show. Siskel's history is a bit of a mystery to me, so seeing him in photos cavorting with Hugh Hefner and his Playboy bunnies was a bit shocking.
Some of the most revealing interviews about both Ebert and Siskel come from Siskel's wife Marlene Iglitzen, who has story after story of ways her husband undermined scoops Ebert felt sure he'd gotten over on Siskel. But there came a time when the two realized they would be lesser apart, and a caring friendship slowly formed, which doesn't mean they didn't relish in ripping into each other on the show or off.
The most revealing corners of Ebert's life come from a few of his old drinking buddies/writer friends, who were Ebert's constant after-hours companions at seedy bars around Chicago in the years before Roger joined AA and got sober in a hurry. But these old pals (many of whom have drinks in their hands in the film as well) tell us stories and tall tales of stupid bets and women of ill repute and passing out and fist fights that are the stuff legends are built upon.
The chapter in his life about meeting and marrying his wife Chaz is remarkable, because at that point in his life, he'd largely given up thinking he would ever find someone to live out his life with, let alone have to lean on when his health issues took over so much of his day-to-day existence. It's impossible to come out of Life Itself not wanting to hug Chaz, who is the one who learned to express emotions for both them when Roger was unable or unwilling to. And she makes it clear that as tough as things got, it was a rich and fulfilling relationship until the end.
Chaz is largely shown in clips that were shot only about a year and a half ago, primarily in the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and a little bit during a tough transition back home. It's clear that Roger was fully on board with the idea of this film and even suggests a few shots to James, but Chaz seems understandably less comfortable with the cameras around during some of the more routine or uncomfortable hospital moments. There's an unexpected tension in parts of the film that seasons the story and makes this intimate intrusion seem more immediate and raw.
Life Itself wouldn't be complete without scores of reviews — both written and televised — from Ebert. James has selected a few lines from key reviews (including the ones that earned Roger his Pulitzer) and uses clips from those films to illustrate the point being made in the review. He most importantly also includes testimonials from filmmakers whose careers and/or films were forever changed by an Ebert review, including the film's producer, Martin Scorsese, documentarian Errol Morris, director Werner Herzog, and indie filmmaker Ramin Bahraini. Ebert's value as a critic is evaluated by the likes of A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, and even key detractors (at least of the popularization of film criticism that the TV show sparked) like Jonathan Rosenbaum, formerly of the Chicago Reader.
In the dozens of conversations and email exchanges I was lucky enough to have with Ebert over the years, we almost never talked about movies. He wanted to alert me to a great restaurant or book or any number of things that exist outside of the darkened theater we so often shared for roughly 13 years. He'd ask about mutual acquaintances, or just volunteer some fun detail about a trip he'd just taken. He lived as rich and fun a life as anyone I knew. Not long after he passed away, I wrote something about how it amazed me how much work the man did in a given week. His work ethic was as strong as his play ethic. And this film captures Ebert in both arenas, fueled by his boundless energy.
Life Itself stands up to repeat viewings quite well. There's an effortless flow that James and co-editor David E. Simpson make happen between the past and the near present. The home movies of the Eberts and their grandchildren vacationing in Europe and other exotic locales are probably going to be the thing that gets you truly emotional at first. But there is so much happiness and joy and humor in this film, it's tough to get genuinely sad or depressed even at the darkest moments. For cinephiles, the movie is an expression of pure passion about the importance and power of the art form. For those who like a great love story, that's here too. But at its core, Life Itself is about kindness, goodness, enthusiasm, and embracing all the life has to offer. If you've made it this far in this review, then you've probably already decided you're going to see this film. If you haven't, enjoy living the rest of your life as someone who relishes missing opportunities. The film is screening at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
To read my exclusive interview with Life Itself director Steve James and Roger Ebert's wife, Chaz Ebert, go to Ain't It Cool News.
Deliver Us From Evil
When is it acceptable for a movie about demonic possession to not be that scary? As with any film, the answer is always: when the story is interesting enough to make us not care about jumping out of seats or covering our eyes every three minutes. The latest from director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister and the recently announced Marvel film Dr. Strange) is based on the book by former New York City officer Ralph Sarchie (played here by Eric Bana), who inadvertently ended up at the center of an investigation involving supernatural elements, or so he believes.
I have no idea how true-to-life the story presented in Deliver Us From Evil actually is, but I believe Derrickson wants his film to feel authentic, both as a police procedural and a tale of possession and exorcism as a religious ritual. The story involves a group of three military buddies who served in Iraq just a few years ago and stumbled upon a hidden, buried temple that seemed to open all three up to possession. When they returned home (dishonorably discharged), they began acting increasingly strange and dangerous to the point where they began hurting or threatening to hurt those around them. Sarchie and his comic-relief partner, Butler (Joel McHale), take a domestic disturbance call that leads them down a dark and sometimes scary path that intersects with that of a priest, Father Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez). Soon, Mendoza and Sarchie are discussing the very real possibility that evil forces are at work, including ones that threaten to harm Sarchie's wife (Olivia Munn) and young daughter.
Derrickson (who adapted the book with Paul Harris Boardman) is a filmmaker who knows how to generate tension, suspense and the occasional scream, but with Deliver Us From Evil, the emphasis is on tension. Sure, there are a few truly scary sequences, including a couple involving Sarchie's daughter and her creepy toy collection, but the director is more interested in making us care about the safety of the good people of this film, not all of whom survive.
Derrickson has also proven that he knows how to cast his films brilliantly, and as good as Bana and Ramírez are in this film, the name you'll hopefully remember after watching this movie is Sean Harris, who plays the primary possessed military man, Santino. Harris has had memorable roles in films like the Red Riding trilogy, Harry Brown and Prometheus, as well as the series "The Borgias," but there's an extended interrogation sequence in Deliver Us From Evil that is one of the most intense, brain-scrambling, devastating bits of evil on display that I've seen in quite some time. And it pretty much works because Harris sells it as if it's the last piece of acting he'll ever do (it's not; the guy already has his next three films in the can, including Michael Fassbender's Macbeth). This film is worth checking out for Harris' work alone.
There are some moments in Deliver Us From Evil that brush right up against moments from The Exorcist, and in a way, that seems inevitable in a story that splits its time between police work and religious ritual. It's good to see Bana back in form, playing a character that isn't trying to be larger than life or iconic. He's meant to be an above-average cop, who seems to have a gift for sensing when a case is going to be particularly nasty (turns out, it's more than just instincts), and he plays a man who has abandoned his faith and must rediscover it in order to save more people from dying or otherwise suffering. Those are the plot elements and acting highlights that sold me on this film.
Despite the fact that it seems to be raining in every damn frame of this film, Deliver Us From Evil is a solidly made work that balances its creepiest moments with gritty New York-underbelly hyper-realism to create something not quite unique, but far from derivative. Hey, at the very least, it's better than RIPD.
A lot of people are using works like "crazy" and "insane" to describe Snowpiercer, the latest visionary work by the great South Korean director Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Memories of Murder), but the truth is that, although some truly outrageous and exaggerated things happen during the course of this film, by the time it's over, it all feels quite inevitable and weirdly prophetic. Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige from writers Jacques Lob and Benjamin Legrand and artist Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer tells the story of a planet dealing with soaring temperatures due to global warming. In a rare show of solidarity, the world attempts to cool the planet by shooting a chemical into the atmosphere.
But rather than drop things a few degrees, it sends the planet into a premature Ice Age, killing everyone in the world. Anticipating this is, the forward-thinking Wilford (Ed Harris) spent years building a 60-car train on a track that goes around the world (taking the scenic route). On this super-train are passengers from all walks of life, including the poorest of the poor in the back cars and a whole host of amenities and rich people to enjoy them toward the front. After years of being used and abused by the 1 percenters, the back-of-train folks decide it's time to rebel and storm the engine room at the front of the train or die trying. This has been attempted before, but never in such an organized manner, led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt).
The film is quite simply the dirty masses moving from one car to the next, but what they are met with at each new door is more shocking that what they have just passed through to get there. Sometimes they are greeted with bloodthirsty security teams, other times they are met with something jarringly serene, like an aquarium that completely encompasses the passageway, or a peaceful garden, with a single old lady drinking tea as its caretaker. After a while, you start to find yourself eagerly anticipating what will come next, and wondering which of the seemingly endless number of huddled masses will die next.
And there are certainly plenty to choose from, including the likes of Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, and the great Kang-ho Song (Thirst; The Host; The Good, the Bad, The Weird) as a criminal who is freed by the rebels because he knows how to jimmy the locks between cars. His girlfriend is the equally bizarre Ah-sung Ko (also from The Host). Representing the front-of-car elite are Wilford's second in command Mason (Tilda Swinton, complete with the nastiest false teeth she's ever worn and a total lack of compassion for the dregs of the train).
With each new train car — each representing an alternate, twisted take on food preparation, education, warfare, technology, zoos, relaxation and partying — the herd is thinned and the mind is expanded gradually, until the surreal and horrific nature of this entire journey is fully revealed. It's one of the strongest varieties of social commentary in film that I've seen in quite some time, and the entire endeavor moves from pure violence and action to a creature built of philosophy. It's an incredible transition to watch, and the idea that anyone would attempt to cut this seamless, organic story is preposterous, bordering on insulting to Joon-ho.
Snowpiercer is aggressively intelligent, whacked out of its mind, and loaded with some of the coolest performances you're going to see all year. It shouldn't surprise you that the film is the highest-grossing film in South Korean history, and that's because it's that rare combination of pure entertainment and unashamed commentary on the present day. Don't let that scare you; let it thrill you. And for god's sake, let it inspire you to buy a ticket. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.
Earth to Echo
I'm legitimately torn about this low-grade science-fiction kids film that "borrows" heavily from some classic '80s, including most notably E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Explorers, Stand By Me and even bits of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was actually released in 1977, but you see my point (hopefully). The thing is, the makers of Earth to Echo — director Dave Green and writer Henry Gayden — clearly love these classic movies, and have gone out of their way to not flat out steal from them, but offer certain touches, an energy and a spirit that match these great films without aping them without pity.
Not technically a found footage film (since the footage was never lost, and one of the kids in the story edits and posts his self-made documentary online, which is what we're watching), Earth to Echo tells us the adventures of three best friends — Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley, Munch (Reese Hartwig) and Alex (Teo Halm) — whose community is about to be shut down to make room for infrastructure progress (highways), and this time we spend with them represents their last real shot at an adventure. They discover that many of their electronics go haywire in certain locations around town and figure out that they are being shown a map to a location far out in the dessert. Adding to the weirdness is a girl, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), who joins the boys on their bike trip at night.
And it's on this journey that the boys discover they aren't the only ones reading the signals, and that most likely this highway construction story is a bullshit excuse to toss out the families who live in this community so the government can go looking for... something named Echo, who has a much larger plan in mind.
For a film with no big stars and likely a modest budget, what Earth to Echo pulls off is pretty impressive, both in terms of special effects and emotional connections between the kids. I'm trying to outline a story without giving away some of the best, more science-fiction moments, but all of the ads show a small, roundish robot at the center of this movie, so I don't think that qualifies as a spoiler. But I think younger audience members will be suitably impressed and surprised by this story if they know as little as possible going in. The bigger picture metaphor here is about three kids about to say good-bye to each other, and reminds us that often kids on the verge of separation often want to have one last adventure together. The film is as surprisingly moving as it is entertaining. It also isn't particularly challenging to young minds, and while many kids may not have seen the movies I mentioned at the beginning of this interview, they have seen movies, so many things may seem familiar no matter your age.
Still, I found myself thinking about a few of my own movie-going experiences as a younger man, and seeing some of those films today does one of two things: they don't hold up, or they impress me even more than they did as a kid. Each to Echo probably won't stand the test of time, but it is encouraging that some filmmakers love making us remember our unbridled passion for these kinds of stories in our youthful days. I bet if you focus on the kids' relationships with each other (rather than the bells and whistles), you may actually find yourself enjoying the experience of watching this.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Earth to Echo director Dave Green and star Teo Halm.
I had to watch the latest work from writer-director John Carney twice to really understand what I was responding to in Begin Again, his first musically oriented film since Once. Both films are about lost souls who find each other, make beautiful music together (literally), and eventually build up enough strength in the other to set them on a slightly clearer and more hopeful both into whatever is next in their lives. With both works, it may not be the ending you're hoping for, but it's still a perfectly acceptable and hopeful way to leave our heroes.
In the case of Begin Again, Carney has shifted his focus from real musicians playing characters to actors pretending to be some manner of musician. A fully scruffy Mark Ruffalo plays washed-up music executive Dan, who has just been fired from the record label he helped found (with partner Saul, played by Mos Def). He gets loaded and ends up at a low-grade open-mic night where he hears the recently dumped Gretta (Keira Knightley) perform a perfectly lovely song about heartbreak, and he becomes inspired by her. Up until recently, she'd been the girlfriend and writing partner to Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5), a rising rock star who was lucky enough to have his music placed in a popular film and is now poised to record his first real album.
Dan convinces Gretta to let him record an album, which they will in turn give to his old label in hopes of signing a release deal. They concoct the idea of recording all of the songs in different great locations around New York City in one summer, letting the ambient noise and occasional siren or car horn be part of the recording. Most of the music is supplied by former New Radicals central figure Gregg Alexander, and his greatest gift is his ability to be versatile, making each song fit the situation, whether it's a song of great personal sorrow or an uplifting rocker. Director Carney and his Once star Glen Hansard also contribute tunes here and there, but it's Gregg's uncanny ability to capture a moment that saves the day.
"From what?" you might ask. Ruffalo's Dan is a little too perfect a mess to be believable. He rants about how record companies (his included) have gone from nurturing musicians to worrying about how they dress in their videos. Every time he says something to Knightley about one of her songs "going right to the top," I cringed. We know and he should know that that in no way interests her, and they come off sounding like empty promises from a drunk. Dan also has issues with his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), who is trying to grow up too fast. Thankfully, she finds a sympathetic ear in Gretta, who steers her away from dressing like a skank to attract boys, a lesson apparently her mother (Catherine Keener) doesn't see the need to teach her.
Anyone who already thinks Adam Levine in a world-class douche bag will probably either have that image confirmed by Begin Again or will appreciate the fact that he was bold enough to play an asshole boyfriend rather than try to make himself a good guy to improve his image. Levine is quite convincing as the confused young rocker who allows the industry and all of its temptation to seduce him. But he's downright hilarious when he attempts to work his way back into Gretta's life after he unceremoniously dumped her. He's the classic case of not being a bad guy, but doing bad things all the time.
Carney has made many other, non-musical films in his career, but few if any have played or been recognized outside of his native Ireland, so these lovely musical pieces are his sweet spot, and Begin Again is a flawed but still perfectly watchable drama with catchy and heartfelt tunes and strong performances from all. Knightley's voice is simply gorgeous and perfectly suited for these wistful songs of love, loss and newfound strength. Begin Again is a classic crowd pleaser, destined to be attacked by critics as something less than Once (which it is), but there's certainly plenty here to enjoy and settle into quite comfortably. Not everything has to be perfect to get the job done. The film is now playing in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Begin Again writer-director John Carney.
A Hard Day's Night
If I have to sell you on this rare opportunity to see this beautifully restored version of the Beatles' first foray into film on the big screen, then maybe you have some issues that I can't help you resolve. And to hear those songs blasting from a great sound system, forget about it. The Richard Lester-directed, black-and-white (looking as crisp as it ever has) A Hard Day's Night finds John, Paul, George and Ringo traveling to and prepping for a TV appearance, with seemingly everyone and thing pulling at them to be in the right place, when all they want to do is run around, have fun, make silly jokes (puns are a second language with these four), and play music.
It's been a while since I've seen A Hard Day's Night, and even longer since I've seen it on the big screen, but I'd forgotten just how nuanced Paul McCartney's performance actually is and how terribly tragic Ringo's put-upon persona really grabs you. And the supporting actors, especially Wilfred Brambell as Paul's impish, troublemaking grandfather and Victor Spinetti as the television director who spends every moment leading up the broadcast in a state of uncut anxiety, are a complete blast to observe.
Perhaps most impressive is Alun Owen's keen script, which gives the feeling of being improvised but is really the product of spending time with the Beatles and capturing their speech patterns and rapid-fire delivery. The screenplay works to the band's strengths as personalities as well as musicians. And then there's the music, beginning with the title track and blazing through "I Should Have Known Better," "Can't Buy Me Love," "All My Loving," "Tell Me Why," "And I Love Her," George Harrison's "Don't Bother Me," "If I Fell," "She Loves You" and more, every one of them worthy of singing along.
A Hard Day's Night remembers how to have fun and be silly without being dumb or nonsensical. And by the end of the film, each of the band members has had at least one singular, identifying moment that brought out a trait or behavior that is more telling than any biography could ever be. The film remains extraordinary for its simplicity and, most importantly, its tunes. It's as if Lester were trying to make the story as catchy as the music. In both cases, A Hard Day's Night succeeds to perfection. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
Writer Gore Vidal was one of the 20th century's only true renaissance men, moving effortlessly from stage, screen, essays, novels, history and political criticism of unparalleled ferocity. He was also a bit of a snob, but the type who earned the label because he usually had the distinction of being smarter than anyone else in the room. And director Nicholas Wrathall's provocative documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia paints as even handed a portrait of the late icon as one can expect in a film in which those who oppose Vidal are treated like villains (usually with complete justification).
There's no denying Vidal's power and eloquence as a writer, but for a film about him, the highlight is his absolute control of the spoken word. As a pure debater, there were few better, and watching Vidal rip into the likes of William F. Buckley (the two were frequently paired on television during the Vietnam War era) and a drunken Normal Mailer is like witnessing a great fencer slice his opponent's heart from his chest. Equally impressive were the historical figures whom Vidal called friends, including the Kennedys, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Tennessee Williams, and so many others. But being his friend didn't necessarily protect you from his critical eye. The film has the late Christopher Hitchens as one of its chief interviews and supporters of Vidal. But a falling out between these once close friends (that almost feels like it happened just off camera as the film was being shot) brings out a nasty streak in Vidal that seems to have resulted from Hitchens throwing his support behind the war in Iraq.
Openly gay for most of his adult life, Vidal suffered the indignity of homophobia even from his peers at times, leaving him a little shell-shocked at times but eventually leading to some of his greatest writing and speeches about the natural state of being gay. The film focuses a great deal on his relationship with longtime live-in companion (in name only, apparently) Howard Austen, and the intellectual bond they shared made both of them excel later in life.
The United States of Amnesia is a wicked and keenly observed biography of a man for whom there was and is no equal. One of the world's great popularly know intellectuals, Vidal was as comfortable at a political forum as he was on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." He was a surprisingly adept impersonator (his Ronald Reagan was especially nasty), and had a sense of humor that could be devastating, especially if you were on the receiving end of a particularly vicious barb. The film gives us examples of all of this and more, and makes us realize that he could be the life of the party or the fly in the ointment, depending on his mood. The doc is a both a real treat and a true learning experience. It opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.