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The release of a new Hal Hartley movie used to be a much-anticipated event in the indie-film world, but "Fay Grim," his most recent work, just opened in New York last week to lukewarm reviews.
Hartley, 47, made a name for himself with the low-budget films, "The Unbelievable Truth" (1989) and "Trust" (1990), both of which were set in the working-class suburbs of Long Island where he grew up, and both of which were about loners and impoverished outsiders. These early Hartley films starred the late distinctive and wonderful actress/director Adrienne Shelly. His later films were uneven and in 1997, he made "Henry Fool," which won the Best Screenwriting Award at the Cannes Film Festival. "Fay Grim" is the sequel to this film. "Henry Fool" told the story of Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a brilliant but withdrawn garbage man, who is befriended by Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a witty, pretentious and untalented novelist. "Fay Grim" picks up the story nine years later, in a post 9/11 world. Fay (Parker Posey), Simon's sister, married Henry in the first film but hasn't seen him in years. A CIA agent (Jeff Goldblum, who doesn't have nearly enough to do) tells Fay that Henry was a rogue agent whose writings were encoded memoirs. The CIA, along with murderous spies from various countries, will do anything to retrieve Henry's work, which they believe Fay has. The movie soon becomes a confusing, improbable and tedious experience, as well as a dismayingly obvious exercise in US-bashing and an attempt to explain the motivations of Al Qaeda. In the end, "Fay Grim" is only for die-hard Hartley fans.
I had hoped "Fay Grim" would be a bright spot on the New York movie scene, which, sadly, is a bit bleak. Just as in Israel , there are few independent theaters left here and the mainstream movie chains are mostly showing a series of "3" s - the third films in the "Spiderman," "Shrek" and "Pirates of the Caribbean " series. Clearly, studios are simply revisiting the movies that have been their big cash cows in the past.
The most enjoyable film I've seen here is a quiet gem from Ireland , "Once," the story of a depressed street musician whose luck changes when he meets a young, earnest Czech mother. The film that's gotten the best reviews of everything playing now is "Away from Her," directed by Canadian actress Sarah Polley, which stars Julie Christie as a woman suffering from Alzheimer's.
I was underwhelmed by the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration, "Grindhouse," two films, one of which was made by each director, in a style meant to recreate and pay homage to the exploitation films of the Sixties and Seventies.
The gross-out humor of the over-the-top Rodriguez contribution, "Planet Terror," about a Southern town overrun by flesh-eating zombies because of that old plot standby, a
military-experiment-gone-wrong, had a few laughs (but is not for the squeamish). I thought it had a little more kick to it than the self-conscious Tarantino mini-feature, "Death Proof," which stars Kurt Russell as a psycho driver who uses his car to kill beautiful young female passengers.
Bizarrely, the Tarantino parody-of-parodies was fleshed out and shown as a stand-alone feature in the main competition at Cannes , arguably the most competitive showcase in the world. Since the dawn of movie-making more a century ago, there has not been a year when "Death Proof" would have been one of the 20 best films made. But the Cannes selection committee works in mysterious ways. In the end, a Romanian feature, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," a movie by a little-known director about injustice during the Ceausescu regime, appealed more to the jury than Tarantino's hipper-than-thou effort.
Audiences haven't embraced "Grindhouse" either. I saw it with three other people in a large auditorium at one of the roomy new multiplexes in the cleaned-up Times Square . The irony, of course, is that the movies "Grindhouse" was inspired by played in grimy little one-screen theaters, next to peep shows and triple-X theaters, in the old Times Square . Rodriguez and Tarantino had obviously hoped to make the kind of lively schlock they loved growing up, but seeing their big-budget production (which includes faux-scratches to make it look like an old print, supposedly missing reels and mock trailers for even schlockier-looking movies) in such a new, expensive setting just pointed up all its flaws.