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Wake-up Fall

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Sean Penn, man of the people, in All the King's Men.  

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Warren reimagined the story of Long as a morality play in which a weak man, a journalist from a wealthy family, becomes an adjunct to an overweening political boss and watches or assists in the destruction of everything he loves: a father figure, a best friend, a true love. Even though it became the template for a lot of finger-wagging parables in the forties and fifties, the Oscar-winning movie, directed by Robert Rossen, had the right mixture of toniness and pulp (along with Broderick Crawford’s putty face and the ultimate Mercedes McCambridge performance—with a radioactive chip on her shoulder).

Did we need a new All the King’s Men? There has been a lot of talk about dictatorship and demagoguery and a culture of corruption—and James Carville has lent his name to the remake (as an executive producer) to suggest the story has something urgent to say now. But damned if I know what that is, because Zaillian worries the life out of the thing. He lingers dewily over the banal romance while barely dramatizing the political machinations, so that Penn’s Stark doesn’t seem like a threat to much of anything except the Actor’s Studio. Next to our current administration, Willie & Co. are models of competence and straight talk.

All the King’s Men has been miscast virtually from top to bottom, with especially painful work from Jude Law (pretty, limp), James Gandolfini (no threat to Streep in the accent department), and Kate Winslet (bathed in ghostly white light to symbolize lost love). Jackie Earle Haley makes an amusing skeletal goon and Kathy Baker is the picture of pickled elegance, but the only performer I enjoyed watching was Anthony Hopkins, who loses his Louisiana accent midway through and becomes the living incarnation of Richard Burton in his cups. No Method mumbling here—just good old demagogic ham.

There is far more demagoguery on display in Jesus Camp, a frightening, infuriating, yet profoundly compassionate documentary about the indoctrination of children by the Evangelical right. The directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, bring the same rapt attention to the faces of little Christian campers that they brought to the subjects of their wrenching The Boys of Baraka. Except that these impressionable children are “saved” by being bombarded with the rhetoric of holy war and commanded to blow up that wall between church and state. Although the film tracks several kids—among them the adorable, snub-nosed Rachael and the dapper budding evangelist Levi—its dark heart is preacher Becky Fischer, who tells children that in the Old Testament a warlock like Harry Potter “would have been put to death.” Oh, sure, she believes in democracy, she says to Air America host Mike Papantonio, but “we can’t give everyone equal freedom because that’s going to destroy us.” Jesus Camp makes the best case imaginable for atheism.

The vital, endangered Air America can be heard on the car radio in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy—its gloomy commentaries adding to the ineffable dread that pervades the movie, an allusive and haunting meditation on the passing of a friendship. Two longtime buddies, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), head off on what will probably be their final camping trip in the Pacific Northwest—Mark’s wife is about to have a baby, while Kurt is slipping into drug dependency and homelessness. Against a radiant backdrop of decay and rebirth, nothing needs to be said; everything in this lovely film is crystalline.

The Science of Sleep
Directed by Michel Gondry. Warner Independent Pictures. R.

All the King’s Men
Directed by Steven Zaillian. Sony. PG-13.

Jesus Camp
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Magnolia Pictures. PG-13.

Old Joy
Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Kino Pictures. Not rated.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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