Does the world really need a new version of [blank]?” In this decade of relentless remakes and franchise-shaping before Installment No. 1 even hits the screens, the question is getting pretty tiring, and the ensuing debate is usually meaningless—nothing’s changing anytime soon. But All the King’s Men, whose release was delayed from last December, at least has a quasi-argument for its production. Democrat James Carville, the Louisiana political consultant with an outsize personality, spearheaded the project, stressing to producers the present relevance of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning novel. (Carville himself gets executive producer credit.) Warren’s book, its main character based on Louisiana governor Huey P. Long, was released in 1946 and turned into a film in 1949.
Warren’s main message? It may shock you: Initially idealist politicians often turn corrupt, bringing others down with them.
Maybe it was a surprise back then—populist Long served as governor from 1928 to 1932, then became a senator until his assassination in 1935—but it’s probably safe to say that for many people in 2006, that idea is pretty much a given. Besides the overall similarities he cited based on his perspective on the Bush administration, Carville pointed out one parallel between the book and current events: Part of what launched the career of Willie Stark, the fictional Long, is the shoddy construction of a schoolhouse whose eventual cave-in killed two students. It’s clearly comparable to the levees in Carville’s home state—though Katrina hit after All the King’s Men wrapped, and again, the situation isn’t something for which the public needs a cinematic metaphor.
So we’re still left with the question: Why mess with this old Oscar winner? Writer-director Steven Zaillian (1998’s A Civil Action) didn’t view the 1949 film, instead reimagining his version straight from the book (though he shifts the time period from the ’30s to the ’50s). The story is muddled but otherwise the same: Willie (Sean Penn) is a married, struggling door-to-door salesman who’s mouthy about his money-grubbing local politicians and runs for county treasurer. He loses, but his man-of-the-people campaign attracts the attention of journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law), who then follows Willie as he continues to find his way into government. Willie is introduced to Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), a Tony Soprano–ish tax assessor who convinces him to set his sights on the governorship. (“You could win without getting out of bed,” Tiny says.)
Willie begins campaigning with Tiny-scripted speeches and advice. But Jack and Willie’s aide, Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson), find out that the Everyman’s been set up to split the votes, and they tell him so. (Telepathically, apparently—a lot of questions get answered with an arched-eyebrow here.) So Willie outs Tiny during a speech, yells to the “hicks” in the audience that he’s also a hick and can therefore help them, and is on his way to the governor’s mansion. Exactly how and when Willie turns corrupt is unclear—Penn’s Willie yells to constituents like a nut from the very beginning, while staying low-key around his cronies—as is the point when he starts cheating on his wife, who shows up early and then is forgotten. Also out of nowhere, Jack begins yearning for an old love.
After a while, you become unsure whom exactly the movie is about. Law’s Jack narrates in an increasingly annoying, half-Southern, half-English drone that is admittedly fitting for the Brit’s flat, one-expression performance. Penn is inarguably a powerhouse, though that depends on one’s taste for scene-devouring and gonzo accents (the authenticity of Penn’s hick-speak is actually a source of debate). Clarkson—the only native Southerner—is in the film too little to make much of an impression, as are Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo. The also rarely seen but nonetheless magnetic Anthony Hopkins, who plays a powerful judge, tinges his Louisiana accent with a bit of his natural, slightly snooty-sounding Brit. With lots of ominously dim lighting and a scene hauntingly and elegantly set in the state capitol in Baton Rouge, which Long built and was also assassinated in, cinematographer Pawel Edelman at least gives viewers a pretty picture to look at. But that doesn’t save All the King’s Men from its own corruption: As the story branches out in all sorts of hard-to-follow directions, it’s clear that one fine cast—and more money thrown at a remake—has been wasted.
Feast is a little more well-defined: There are weird monsters, and they want to eat people. The horror flick is the latest product of Project Greenlight, the screenwriting contest/reality show that gives hope to wannabe filmmakers that they can mimic the fairy tale of Good Will Hunting, the first and Oscar-winning script by the show’s celebrity names, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The program, funded by Miramax Television and the Weinstein Company, is in its third year despite its first two movies, Stolen Summer and The Battle of Shaker Heights, getting limited releases and even smaller box-office returns. Feast, being an unabashed splatter-fest, is likely to receive more attention than the previous winning scripts, but only story-dismissing gore junkies—fans of, say, Saw—will declare this any better than other offerings in the recent parade of disposable slashers.
It starts off promisingly enough. First-time director John Gulager opens with a small, black-and-white frame of desert, which bursts into color when a car hits a telephone pole head-on. Cut to a bar, where the patrons drive grubby trucks with bumper stickers printed with such witticisms as “My Other Toy Has Tits!” As the characters are introduced, there’s a yellow-shaded still of each that includes name (usually such horror-movie stereotypes as “Bozo”) and life expectancy, which, entertainingly, is used to describe either a character’s time/method of death or what his future holds (for Jason Mewes’ Edgy Cat it proclaims, “already surpassed expectations”). And as soon as Bozo (Balthazar Getty), trying to rouse the life-weary drunkards and staff, yells, “C’mon, give me some action!” you know what’s coming next.
For about a third of the movie—written by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton—everything’s kind of Shaun of the Dead amusing. (If you forgive the blatant rip-off of a group holing themselves up in a bar while bitey things try to get in.) Henry Rollins plays a borderline fey motivational speaker—“These monsters are no match for the human spirit!”—and a torn-apart, maggot-covered, barely-alive customer (Judah Friedlander) mumbles, “God, your sink sucks!” as he’s trying to clean up a bit. The invading creatures themselves are sort of like lightning-quick, squealing jackals, covered in lots of slime and spewing maggots (hello, Slither?); one of the writers’ funnier, more inspired elements is the unexpected method the munchers use to reproduce.
But there’s never an explanation for where these monsters come from. They don’t really appear all that often—though when they do, the over-the-top butchering should elicit more laughs than cardiac-arrest scares. As the 86 minutes go on and on, the funny dialogue sinks to sub-B-movie levels (drinking game: a shot every time someone says, “Lock this place down!” or “We have to fight!”) along with the majority of performances (Navi Rawat as “Heroine” is particularly abominable). Gulager’s initially interesting camerawork, in which he doesn’t frenetically bobble the camera during the first attacks as much as he seems to drop it and knock it around (OK, third rip-off: Blair Witch), becomes a convenient ploy to keep the audience from finding out that even the filmmakers don’t know what the hell is going on. And thus another fairy tale ends up, well, a bloody mess.CP