FESTIVAL REVIEW: Hickenlooper's "The Big Brass Ring" Glosses Over Indie Politics
By Stephen Garrett
Continuing its disheartening trend this year of bland, big-star vehicles
boasting glossy production values, the Los Angeles Independent Film
Festival closed Tuesday night with "The Big Brass Ring," a furiously
acted, surprisingly unengaging political drama rife with plot twists and
ruminations on the nature of power but little in the way of endearing
relationships or searing confessionals.
On paper, the LAIFF couldn't have imagined a better pedigree for its
indie climax: director George Hickenlooper, most known for his
"Apocalypse Now" documentary, "Hearts of Darkness" and a festival
alumnus for three of its five years; a slew of Oscar-nominated actors
like William Hurt, Nigel Hawthorne, and Miranda Richardson, who all
gained prestige in indie films (Hurt even won his Oscar for the indie
"Kiss of the Spider Woman"); and a story based on a script by Orson
Welles, the granddaddy of independent filmmakers. Hometown film critic
F.X. Feeney of the L.A. Weekly also co-wrote the "Brass Ring" script and
plays a small role in the film.
Even the film is about being independent: two political candidates, both
outside of the Republican and Democratic parties, run neck-and-neck in
the Missouri gubernatorial race. Frontrunner Blake Pellarin (Hurt) is
days away from what advisors feel will be a strong, though narrow,
victory. But trouble starts brewing when secrets about his past keep
bubbling up and
journalists and politicians alike need answers, including a nosy
reporter who wants to know about the mysterious Raymond Romero and a
photograph showing two naked men in an intimate, interracial embrace --
one of whom looks suspiciously like Pellarin.
Double-dealings, midnight assignations, presidential aspirations, a
Mississippi River party-barge overflowing with hundreds of raucous gay
man, a manuscript that's 15,000-pages long, and even an incontinent
monkey -- "Brass Ring" bursts with the elements that make for juicy
political intrigue. But the film never really takes off, which may have
more to do with the script than the admittedly less-then-dazzling
direction. Besides, Welles' strength was not necessarily as a
screenwriter. No one hails "Touch of Evil" or "The Lady from Shanghai"
for their convoluted stories, but no one can forget the visually
inventive, dramatically staged, and consistently inspired ways in which
those movies were made; Welles was a director and actor first and
foremost. But just because Welles left behind a screenplay doesn't
necessarily mean it should be produced.
As with fest-opener "Entropy," an after-film reception for the closing
night film was held in the cavernous lobby of the Director's Guild,
where invited partygoers (without movie tickets) were sucking down
drinks and gobbling up buffet noshes by the time "Brass Ring" let out
its hundreds of captive audience members. What's so strikingly ironic
is that the screening seemed almost secondary to the lobby-milling
already in full swing, especially since half the attendees weren't even
allowed to see the film. The priority at an event like this is the
food, the drink, the networking, and the goodie bags anyway, so how much
does it matter whether or not people saw the movie? And frankly, if the
festival's good name and reputation can draw a Hollywood crowd that big
-- even without giving them tickets -- then why not forgo a glitzy,
star-filled bad movie and actually show a gritty, no-name good movie?
At least people might remember the film more than the catering.