Steve reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival
The hectic Toronto pace caught up with me. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it, mainly because it's the truth. The grind of hustling from theater to theater and sticking out one film after another while forgoing sleep wore me down in more ways than one -- on the 13th, I ended up seeing exactly two films. But there's more than that -- once I got past Day 5, the highs and lows, the films about which to get passionate, kind of dissipated and I was stuck watching one mediocrity after another. Still, I promised coverage, so coverage will be given. Even if it's half-assed, bleary-eyed coverage.
So here it is: a big, unpolished List o' Film that covers everything I saw from September 10th to 14th. The list goes in ascending order, so skip to the bottom if you're merely curious about what might have been good.
Exodus (Pang Ho-cheung): An okay short film turned torturous by the extension to feature length. Simon Yam plays a downtrodden cop who is told by a man arrested for voyeurism in a public women's bathroom about a female plot to exterminate all men; unfortunately, that plot, which in another film would make for a cracking B-movie, gets expressed via endless sequences of Yam skulking around, stalking the man, starting a relationship with the man's ex-wife, ignoring his own wife, etc. Yam's forceful charisma gets quashed by the thorough dullness of the character, and Pang's workmanlike direction does him no favors either. The very definition of a GUNDAN Movie.
Sad Vacation (Shinji Aoyama): Aoyama's films, of the ones I've seen, generally deal with people finding ways to deal with tragedy and horror in their lives; he's just never expressed said theme in such a lame way before. Story wanders, gets stuck in dead ends (what the hell is with the flameout on the subplot with the kid?), generally goes nowhere as slowly as possible. Aoyama's direction is surprisingly bland, lacking even the slightest hint of the dynamic visual sense that distinguished Eureka and Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachtani?. Even Tadanobu Asano, who is usually way more awesome than he is here, can't save this meandering dross.
Redacted (Brian De Palma): I wonder if De Palma realizes that he already made this film with Casualties of War and that it was a lot better without the multimedia verite clumsiness. Also, I wonder if De Palma knows that he keeps muddling his own message (i.e. the awful YouTube thing at the end, which I think is supposed to represent the gradual radicalism of youth culture but merely makes anti-war proponents look like ignorant, ill-educated, reactionary jackasses). I admire the intent, but I'm not sure reducing a complex and troubling issue to a black-and-white morality play inhabited by tortured noble folks and evil straw men is quite the way one should register one's disgust.
Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-sheng): Alternate title: Lee Kang-sheng Likes Pot and Sex But Especially Pot. Lee demonstrates that he's learned a thing or two about quiet pacing and image-making from his frequent director Tsai Ming-liang (the light show that plays off the bodies of the participants in a menage a trois is pretty cool); however, the lethargy and aimlessness that infects his main character is allowed to creep into the fabric of the film itself. Narcotized is the right word, I think.
Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer): The recreation of silent-film comedy technique is pretty impressive. All the technique in the world, though, can't make this funny. A bit too leisurely for my tastes, really -- I prefer the more frantic stylings of Buster Keaton.
Glory to the Filmmaker! (Takeshi Kitano): What the holy hell IS this thing? Completely insane knockabout comedy has several laugh-out-loud moments (my favorite being Kitano reacting to an evil spirit) but becomes wearying when its shapelessness becomes apparent. Some structure -- even a little bit -- would have helped this feel like more than a hazy collection of gags and non sequitors. There's no question that Kitano, at this point, is doing exactly what he wants, and that's cool, but he's doing it at the expense of the audience.
Dai Nipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto): Melancholic comedy in a mock-doc style, about a hangdog middle-aged screw-up who occasionally transforms into a skyscraper-tall superhero and battles "baddies," has some funny moments courtesy of Matsumoto's pitch-perfect performance in the title role. The big CGI sequences detailing the epic battles, though, generally kill the film's momentum, and there's no earthly reason that a lark like this should stretch to two hours. The best sequence is at the end, when the style of the film shifts to great effect; unfortunately, like everything else in the film, it's allowed to go on too long.
The Girl in the Park (David Auburn): Lots of good acting from Sigourney Weaver, Alessandro Nivola, Elias Koteas and even Kate Bosworth (an actress I generally despise) in this drama about a woman, damaged by her daughter's fifteen-years-prior disappearance, who forges a strange connection with a young layabout. However, though there's a lot I like about playwright David Auburn's directorial debut, I never bought the central relationship between Weaver and Bosworth for a second, and as such the film never quite convinces. Best scene: Bosworth regaling a fifteen-year-old boy at a party with a long, sordid invented life history. Worst scene: The long dinner sequence immediately following that scene.
Honeydripper (John Sayles): Exactly like Casa de Los Babys, the last Sayles film I saw -- nicely acted, sensitively written, intelligent and completely inert. I doubt I'll remember this film in two months' time. Whatever happened to the guy who gave us Lone Star and Limbo?
Mad Detective (Johnnie To & Wai Ka Fai): Like most of Johnnie To's films, this has a fabulous opening sequence. And like most of To's films, this never tops its opening sequence. Interesting for a while, but eventually buckles under the weight of its overloaded premise (a detective solves crimes by seeing people's "inner personalities"). Some streamlining might have helped, but nothing could have helped the jejune broken-mirror symbolism, which hasn't been fresh since Dario Argento flogged the hell out of it in the '70s.
The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat): Breillat's first film since a near-fatal affliction that put her out of commission for several years sees her rendering her traditionally fiery gender politics in a more muted tone. Has many sharply observant moments and a properly fierce lead performance from Asia Argento; the second hour, though, is a bit redundant. Also, it's not Breillat's fault, but her film suffers in proximity to Rivette's The Duchess of Langelais, which has practically the same plot. Still pretty good, at any rate, with a perfect final cut.
Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway): Looks like Greenaway is ready to come back to Earth after The Tulse Luper Suitcases -- this biopic centered around the circumstances that led to Rembrandt's creation "The Night Watch" is, by Greenaway's standards, an accessible and traditional work of historical drama. By anyone else's standards, though, it's still pretty nutty, with an overtly theatrical approach to the staging, a thick atmosphere of hysteria and conspiracy and a preponderance of breasts and penises. Loses a little thrust when it abandons Greenaway's unsparing, earthy sense of humor and gets serious in the second hour, but worth consideration anyway as the promising return of a wayward master. Martin Freeman's exuberant, lusty performance as Rembrandt would be a starmaker in any other world.
Eat, for This Is My Body (Michelangelo Quay): Heavily symbolic rumination on the effects of Haitian colonization is beautifully filmed but a bit obscure and contains some shocking mixed messages. (Surely the scene with the children and the cake can't be saying what I think it's saying?) Fortunately, it sorts itself out about halfway through; it takes some time to understand what it's getting at, but it's worth the wait. This one's stuck in my memory, and I kind of hope I get a chance to see it again. Sylvie Testud makes a striking impression despite saying maybe twenty words total. Caveat emptor: There were more walkouts at this screening than at any other I attended.
A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol): Shockingly, this is my first exposure to Chabrol, and this makes me want to explore further -- it's a seductive and sneakily decadent tale of a woman caught between two rich men. Proceeds like a light comedy of manners until a certain fade-out halfway through, at which point it slips through the back door of suspense. The last ten minutes leave a bad taste, even viewed through the prism of upper-class exploitation of willing lower-class citizens, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't entertained.
Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant): Gorgeous meditation on states of physical being by Van Sant, who directs this thing for all it's worth. Bears superficial similarities to Elephant, but unlike that film Van Sant uses his non-chronological structure and sound design to implicitly takes a moral stance against the kind of teenaged apathy that leads to what happens here. Lead performance a bit deficient, but the rest of the cast performs admirably in a Bressonian-model sort of way.
Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog): Herzog, one of my favorite filmmakers, keeps his late-career resurgence humming along with this smashing documentary at a research station in Antarctica that, among other things, functions as a somewhat grumpier yet still intoxicating companion piece to his strange and mournful The Wild Blue Yonder. The bizarre and beautiful visuals that Herzog seems to attract are plentiful (like the shots from inside a lava crater); unexpectedly, this is also funnier than most things that pass for comedy in modern cinema. The scene where Herzog hassles the penguin expert with hilariously inappropriate questions is, in itself, worth the film's length. That it also serves as a lead-in to a funny yet poignant image seems appropriate.
You, the Living (Roy Andersson): The knock on this is that it's very, very similar to Andersson's earlier chunk of mordantly deadpan wit Songs from the Second Floor. To which I can only reply: Yes, and? Two similarly awesome films are better than one, right?
Stuck (Stuart Gordon): I generally like Gordon, but if someone had told me that Gordon's new film, arriving with no expectations, would better the new films by Romero, Kitano or Argento, I probably wouldn't have believed you. (Well, maybe that last one.) What Gordon has done here is take the bizarre true-life case of Chante Mallard, the nurse who drove home with a homeless man she had hit stuck in her windshield and left him to die in her garage, and spin it out into a gruesome, blackly funny horror film in which the monster is towering self-involvement. Gets as much mileage as can be gotten out of its premise, with complications and screwy plot developments keeping interest fresh and tension high, and Gordon never lets the pace flag once Stephen Rea flies through the glass. Rea exudes desperate determination as the man in the window, while Mena Suvari perfectly portrays the type of blinkered obliviousness and concern for one's one station above all others that would be necessary for this sort of thing to seem okay. Builds more momentum and gets more amazing the further down it follows its diseased muse until the brutal showdown finale, where it transcends onto some generally-unexplored plain of tough-minded B-movie nirvana. If I haven't made it clear enough yet: This movie is freakin' awesome.
Miscellany and wrap-up tomorrow...