Saturday, September 15, 2007
Mutum (Sandra Kogut) 59
XXY (Lucia Puenzo) 41
Audience Award - Eastern Promises (which contains the best scene in any film I've seen at the festival this year)
Runners-up: Juno (ridiculous) & Body of War
Best Canadian Film - My Winnipeg
Award for Artistic Innovation - Encarnacion (Rather inexplicable, as this is little more than a sensitive soap opera)
FIPRESCI Award - La Zona
Discovery Award - Cochochi
For the record, my personal choice for Best Film is Cassandra's Dream, and the best performance I've seen at the festival this year is Anna Faris' turn in Smiley Face.
Friday, September 14, 2007
Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog) 64 [This Antarctic travelogue is somewhat shapeless, but it's filled with plenty of visual wonders and Herzog's great, deadpan sense of humor. The moments where he cuts off his verbose interviewees and summarizes their tales in voiceover were particularly awesome.]
Eat, For This is My Body (Michelange Quay) 17 [I generally love Matthew Barney's movies, but watching this I think I understood how those things play to people not at all in touch with the guy's sensibility. I am pretty sure this film is not rooting for racism, but given the miscalculated imagery, I can't really be sure.] [Note to Mike: Sylvie has extended nude scenes.]
Iska's Journey (Csaba Bollok) 28 [The second Hungarian orphan movie I've seen at Toronto this year, with pretty much none of the redeeming qualities of Happy New Life. That film was formally adventurous, while this is completely pedestrian from that perspective. It's too uninvolving to be particularly effective as a message movie to boot.]
Christopher Columbus, The Enigma (Manoel de Oliveira) 68 [This chipper tour guide of a movie is hands-down the most pleasurable viewing experience I've had at the film festival this year, but it's also the one thing I've seen this year that failed to incite audience applause at the end, so I suspect that description says more about me than de Oliviera's work. Nonetheless, I had a smile plastered across my face throughout. The good cheer present here, the casualness of the filmmaking, and the pleasing portrait of enduring love, really took me in. I really have to dig into this dude's back catalog someday, because all of his late works charm the heck out of me.]
Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung) 36 [I remember that when I was prepping for the festival, I read the Cannes buzz on this one, which raved about how despite a Korean-American director, the film managed to capture the feel of native African cinema. I should have remembered that much African cinema is rudimentary and visually dull.]
The Devil's Chair (Adam Mason) 27 [This is an obnoxiously written, stupidly twisty, digitally shot, splatter film that ultimately cuts away from the gore when we want to see it most. Boo.]
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-sheng) 66
Not the shock that Woody's other thriller, Match Point, was, but also not much of a downgrade in quality from that career high point either. This tightly-knit London-set drama about two brothers living beyond their means is closer in spirit to Claude Chabrol's work than Match Point (which felt like modern-day Henry James), meaning its glides between satire and suspense almost imperceptibly throughout. The script is wickedly conceived, with a Philip Glass score slyly underscoring the inevitability of it all. It is odd that between this and Match Point, Allen suddenly seems to have developed a class consciousness, but the film is nonetheless convincing on that level. Ultimately, it's distinctively his work, because it has at its center a comic engine of self-justification ironically highlighting the inconsistencies between what people say and what they do.
Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen) 78
Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog) 64
Eat, For This is My Body (Michelange Quay) 17
Iska's Journey (Csaba Bollok) 28
Christopher Columbus, The Enigma (Manoel de Oliveira) 68
Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung) 36
The Devil's Chair (Adam Mason) 27
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Highlight of the film for me was this: Brolin's Texan loses his hat and boots in a gunfight. Two scenes later, he's getting his costume back, once again sinking in to the Coen Bros. world where people are defined by their grotesque outfits as much as anything they say or do.]
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik) 54 [All day, I've had people coming up to me shocked at this rating. Sorry, dudes, but I just don't get what y'all are responding to here. For the most part, there's little here that's bad, but I have just as hard a time finding anything that I really love either. One or two shots are gorgeous (e.g. the shot of the masked bandits standing in the trees on the night of the last train robbery), but there's so little here that feels fresh. I've seen better Jesse James movies (such as Sam Fuller's), and many po-mo westerns which were less restrained by self-conscious artistry. Not even the acting particularly impressed, I'm afraid, with the two leads giving performances filled with mannerisms and tics. Someone, please explain the hype... Until then, I'll stick with something like Penn's The Left-Handed Gun, which covered all of this ground, 50 years ago, much more thoroughly, in much less time.]
Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy) 51 [The mix of '70s-era "realism" and current-day movie gloss never comes off here, I'm afraid. The movie tries to be downbeat and morally murky, but it's bitten off more than it can chew. Nothing particularly impressive on any level, as far as I'm concerned, though it goes down easy enough.]
The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin) 62 [I am really glad I caught this, partially because it goes right in so many places where The Visitor went disastrously wrong. I've heard a lot of complaints about the contrivances and coincidences in the script, but they're kind of the point behind the thing. I think I read the thought somewhere that Akin is inventing new narrative forms that reflect the new kinds of relationships that are emerging in our globalized, cross-cultural world. Whoever said that is dead on... This is unabashedly melodramatic, but it's, refreshingly, not very stupid at all.]
Erik Nietzsche The Early Years (Jacob Thuesen) 29 [The fictionalized autobiography of Lars von Trier's film school years sounded good on paper, but in practice it's categorically awful. I mean, I can appreciate how the movie charts an innocent artist turning into a confirmed cynic, but nothing about the movie feels particularly honest. It was clearly written by the cynic, and not that young idealist. At least there were a few snippets of homemade shorts that von Trier directed as a child to keep it from being a total wash.]
Nothing is Private (Alan Ball) 7 [I guess this is touchy subject matter, but I wasn't offended on any level, except perhaps an aesthetic one. Seriously, this film, which plays like an equally misguided, comic version of Crash, is the most horribly miscalculated thing I've seen in recent memory. Two hours of pubic hair shaving, menstrual jokes, and child molestation, capped off by a completely unquestioning attitude toward the characters who most need to be criticized. If nothing else it demonstrates how good a director Sam Mendes must have been to turn American Beauty into something watchable.]
Ex Drummer (Koen Mortier) 46 [I guess this is basically a third-rate version of Trainspotting, but it's pretty inventive throughout, and it's not afraid to indulge in its extreme side. I didn't find it funny, per se, but I kind of appreciated how gleefully misogynist and nihilistic it was willing to be for its own sake.]
Les Chasons d'amour (Christophe Honore) 43 [I don't even like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, so I sure as hell am not going to dig a half-assed homage with arbitrary gender swapping and a wretched score. The last 30 seconds were nice and mature, though. "Love me less, just love me a long time".]
Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway) 64 [I'm sure at least half of the jokes (or "jokes"... it's Greenaway directing, after all) flew over my puny little mind, but this biopic of Rembrandt seemed more approachable than usual for the director. He's showing the construction and deconstruction of one of the great painter's greatest works, explaining the hidden symbols that dot the work, turning the investigation into a fairly compelling mystery plot. Definitely enjoyable if you're at all predisposed toward the guy's work, but probably equally torturous if you're averse.]
Chaotic Ana (Julio Medem) 39 [In the last scene of this, that crazy Ana poops in someone's face, so she can taunt him into bashing her head in with a lamp, thereby fulfilling a 2000 year old destiny. That didn't make much sense to me until I remembered the first scene, in which a dove poops in the eye of a hawk, only to be torn to shreds.
Then I remembered the second scene, in which that oh-so-chaotic Ana is dancing at a rave, and suddenly reaches out into a crowd, only to find a giant horse penis, which begins ejaculating all over her.
No fucking clue here, either, folks...]
Juno (Jason Reitman) 48 [A film this glib and facile deserves a quip just as glib and facile... It's Gilmore Girls, but pregnant.]
Unfinished Stories (Pourya Azarbayjani) 24 [Iran still awful for women, Iranian filmmakers apparently getting worse. Some insanely ugly DV to boot. If you ask me about this at next year's fest, I'll probably have no clue what you're talking about.]
The Savages (Tamara Jenkins) 73 [Tiny in scale, but at the same time kind of note-perfect. It's poignant and funny in all of the right places. I don't remember ever liking Laura Linney this much in anything.]
Forever Never Anywhere (A. Svobosa) 61 [The first of my "stuck in a car after a crash" double-feature, it's snappy and funny, even if it's a bit disposable. It has a dark, distinctly Austrian sense of humor that serves it well enough to make its gimmicky premise sustainable at feature length.]
Stuck (Stuart Gordon) 76 [Best of the fest, so far, this finds Gordon again in the nasty mode he's been developing in movies like Edmond and King of the Ants. I love how it refuses to sell out with any late-breaking developments of morality, and the general lack of ambition allows it to function as pretty pure entertainment. I don't think I'm alone in my love for it, for the record... The crowd went bonkers for it too.]
Monday, September 10, 2007
No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers) 68
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik) 54
Telling a politicized tale of sexual repression, Lust, Caution focuses on Wang Jiazhi, played by Wei Tang in a wholly accomplished performance that feels like as much of a breakthrough as Zhang Ziyi's CT,HD turn was a few years back. A young student turned revolutionary spy, she engages in an extended undercover stint in which she attempts to set the traitorous, but careful, Yee (Tony Leung) up for an assassination attempt. Leung remains elusive for most of the film's duration, and a large portion of his performance is delivered through a series of sex scenes that demonstrate just how sadistic a traitor he is playing. Several Hitchcock references are made during the movie, and the obvious touchstone is his Notorious, which definitively covered this ground.
Despite its epic runtime, Lust, Caution is a straightforward, laser focused narrative with an intimate scale. Most of the film is spent questioning to what degree a person can separate personal feelings from political ones. This theme emerges early on as the youth group joins the nationalist cause through a mix of genuine want to help their motherland and peer pressure. Lee keeps probing it throughout, mining considerable drama from the central question of where Wang Jiazhi's loyalties lie. It's worthy stuff, delivered with all of the class one would expect from one of our most consistent and exciting moviemakers.
A re-imagining and updating of the original Night of the Living Dead, Diary follows a group of film students who are on location in rural Pennsylvania when news reports hit that the dead are now walking the earth. Slyly commenting on just how media-saturated today's youth are, the initial response that these kids have to the news is to make a documentary about the events. Skeptical of traditional media, the film celebrates bloggers, MySpace publishers and all forms of DIY reporting. Many of the limitations here feel like assets, given then way that Romero presents what we see as the home-edited, internet-posted work of a film student with a social conscience. Judging by the jokes, such as those featuring a deaf Amish man, that would feel right at home on YouTube, it's clear that Romero is as in touch with the times as ever. Alongside his biting Land of the Dead, Diary presents powerful evidence that Romero might be the American filmmaker most tapped into the new hypocrisies and fears of the post-9/11 era.
That's not to suggest that Diary of the Dead is so socially conscious that it forgets that it's a horror film. To the contrary, the new stylistic approach seems to re-energize the filmmaker, leading him to invent an endless series of scares as the young documentarians move from one zombie-infested disaster area to the next. If the prevailing sense of dread that so distinguished the original never materializes, it's only because Romero's ambitions are far greater here. He reasserts himself again as the definitive expert of his subgenre (one hilarious bit reasserts that the undead shouldn't run in movies) and delivers a wholly original entry in a series that might have seemed to have said it all already.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
Things start promisingly. The pre-credits sequence, which cross-cuts between a funeral procession, ritualistic preparations, and impressive landscape shots while a minimalist piano score builds, is no small achievement. Once the film begins proper, the movie finds itself still on sure footing. As we're introduced to a group of residents and caretakers in a senior citizens' community, Kawase starts introducing a series of philosophical concerns, setting up the journey that fills the second half. Life, death, mourning and guilt are the topics at hand here, but what's refreshing is how the director manages to bring up such subjects while not denying her characters a sense of spontaneity or pleasure.
Even though it's less strikingly casual than Shara was, Forest is structured so that it has plenty of room to breathe. At the film's end, it is revealed to have been pretty deterministic, but it never feels that way while you're watching it. Repeated like a mantra throughout are the words "There are no formal rules, you know". They clearly seem to inform Kawase's stylistic approach. She's partly such a strong filmmaker, even when working in a decidedly minor scale, because she's able to recognize the difference between being sentimental and simply being alert to emotions like love, fun and loss. Ultimately, The Mourning Forest is not so much flawed as it is unable to create a very powerful impression. One or two scenes, such as a river crossing in a downpour, are exciting, but the exceptionally contemplative nature of the film makes it a long, somewhat dull wait for cathartic release.
Saturday, September 08, 2007
Konstantin Lavronenko, who plays Alex, the husband, inexplicably won the Best Actor prize at Cannes this year. His performance is almost entirely interior. Combined with a script that doesn't ever adequately flesh out his (or anyone's) character, the impression that he most often gives on screen is that of a man thoughtlessly staring off into empty space. The film fares better as visual feat than drama, to be sure. Two shots, which happen to be the two most striking in the film, are fully indebted to Tarkovsky. The first explicitly recalls the extended, behind-the-car tracking shot in Solaris, while the second, which is a long camera track looking into a mud puddle, seems to nod toward similar shots in Stalker.
Much like Tarkovsky, Zvyagintsev also fills his work with Christian symbolism, pushing the story vaguely into the realm of allegory. Unfortunately, the effect is more heavy-handed and reductive than a way to deepen the resonance of the ultimate tragedy. Crosses dot composition frequently, and in one moment that's far too on the nose for its own good, a young girl reads a passage from the Bible on the importance of love, giving the film a moral that totally reduces the potential audience response to character actions. Furthermore, since the character behaviors are psychologically implausible in the extreme and because the plot is predicated upon inane contrivances, The Banishment fails to connect even on a surface level. For now, the best that can be said about Zvyagintsev is that he seems like he could potentially be a master filmmaker someday, even if he's still not made a good movie.
Unfortunately, after a jaunty, semi-musical first half-hour, despair becomes the prevailing emotion. By the one-hour mark the returns have diminished pretty severely. The deliberate pacing, which actually served the comedy well in the early scenes, becomes something of a liability as the laughs becomes more sporadic. The dull, dingy pastel color scheme becomes increasingly suffocating. The vignettes become ever more mundane. The injection of political commentary into the pastiche does little to shake the feeling that this is a live-action cartoon. What Andersson achieves here is occasionally funny in the same way that Jacques Tati's movies are funny, but it rarely manages that master's level of visual complexity or wit. Nonetheless, despite any shortcomings, this is not a work to be ignored. Andersson's detailed, largely static compositions beg to be seen on as big a screen as possible. To complain that his skits are difficult or boring to sit through because they seem too close to the pain of daily life is to pay them some kind of a compliment.
First a few words about the screening...
Surely by the standards of Toronto's Midnight Madness audiences, a new film from horror maestro Dario Argento is an event of the highest order. Few venues anywhere could offer a group of genre fans so excited and so devoted, so the energy at the start of the show was electric. Dario Argento, and his daughter and leading lady Asia were both in attendance, which only contributed to excitement levels. She thanked her father for making her the freak she is. He, clearly in an emotional state, didn't have much to say, but when Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes let it slip that it was Dario's birthday, the crowd serenaded him with a rendition of "Happy Birthday".
Thankfully, after all that buildup, the movie itself did not disappoint many. The third entry in Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy, it immediately presents the director in good form. An early, astonishingly brutal disembowlment scene sets the gruesome tone at the start, and Argento rarely lets up from there, creating a chaotic thrill ride of a movie. Lacking the self-conscious artistry of many of his earlier, and finer, films, Mother of Tears: The Third Mother finds Argento in balls-out entertainment mode. He includes a plot only insofar as it will move the audience along to the next gory set piece, filling most of the screen time with chase scenes, bloody slayings, and mayhem-laden montages.
A follow-up to the genre classic Suspiria and the somewhat lamentable Inferno, Mother of Tears traces the exploits of a young scholar who, after unwittingly unleashing a long-hidden evil, discovers that she is the only one who can stop the malicious third mother, the final in a trio of witches that operate like the Three Fates, and represent an incarnation of chaos. Ultimately, the story is beside the point, though. Argento's movies often use the supernatural to justify a certain illogic, and the approach here is no exception. Scenes play out with little regard for overall coherence, always striving to maximize effect in the moment. The director employs nearly his entire bag of tricks to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, from shock cuts and loud chords on the soundtrack, to performances that devour the scenery, to a wicked little monkey that terrorizes the heroine.
Ultimately, enjoyment of Mother of Tears requires some degree of complicity in the director's game. This film is obviously not as classy as many of Argento's best. It rarely feels eerie, and instead goes for shocks. That shift might come as a letdown to a devoted few, but even they could never accuse Argento of doing things halfway here. He goes deliriously over the top and carries us with him.
Friday, September 07, 2007
Starting Out in the Evening (Andrew Wagner) 38 [With its character-driven plot, its unattractive digital photography, and its spare, sad musical cues, this literary May/December romance film is clearly in Sundance territory. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the actors fail to generate much from the script they're given, and the third act is a hopelessly extended series of catharses. The occasional good line does slip out (e.g. "I can accept that he's going to die... I just can't accept that he'll be dead forever."), but, really, it's slim pickings.]
The Mother of Tears (Dario Argento) 64 [The best thing Argento's done in years, which isn't saying much, this finds him sacrificing most of his artistic pretensions, and shifting into balls-out entertainment mode. The plot, which features Asia Argento as a reluctant white witch battling evil in a Rome gone mad, is clearly an excuse for a series of imaginative, gruesome set pieces. Extremely gory, and extremely fun (especially with the Midnight Madness crowd), it's closer to a return to form than I would have suspected.]
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Beyond the Years is veteran South Korean director Im Kwon-taek’s 100th film. Surely such a mammoth filmography must be chock full of variety, but based on my limited experience of his work, it seems that his specialty lies in telling the stories of Korean folk artists. More specifically, he seems focused on pansori singing, which is a genre of Korean folk music that combines simple drum beats and throat singing. To people who aren’t Korean, it’s an acquired taste, to be sure. Fortunately, Im’s devout attention to his performers has a way of making the style seem like high art, even to outsiders. Having seen Im’s previous films Sopyonje and Chunhyang, each of which prominently featured pansori singing, I was prepared both for Beyond the Years’ meticulous attention to its pansori performances and its classy, yet somewhat dull, presentation.
A determinedly old-fashioned melodrama, Beyond the Years explores the fragile bonds that exist between pansori singer and drummer, seeing them as exceptionally noble yet fraught with ceaseless difficulty. Im presents the lives of his singers as a chronicle of adversity. Poverty, blindness and endless sacrifice are the price that these people pay for their art. With no small degree of sincerity, the director uses a flashback structure to detail the lives of a brother and sister who once performed together, yet have drifted apart. Well before the closing image of two cranes flying together in the sky flits across the screen, it’s patently obvious that Im views this bond as a noble one, and has nothing but distaste for the country, which has little place for art or beauty, given its constant upheaval.
Shot in autumnal hues to reflect the cultural glory of a bygone day, Beyond the Years suggests, rather simplemindedly, that purity of heart and endless practice are the keys to a great performance. Despite covering decades, the film scarcely shifts its attitudes toward its characters, suggesting, as the title does, that pansori is an art form that can weather the ravages of time. As a viewer, I felt that the unfettered devotion was questionable, but perhaps that is a problem of perception. Beyond the Years is one of the rare foreign films that makes me feel like I am too divorced from the culture in question to appreciate any subtleties on display. Sincerity is perhaps harder to translate than cynicism, and there’s no question that Beyond the Years is sincere.