Todd Solondz’ new movie often feels like it is little more than a mash-up of his previous films. It even opens with a scene that is lifted almost wholesale from Happiness (1998). And, just like they did in virtually everything he has done before, pedophiles and other “perverts”, unhappy middle class white people, sexually confused children, and a generally mocking tone abound. At his best, Solondz is a real auteur, a singular observer of an alienated America, of an America filled with weirdos and lonely souls, longing for comfort and finding little. Certainly, the characters he explores in his latest represent some of the darkest he has yet drawn up: an incestuous father fresh out of jail (Ciarán Hinds), a lonely drug-addicted mother (a startlingly good Allison Janney), a curious and desperate dork of a kid (Dylan Riley Snyder), a pathetic barfly searching for escape through sex (a startling Charlotte Rampling), and a mousy woman (Shirley Henderson) who’s haunted by the men she has driven to suicide (Michael K. Williams, Paul Reubens). But, at his worst, Solondz relies on mockery, poking fun at these unfortunate characters without ever allowing us to fall in love with them. With each passing minute in this frightening little film, one finds oneself disliking the characters more and more, and finding the script to be uninterested in changing our view. This has the bizarre effect of leaving little reason for us to try to make sense of their predicaments, or to empathize with their despair. Throughout, the ostensible theme of forgiveness runs through everything like a bulldozer: can we forgive a terrorist, or a pedophile? Should we? And even if we do, can we/should we ever forget? Solondz may be a lot of things, but he is never subtle. This should have been enough to work with, but he muddies the waters with a hamfisted attempt to connect this “forgive and forget” theme to the issue of US troop withdrawal from Iraq, confusingly suggesting that if you do a bad thing and then steal away (“cut and run”) you make things worse. Well, maybe. But, really?
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It was from in front of amps draped with Mexican flags and an enormous psychedelic mural, which encompassed the entire back of the stage, that the Mars Volta unleashed their sonic fury on Friday night at Chicago’s Congress Theater. The band stood six members strong on stage, but the brunt of the performance fell on the shoulders of the band’s founders and chief songwriters, guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala. This was just fine by them.
If weirdness is wonderful, CocoRosie has a handle on being amazing live. Striking in their colorful and unique outfits, Sierra and Bianca Cassidy had an undeniable stage presence. Of course, the true advantage in being eccentric is that you end up putting on a live show that must be seen to be believed and is much different than the vast majority of bands in your genre. You easily become a desired and, sort of, craved spectacle and the crowd can’t help but want more.
As biological sisters, it comes as no surprise how comfortable Sierra and Bianca Cassidy are with each other on stage. While Sierra alternates impressively between harp and piano, Bianca takes control of the strange toys. Juxtaposed with Sierra’s graceful soprano range are Bianca’s strange and twisted vocals. They’re a touch Joanna Newsom but still quite original. It’s like mixing the sour and the sweet together to create a perfect balance of the bizarre and appealing.
In some ways, their performance Friday night at Chicago’s Logan Square Auditorium felt like operatic hip-hop. The two talented sisters had three men playing backup to their own vocals and playing, including an engaging beatboxer who won the crowd over easily. It was difficult to see the support as they stayed in darkness behind the two sisters but nonetheless their presence was felt and only heightened the appeal of CocoRosie’s songs. The setlist alternated naturally between tracks that the crowd could easily dance to and more nostalgic songs that were nonetheless heartfelt throughout the hour and a half show.
With three albums to their name, CocoRosie was a rare treat to see live as they have not toured in quite some time. The capacity crowd, enraptured, stood ready to enjoy songs throughout their career. One of the songs that came off best, however, and put the crowd in a state of awe, was one of their oldest songs: “By Your Side” from 2004’s La maison de mon rêve. Between their stage presence, eloquent sense of grace and playing for the full effect, it wasn’t difficult for CocoRosie to completely win over their audience.
Navigating through a major international film festival is never easy. First of all, it involves a great deal of planning if you intend to see a lot of stuff. The Press and Industry schedule for this year’s fest is a complex grid of competing screening times, multiple locations, and frustratingly few showings of key films. Many of the movies that everyone wants to see are playing only once in theatres not quite big enough for all of us to get in. There are, in fact, two lines for many of the movies: one for the Priority Press (which means, sort of by definition, not me) and one for the Other Press (including a correspondent for the Huffington Post who was decidedly nonplussed about finding herself there, and who made embarrassing noises about it, like, in front of the rest of us, as if she didn’t realize that what she was upset about was that she was being treated just like the rest of us, all of which led to an awesome moment when a youthful festival representative came over to deal with her and admitted that she wasn’t familiar the HuffPo. “Canadians have never heard of the Huffington Post!” the critic responded, indignant and amazed. “No, I have never heard of it.” Yeah!) And so but anyway you have to wait in line a lot, and thus you have to plan to be at screenings long before the scheduled start, which means that you can’t safely bump from one show right into the next. Though I have, so far, been able to get into everything I’ve lined up for, I certainly haven’t been able to see everything I wanted to see. I mean, one of the theatres is a subway ride away from the other two!
There are two basic ways to approach a film festival. On the one hand, you can go to a fest with the intention of seeing every major film that stars lots of famous folks and which will invariably set you up for the big releases for the next few months (which, for reviewers, is good because a head start is nice). On the other hand, you can go to a fest planning to see only little movies which might not find a distributor, and thus may never again play on the big screen, in the hopes of discovering some unwashed gem. This latter option happens to be the “cool” way to go to a fest, since all I have overheard from “cool” looking film people is how they didn’t go to see some Hollywood flick because they can “see that anytime” and instead watched something weird, quirky, and interesting, that hasn’t got a hope in hell of being picked up for distribution. And, while I am drawn to that approach, I am also acutely aware that the former option provides the best possible chance of catching Golden Globe and Oscar stuff before the rest of the world gets in there, which is kind of thrilling. Anyway, there are actually three ways of approaching a film festival, since you can also just plan your days around what stands out when you thumb through the program, and then do the math to make your day work time-wise. This is what I decided to do. I was told by some guy when I said that I sat through Jennifer’s Body instead of seeing a semi-obscure French film (that he adored) that I was going to “regret” this approach. Film people can be very weird.
The Toronto International Film Festival, now in its 34th year, is a massive media gongshow that takes place in my hometown, right around the corner from my house. I get to bike to my first screening in the morning. I take lunch breaks and meet my wife and son for little walks between movies. I don’t have to sleep in some weird sterile hotel room, staying up late because I get to watch TV in bed which, for some reason, I always seem compelled to do. I don’t have to eat every meal at fast food joints (which means I don’t yet feel like a bag of dump, though all I have done for three full days now is sit in a dark room). And, finally, I can share in the whole, admittedly intoxicating, irrepressible thrill of seeing stars as they walk down my streets, the streets I’ve been walking along past nobodies and whocareses for my whole life. I mean, if I saw a celeb in New York, would that be weird? But, when George Clooney or Jennifer Connolly comes sliding by, all graceful and elegant and not-quite-human, I dunno. It just feels, electrifying. Is that lame? Probably.
Truth is: I haven’t actually seen celeb one this year. (Last year, I did way better. I even chatted with Tim Robbins. Well, the truth is that I actually had an astoundingly unnecessary conversation with him since the poor guy was just trying to get a drink and I accosted him, all 5’8” of me, and he, who is much closer to 18 or 19 feet tall, had to lean down so far he was basically assuming “the position” and looking for all the world like a big storky bird bending over to pluck up a teeny worm (me), and all so that he could be polite to this random dude who felt the unstoppable urge to waylay him. Also, I bumped into a guy I recognized from a car commercial.) Instead of star-annoying, I have actually been watching films this year. As I sat down to write this, your first instalment of a five-part series of reviews and randomness from your humble(ish) correspondent, I had already sat through 12. By the end of the ten day festival I will have seen about 30. Dear God.