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Wednesday, Sep 12, 2007
Atonement (dir. Joe Wright, 2007)

Atonement (dir. Joe Wright, 2007)


In my previous two days at the Toronto International Film Festival, I have learned the hard way that not every film playing here can have the gravitas of my favorite so far, the bright The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I would go so far to say that some of the films I saw here yesterday shouldn’t be playing anywhere at all.


They can’t all be award winners, I suppose. Yet still, whoever is selecting the movies for the festival is definitely doing something right: the quality overall is surprisingly strong. I’ve been lucky so far to have experienced such quality in quantity. I, like many exuberant festival-goers have been seeing multiple films each day. It is the best marathon ever. Atonement director Joe Wright echoed these statements, excitedly saying he was seeing three films a day, in the theaters, for the first time in a while: “I didn’t know I was so thirsty until I took a drink.”


Other than the two really horrific titles that I will explore today (in addition to three very important, artistic directorial breakthroughs—it isn’t all bad!), everything I have seen here has been mostly a pleasure. The general vibe on this year’s crop, as far as I can gather from other journalists and film fans I have had the chance to talk to, is overwhelmingly excited and positive.


Again, there are spoilers, but you know you love them!


Atonement (dir. Joe Wright, 2007)

At the showing of Atonement that I was lucky enough to attend, director Joe Wright (who also helmed 2005’s stunning Pride and Prejudice) came out beforehand to introduce us to the film.


Unfortunately, he said he would be skipping the expected Q&A afterwards, but instead he told a charming story about how his father was a puppet-maker (“not a lot of money in puppet-making,” he cracked) and a woman wanted to bring her children in to see what kind of show they could expect as her kids did not like “audience participation” activities.


Wright said that they only “audience participation” required for the puppet show would be the audience using their imaginations. His hope was that we would all do the same for Atonement; a film he called a story about “imagination”.


The film is most certainly about imagination and what kind of havoc it can bring to other people’s lives when it is misguided. Atonement, which begins in 1935 at the classical English country home belonging to the aristocratic Tallis family, also delves into the themes of family loyalty—a topic that has prevalent at this year’s TIFF.


Overall the tone of the piece is relatively somber, with the foolish little white lie told by the 13 year old Briony (Saoirse Ronan, giving a tremendous performance) triggering events that will haunt the Tallis family for the rest of their lives. When a series of misunderstandings lead her to believe sweet Robbie (a beautiful James McAvoy) has turned into a violent sexual predator and has gone after her sister Cecilia (luminous Keira Knightley), Briony thinks it best to make sure he gets his comeuppance.
In truth, what the girl has witnessed between her sister and the son of their housekeeper is a scene of romantic love that will forever be changed because of her lie: Robbie is sent to prison, and given the choice of going into the army or staying in jail. Thus, he embarks on a journey of his own into the horrors of WWII, as both Tallis girls stay behind and become nurses.


Across the board, there is not one bad performance from the cast, but it is the character of Briony that gets to enjoy the most dynamic arc. Played at ages 13, 18, and then as an old, dying woman (by three incredible actresses—Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave), this is the character who not only sets the story into motion, but also is the one who recounts all of the details; at the beginning and at the end. Each actress keeps a common thread of intensity brewing in Briony, hinting that she is not only fiercely intelligent and sensitive, but also a little untrustworthy; and in Redgrave’s master class of a final scene, this is confirmed.


The way Wright chooses to edit and flashback through the film is restrained and affecting. While the film is captivating to watch, it’s never flashy. The story’s emotional gravity is magnetic—and you just know that once the big misunderstanding that fuels the rest of the picture happens, that it will all play out tragically. Wright has masterfully set the mood.


The director has crafted a romantic epic with a modern, fresh twist that will likely gain popularity through word of mouth and critical hosannas (and the buzz is hot here in Toronto over it now). Wright’s impressive use of and understanding of the medium (color, light, and shadows, especially) plays out with grandeur as he puts together one of the most magnificent tracking shots I think I have seen; set on Dunkirk’s coast during the war. It lasts for around five minutes and is enthralling.


Visually, the film’s style is what will perhaps set it apart and elevate it from the typical war-set romances we have seen in cinema’s history. From the aforementioned tracking shot to the underwater sequences, credit must be given solely to Wright for this re-invigoration of the genre.


Perhaps the films most important lesson, which during Redgrave’s magnificent final scene is apparent, is that truthfulness (above everything) will set you free; but even the most inconsequential lie can ruin lives and change the course of history. While we may be able to live with the guilt of abusing the truth from day to day, one day we will all have to answer for whatever lies we have told. There are no free passes. Wright implores us, simply, that honesty is the best policy.


The film takes the position that not even a thirteen year old can hide behind age as an excuse. Everyone knows the difference between right and wrong from a very young age. No matter how much regret you feel afterwards (and the Garai/Redgrave version feel plenty), it is that crucial moment of decision in which we can become heroes or villains. Everyone has experienced this kind of choice, which makes the elegant Atonement easy to relate to.


Cassandra’s Dream (dir. Woody Allen, 2007)

Woody Allen also looks at the dark bonds of family in his newest film, which, like his previous two (Match Point and Scoop) are set in London rather than his usual venue, New York City.


If you are an Allen fan, nostalgic for his past romps in the city, with incisive wit and a light tough, Cassandra’s Dream is not going to be for you. If you are an Allen fan who is excited to see this living legend grow as an artist and boldly take a leap from what people have come to expect from him.


With Match Point and Cassandra, Allen takes out his pent-up aggressions and relieves his existential inquiries in a primal, cinematic way, here unleashing a quiet, sinister fury of complicated allegiances to family and how far you would go to protect yourself (in the most extreme circumstances) instead of your family. The director richly explores personal ethics in a way that he has in many of his films: the playwright who is being forced by the mob to re-write his script (Bullets Over Broadway), and the man who wants to have his mistress killed (Crimes and Misdemeanors) are just a sampling of Allen’s grappling onscreen with conscious and its borders.


Using the story of two working class brothers, Ian and Terry (Ewan MacGregor and Colin Farrell, both in top shape), Allen’s opening sequence shows the men buying a boat together, sweetly reminiscing about their childhood and their fond memories of their wealthy plastic surgeon to-the-stars uncle Howard (the always great Tom Wilkinson) taking them out sailing.


They let nostalgia win out, plunk down $6,000 that Terry (who has a nasty gambling problem and chronic migraines) has just won at the dog track. The brothers christen the skiff “Cassandra’s Dream”, after the winning dog that paid 60 to 1.


Coming from a working class family has encumbered the boys’ success in life: Ian has been stuck managing the family restaurant for their father (who is recovering from a heart attack), but his real aspiration is to move to Hollywood, where he once visited his benefactor uncle as a child.


Ian thinks that there is money to be made in hotels there and he yearns for a lifestyle that is far beyond his grasp. Terry has a more modest dream of owning a sports shop, but even this is still sadly out of his reach, mainly because of his gambling addiction and apparent dependency on pills and booze.


Terry loses $90,000 in a card game, as Ian begins taking up with Angela (Hayley Atwell), a scheming, career-minded actress. Just when the brothers think they have lost it all, Uncle Howard steps in with a life-saving proposition: he has had a problem with his business, namely a former employee threatening to go to the courts with evidence of a crime that will put Howard away forever. He asks his nephews to kill the man for him, noting his constant generosity to their family. Nothing is free in Howard’s world, and even murder isn’t out of the question when it comes to repayment.


Allen’s one glaring moment of pure sour grapes shows in his skewed depiction of Angela as a relentless climber with no morals. She is shown as moody, self-obsessed, and materialistic; but above all else, she offensively shown as talentless. This is a disturbing bit of commentary from a director known for getting such ace performances from women over the course of his forty year career. Angela is a relentless opportunist who can’t be trusted, and it feels as though Allen is pointing a finger of judgment at this type of woman.


Still, Cassandra’s Dream remains a taut, if slow-moving morality play in the vein of Allen’s cinematic idol Ingmar Bergman. The film is Allen at his most bleak, there are no moments of slap-stick, there are no real physical comedy gags or kvetching about; there is simply an unpredictable story about how easy it is for a man to commit murder, get away with it (and with a reward), and be able to live with himself after the fact.


Allen should definitely be commended for freeing himself of the restraints of convention that have peppered his cannon, and his principle actors should also be given a pat on the back for turning in two of their finest performances.


Reservation Road (dir. Terry George, 2007)

One of my most anticipated films playing in Toronto was director Terry George’s follow up to his critical darling Hotel Rwanda, Reservation Road. A drama set in New England, starring four really dependable players (Jennifer Connelly, Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Mira Sorvino), the film explores a similar theme to Atonement and Cassandra’s Dream: man’s conscious and its parameters are again tested, to less riveting effect here than in the other films.


“Atonement” and coping with every day life, in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy is what’s on the menu here. One fateful night Dwight (Ruffalo, continuing his ‘07b hot streak with this and Zodiac) is speeding home with his sleeping son (Eddie Alderson) after a Red Sox game. His ex-wife Ruth (Sorvino) is already angry that he is bringing the boy home late.


The Learner family (Connelly, Phoenix, Elle Fanning, and Sean Curley) is coming home from their son’s cello recital. They have to stop for their daughter to use the bathroom at a gas station on Reservation Road, when inexplicably, in the blink of an eye, everyone’s lives are forever changed by an accident, followed by a series of bad decisions and cover-ups.


Dwight, a lawyer, swerved to miss a car that came into his lane, and in the process hit the Learner’s young son. Ethan (Phoenix), in a fit of panic, attends to his son who lay on the side of the road dead. He doesn’t get much of a glimpse of the car (though he knows it is a black SUV), much less a good look at the offending driver. Grace (Connelly) watches the whole thing unfold with their daughter, completely horrified and powerless.


Thanks mainly to the four actors; the opening sequence is unnerving and tense. They seem to rise above the genre trappings. Unfortunately, the film loses steam after this well-crafted build-up.


Ethan goes to Ruffalo’s office on the advice of the police, who tell him he should seek legal counsel—he wants the killer prosecuted for homicide. The penalties for a hit and run, the cop says, are light: 10 years in prison, depending on the judge. Exasperated that his son will become yet another victim without justice, Ethan wants to know what else can be done. The lawyers tell him he can file a civil suit to collect damages, but first they are going to have to find the man who did it. The police have no leads, and Dwight seems to be doing a great job covering up the crime.


Ethan starts looking everywhere for black SUVs, convinced that each one he sees is the one responsible. He is totally desperate, losing himself in a bevy of online chat groups designed to support families of similar crimes. Grace, who is barely functioning for their daughter as it is, receives little support from Ethan once he becomes obsessed with finding justice. He is convinced she just doesn’t care.


After this relatively interesting set-up, things devolve into something less than powerful. What should have been a more absorbing game of cat and mouse, as Ethan closes in on Dwight, becomes routine.


After the lagging mid-section, there is a moment of revelation for Ethan, where he gets a quick flash in his mind of something that happened that night: he remembers Dwight yelling his son’s name at the moment of the accident. Ethan tries to engage Dwight in theorizing about the crime, but Dwight, racked with guilt, won’t budge. Ethan decides to buy a gun.


The final twenty minutes, as everything comes to a head, is well done, if conventional. Phoenix plays a character we haven’t seen from him before and shows a depth and maturity as a performer that had previously been hinted at but not really achieved. Ruffalo is the more capable of the two men, quietly underplaying Dwight’s tortured life.


The big disappointment here is that George has two powerful actresses in throwaway “wife” roles. Connelly plays tragic well (as is evidenced by her work in films like House of Sand and Fog and Requiem for a Dream), and she is a tremendous performer. It is depressing to see her relegated to the sidelines here. It is a treat to see Sorvino back in a decent film again, even though her character’s connection to the Learner family (she was the son’s music teacher) is a bit convoluted.


While the melodrama plays out like you might expect, with maybe a bit less pathos than the story needs, it is still an entertaining, if innocuous film, by a director who probably should have known better than to stick with such a stuffy formula. With the amount of talent on board, this should have been a lot better.


I’m Not There (dir. Todd Haynes, 2007)

“Never create anything. It will chain you and follow you for the rest of your life”
—Cate Blanchett as “Jude”/Bob Dylan


If raising the artistic stakes, and making one of the most bold leaps stylistically that a director has probably ever made in this history of film equals success, Todd Haynes comes out of the dream-like I’m Not There a resounding winner. The film looks astonishing. If there is anything missing from the idyllic, disjointed re-telling of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan’s life, it is emotional truth; but there is enough present to let Haynes’ vision slide.


Each mannequin standing in for Dylan (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Ben Wishaw) does a capable job of becoming an appropriate figure head (each is a different “character” with a different name—standing in for the periods of his life), and each brings a vital element of the indefinable musician’s psyche to the table.


This is going to be one of the year’s most demanding films. From an artist’s point of view, the hallucinatory film cannot be criticized: Haynes’ has taken a major risk with his outré visual style that borrows heavily from surrealist cinema of the past (and is filmed in both detached black and white and warm color tones). The real question that begs to be answered, however, is whether or not this film will be able to connect to an audience other than fans of Dylan.


Never underestimate the power of art house cinema—this film practically re-defines that term (with the tripped out visuals like a whale swimming in stark black and white at the bottom of a river). Personally, I am not a fan of Dylan’s music (nor am I familiar with any of his origins), and I found I’m Not There, while visually triumphant to be a little inaccessible.


There are a slew of sight gags running throughout the film, several in-jokes that only people who know the music and mythology of Dylan will be laughing at. The seemingly abstract imagery is lifted directly from the singer’s words; but if you are new to the words, you might get very lost. The audience I saw it with, who was undoubtedly more familiar with the singer’s oeuvre than me, was laughing in spots that I was clueless in.


I’m Not There is still a film that should be given a chance, even if you are not a Dylan stalwart. For lovers of cinema, there is the photography by Edward Lachman (who worked previously with Haynes on the gorgeous Far From Heaven), which is at turns simple and operatic. The visual allure of this piece is worth the price of admission alone—it is like nothing you’ve seen.


Cate Blanchett (who plays “Jude”, the amped-up Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan) conveys a startlingly canny, emotionally truthful portrait of the pressures of fame and the pitfalls it can lead to. Replete with the proper twitches and physicality, the performance is one that is a gender-bender that is destined to be admired.


Blanchett proves again that she is one of the most adventurous actors working by throwing away all traces of her glam, red-carpet friendly persona to become a man who is so beloved. It must have been a daunting proposition, to play a legend like this—but don’t forget Blanchett won an Oscar recently for playing another legend, Katharine Hepburn. She just might get a matching set next year for this much more effective turn.


The other actors, to be fair, are just as capable, but it is Blanchett who astounds given her chance to capture one of Dylan’s most fruitful, turbulent seasons. When Dylan went electric, and threw away all of his prior folkie ideas (and his fan base began to hate him), he grew as an artist. The scene of Blanchett and her band “machine gun” the audience expecting folk is a funny, canny twist on what the singer was going through in this period. It is endlessly intriguing to think about how private Dylan became regarding his opinions, given his rise to prominence based on expressing a radical opinion. “Who cares what I think”, says Jude. “I am a storyteller. What do you care if I care or don’t care?”


One interesting element to this section of the film is that Haynes shows the fickle nature of fandom. One wrong move, and they will turn on you. It’s a fascinating, under-explored topic—the allegiance of a fan to their idol. As Jude talks to a reporter (“who said I was sincere? You want me to say what you want to say”), Haynes is unafraid to show the unsympathetic sides of a musician hating his fans and what they stand for just as much as they begin to dislike him. Haynes is just another fan giving her own interpretation of a legend’s story. It is too bad we might never know the real Dylan’s opinion on this film.


Closing the Ring / The Walker (dir. Richard Attenborough / Paul Schrader, 2007)

I really wanted to like these films (and I don’t like to hate on anyone offering roles to actresses of this caliber), because of their interesting directors (Richard Attenborough for Ring, and Paul Schrader for the latter) and their accomplished kaleidoscopic casts, but in the end, these films turned out to be the only ones I walked out of during the festival. You can’t win ‘em all, can you?


The terribly-titled Closing the Ring starts out in 1991, in a small town in Michigan, where Marie is giving a eulogy for her recently deceased father, a celebrated WWII veteran. Her mother, Ethel Ann (an acerbic to the point of being crass Shirley MacLaine), stumbles around thinking about the past and drinking. Jack (Christopher Plummer, totally wasted here), the couple’s pal from the good old’ days tries to console her.


Abruptly, we switch theaters to present day Northern Ireland, where Michael (Peter Postlethwaite, also wasted) is digging like a madman for aluminum fragments left by crashing aircraft from the war.


Then, with no notice, we are taken back to 1941, back in the States, where a young Ethel Ann (the absolutely horrific Mischa Barton) is a happy-go-lucky war time dame surrounded by soldiers getting ready for war; she has her pick of potential husbands. These American flashbacks feature literally some of the worst acting I have ever witnessed. Starting with Barton (ludicrous in her naked love scenes), who completely embarrasses herself.


The script offers them no reproach either, the dialogue seems to be made of wood—it is laugh-out-loud bad. Not even a master director like Attenborough can save this tripe. MacLaine and Plummer deserve more than this. The flashbacks used here are choppy and poorly done—one second we’re in war-time Ireland, another, the US. It’s hard to keep track of all of the moving, and after an hour you won’t care. This film has the distinction of being the worst film I saw at this festival, possibly ever.


And by the way, isn’t Neve Campbell a little young to be playing a) Shirley MacLaine’s daughter, and b) the child of people married in 1941?


Prior to this night I had only ever walked out of maybe two movies in my entire life. After The Walker, the number doubled.


Another old-guard Hollywood legend, Lauren Bacall, fares a bit better than Plummer and MacLaine in Paul Schrader’s (the man wrote Taxi Driver for God’s sakes!) lame exploration of gossipy Washington DC women and their gay boy toy Carter (a silly Woody Harrelson). Carter and his hags (who include Lily Tomlin, Kristin Scott Thomas and Mary Beth Hurt), sit around playing cards and talking shit. To them, gossip is an art form.


Carter is a “walker”—a worldly man who escorts his gal pals around town, listens to their woes and bolsters their relentless egos. As is the case with most of Schrader’s films, there is a striking detachment from reality and a strong sense of visual style filled with color (Carter’s office is carnal red). Everything seems so artificial, especially when Lynn (Scott Thomas), a senator’s wife, finds her lover stabbed to death.


The performances are bizarre, all around. Harrelson gives a really odd performance as the gay mystery man (and employs a head-scratcher of an accent) who minces about town doling out jaunty little bon mots and little pearls of wisdom to these strange rich ladies who seem to flock to him en masse.


The entire murder mystery is stale and Harrelson as Nancy Drew should have been a lot more entertaining. The banality of the dialogue, which dishes about things like redecorating and scandals that no one in the real world would even think twice about (like blackmailing someone because they’re gay!). For a film so obsessed with secrets and conspiracies, the “action” is milquetoast-y and flaccid.


The Walker sadly plays out completely formulaically, and gimps along at a tortoise’s pace; like a half-baked Law and Order rip-off hiding behind the guise of being an edgy art film. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this isn’t anywhere near edgy, not matter how many S&M-themed “art photos” of men in bondage there are in it.



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Monday, Sep 10, 2007
Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises


“Had I been blind and deaf, or did it take the harsh light of disaster for me to find my true nature?”
—Jean Dominique Bauby


I am a guy who isn’t particularly afraid of being in touch with his sensitive side. In fact, there are days where the people who know me best might even say that I take it one step too far. I rarely cry at movies, especially in the theater in front of a groups of strangers (at home, well, that’s another story). There are certain features I can recall that evoked that response from me, and made me break my “no crying in public/be a man” rule: American Beauty, The Royal Tenenbaums, Thelma and Louise, and Dead Man Walking (damn you, Susan Sarandon!) each broke me down.


This is probably something that is so much more common place than I am giving it credit for, but today I found myself bawling at one film in the theater, which somehow was OK because the entire theater seemed to be weeping; and getting extremely choked up over two others. Now liberated of any shame, and still able retain my dignity in the face of public sobbing, let me share my findings on four of the Toronto International Film Festival’s finest offerings with you:


Again, there are major spoilers ahead:


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Sunday, Sep 9, 2007

Days three and four found me sitting through three movies directed by women, which is an anomaly in the real world. It’s unheard of to have this much female influence happening in the world cinema all at once, and even though it is really nice to be treated to such displays of female power and intelligence, it still doesn’t make up for the fact that women in Hollywood (especially female directors) are still getting pigeonholed. Not many multiplexes are going to relish the thought of relinquishing their straight guy- and kid-friendly popcorn palaces to this current work directed, produced, starring, and, essentially made for women. Oh, and Many of these ladies are over 40.


While this mini-renaissance may have gained steam starting late last year, with three women over 50 (Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Meryl Streep) claiming three of the five coveted spots for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for the first time in what felt like forever, it looks like we can look forward to the return of stories about real, contemporary women (of all shapes and ages) to the big screen this season. It’s about damn time.


As good as some of these films were, though, I sat in the theater pondering on whether or not these well-made, good-intentioned films would actually connect with an audience outside of it’s target demographic. I can’t really see any teenage boys getting all revved up for The Jane Austen Book Club when they have the choice of seeing Superbad, but perhaps one or two of these deserving pictures can get some critical buzz behind them to garner some sort of noticeable box-office receipts.


Female directors do get the raw end of the deal for one misogynist reason or another when it comes to the success or failure of their films. Take for example Julie Taymor, whose Across the Universe (which I will see Tuesday) was recently taken out of her hands by studio executives after the director refused to edit and whittle her vision down to meet their demands of making the film shorter. If a lengthy, challenging film like this was directed by a man, he would be called an artist, but a woman standing up against a studio is probably going to be called something much nastier. There are signs that the old guard Hollywood boys club may be showing signs of weakness, and this is why these pro-female films should be supported, and celebrated—even though one of them isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders.


Beware of spoilers ahead


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Saturday, Sep 8, 2007

So far, in my three days here, I have seem some crazy stuff go down in Toronto at the film festival: I sat next to Marilyn Manson (at the world premiere of In Bloom), I saw literally every inch of Viggo Mortensen’s naked body thanks to David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (which has nothing at all to do with the stellar review I plan on giving it), and then I saw a bicyclist get hit by one of the city’s hundreds of scary taxi drivers (he is fine, don’t worry!). Then a woman that I am pretty sure was a prostitute or a stripper (maybe both) told me that I didn’t “sound like an American” while we were both waiting on a shady corner for a streetcar. Is it weird that I took it as a compliment?


Oh, and I have now seen ten films in three days. In the theater. This would be overwhelming for even the most hardcore festival fan, with or without seeing Viggo’s religion. More on that (and the flat-out brilliance of Eastern Promises) tomorrow, though; along with some insights into Helen Hunt’s surprisingly assured directorial debut Then She Found Me, the hopelessly mediocre The Jane Austen Book Club, and Vadim Perelman’s curious, strong In Bloom, starring Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood.


For now, let’s do a little globe-trotting over to the Middle East:


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Friday, Sep 7, 2007

With More Sex, Drugs, and Violence Than Ever

Soldiering on with the themes I began to write about very early yesterday morning/late last night, my first day at the Toronto International Film Festival included some major anticipated films that curiously involved some sort of mixture of sex, drugs, graphic violence, and good old fashioned rock & roll. While most of them reveled in potent combinations of these themes, each film had something unique to bring to the table.


Again, there are some major spoilers ahead, but necessary ones.


Lust, Caution (dir. Ang Lee, 2007)

When we first meet the cast of characters that populates master director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Eileen Chang’s espionage thriller Lust, Caution, it is 1942 in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. The story of how these characters got here is told in a flashback, and the textures and tones that Lee chooses are sumptuous: brocades, luscious silks, delicately-ribboned cheongsams, and lacquer piled on top of one another; conspiring to create a very distinct period Chinese atmosphere. An atmosphere where the devil is in the gorgeous details. One character puts it nicely: “If you pay attention, nothing is trivial”.


As one industry wag put it, quite succinctly: “It’s Black Book as directed by Wong Kar Wai, with nastier sex.” A little bit broad, but throw in a little bit of Army of Shadows and that is pretty much the gist of it.


The film is epic in scope, telling the story of a group of radical students (though their conviction didn’t really shine through for me with only one viewing) who undertake a plot to assassinate a government official. Lee revels in his war-time romance and nostalgia: Wong (played in an audacious debut by Tang Pei) is a kind of aimless young college student who decides, on a whim, to become an actress. The group she joins also happens to be anti-government. Their first play is a hit, and they receive funding; which they promptly use to set up shop to trap Mr. Yee (Tony Leung).


Obsessed with American cinema like Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, Wong gets great pleasure from the crowd’s applause, which makes it even more alluring for her to start playing the role of a lifetime: “Mrs. Mak”, who befriends Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen). “Mrs. Mak” will do whatever it takes to see her role to completion: she understands that she must gain the trust of both Yees, but that she must become Mr. Yee’s mistress. It is interesting to see that Wong begins the film as a virgin, who becomes an actress, who then becomes lover to the Japanese collaborator—in a sense, his whore. There is a sense that her erotic awakening has nothing to do with her political convictions, and that those ham-fisted patriotic ideas are secondary to Wong’s journey. When she falls in love with Mr. Yee, there is never a real indication of which side Wong’s allegiance truly lies on.


While in the Jodie Foster/Neil Jordan collaboration The Brave One, there is enough absolutely horrific violence perpetrated against men and women, Lee chooses to take on a more puritanical American issue in his Chinese-language film: explicit onscreen sex has earned Lust, Caution an firm NC-17. If the most extreme, graphic shootings and beatings can be shown in one film, but two people having sex becomes an issue that merits a restrictive rating like the NC-17 in another, we might all in trouble.


This isn’t to say that the sexual adventures shared by Tang and Leung are chaste, by any means. The second sex scene in the movie is completely shocking: tackling a consensual bout of S&M-tinged exploration in a way that somehow isn’t totally vulgar. By the time Wong is Yee’s full-time mistress, things get a little bit nasty. The secret lovers meet in Wong’s apartment and I’m pretty sure that this is the most explicit onscreen sex I have seen in a big budget Hollywood-funded film.


Of course, since this is Hollywood-funded, there is not one penis in sight, but full displays of the female anatomy is a given. The two actors should be commended for their physical bravery in these porno-esque scenes; neither lets vanity encumber them. Also, since we’re talking about the price a woman has to pay for her sexual appetite, it is fair to note here that in the end, Wong actually breaks character to save her lover, who, in turn, has her executed.


This is the price girls must pay in cinema for being sexual beings, it sadly seems—immediately I was reminded of Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves where Emily Watson’s Bess continually humiliates herself for a greater cause, her husband’s sexual arousal, and in the end she is also killed. I guess the “Caution” part of the title is a warning to women to not have sex or they might face death.


Lee should be given credit no only for his expert craftsmanship (which has become more than dependable over the years), but also for handing over the leading role so generously to a novice. Luckily Tang Pei is more than competent. Both come out looking very good.


Also of note is the sly supporting performance of the infinitely interesting actress Chen as the capable Mrs. Yee, who said she would have done any role, no matter the size, to be directed by Lee. The actress was up for the lead in Lee’s The Wedding Banquet many years ago, but lost out due to what she called “a casting requirement from the funding source”.


With the pivotal role of Mrs. Yee, Chen is able to define the idea of being a generous supporting player while stealing every scene she is in. This is a woman who has worked with David Lynch (on Twin Peaks as the enigmatic Josie Packard), Bernardo Bertolucci (on The Last Emperor), Oliver Stone (a solid turn in Heaven and Earth), and directed Hollywood films of her own (the misguided Richard Gere/Winona Ryder love story Autumn in New York). Chen continues to clear an unconventional path with her career, and hopefully Lust, Caution will show the public a new side of the already accomplished auteur.


Control (dir. Anton Corbijn, 2007)

Director Anton Corbijn swiftly transports viewers into the Manchester of days past with the very first frame: in vintage music ‘zine blacks, grays, and whites, while “Drive in Saturday” by David Bowie is blasting. Ian Curtis (newcomer Sam Riley, in a soulful film debut) is bored and listening to records alone in his room. Lined up in neat little rows on his bookshelf are titles such as William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and J.G. Ballard’s Crash.


It’s simple enough, but speaks volumes. The same can be said for most Control, a film that is reflective and introspective, much more so than the average bombastic musician biography flicks. The only time it gets loud is when we hear the music of Curtis’ formative years (some of his heroes were The Stooges, and, of course, Bowie) and then later when Joy Division begins to roar in its infancy.


Corbijn and his lead actor do a marvelous job of capturing the mundane, day-to-day existence of a working class rock star-to-be at home or working menial jobs to make ends meet—much like most talented musicians do; mainly like the legends he revered so much. Curtis seems perfectly happy to steal prescriptions from old ladies, and then go out to shows to catch a glimpse of the newest loud band down at the local pub with his pals. He turns up to school the following days without much thought about the cycle of boredom he has created for himself.


Ian meets Debbie (played with utter conviction and an almost shocking youthfulness by Samantha Morton) through one of his dandy pals and quickly, the two are bonding over reading poetry—Debbie sees the spark and genius in his eyes and falls instantly in love. And so will the audience: Corbijn uses the actor’s beautiful face, filled with angles, to surprisingly tender effect. Wiley’s Curtis is a lethal combination of sad, innocent, and disturbed, and the photogenic new actor plays all of these facets of this rock legend without going overboard or relying on a gimmick (even his epileptic fits are handled with a tremendous sense of dignity). Let’s put it this way: this isn’t the showboating, grandiose, studied imitation that we have been treated to in the past with films like Ray or Walk the Line.


Although there is a small cascade of images that unfortunately recalls American Apparel adverts (complete with skinny young lads in tight little underpants and disheveled bed-head hairdos), this film is much more self-aware and reverent to its subject. It allows the viewer to make their own judgment calls as to the behavior of Curtis, especially when he begins to sleep with Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), a Belgian writer and fan. What’s intriguing about the story at this point is that the filmmaker presents Curtis as being reclusively timid and tightly-wound even before the band’s biggest breaks.


Again, with Riley, Corbijn has hit a jackpot: the pair conspires to capture the emptiness, the depression, and also the sweetness and charisma that must be present in a star for people to be drawn to them. Physically, the actor gets the moves and gestures down, and at the crucial moment where his daughter is born, the nihilism and darkness inside the man are fully exposed. Ironically, the front man for Joy Division is joyless. It is hard to translate capture this sort of silent, lonely artistic isolation without relying on too many of the usual rock star bio clichés (which are somewhat present, but not in an obtrusive way), but the dynamic duo of Corbijn and Wiley nails this one out of the park.


In her section of the story, which plays more like a British kitchen sink drama from the 1960s, Morton’s womanly Debbie (who in reality gave her blessing to this project, based on her memoirs) makes for a graceful calm center to the rock and roll shit storm brewing in Curtis’ mind. She is the kind of good soul that takes care of her man, dutifully, no matter what he does to hurt her. She plays the dedicated role beautifully, exploring the darkness that can unfortunately get spilled onto other people’s lives when they make the choice to love someone who is fundamentally damaged.


Morton, who is a two time Oscar nominee (for 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, and 2003’s In America, would be wise to play the “supportive wife” angle during this year’s award’s season rather than going the leading lady route. It is a tough call as to where her performance should be placed, but if you think back to a similar “supportive wife” role like that of Jennifer Connelly’s in A Beautiful Mind (and one with much more screen time than Morton), you’ll quickly remember that Connelly took home the supporting gold that year, trouncing the competition. And she wasn’t even half as good as Morton in Control.


The actress, who has two other films at the festival (playing Mary Queen of Scots opposite Cate Blanchett’s monarch in Elizabeth: The Golden Age and a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like in Harmony Korine’s Mr. Lonely), is one of the most intriguing actresses of her generation; and she keeps proving it with a boldness that is missing from most other younger female actors when they choose roles. Morton takes risks.


The true star of this film, however, is the enduring music of Joy Division. As Ian says to Annik at a crucial moment in the film, some of the music might be lovely, but the band’s sound is “not meant to be beautiful”. The juxtaposition of music with pivotal moments—specifically the one where “Love Will Tear Us Apart” rears its head as Ian tells Debbie that he doesn’t think he loves her anymore and that she should sleep with other men, is more powerful than any gaudy imitation.


That delicate balance between the music and the drama will undoubtedly be wrongly categorized as typical music video posturing by critics who are unfamiliar with the band’s sound aesthetic, and also because of Corbijn’s involvement and his day job as a still photographer for musicians and other high-profile clients (he, in fact, shot a cover for one of Joy Division’s singles and had actually met Curtis). While Corbijn does capture the pure scrappiness of a rock and roll spirit ascending and crashing, and of the working class dream of gaining notoriety, he handles it not with just the poise of a professional photographer, but also as someone with a clear gift for working in the medium of film and dramatics. What could have easily ended up as a humorless exercise in hipster excess turns out warm and snappy.


No Country for Old Men (dir. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2007)

Now, I will set myself up for a lot of flack over my disenchantment with this new Coen Brothers film by first stating that I have never really been as obsessed with their work as everyone else.


Sure, they have been consistent in bringing their particular brand of humor mixed with outrageous violence to the masses; to the delight of critics and audiences since 1984’s tight Blood Simple. When it comes to physical comedy set pieces, there are no better craftsmen around (I am thinking here of Raising Arizona, and Nicolas Cage’s robbing of the convenience store for Pampers that goes hysterically awry). When Frances McDormand took home the Oscar for her pregnant Minnesota cop in 1996’s indie wet dream Fargo, the team seemed to start going in a decidedly commercial direction with fluff like Intolerable Cruelty (or Intolerable Movie, as I like to call it), and the fun but dumb remake of The Ladykillers.


In between Fargo and Ladykillers, there have been glimmers of hope with the flat-out genius of The Big Lebowski and the noir-ish The Man Who Wasn’t There, both of which showcased the duos competence working with actors and employing innovative stylistic choices. The same goes double for O Brother Where Art Thou?, a challenging re-telling of Homer’s The Odyssey set in the Deep South during the Great Depression. In this film they guided George Clooney to perhaps his best performance to date and long-time camera-man Roger Deakins to one of his most lush and light-filled excursions into the nooks and crannies of undiscovered America.


No Country for Old Men has many positive elements to it, mainly thanks to Deakins (again), and the actors: Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss (his best performance so far), Tommy Lee Jones as Ed Tom Bell, Kelly MacDonald (sporting a helluva Southern accent), Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells, and the formidable Javier Bardem Anton Chigurh—perhaps the sickest villain in cinema history outside of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.


Each actor is given challenging, sometimes humiliating material to work with, and as is the case with most Coen Brothers’ films, and there is an off-kilter mixture of grisly violence with slapstick humor. There are some moments in the film that will make you want to puke your guts out—one that immediately springs to mind involves a man being shot in the leg and methodically picking out shrapnel and stitching himself back up. In No Country, though, the humor seems really forced. The juxtaposition of the funny moments with the nastiness of something like murder seems really irreverent of the duo—and slightly disrespectful to the characters.


When Moss finds a bunch of dead Mexicans in the desert and starts cracking little jokes, should the audience really be laughing at the bloodshed? It’s like when Steve Buscemi was being fed into the wood chipper in Fargo all over again; using extremely gory violence to get people to laugh. Something about it, for me, isn’t appropriate, but it’s very provocative. In No Country , there are a slew of sequences like this, but one that I immediately recall is the shot of Moss being chased down a river by a pit bull hot on his trail—it’s a funny image; a dog swimming after a man. It’s funny until Moss unloads the entire contents of his gun’s barrel in the canine’s face.


The film overall, despite it’s audacious brutality, manages some really nice atmospheric moments of tension as the characters hunt each other down in search of a missing bag of cash leftover from a drug deal gone bad. Like any other typical western, we never really know who is on the side of the law and who is evil. This ambiguity is a welcome change from the conventional trappings of the genre, and it is enlivened by a troupe of able players, but something in the film prevented me from ever fully connecting to it’s disjointed, take-no-prisoners approach.


I appreciate that there are many shadings to the film (and perhaps another viewing would be helpful), and it is a refreshing change of pace to see a story in which nothing is predictable and no one is safe; but by the end, I was just upset by what was happening. Maybe this is what the Coens had in mind, but for me, it felt overly manipulative and cold as ice. For Coen fan boys, however, this will count as another triumph.


Tomorrow will bring a glimpse of the innovative animated masterpiece Persepolis, from artist Marjane Satrapi; and Tsotsi director Gavin Hood’s Rendition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon.


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