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by Matt Mazur

16 Sep 2007

The Brave One

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Amidst the sea of flickering Blackberries being lovingly fondled by the throng of jaded industry professionals, one thing stood out for me at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival: the films seemed to be dominated by strong women; particularly by actresses of all shapes, sizes, and ages. After being subjected to a long, hot summer filled with the smell of testosterone in the theaters, the ladies are back with a vengeance. And they are ready not only for their close-ups, but also for their accolades.

There are always cries about how women are getting the shaft in film. There’s not a year that passes where there is some wag insisting that it is “a weak year for actresses”. While this might have an unfortunate grain of truth in most typical years, 2007 is shaping up to be unusually warm to the idea of women as equal partners in terms of cinematic importance. The playing field this year may mercifully be leveled, thanks in part to the tremendous achievements of a handful of women who brought their offerings to festival crowds this year.

Most of the buzz this year will revolve around the dozen or so expert performances that had their North American premiere at the TIFF. Most major films had at least one outstanding role for an actress somewhere (or, as was the case with Joe Wright’s Atonement, there were at least four), while many will be competing for spots in the female acting races early next year at the Oscars.

The Brave One

The Brave One

Getting a jump on the competition, Neil Jordan’s polarizing The Brave One, starring the excellent Jodie Foster, showed on day one, proving to be more than just another standard Foster-big budget extravaganza. A tale of revenge and love that owes a debt of gratitude to modern Asian language cinema as much as it does to the classic Western, The Brave One has been criticized by many as being “over-the-top” and “unbelievable”.

Even though most critics have unanimously cited Foster’s performance (which was more natural than anything the actress has done in recent memory) as one of her best—and many, like me, are calling for a deserved Oscar nomination, the film itself has been widely received in a more lukewarm manner than it was by the festival crowds I saw it with; in Toronto, there was nothing but surprised enthusiasm over this one.

Lust, Caution

Lust, Caution

Ang Lee’s beautifully made sex thriller Lust, Caution, adapted from one of Eileen Chang’s novels, didn’t quite live up to expectations, despite being technically very solid. Almost every person I spoke with regarding this film found it disappointing, as a whole, but there was universal praise for the debut leading performance of Tang Pei. The actress had a vivid character to play: a naïve young actress that becomes a political radical and ends up using her sexuality to exert control over a government official. The demanding role required Tang to simulate various, intimate sex acts (that come across as looking quite real), as well as hit dramatic highs and lows. Thanks to Lee’s masterful knack for casting, the newcomer pulled it off beautifully, dignity intact.

Noah Baumbach, of The Squid and the Whale fame, offered up one of the strongest displays of female acting at the festival with his newest, Margot at the Wedding; giving his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman their best roles in years as sniping sisters who are inexplicably connected despite years of emotional terrorism towards each other.

Margot at the Wedding

Unremittingly dark and unapologetically unafraid to show the main characters as unsympathetically damaged and flawed; Margot (which has more than a few Ingmar Bergman overtones) is a two-woman showcase for Kidman and Leigh to flex their acting muscles as two very different, yet fundamentally linked sisters who share a turbulent history with one another. Leigh, who is always a pleasure to watch, should be up for the Oscar that has eluded her for more than fifteen years (in a just world). Her Pauline is one of the actresses’ finest creations: earthy, natural, and soft; a welcome change from the risky actress known for her portrayals of intense, damaged women. The range and maturity that Leigh conveys is astounding.

Kidman, who can be hit or miss, is on fire as Margot. Not since her role in 2001’s The Others, has the actress found such a perfect character with which to harness her natural iciness and neuroses. Margot is a tangle of nerve endings about to explode. She is brainy, lonely, and what this boils down to is a veritable field day for any actress. Kidman realizes the opportunity and plays the part beautifully. This is a character who would have been right at home in a film in the 1970s by John Cassavetes or Woody Allen, and Margot is the perfect marriage of actresses, director, and script.

In Bloom

In Bloom, director Vadim Perelman’s follow-up to 2003’s House of Sand and Fog, can be seen as a success in that it highlights three strong, unique female performances: Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, and Susan Sarandon’s daughter Eva Amurri play three women coping with the effects of a high school shooting. Each brings something unusual and strong to the bleak, sometimes off-kilter film. Perelman, as he did with his first feature, shows a clear affinity for working with capable actresses.

While Anton Corbijn’s Control may have been about the boys club of Joy Division, it was co-star Samantha Morton who quietly stole the show as Ian Curtis’ young wife Debbie. In a film where the boys all got to go out and play rock and roll, sleep with all of the groupies, and get all of the glory, it was Debbie’s story that kept the biopic rooted firmly in reality. Morton, in yet another fully-realized portrayal, never lets Debbie slink into the trap of being just another “wife role” –- something that Terry George could have taken pointers on when making Reservation Road, a film that sadly relegates Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino to the supportive sidelines in routine “spouse” roles.

The same, unfortunately, is true for Reese Witherspoon (who won an Oscar for playing “the wife” role in Walk the Line) in Gavin Hood’s Rendition. The actress has very little to do as the put-upon wife of an Egyptian national who is mistakenly labeled a terrorist, other than play a second-rate, shrieking Nancy Drew alongside Peter Sarsgaard. Not even the presence of Meryl Streep (venturing awfully close to self-parody in her essentially stock role) can save this sentimental, clichéd disappointment. What wants to be an edgy, timely examination on Middle East policies and modern warfare instead devolves into an overly-liberal stinker.

For real political edge, the film to turn to at the TIFF this year was an animated one: artist Marjane Satrapi (along with co-director Vincent Paronnaud) adapted her own autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis to resounding success. Spanning decades, beginning in Iran as the Shah comes to power and the Islamic fundamentalists seize control of the government, Satrapi examines what war means for a young, outspoken woman in a country where men dominate almost everything and women are second class citizens.


The second half of Persepolis finds Marjane sent away to Europe by her politically-active parents and taking a pointed look at racism towards people of Middle Eastern descent. There are a lot of bold ideas happening in the film, which is peppered with a droll sense of humor and an assured artist’s touch. Every element that was essential to the success of the books has been gloriously transferred to the big-screen version intact; and while this isn’t a frame-for-frame recreation of the novels, Persepolis never suffers from refusing to be slavishly devoted to its source materials.

While the clear presence of women could definitely be seen in the acting achievements, there was also a major feminine impact in the director’s stakes: Satrapi, Julie Taymor, Tamara Jenkins, Robin Swicord, Alison Eastwood, and Helen Hunt all debuted films at the TIFF this year, to varying degrees of success. But the major thing to remember here is that when you stroll into a local multiplex, and choose a film, it is highly unlikely that a major studio film is going to be directed by a woman. So to see five ladies, all confidently in control of their visions, get a chance to show five very different films at a major festival like this, there is a glimmer or hope for the directorial future of women; even if some of the films ended up as grand misfires.

Across the Universe

Taymor’s film, Across the Universe provoked another love-it-or-hate-it reaction from most festival-goers. The visionary director (whose Titus and Frida were both visually stunning) was given near-unanimous praise for its visually stunning uniqueness. The music (culled from the back catalogue of The Beatles) was the real star of the show, as most fans would point out; but the film’s script received a lot of criticism for being of mediocre quality, with laughable dialogue.

Across the Universe garnered some attention earlier this year when the film was taken out of Taymor’s hands (by studio executives), and handed over to another editor to whittle down the three-plus hour running time. While the director and the studio eventually found a happy medium, as far as length goes, the fact that the film was taken away from the artist shows a glaring discrepancy from the way a male director’s film might have been received: with Taymor, her film was taken away because of a perceived incompetence. Had this been a male director’s film, he would have been called an auteur.

The director will have another battle on her hands when the film is widely released: will the public pay to see what is essentially a two and a half hour, grand-scale music video for The Beatles? Is there a viable audience for this music anymore that will come out to support it?

The Savages

Jenkins fared much better with her biting, effective The Savages, her first feature since 1998’s The Slums of Beverly Hills. Tackling sibling rivalry, the state of elder care in the US, and familial bonds during times of crisis, Jenkins was able to scale back all of the obvious emotions tied to these often taboo subjects and strip everything down to it’s bare bones; creating an indelible, funny, and often touching film about the titular family.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, as the brother and sister who must come together and stop being self-involved when their ailing father (Phillip Bosco) becomes their dependent, give career-best performances in The Savages, thanks mainly to Jenkins’ impeccable script – which gives the actors a chance to cover all of the bases.

Swicord is known mostly for being a screenwriter (she famously adapted Memoirs of a Geisha and Little Women), which is why the mild The Jane Austen Book Club, her feature directorial debut, comes off as a bit disappointing.

Despite having a solid cast of women (including Amy Brennenman, Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, and the great Emily Blunt), the film is so conventional and poorly-edited that even the biggest supporters of the “chick flick” will likely be unsatisfied with this lumbering adaptation.

Then She Found Me

Hunt fares much better in the directorial debut and novel adaptation stakes, mainly because of her familiarity with the genre: the romantic comedy. Then She Found Me is a light, confident directorial debut that shows Hunt at the top of her genre game: the actress directs not only herself with a strong touch; but also gives beloved veteran Bette Midler a chance to prove herself as a character actress after being sadly put out to pasture for the last few years as a performer.

Hunt’s graciousness in turning each scene Midler is in over to the respected, gifted star is a very smart (and bold) move for both women. The idea of a female director (who is also the star of the picture) supporting another woman of another generation so generously is one that needs to be explored more in feature filmmaking, and Hunt makes it look effortless and fun.

Clint’s daughter, Alison Eastwood, gave it a game try with her directorial debut Rails & Ties, but the formulaic, unbelievable plot and plodding television movie editing kill the film’s emotional pull, despite a very nice performance by Marcia Gay Harden and a less successful one by Kevin Bacon, as a husband and wife who illegally take in an orphan after a train accident.

Films made by male artists, Julian Schnabel’s sumptuous The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Canadian director David Cronenberg’s expert Eastern Promises, focused more on male lead characters, but still offered up strong female characters with balance and poise: Promises boasted yet another canny, capable performance by Naomi Watts (who has been on a hot streak for a few years now); while Diving Bell featured four strong supporting roles in a film about a male author: Emanuelle Seigner, Marina Hands, Anne Cosigny, and the amazingly talented Marie-Josee Croze all took advantage of their relatively smallish parts and made each woman stand out.

I’m Not There

Oddly enough, the festival’s most talked about female contribution came from a woman playing a man: Cate Blanchett as “Jude”, a distaff version of Bob Dylan in his electric, drug-addled era; had everyone frothing at the mouth. Blanchett, who showed amazing range this year playing two legends (Dylan and Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age—which everyone expected to be her runaway success), soared to new artistic, surreal heights as Dylan, out-performing the entire cast that included Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Richard Gere.

“The image of Dylan is so well-known and so woven into our cultural fabric now that I felt the sheer shock of it that people must have experienced at that time is gone,” said Haynes. “I wanted to find a way to re-infuse it with true strangeness – the eeriness and sexual uncertainty and diffusion. And that’s why I wanted to have a woman play the part. And it took Cate Blanchett to transform that tall order into something more than a cinematic stunt.”

While the casting of the triumphantly weird I’m Not There could be misconstrued as “stunt-y”, director Todd Haynes has directed one of our generation’s most capable actresses to perhaps her most daring, experimental performance to date. In a career that already includes playing Katharine Hepburn (in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winner The Aviator), Queen Elizabeth (twice!), Nora and Hedda (onstage in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler), and key part in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; Blanchett’s work in Haynes’ visionary re-telling of Dylan’s story just might be her riskiest maneuver to date—albeit one that pays off handsomely.

It’s refreshing and satisfying to see, for once, a woman getting one of the year’s most interesting, and talked-about parts; a role that theoretically (on the page) should have been played by a man. It is the kind of female contribution to the movies that makes the possibilities for actresses seem limitless.

by Matt Mazur

12 Sep 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.

by Matt Mazur

10 Sep 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:

by Matt Mazur

9 Sep 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

by Matt Mazur

8 Sep 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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