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by Matt Mazur

8 Sep 2008


Blindness

Up until today things were looking pretty bleak here in Toronto, as far as films go. My favorite parts of the festival have been, in no particular order: the new Olivier Assayas film, the food, and the multitude of men in tight pants; including, for the second straight year in a row, the debonair, police-barricade-jumping Viggo Mortensen—but more on him later, because, as we learned last year with Eastern Promises, every Toronto Film Festival must always come back to Viggo.

This has mostly been a banner year for star-spotting: I’ve sat at the feet of Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Dakota Fanning (lol—check out October’s Suffragette City column for a full-length dissection of their film The Secret Life of Bees) and I’ve seen Gael Garcia Bernal get a piggy-back ride from Mark Ruffalo. After all of this star-fuckery, I was thinking it would be great to actually get to see a film that truly moves me, rather than the man-candy proliferating the streets.

The Burning Plain (dir. Guillermo Arriaga, 2008, USA)

Thankfully, I got a chance to catch Guillermo Arriaga’s spectacular directorial debut, The Burning Plain today, which more than satisfied my need for nourishing cinematic sustenance.

Arriaga’s debut follows his much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Babel and is reminiscent, in many ways, of his prior two films with Alejandro Gonzales-Inaritu, Ammores Perros and 21 Grams. Comparably, The Burning Plain tells several distinct, convergent stories that are elliptically inter-connected and are told with a singular energy and dynamism that has come to be associated with Arriaga. 

A master at capturing multiple, parallel perspectives in one film, without it ever feeling overly-full, talky or scattered, Arriaga has also carved an unexpected niche as one of the premiere, go-to screenwriters who is continually exploring unique female characters and women’s themes in a touching, intelligent way. The women of Arriaga’s worldview are amongst some of the most piquant, well-conceived characters in recent cinema history—they are the everywomen who are often thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who are put through their paces by life, and not some fantasy Hollywood ideal of what a woman’s life is, either. They have real problems, which are often crippling.

In 21 Grams, there was the trio of Naomi Watts, Melissa Leo and Charlotte Gainsbourg all going for broke, each giving a superlative, sincere performance (with Watts garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Actress). Babel’s actresses, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kickuchi, of course scored an unprecedented set of Academy Award nominations for their very different women at the ends of their ropes in Mexico and Japan, respectively.  It is not a surprise in the least that our brightest and best are lining up to collaborate with him.

With this new offering, which took 15 years to gestate (“you have to wait until the story is mature enough to be told,” he said in an interview), the director can add four more excellently drawn female characters to this pantheon of gorgeously modern, unforgettable anti-heroines.

The Burning Plain opens in the Organ Mountains in Las Cruces, a place of isolation, where a trailer is ablaze in the middle of seeming nothingness. Abruptly, the point of view switches to Portland, Oregon, where an angry, nude Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is instructing her sleeping lover John (John Corbett) to “get out”. These opening sequences add to the key elements of poignancy, and mystery that run throughout without being overly sappy or arty. It keeps viewers guessing and hanging on for any crumb of a detail that will better orient them to what is happening. You want to pay attention, you want to understand.

Sylvia is a restaurant manager who has a problem with acting out sexually. She’s also a self-mutilator, who, at times when she’s alone, looks like she is about to crawl out of her own skin or even end it all at any second. There is a thrilling, fresh approach to this character that is wisely, masterfully under-played by Theron. When at work, she’s another woman altogether. To the actresses’ credit, she is able to use her own physicality in a creative way: her facial expressions, her guarded body language, and her damaged silence and stillness are all perfectly modulated against a glorious ocean backdrop at one point, and the effect is gripping. She tackles the very tricky concept of cyclical, learned behavior being wildly, destructively misinterpreted without any hint of histrionics.

The film switches gears quickly once more, to the story of brothers Santiago and Christobal (Danny Pino and Diego Torres), whose father, Nick, we learn as the survey the wreckage, died in the opening sequence; making love to a woman they refer to as “that slut”. At Nick’s funeral, an angry man shows up with his kids screaming that the dead Nick was a “wetback” and that he hopes both sons burn in hell alongside their father for taking away the mother of his children. Nick was apparently not so well-liked.

Arriaga sets up another multi-lingual, multicultural mini-epic that cannily explores border town tensions and racial tensions, with the same ease with which he looks at family and internal tensions. He does all of this while constantly maintaining a clear, gorgeous mise- en-scene filled with sexual and romantic intrigues that are utterly believable and expertly shaded with a minimalist, lyrical quality. In particular, his take on middle-aged sexuality, in the story of Gina (Kim Basinger) and her lover (Joaquim De Almeida) has a lived-in realism that makes for a wholly compelling, watchable experience that explores with frankness a woman’s sexuality in the aftermath of breast cancer.

There is also an obvious thrill to watching these actors dig into their ripe, juicy roles with sharp abandon. Theron is perfectly cast as the depressed, wanton Sylvia. Her eyes burning with an intensity not unlike the fire that opens the film, the performer gets her best role in years, in her best film since winning the Oscar for Monster. There is a degree of thoughtful commitment and intelligence in this performance that marks her as one of, if not the most consistently adventure-seeking, risk taking female actresses of her generation. And she is only getting even better with age.

The same goes double for Basinger, whose face is more glorious and breathtaking now, at age 55, than it was almost 30 years ago when she first began acting. She does a tremendous job of playing a real woman, who shops at K-Mart, and lives a rather meager existence. When big stars like this play parts that require them to be “real” or “de-glam” as it has come to be known, there can often be a distracting star quality and artifice that permeates the work, hinders the actual performance, and ruins their full disappearance into character.

Not so with Gina, in any way: Basinger nails this out of the park and should be extremely proud of her work here. The character is torn between familial duties and lustful abandon, she has a bruised, wounded sexuality; which is something of a Basinger specialty (for which she has been given an Oscar, for 97’s L.A. Confidential). This ordinary housewife’s unassuming descent into a tragedy that will forever alter her family’s lives becomes at once inordinately moving and harrowing in the actresses’ hands. Gina is her best performance; her most subtle, mature, brilliant work.

Arriaga’s use of the close-up with these two characters borders on being Ingmar Bergman-esque at times, and he knows how to show off an actor’s face with pitch-perfect modulation, allowing for silence and appropriately necessary reflective moments that drive the story and are crucial for establishing such complex characters. He does this not only with Theron and Basinger, but with the entire excellent cast as well.

Everything that the film wants to accomplish—it’s mystery, it’s yearning, and it’s heart, are all reflected on the faces and in the eyes of the cast, in loving close-ups that are infused with naturally moody lighting. Authoritatively written, photographed, and directed, The Burning Plain is an eloquent, moving experience that needs to be released into theaters ASAP for serious year-end awards consideration. If Basinger can pull off an Oscar win for getting slapped by Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential, then she more than merits consideration for at least a nomination here, particularly in such a weak year.

Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris, 2008, USA)

From one “plain” to another, we travel to the town of Appaloosa, where lawlessness runs rampant (in the form of a dastardly Jeremy Irons), and the “good guys” (Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen) ride into the place to save the day, for a nominal fee, of course.

The film treads the same similar ground as many other cinematic Western points of reference, John Ford being the obvious, though even as an homage Appaloosa, which is very entertaining and well-made, doesn’t really come even close to capturing that genre master’s ebullience. The main draw for the some 1,500 (!) people who came to see the film at it’s world premiere at the beautiful, historic Elgin Theater in the middle of downtown Toronto was not the content, likely, but the experience of being closer to the stars—Harris, Irons, Mortensen and Renee Zellweger were all on hand to launch this labor of love.

In addition to star-spotting, another facet of the “festival experience” is meeting genuine fans of film who are revved up, having fun, and talking trash while staked on the street, waiting in massive, unbelievable lines to get in to a show they pay top dollar for. Whether it’s 17 year old guys spazzing out over catching a glimpse of Zellweger, or middle-aged women who are not really sure who Viggo is (but once they come face to face with him, they are won’t soon forget!), part of doing this festival successfully involves trading war stories with your neighbor while standing in these lines, and loving it (and I should really be getting paid by this festival to write this “how-to-festival” manual).

The red carpet premiere brought out not only stars and fans with tickets, but also drew a massive crowd of onlookers and paparazzi across the street, who were all screaming and yelling at the top of their lungs, as what felt like a million flashes went off. It was actually a little bit scary and I don’t know how these film people can handle that part of their job. After doing his duty on the carpet, Mortensen, after first going inside, came running back out and actually hopped over police barricades (followed by a frantic entourage), scampered through downtown traffic on Yonge Street and signed multiple autographs for fans who had been standing there for hours. Talk about a dashing star turn. I don’t think I even need to really mention this, but that is one handsome man.

Before the premiere of Appaloosa, Harris took to the stage to address the audience. “I know I’m not the governor of Alaska, but,” joked the self-effacing actor-director to thunderous applause as he began to explain his project to the crowd. In 2000, he brought his very different Pollack here for launching, to great success, which he hoped to repeat with his newest venture.

Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Parker (who was in attendance and given a shout-out from the dais), Harris explained he first wanted to do the project while he was in Ireland doing a play and became fascinated by the two lead characters’ relationship, and called Mortensen one of the “loves of his life” (the other, he pointed out was Zellweger, in the film). There was an intensely emotional moment that felt very private when Harris thanked his father, who plays a judge in Appaloosa. “I’m so darn proud of him,” Harris said, choking back tears. “He did a great job”. His father stood up and received a roaring ovation as Harris beamed. Then bringing Irons, Mortensen, and Zellweger out to the stage, he commented that they were some of the best actors he had ever worked with and that there were “no divas, no jerks,” and then joined the group in the theater to watch the film on the big screen, with the crowd, something of an opening night tradition here.

The most surprising thing about Appaloosa was its sense of humor. There are countless moments of good-hearted quips and cowboy jokes intertwined with the violence that had the audience guffawing; everything is sort of mildly reminiscent of other similar flicks, and from what I gathered from Harris’ speech, his making this film seemed to be something he was doing perhaps for his dad, but also just for the good old-fashioned fun of spinning a Old West yarn that audiences will probably really enjoy. What’s wrong with making an enjoyable, simple little film every now and again?

Revenge, anarchistic villains, and shady ladies, are the recurring themes that the hard-working townsfolk of the titular city are relentlessly plagued by as they are repeatedly hounded by the Braggs gang (led by Irons), who take the law into their own hands. Enter Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch (Harris and Mortensen), legendary men of honor who will even the odds out by slinging a gun faster than anyone else, to protect their charges, for the right price. They trade jokes back and forth, even in the face of danger; in the wise-cracking, rich American tradition Old West mythology.

Still, the film is less about cinematic innovation that it is about the pure delight of making movies with people you like, with material of your own choosing. The esprit de corps, the camaraderie, and enthusiasm shared by this cast (working harmoniously together) and the adventure they embarked on making it is almost more remarkable than the actual end product. Largely an homage, Appaloosa is well-made, and well-shot; has nice sets and costumes, but no one is going to be winning any kind of awards for acting for their work here. And that’s fine. Each cast member does fine and serves the material appropriately.

Harris (looking like he just stepped off the set of his ‘87 film Walker) and Mortensen have a bountiful, lived-in chemistry and Irons is a completely stock “bad guy”, but he does that sort of greasy cliché very well. Zellweger wisely underplays in a strange role, essentially playing a kind of bad actress. She seems at home in the genre, able to employ her comedic chops in equal measure to her dramatic side.

This couldn’t be any more far removed from the world of Jackson Pollack, so to that point, Harris as a director shows a capable versatility by proving he can coordinate a big-budget, economically-paced, rhythmic period piece. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel or anything, but it is nonetheless energetic and enjoyable—a throwback and a crow-pleaser. I can’t wait to see what Harris does next, he’s one of the most sincerely adventurous artists we have working.

Blindness (dir. Fernando Meirelles, 2008, Canada/Brazil/Japan)

At the historic Elgin theater on Yonge street in downtown Toronto, there are three lines that form when a film is playing there: a regular line for people with tickets, a “rush” line for those who don’t, and a special, corporate whoring line for those who have Visa platinum or gold cards, who get to go in before everyone else and have priority seating.

When I was waiting to see Appaloosa on Friday, I furiously looked through my wallet to see what kind of credit card I could muster up, and, as I didn’t think I had the proper piece of plastic, I waited in the regular line, got a terrible seat with a pillar in front of me and watched everyone else whiz by.

Saturday for Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness, I discovered that I actually did have a Visa platinum card in my wallet the whole time.

I was let immediately in, and whisked down to the Visa Lounge, a super-exclusive (well, not really) little area of the theater where the elite (again, not really) chill and mingle. Lindt chocolate chefs were dipping gourmet bon bons, and every table was adorned with orchids and glittering little candle lamps. Those with no Visa (the ones who probably are wise to not have one, that is!) waited in what looked like a miles-long line, for literally hours, while I enjoyed a glass of chardonnay and ate freshly-prepared candies brought directly to my table like a civilized human being (or was it like a spoiled housewife?). Sure beats waiting in the rain.

In attendance was, I think, every single person who was involved with making the film: Meirelles, Julianne Moore, Sandra Oh, Mark Ruffalo, and Gael Garcia Bernal (who rode out piggy-back on Ruffalo) were among the glitterati onstage, while in the audience I was mere feet away from two amazing Oscar-winners: Adrien Brody and Geoffrey Rush.

Screenwriter Don McKellar (the Canadian writer-director-star of the critically acclaimed Last Night) came onstage to tell a charming anecdote about traveling to the Canary Islands to woo author Jose Saramago for the book’s rights (“he was suspicious of the film industry. I don’t know why” he deadpanned); then after Meirelles brought everyone out and made a short speech, the house lights went down, and, having not read the book (I know! I know!), I had no idea what to expect.

Immediately, the audience was transported into a visually arresting world. We are plopped down squarely into a nameless city where everything seems like business as usual. Except, through the eyes of this director, there is a stylistically precise element to each shot, something that has become a major component of his oeuvre. I talk a lot about “energy” and how it relates to a film’s life force in my writing, and Meirelles is a man who proudly uses his “energy” and exuberance to guide a film from being ordinary to being completely unique—I doubt you will not encounter any more visually courageous imagery this year.

Washed out in gauzy tones, with effects blurring and confounding and white-hot lights popping and disorienting, Meirelles forces his viewer to be a part of this world much in the way Julian Schnabel had the spectators see the world of Jean-Dominique Bauby through his single working eye in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. When you put your audience into a position of empathy like this, it is extremely hard for them to remain unattached; they are forced to care almost. It’s jarring. Personally, I wish that all films could be as thoughtful and talent-rich this: multiple perspectives from around the globe converging into one spectacular artistic collaboration, with everyone bringing their “A” game, on one of the most celebrated modern novels is pretty much a dream come true.

These kinds of major works are rare, and the elements actually coming together cohesively are even rarer. The film faced an uphill battle after being trashed at Cannes, but the cut that played in Toronto, I am told, was a marked improvement, and majorly over-hauled—which included taking out what I heard was a stilted narrative monologue.

Moore and Ruffalo are “The Doctor” and “The Doctor’s Wife”, who, when everyone is beginning to lose their sight, remains the calm in the eye of the storm. They are mainly relatively calm (comparatively) because the wife, for an unknown reason, has still gone blind. Everything whites out for the characters that do, though, and then complete, anarchic pandemonium breaks loose. An epidemic sweeps this city, hitting it hard. This could really be anyone’s city. The panic that ensues is wholly petrifying, especially when people’s evil natures get the better of them.

One by one, the characters are cordoned off into a dank, filthy “quarantine” by the government. It is scary to think of what would happen should a large medical disaster of these proportions actually happen—are we ready to take on the unknown? Are we strong enough to not take advantage of one another in a time of catastrophic crisis? Can we band together and help one another in a state of helplessness and defensiveness? Over the course of the film, these questions have to be answered by the performers, and the answers might shock you. It’s surprising where the sources of courage are in the darkest hours, and everyone begins to rely on Moore’s ability to see as she is the only one who still can. She’s everyone’s nurse, everyone’s angel; ghostly pale to the point of being nearly translucent. An apparition floating through the shit and the rubbish to help strangers.

Left to their own devices, after the government alternately threatens and abandons them, the blind begin to make their own help. They band together to make the best of a bad situation. The apocalyptic doom and gloom plays as being surprisingly realistic and not to hard to imagine taking place in the foreseeable future—it does not take much suspension of disbelief to think that human suffering would be placed lower in importance than government or corporate bureaucracy.

Both could easily be our undoing in real life as well. It’s not a stretch to think the government would just as soon kill the infirmed as they would help them, probably because that is already sort of happening to the homeless, to the mentally ill, and to the disabled. No pun intended, but when it comes to the needy, we have a nasty habit of turning a blind eye. We seal ourselves off hermetically from these problems rather than face them and fix them, which is exactly what happens in Blindness.In the film, the people “guarding” the blind callously laugh when they see people hurt or when people violently die. They are forbidden from leaving their prison-home.

At turns disturbingly provocative, and risky, the entire cast of actors has a field day with the gruesome challenges Saramago outlined in his epic. The multiple physical challenges that they put themselves through and the universal, relevant emotional themes that are played out require an expertly-trained ensemble to hold this sort of mirror up to society. Not only do the actors gamely take up the challenge, they do it in a responsible, socially and globally aware way. Even though there are extended scenes of violence, particularly one of the most awful scenes of female torture, rape and degradation I have ever seen put to film; there is never a feeling of gratuitousness.

When the psychotic, self-appointed “King of Ward 3” takes over the food supply, he demands the other blind wards give up all of their valuables in order to eat. When they run out of jewelry, he takes women as payment. The women volunteer, thinking this will save them in some way, but they are brutalized to a savage degree that had some female audience members in tears. I’m not sure what that meant, but there was an undeniable, terrible power to what was happening up there that elicits a gut response.

In that sequence, a survival instinct comes out in the women that they didn’t know was there to begin with, and it compels them to bring about change in a denouement of pure adrenaline-fueled chaos and triumph where people walk the streets in zombie-like hordes, scavenging desperately in a world of ruination.

Meirelles needs to be commended for taking on this job that requires someone with a perfect blending of an artist’s eye and the technical know-how of a true genius. It is unimaginable what kind of work went into piecing this meticulous bedlam together, stitch by stitch, and the degree of difficulty in coordinating, staging, and choreographing this mayhem. He pulls it off beautifully, though, without resorting to beating us over the head with symbolism or preaching. This is a delicate balancing act that proves him to be one of our great contemporary working directors.

Blindness is a must-see film for this bravery. It was a privilege to get to watch it with the cast and crew, and award it with a standing ovation and shouts of “bravo!”

by Matt Mazur

5 Sep 2008


Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, all kinds of strange things happened to me, ranging from transcendent to downright dire. I sat next to the freaky Marilyn Manson at a screening, unbeknownst to me, and when the lights came up I audibly gasped in fear. I was shoved, stalked and harassed by a homeless, deranged drug addict who made me miss seeing legend Max Von Sydow speak live at a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (thanks!). I somehow also managed to thoroughly embarrass myself in front of hundreds-strong crowd by asking a director a question he didn’t particularly like and openly scoffed at to the crowd, following a film screening that no one else in attendance particularly liked.

Whether it was being propositioned by streetwalkers while asking for directions (honest!) or simply making the rookie mistake of choosing the most aesthetically pleasing, yet highly torturous footwear I own over something sensible and proceeding to trek several miles, for several hours like an idiot, last year’s festival was a genuine learning experience.

Crippling blisters, bleeding feet, and terror in the streets aside, Toronto’s festival days are mainly exciting and fun, so here I am again, white boots at home in the closet where they belong. I am ready to spit out thousands and thousands of words that will be, for those of you actually keeping track, part “blog”, part actual film criticism. I’ll have to just get over the fact that some people don’t really care what I am wearing (though I have brought the Holy Gay Trinity of Gucci, Prada, and Miu Miu along to help this year), but, since everyone is so up in arms lately about the differences between a “blogger”, a “film critic”, and being a “fan” lately, I feel like I now have extra audiences to please. Again, thanks.

I will try desperately to keep the focus on the films, but in such a spontaneous climate filled with zany film industry comings and goings, who knows what will happen? All I know is I am writing about anything and everything that crosses my path, because, let’s face it: Toronto can get crazy at festival time.

This year, I was mostly jazzed to come back for the year-end prestige films that seemed to eminently loom on the filmic horizon, and after being so completely blown away by the sheer multitude of high-profile releases my prior trip to the Toronto Film Festival offered me, it seemed a logical assumption that all of these hugely anticipated films would make their debuts at Toronto. Chatter amongst most bloggers and movie devotees I know centered (in fact, it still centers) largely on the following films:

Doubt. The Reader. Australia. Revolutionary Road. Grey Gardens. The Road. Milk. Frost/Nixon. The Young Victoria. W. The Soloist. Body of Lies. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Cheri. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

This group of 15 movies seems to be the heavy artillery brigade of award contenders that will be trotted out come trophy time. These are the juggernauts that Oscar prognosticators have on their “major nominations” maps, which feature the biggest, brightest stars. In other words, they are the flagship prize-winners and powerhouses that Toronto is generally known for launching.

Guess what? None of those will be included in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival’s program. Not a single one.

Some have been bumped to 2009, and some are probably still not even all the way finished yet, but one thing is certain: the most anticipated flicks of the year will be released mainly to theaters first, rather than to festivals. Cinema enthusiasts will just have to wait a little longer to get word on these buzzy releases. Most entries premiering at Toronto this year, instead, will actually be auspicious North American debuts, rather than world premieres. Many are still desperately seeking distributors. A large handful will have already been shown at Venice and Cannes, and many still will be shown next month at the New York Film Festival.

Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling was nixed by Toronto because star Angelina Jolie decided to stay home with her newborn twins, rather than hauling her celebrity across the continent, out to Ontario, to stump for the flick (how’s that for punishing a working mother?). Curiously, the New York fete will feature The Changeling. With or without Angelina, we still don’t know, but at this point, we’ll take what we can get –- film aficionados (me included) are damn-near chomping at the bit to see if the Cannes buzz is to be trusted.

Speaking of Cannes, this year it looks as though the “international” will be forcibly inserted back into the festival’s title: films by such intercontinental auteurs as Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Walter Salles, Agnes Varda, and Wong Kar Wai pepper the schedule, and in place of the more high profile English-language releases (like last year’s buzz-gobblers Juno and Atonement), there are several smaller indie releases that don’t really compare: does anyone honestly care about the new Guy Richie gangster idiocy, or Kevin Smith’s lame-brained Zack and Miri Make a Porno? Nope.

Last year’s slate featured almost every single important film, presented with luscious sound and perfect picture (Toronto’s technical elements are sublime), by all of the most important directors of the season; the only Oscar prospect that didn’t play in Toronto last year was probably There Will Be Blood. So, I was, many ways, disappointed in what was being offered for 2008, after being so consistently blown away by the sheer volume of star wattage the previous year (as were so many other film fans, festival patrons, and other journalists I know). Of course, when a film critic whines, it makes the Baby Jesus cry.

When I began my plan of attack by writing out my ridiculously awesome schedule, I realized I had become one of those jaded, shrill, complaining industry types that I had run afoul of so many times last year and despised so much (all that was missing was a ubiquitous BlackBerry surgically attached to my ear and a steady stream of complain-y epithets). I discovered that the line-up, despite it’s rather, um, cozy feeling, was going to be filled with an excitingly quiet fury and a divergent, thorough intelligence. In other words: get over it, Mazur!

Coming to this fest is exciting. It’s an adventure. It’s also a privilege. Crazy, random things happen at events like this and to be so close to the action is literally energizing -– you would be surprised at how late I can stay up, how many films I can see in a day, how much I can write, and how little I eat; it’s as though I am a beautiful fern existing on air and films alone. This year, organizers and programmers have taken careful consideration to assemble some of the best hidden gems you haven’t heard about (yet), but should definitely familiarize yourselves with, pronto.

Last year, I saw only one film on day one, Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster. This year’s first day began with a scheduling snafu, born of my inability to read press conference dates properly and my insistence on drinking one too many tequilas at a random Irish pub in Toronto’s Gay Village, somewhere on Church Street.

I had to scramble to find something to occupy my time, and unfortunately landed at the screening for the Argentinean Liverpool, a film from director Lisandro Alonso that I didn’t know the first thing about. I followed that rueful misfire with Olivier Assayas’ newest, the invigorating Summer Hours (which will be given the full treatment in another blog as I will be speaking with the esteemed Mr. Assayas later this week), and, finally, I was supposed to see Brick director Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, which stars Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, and Rinko Kickuchi, but because of a major screw-up on someone else’s part, I was put in the wrong waiting line and got shut out. When I got to the right line, the other press and industry folks standing there were rabidly jumping the line, yelling at each other, and generally acting like petulant school children. So, in place of that film, and all of the uncontrollable nonsense being allowed in the rush line, I had a lovely meal of venison with mushroom au jus and fried gnocchi at a Leslieville lounge called Barrio.

Liverpool (dir. Lisandro Alonso, 2008, Argentina/France/The Netherlands/Germany/Spain)

But now, it’s time to get on with the single, lame film review of the day, and to do that, I will need to bring out a massive chopping block, and immediately put the offender out of it’s misery: Liverpool is a challenging film that is full of subtle ideas that wants to be an important art-house film with a maverick indie pedigree, but it just doesn’t work, it barely entertains. I can’t see this playing to even the most staunch crowd of independent film fans and it going over well.

The film begins with scenes of men at work in a factory-like atmosphere, in solitude. The director actually does a very good job of establishing a claustrophobic mood in the first 15 minutes, showing a maze of nightmarish industrial complexes and the stagnation of these men’s hard-working existences. The tight, locked-in feeling instantly melts away when the camera follows the alcoholic lead character Farrel (nicely captured by Juan Fernandez) outside as he catches a much-needed breath of fresh air, and we realize that the employees are on a freighter, out to sea.

The glimpses of the panoramic ocean vistas are spectacular, but fleeting in this exhilarating moment. In these scenes, the director does show a flair for being able to construct solid, well-framed shots, even if they do linger much too long. This is something that could easily be fixed with a little bit of editing room magic, though I suspect this lethargic crawl is what Alonso had in mind.

Farrel is going to home, to the mountains at the southern tip of the continent, to see if his mother is “still alive”. This is the single action that propels the story forward, and it happens so excruciatingly slowly, and paced so aimlessly, that at times, it becomes very hard to watch as there is little dramatic action taking place. Often, the camera just inches along, preferring to stop and simply capture the banal, which is a nice artistic statement, but, for viewers, can be tedious. I kept thinking “why not just make a documentary?”

Very little dialogue in this piece makes for a spare, still experience. Fernandez’s ruggedly handsome, weathered face is enough to at least intrigue the viewer, but when he’s not on screen, things fall slightly apart. What started out promising, with a rollicking original score, quickly devolved into a mediocre character study that took way too long to set up, and that’s not just American impatience speaking, either. It is extremely interesting to watch this man’s re-entry into society after (it is implied) a life spent as a ne’er do well, but a picaresque series of documentary-feeling images does not necessarily make for a pleasant film-watching experience. The director does achieve a clear sense of disconnection, as none of the characters communicate with one another, really, and most, are in many ways, isolated.

This loner’s journey to see his mother certainly has its moments. The visual grandeur being its most obvious positive characteristic, with Alonso painting imaginatively with natural light sources and robust views of the rugged countryside, but the emotional payoff is missing. Despite the flaws, Liverpool remains remarkable mainly because of its canny showcasing of a place and culture that are rarely represented on film, for North American audiences, and for that, it must be lauded for bravery. In giving us a glimpse of this slice of life, it does succeed, but in terms of either cinematic convention or innovation, it rarely moves past being a middling art experiment, and borders on being a chore to watch. Had I not been seated squarely in the middle of the theater, surrounded by people, I might have been tempted to leave.

While Liverpool is devoid of plot and largely anti-climactic, it is, at least, much different than anything else you’re likely to see this year. I’m not sure that is a compliment, but it sets the film apart from the usual fall season offerings. The ending is cheeky, and tries to be clever, but by then, it’s too late to care anymore as most people in the theater had their eyes fixed on the exits.

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.

Persepolis

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:

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