[12 September 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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!
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.