Toronto International Film Festival 2009: Part 1

[14 September 2009]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

The Toronto International Film Festival, now in its 34th year, is a massive media gongshow that takes place in my hometown, right around the corner from my house. I get to bike to my first screening in the morning. I take lunch breaks and meet my wife and son for little walks between movies. I don’t have to sleep in some weird sterile hotel room, staying up late because I get to watch TV in bed which, for some reason, I always seem compelled to do. I don’t have to eat every meal at fast food joints (which means I don’t yet feel like a bag of dump, though all I have done for three full days now is sit in a dark room). And, finally, I can share in the whole, admittedly intoxicating, irrepressible thrill of seeing stars as they walk down my streets, the streets I’ve been walking along past nobodies and whocareses for my whole life. I mean, if I saw a celeb in New York, would that be weird? But, when George Clooney or Jennifer Connolly comes sliding by, all graceful and elegant and not-quite-human, I dunno. It just feels, electrifying. Is that lame? Probably.

Truth is: I haven’t actually seen celeb one this year. (Last year, I did way better. I even chatted with Tim Robbins. Well, the truth is that I actually had an astoundingly unnecessary conversation with him since the poor guy was just trying to get a drink and I accosted him, all 5’8” of me, and he, who is much closer to 18 or 19 feet tall, had to lean down so far he was basically assuming “the position” and looking for all the world like a big storky bird bending over to pluck up a teeny worm (me), and all so that he could be polite to this random dude who felt the unstoppable urge to waylay him. Also, I bumped into a guy I recognized from a car commercial.)  Instead of star-annoying, I have actually been watching films this year. As I sat down to write this, your first instalment of a five-part series of reviews and randomness from your humble(ish) correspondent, I had already sat through 12. By the end of the ten day festival I will have seen about 30. Dear God.

Jennifer’s Body (dir. Karyn Kusama, 2009)

This horror-comedy, Diablo Cody’s first screenplay since her Oscar-winning Juno, is so poorly thought out that even if it had been directed by someone with a sense of tone or suspense or mystery it still would never have worked. Stars Amanda Seyfried (who continues to impress), Megan Fox (who is apparently really really super-famous, though it remains difficult to see why), and a villainous Adam Brody (here playing “evil Seth”) do what they can, but have few opportunities to give this thing life. With a plot so straightforward that at no moment is there ever any question as to the next move from any character, and with dialogue so crass and preposterous as to simultaneously disgust and annoy, Cody hasn’t brought anything to this table but her suddenly eminent name and a few zingers. But, unlike the generally sweet banter and inventive wordplay of Juno, most of the contrived dialogue that pops up here isn’t funny so much as it’s just shockingly vulgar. (Example: “It smells like Thai food in here. Have you guys been fucking?”)

The template for the horror-comedy is, of course, Evil Dead, a film which is referenced twice here, but which the people behind the cameras clearly didn’t spend enough time studying. The lesson from that seminal picture is that you can’t have your cake and eat it. At least, not in every scene. Sometimes, things have to get just plain terrifying so that when the next joke sneaks up, you’ve earned the laugh. In

, all the attempts at horror are undermined by poorly placed gags – in a key fight scene one character asks another for a tampon after she gets stabbed. In another, Fox gets on all fours, barks like a dog, and then barfs up a gallon or two of sticky black tar. In another, a ritual sacrifice is performed on a terrified victim by a group of boys singing a one-hit wonder from the early 1980s.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this film is that it pretends to be a radical feminist reworking of the slasher film, some kind of re-invention of the whole sex=death thing in horror, while in reality there isn’t much to distinguish it from scores of other films working with the black widow cliché. So, the evil force is a powerful woman who must use her extraordinary sexuality to lure men to their deaths, feeding on them to survive? I saw that movie: it was called Species. Plus, Amanda Seyfried has ESP for some reason, a plot point which one would think would bear some discussion, but which is instead employed as a convenient way to get her character to do stuff, or to know when stuff is happening, or something. Basically, it doesn’t make any sense.

Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion, 2009)
Jane Campion is a divisive director. She made one mostly undisputed masterpiece (1993’s The Piano) and then followed it up with a series of films that have failed to connect with audiences or most critics, a trend that reached its apotheosis with 2003’s widely reviled In the Cut, a dark, uncomfortable genre picture that invited viewers to connect with a woman who just might be knowingly screwing a serial killer. Her latest film is bound to be just as troublesome to viewers, if for entirely different reasons: this time it will be less an issue of whether you can stomach the material, and more about whether you can remain awake while nothing much happens for a couple of hours. Bright Star is beautifully shot, elegantly lit (much of it apparently done with natural light), and very finely acted (especially impressive is the luminous Abbie Cornish in the lead role). However, it is also dull and too-often flat when it might have sung. The true story (known to us from letters and diary entries) of an unrequited affair between the dying poet John Keats and his wealthy neighbour should have made for a terrific romance. In Campion’s hands it becomes something more meditative – the pacing is slow, the mood languid – but it never offers you much to meditate upon.

The Hole (dir. Joe Dante, 2009)
Shot in digital 3D, and offering me my first ever newfangled glasses-on film experience, Joe Dante’s latest popcorn flick had me and a couple hundred press and industry types really excited. By all accounts, these new 3D effects were truly astounding, and lots of us thought that Dante (of Gremlins fame, but not much since) just might be the guy to make them shine. The problem is, the admittedly astoundingly awesome effects are just about the only thing I can recommend about this film. First of all, I don’t know who it is for – though billed as a “family-friendly” horror movie, it has gratuitous bikini shots of teenage girls, frequent swearing, and a few really gory scares (including an exposed pulsating brain). No way should your kids be seeing this. On the other hand, older kids and teens will find the plot – three kids discover a hole in the basement floor that scary things come out of – to be thin and, well, lame. This stuff is simply too juvenile, and this territory too well-covered, to get many of them going.

A Serious Man (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen, 2009)
A parable of sorts riffing on the story of Job, here represented by a nebbish, “serious” man (Michael Stuhlbarg) who suffers an intense array of calamities over a two week period, this is the whip-smart Coens at their finest. Like all of their best work, A Serious Man is both hauntingly sad and terrifically funny, kind of a Winter Light with jokes. The stroy revolves around a physics professor in the late 1960s, a man who can find order and beauty in the universe through equations and mathematics, as he is placed in a metaphysical quandary; at every turn, the Coens ask us to consider the bleakness of his gathering realization that God is letting these bad things happen to him, and that there is no explaining it. The rabbis don’t (or won’t) help; his family doesn’t seem to care; he is adrift, staggered by God’s silence. Oddly male-centric, with women reduced to abstractions and stereotypes (the shrewish wife, the vapid daughter, the whoreish neighbour), and with Jews and Jewishness at the centre of the narrative (all non-Jews represent clear threats), there is a certain Talmudic logic to the way this story plays out. In the Bible, the question God asked of Job was simple: will you succumb to temptation at the expense of your beliefs? Job never did, and his reward was God’s continued love. But, the Coens are asking, is that enough? The Coen brothers are the most consistently interesting filmmakers in Hollywood, and this is their most consistently fascinating film in fifteen years.

Accident (dir. Pou-Soi Cheang, 2009)
Not your typical Hong Kong crime drama, but that’s probably a good thing. Though Pou-Soi Cheang’s latest thriller delivers an intense, exhilarating first act – in which we follow a team of killers-for-hire as they make a murder appear to be an accident – it takes an unfortunate turn and never comes back on course. Its initial Mission Impossible complexity (who can we trust if everyone around us is adept at making murder look like an act of God? What if that bus crash was really deliberate? How did my wife die, anyway?) is undermined by an atmosphere of manufactured (rather than earned) paranoia. In the old paranoia films of the early 1970s, especially The Conversation, we spent more time bewildered than in the know, so there was something authentic about the incoherence of what we were piecing together. Here, as we watch the protagonist (a tightly drawn Louis Koo) pick off his colleagues one by one in response to their apparent involvement in a plot against him, one never has much doubt as to what is really going on. Rather than confound our expectations, the film is content to let us stew while the guy goes deeper and deeper into the murk. To make matters worse, there is almost no dialogue at all for about 35 minutes before he finally figures out what we’ve known for an hour. Still, hell of a first act.

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