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Day 4: TIFF 2010: Nicole Kidman, Harbinger of Doom

The presence of queer directors at this year's TIFF is strong, as is the presence of women, both in front of and behind the camera.

The presence of queer directors at this year's TIFF is strong, as is the presence of women, both in front of and behind the camera. In this edition of our TIFF coverage, I discover that sometimes, as much as you would like to support your people, you must also have a clear-eyed view of the finished work and be critical of the poor choices being made by some of them. Unfortunately in film criticism there is no free pass for the gays and the ladies.

What's Wrong with Virginia? (dir. Dustin Lance Black, 2010)

This albatross is the directorial debut of Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black title and it practically begs for a snarky answer to the title question by being so completely ridiculous. What's Wrong with Virginia? What's right with Virginia is a better question and the answer is: zilch.

Opening with a striking, painted pastoral title sequence littered with little fairytale houses and antique ferris wheels set against a kitschy blue skies with marshmallow clouds, signaled early promise. An vintage-inspired iris shot gives way to the live action where Virginia (Jennifer Connelly), is carried out of her house by a crooked local cop (Ed Harris), and then things almost immediately fall to pieces.

Though I respected several of the disparate stylistic elements Black chose throughout on their own (such as the birds-eye-view shot from the ferris wheel), his hand is unnecessarily heavy when it comes to visual symbolism. His directorial choices feel show-offy, and not in a good, Black Swan/Darren Aronofsky way, but in more of a gimmick-laden, cuckoo way that feels overly-indulged film. Do we need an iris, the painted titles, the tricky camera work, the rapid-fire editing and constant camera movement all at once? These choices could have been edited and smarter. You don't want to blow your wad by using every single filmmaking trick in the book in one movie, but that's exactly what happens here, even though I suspect the intention was to be closer to R.W. Fassbinder in aesthetic than late night basic cable. I also suspect that this voracious proliferation of eye-trickery has something to do with distracting the viewer from the bottom of the barrel quality of everything else.

Another major problem is Connelly failing at channeling her inner Jessica Lange in Blue Sky: she's blonde, she's nutcase, she's smoking like a chimney, she's speaking in a half-assed Southern drawl. Again, this character was in need of editing from somebody with the little bits of kink, the mental illness, the terminal disease, the nymphomania, the daddy issues. Its all over the top, the performance and the character as written and feels slightly degrading to an otherwise fine actress to be playing all of these impossible elements with a straight face (at one point she wears a gorilla mask with a schmatte, don't ask!).

Tori Amos once said, and this is paraphrasing, that her debut album Little Earthquakes was her diary open for the world to read and that after that, she realized that in order to sustain a career in music, she would need to become a true storyteller outside of simply committing her own personal thoughts and literal experiences to song over and over. It takes a visionary artist to be able to incorporate themselves into the work in an interesting, stylish way. On this end, Black, who so effortlessly pulled off combining the personal, the political, and the professional with Milk, has much work to do.

What's Wrong with Virginia is all over the place with weirdo characters (repressed suburban housewives, cross-dressing freaks, politicians), perfunctory themes of Mormonism that feel unnecessary, hemophilia, gold-plated vibrators, and even a bit of light bondage. Don't even get me started on the music choices, which were just as wrong and all over the place as everything else. It is hard to imagine anyone becoming emotionally involved with something so thoroughly dead. At the press screening I attended, there was pretty much a mass exodus from the theater full of sniggering journos.

On a side note, I am completely enraged at something that I have been hearing quite a bit of lately from audiences of both critics and fans: that actresses who play the mothers of either older teenagers or young adults are doing something even remotely "brave." I heard this tired old line come up from more than one anonymous person in the crowd for this film. "She's so brave for playing the mom of that teenager." Just because Connelly or Marisa Tomei in Cyrus, play characters like this does not indicate any great lack of vanity or risk to their perceived glamorous images. Connelly is going to be 40 this year, thus, as in reality, is perfectly capable, like any woman her age, of being a mother to a teenager. When pretty movie stars are mothers onscreen, is that really the definition of "bravery"? Is it brave when women in the real world are single mothers to older children or do they typically just get the shaft?

Rating: 1

! Women Art Revolution (dir. Lynn Hershman Leeson, 2010)

Women being given the shaft is definitely a prevailing theme in director Lynn Hershman Leeson's engaging documentary about the history of the feminist art movement being purposefully hidden from the public by men in power. Why are so few women players in the world of high art? 40-plus years in the making, the director traces one of the most overlooked, essential movements in contemporary art, critiquing, in a classic intersectional, feminist way, the power structures that traditionally determine what goes in the history book and galleries and who gets access to it.

More than 200 hours of archival footage will be made available via Stanford University's libraries online, along with artists' images and full transcripts of interviews. This hybrid documentary incorporates these elements, collected by Hershman since 1962, and is a dazzling, guided look at the women who made/make the art, those who miraculously gained power as curators, and of course the actual pieces – many of which make their debut in the film and have been sequestered away from public view for years.

! Women Art Revolution begins on the streets, in front of popular art museums in New York and California, asking people a simple question: "can you name three woman artists." Sounds simple, no? Go ahead and try without the aid of the internet and see how far you get. If you think you know anything about feminist art, you're probably wrong and Hershman Leeson's film goes to painstaking, heartfelt lengths to debunk the myths surrounding the battle women have been fighting to have their artistic voices heard for decades. This is an essential, untold history and the only film ever to tackle the topic. Ironically, this was one of the least-attended screenings I was at, and men and women of all ages were already planning an escape 15 minutes before the film even began, as though they were dismissing the piece before seeing it because of it's feminist nature or to placate some deep-seeded personal need to feel like they did something politically correct by deigning to even enter a theater not playing a Hollywood film. This kind of dismissal just proves again that there is a serious, popular misunderstanding of the tenets of feminism and that powerful, creative women actually scare people. It is unsurprising, then, that feminist art isn't successful when people won't even give the movie – a concise 83-minute movie, no less – a chance to win them over.

What the director succeeds in doing is constructing a powerful educational tool that incorporates primary documents and oral histories of the women who made the movement, giving them space to finally have their voices heard, their points of view explained. That many of these women are being looked at posthumously makes the proceedings a tad bittersweet but looking at the art of women like Judy Chicago, Howardena Pindell, and Hanah Wilke is fascinating, especially when paired with deconstruction of the images by critics like B. Ruby Rich or other artists such as Rachel Rosenthal and Dr. Amelia Jones, who offer up incisive, biting commentaries. The common thread for all of these various points of view tell a story about how we, up until now, were actually prevented from seeing these images as most of the women were turned away from galleries en masse. The supreme injustice of women being excluded from popular art and galleries is that there still is a lingering, idiotic stigma attached to the word "art" in the first place, that art is for women and not for men, something that women do and not real men. The word "art" has been gendered, branded a discipline that is seen as feminine by most people, yet women are rarely given an actual seat at the table with the men who are making all of the money.

It was a thrill to see some grass roots, radical, confrontational feminist activism onscreen and in practice. For this, Hershman Leeson deserves major kudos. This is a film about equality in freedom of expression and in that respect the film is successful in actually getting the work out there for the world to see.

Rating: 9

Rabbit Hole (dir. John Cameron Mitchell, 2010)

For years, I have had a strange recurring dream about being in a plane crash where Nicole Kidman, is a fellow passenger. In the dream, the harbinger Kidman warns me of impending doom but implores me not to worry, that it will all be OK. I feel as though that prophecy has now at least partially come true in the aftermath of seeing her newest film, Rabbit Hole.

I attended the world premiere of John Cameron Mitchell's third feature at the historic Elgin theater in the heart of downtown Toronto. Stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, as well as Mitchell, were in attendance and Mitchell gave a little speech on the dais following an introduction from TIFF director Cameron Bailey that proclaimed Eckhart and Kidman's performances to be "career-best."

Already riled up enough, being a huge fan of Kidman's work for many years (and a fan of Mitchell's sensibility), I settled in with the excited, friendly crowd to let the radiating waves of Kidmania envelop me and take me to new, glorious heights. Rabbit Hole, adapted from the Broadway play, felt like being in a plane that begins a climb but never really quite reaches cruising altitude. As far as pilots go, I trust Kidman with my life and find her performances in films such as Eyes Wide Shut, Dogville, and Margot at the Wedding to be among some of my key favorites in a catalogue full of risk-taking with visionaries.

Though there was no real crash, Rabbit Hole just never left the metaphorical runway, turning out moment after moment of a relative staidness despite flashes of occasional brilliance (the living room confrontation scene was a high point for Kidman). I was shocked at how conservative the construction of the film was considering the revolutionary nature of both Kidman and Mitchell and I wish the film success because these are two artists I admire very much, but when people start unfavorably comparing your work to a high-class Lifetime movie with a big star, you wonder what other critics who are proclaiming Rabbit Hole a "masterpiece" are seeing that you – the world's biggest Nicole Kidman fan, who defends Cold Mountain and The Human Stain with zealousness – do not.

Though the actress does deliver a wonderful, unique performance as Becca, the bereaved mother who floats through the film in a fog of grief, I was surprised upon reading reviews from my peers in the ensuing days heaping praise on the direction of the movie, which felt dull and conventional. I felt like I saw a completely different film than they did. The praise for Dianne Wiest, as Kidman's depressed, working class mother also baffled me, because as written, she is a fairly stock creation, if well-played by the legendary character actress to the best of her ability (I actually found Tammy Blanchard as Becca's sister much more fascinating).

Here's the real kick in the pants: the audience lapped it all up and seemed to truly enjoy the attempt at recreating a world that many people can no doubt relate to, where class distinctions between siblings and parents can often cause rifts and where sometimes the best reaction to grief is to simply internalize it and not think about it. They sobbed along in the most sappy sequences, they laughed at the attempts at integrating awkward humor into the mix, they stood up and applauded politely for Kidman and co., who stayed to watch the film. I feel as though there was a quality control issue happening, and that the confused tone was indeed purposeful to shoot for a more mainstream, less arthouse film that people would respond to like this. Is that manipulative? Is that simply being a good, versatile filmmaker with good business acumen? Or is it just weak?

Perhaps Kidman will return to my dreams with an answer.

Rating: 5

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