TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2009 REVIEW

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john cribbs

 

Day 5

Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans.

I doubt anything this year is going to make me laugh more than a Vondie Curtis Hall moment near the end of this weird not-quite-remake by Werner Herzog. It's perplexing why the title didnít get changed at any point during post-production because aside from the lead character holding the same rank and shaking down kids outside clubs this has nothing in common with Abel Ferrara's film. I'm convinced that Herzog wanted Nic Cage to just go wild with it, and that everyone else working on the film secretly knew they were making a comedy (and in the last shot - Cage gets it!) Truly a hypnotic dream.

 

Chloe.

I had to leave the screening early to catch Mother, with the impression this business was nothing I hadn't seen before. Apparently I exited just before the film went from melodramatic family drama to melodramatic obsession thriller complete with hardcore lesbian love scene between Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried. In terms of his narrative features Atom Egoyan has probably had the most frustrating descent into mediocrity of any director - he just can't seem to find subjects that interest him these days - but he's intelligent enough a filmmaker that I can imagine this one wasn't a total letdown.

 

Mother.

I donít much care about the Oscars, but itís exciting that White Ribbon could potentially be up against Bong Joon-hoís latest movie in the foreign film category next year. In the mode of his masterful Memories of Murder, Mother is a crime-drama about a ginseng vendor whose life revolves around her semi-retarded* son. After he's collared for the killing of a schoolgirl and fast-tracked into a signed confession by police ("Apple!"), she dedicates herself to exonerating him. Kim Hye-jaís performance carries the movie and hits all the right notes for the level of melodrama the director is going for. Unlike Murder, the mystery itself is not very involving (the film's biggest weakness) but the theme of a parent's devotion to her child is poignant in the hands of a director as smart (and funny) as Bong.

* I've seen every kind of description of this character - "disturbed," "odd," "strange-behaving," "slightly mentally disabled," "queerly-angled," - to avoid the word "retarded." The best I could come up with when describing the film to my wife was "Asian-actor-version-of-retarded," which she understood instantly.

 

White Material.

Is it possible for Claire Denis to make a bad movie, or even a non-excellent movie? Or even a non-transcendently enriching movie? Following last year's beautifully understated 35 Rhums, here she tackles an ambitious story involving civil unrest in an undisclosed region of Africa where a (white) French family run a coffee bean plantation. Isabelle Huppert is incredible as a woman who's as spirited and determined to maintain the farm despite the impending violence as she is dangerously stubborn and oblivious to the situation that threatens her family. Her responsibility to them as opposed to her dedication to the compound is paralleled with the strong spiritual vs meek physical existence of a dying rebel named The Boxer (a largely dialogue-less Isaach De Bankole.) An incredible bookend to Denis' feature debut Chocolat and a huge improvement over the Isabelle Huppert-as-harried-landowner-of-colonial-French-property movie I saw last year at TIFF (The Sea Wall.) Seriously at this point, I doubt anything could top this for my favorite film of the year.

 

I Killed My Mother.

Second (hm Ė I guess technically fourth) mother-themed movie of the day might have seemed less terrible if it hadnít been an overall outstanding group of movies up to this point. Possibly. I'd heard good things about this Canadian film from 20 year old writer-director-actor Xavier Dolan, but as soon as I realized he was the one playing the little wiener who demands something from his mom then shouts and insults her when he doesn't get it (scene after scene after scene) my confidence in movie waned. He apparently thinks it's shocking to show a teenage son swearing at a parental figure, as there is nary a moment of screentime where this exact thing isn't happening. The screening was packed, and there was a line of folks waiting to get in when I took off after an hour of whining and piercing screams from the film's junior auteur, but I'd like to think that won't be the case anywhere outside of Canada.

 

Day 6

Life During Wartime.

Sequel to Happiness with different actors, most notably Paul Reubens playing the Jon Lovitz character as a ghost (dream casting for the director no doubt.) Fans of the original movie can look forward to more of the same, and everyone else can wonder who the hell keeps giving Todd Solondz money to make movies. Is it really still shocking to discover that he's a little critical of family institutions, relationships and American life in general? Was it ever? I don't think the audience for this film finds an interracial couple, for example, confronting or distasteful - but Solondz certainly thinks they do. Like his last effort this is another return to the dried-up well, and it was over before I could tell if there was supposed to be some kind of point to the whole thing. The fact that he took the title of my favorite Talking Heads song doesn't help; that the film features an entire new song called "Life During Wartime" is just weird. However, anyone looking to remake Problem Child will discover their star playing the mixed up kid in this movie.

 

Ondine.

Neil Jordan's Splash, starring Colin Farrell and his new girlfriend. This pretty straight-forward romantic fantasy is fine, but makes me nostalgic for the edgier Jordan of The Crying Game and Butcher Boy. I guess he's just a director of generic genre pieces these days, with dusty old storytelling ingredients and very little innovation or style (although this is well shot by Christopher Doyle.) I guess there's nothing wrong with that, and it's good to know what to expect from him in the future - ie, don't get your hopes up. The audience did react to Stephen Rea's cameo, so I guess we've still got that last remnant of the old Neil Jordan to appreciate. The lovely, old-fashioned sex scene a little over an hour into the picture was pleasant to watch, especially after Day One's largely uncomfortable coital encounters.

 

My Son My Son What Have Ye Done.

Biggest disappointment of the festival. After Bad Lieutenant, which was weirder than I'd predicted, I went into the theater hoping this one would be better than I expected - and I expected it to be great. Herzog, Lynch, Michael Shannon (who turned up in a small role in Bad Lt.)...seemed like a winning combination. But after twenty minutes of awkward Lynchzogian mish mashing the film spirals into what could graciously be described as student filmmaking. A police stand-off outside the main character's house that stretches across the entire movie is languid and impersonal*; the structure of flashbacks branched off from the stand-off is just sloppy storytelling. I like both directors but where Herzog is all about discovery, Lynch is about things that are hidden, and it's nearly impossible for Herzog to discover anything in Lynch's LA: notably, scenes set at a farm outside the city and at the airport in Calgary [That's not the airpot, John: that's the "+15!" Get with it! -- chris] include the kind of Herzog wonder that the rest of the movie lacks. For his part Shannon does his best but the intriguing real life story never moves beyond anecdote and supposition. A real shame.

* Weirdly, Willem Dafoe is a cop involved in the stand-off like he was outside the bank in Inside Man. Do directors think he's good at this kind of role for some reason? Because the normally extraordinary presence of Dafoe is lost in both films.

 

The Hole.

In the most pleasantly surprising moment of the festival, they actually handed out 3-D glasses to Joe Dante's latest film at the Industry Screening! Needless to say that made my day. From the first scenes of well-directed child actors moving into a new home and discovering a mysterious portal in the basement, Dante is on familiar ground: The Hole is an entertaining kid's B-movie with more than one genuinely scary scene and a great appearance by Bruce Dern. The screenplay's pay-off doesn't match the director's infinite vision and expert craftsmanship, but the film is at least a stepping stone to future projects for the director, absent from the big screen since 2003. And although it seems some parts of the film were compromises with the studio (and therefore weren't as mischeviously seditious as his best-known efforts), The Hole's legit - I was not let down.

 

Wake in Fright.

Ted Kotcheff's 1970 film, considered lost for years until the recent discovery of the original negative, has plenty to offer anyone who finds any of the following things appealing: 1) the very real shooting of dozens of kangaroos, 2) drinking beer in the most disgusting way possible, 3) waking up in the morning naked next to a filthy Donald Pleasance wearing only a moldy, shit-stained tank top. That unpleasantness aside, this is pretty much like every Australian film I've ever seen: halfway through I was wondering when the plot was going to kick in...and was left with the exact same feeling as the credits rolled. What just happened? Was that the movie? Um - ok. Hm. Not sure how to engage all that. It shares the "life in Australia actually sucks" theme of early road movies by Peter Weir and Phillip Noyce. No wonder so many Austalian directors end up migrating west and directing iconic Sylvester Stallone action vehicles.

 

Day 7

Micmacs.

Like Life in Wartime, this can pretty much be summed up by saying "If you like the director, you won't be disappointed." All of the usual Jeunet flares are on display: charming buffoon (Dany Boon, complete with wool sweater and overalls) meets goofy assortment of carny-like outsiders (including a contortionist, a record-setting human cannonball and a girl who can calculate precise measurements in her head) and share adventures in a seemingly-timeless modern Paris where salvaged junk is assembled into rickety inventions, clever visuals are on constant display and the every scene is shot at 12 frames per second. Entertaining enough, but the problem with this kind of movie is momentum: when the manic pace dies down for just a second, the entire thing becomes suddenly tedious. For all the effort it ends up like all Jeunet's recent work: temporarily entertaining, ultimately discardable.

 

Cracks.

A Madchen in Uniform-esque premise with the luminous Eva Green as schoolteacher at a 1930's girl's boarding school who's the sum of every teacher: she tries to inspire in her students the passion to go out and experience life in a way she never did. Her hip status is threatened by a Spanish diplomat's daughter (the pretty Maria Valverde) who actually has experienced different cultures... Ah who are we kidding? I sat through an hour of this for Eva Green, got my money's worth then headed over to Fatih Akin's new film.

 

Soul Kitchen.

I'd be suspicious of anyone who told me the most feel-good, life-affirming film of the festival was by Fatih Akin, but I seriously couldn't stop smiling throughout this movie. On one hand it shares a love of food and music-as-community with movies like The Commitments and Big Night; on the other it offers its own charming lyricism that comes naturally to the director. Characters go through real life situations - chronic back pain sans health insurance, long-distance relationships via web cam, the pressures of owning and running a small business - but stay strong by sticking together. An age old movie formula, but one imbued with an energy and humor that mesh just right with each other. Genuinely a pleasant surprise. The great Birol ‹nel from Head On has a hilarious supporting role.

 

Valhalla Rising.

Last film of the festival, so it shouldn't be blamed for my falling asleep five minutes into the movie. But it didn't do much to keep me awake. Imagine the extended downtime of Aguirre set on a mist-covered Viking ship for at least half an hour. It didn't help that the TIFF guide described the style as "Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone with a touch of Andrei Tarkovsky thrown in for good measure." I must have left before the director of the Pusher movies started being influenced by any of those guys - I should have at least stayed til the end credits to see if the film was dedicated to "Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone AND Andrei Tarkovsky 1932-1986."

 

TIFF í09 Official Tallies

2 films where a huge film crew is referred to as "an army"

2 films where people die early on yet finish the movie!

2 films where someone had to explain what "death" is to another person

2 films where a character was given day leave from prison (I honestly didn't know you could do that)

2 films featuring Udo Kier as a prudish stuffed shirt

4 titles that made absolutely no sense (Fish Tank, Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, Wake in Fright, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans)

5 films with great child acting (The White Ribbon, Mall Girls, Life During Wartime, Ondine, The Hole)

5 1/2 greats

8 bombs

9 films dealing with parenting in some form or other

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