Monday, December 17, 2007

Toronto Film Diary

I think there's a fundamental difference in the way that reviewers and critics look at movies: critics are far more likely to look at a film in relation to the whole of film history going back to the Lumiere brothers' first films, while a reviewer looks at a film in relation to what's playing right now, which is perfectly appropriate to discussing new releases: as wonderful as Todd Haynes' new film is, it's still too early to say how it stacks up next to Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), Poison (1991), Safe (1995) and Far From Heaven (2002) (I still haven't seen Velvet Goldmine [1998], though by reputation it's the least of his films). Obviously then, this is the approach I've decided to take here, since I'll be seeing--hopefully--more than one movie a day rather than watching the same movie more than once in the hopes of getting inside it and looking at its guts. Nope, this week's all about getting my Pauline Kael on.

12/16

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, USA)
I knew next to nothing about Bob Dylan going in, and after watching I'm Not There, the fifth feature by Todd Haynes, an impressive American independent with a background in semiotics (!), I feel like I know even less. This dizzying, achronological and highly unconventional (non-)biopic, "Inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan," uses six different actors to embody aspects of Dylan's persona(lity), though none of them actually play characters named Bob Dylan even when they sing his songs. While I feel as though I've only begun to scratch the surface of this challenging film, I was never confused, and although the six (non-)Dylans never add-up to a single person, at times even contradicting one another (the radical androgyny suggested by casting Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, a folk singer who alienates his fans by going electric, is cancelled out by a misogynistic actor/Heath Ledger who played a Dylan-like character in a film--suggesting Dylan's alienation from his own image; the film makes the point that all the (non-)Dylans are acting--and whose marriage to an abstract painter/Charlotte Gainsbourg runs parallel to the Vietnam war), one can trace a thematic continuity that moves back and fourth through time from 1959, when an African-American boy calling himself Woody Guthrie/Marcus Carl Franklin rides the rails singing songs about unionization that are twenty years out of date (alluding to the folk movement's nostalgia for the Depression and the radicalism that grew out of it, as well as Dylan's involvement in the civil rights movement), to the late 70's when Pastor Jack/Christian Bale, a former folk singer who--like Jude--turned his back on politics and "sold out to God" in the words of Alan Ginsberg/David Cross, is profiled by a documentary film crew, complete with talking head interviews with a female folksinger/Julianne Moore, clearly modeled after Joan Baez (who, unlike Ginsberg, is alive and could sue). Rather than proceeding in a straight line (the time frames often overlap), the various (non-)Dylans feed into each-other, creating a kind of Cubist mosaic that one can enter into from several different vantage points. The hippy western starring Billy the Kid/Richard Gere doesn't seem to belong to any particular period at all, unless it's the future which would explain the apocalyptic overtones.

The overall trajectory of the film is one away from sincere engagement with politics towards insincere disengagement, which is simply a mask to conceal bruised idealism. This theme finds its fullest expression in the scenes with Jude, which are shot in black-and-white in the style of Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963). While on tour in England, Jude tries to B.S. his way through a series press conferences ("Do you have a word for your fans?" "Astronaught."), but there's one arts reporter/Bruce Greenwood who consistantly sees through his fascade; like the critic in Fellini's film, he comes to represent Jude's conscience. Watching these scenes, with Jude smoking in the middle of chaos, assaulted on all sides by reporters, hangers-on and, at one point, a video installation, and turning to drugs to deal with his mounting pressures, I found myself thinking of Rainer Werner Fassbinder--to my tastes, the greatest of all filmmakers--whose own work (particularly, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [1974], Fox and His Friends and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven [both 1975]) seemed to stem from a fear that his films would be used to further some one else's political agenda. In The Third Generation (1979), one of his very best films, the far right secretly bankrolls left-wing terrorists (and stupid ones at that) in order to justify government repression. The difference is that Fassbinder was better at this sort of thing: the Baader-Meinhof gang tried to burn down theaters where The Third Generation was being shown, while Dylan's deliberately enigmatic lyrics were used to justify violence by the Black Panthers.

The last (non-)Dylan, who I've yet to mention is a poet named Arthur Rimbaud/Ben Whishaw, who doesn't add very much, but it's indicative of the film's conceptual strength that when one of the individual pieces falters the whole is strong enough to carry it, so Rimbaud's monologue about life in hiding segways nicely into a scene involving Billy the Kid. I doubt I'll see a better film this week.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Christian Mungiu, Romania)
I wasn't surprised when this Romanian drama won the top prize at Cannes last May, not because it recieved better reviews than No Country for Old Men (the American press was virtually unanimous in their support for the Coen brothers' film), but because two other Romanian features, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), both won the prize for Un Certain Regard; when Mungiu's film was awarded the Palme d'Or, it was widely interpreted as an acknowledgement of the vitality and importance of Romanian cinema. Personally, however, I've yet to really flip for any of the films of the Romanian New Wave; even with Porumboiu's film, the best and funniest of the bunch as well as the most original, it doesn't take off until about half-way through; yes, the early scenes are beautifully composed and, yes, they provide a meaningful contrast with the film's second half, which hilariously reproduces the bad camerawork and technical glitches one would find in a public access TV show, but they just seemed to go on and on.

This grim tale about college roommates who attempt to procure an illegal abortion for one of the women, set in the final years of communist rule, is gripping and well-acted (despite a talky start), but it's far from being a revelation. When I saw Otilia/Anamaria Marinca and Gabita/Laura Vasiliu sitting on opposite ends of the 'Scope frame looking alienated from each-other (reminding one of Martin Parr's "Bored Couples" series), and Mungiu holds the shot for a really long time while the soundtrack goes quiet except for the sound of passing cars, I knew that a sudden cut to black wasn't very far off. Similarly, I doubt anyone will be surprised to learn that, even under communism, educated people still look down on the masses, despite an entire subplot designed to make that very point. I fear it's only a matter of time before over-zealous national cinema experts start digging up the forgotten "masterpieces" of Ceauşecsu era that nourished and inspired the current renaissance.

12/17

Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, USA)
The first interesting Noah Baumbach film, it isn't a rejection of what came before so much as it finally delivers on the promise of Kicking and Screaming (1995) and The Squid and the Whale (2005). Like those films, its protagonist, Margot/Nicole Kidman, is a writer but, for the first time, this doesn't feel merely like an autobiographical reflex but a meaningful choice: Not only does Margot blab to her son, Claude/Zane Pais, that her sister, Pauline/Jennifer Jason Leigh, is pregnant when Pauline asked her to keep it a secret, but she's compelled to publish her sister's secrets in a novel that we learn was the cause of Pauline's first divorce. Similarly, where the handheld camerawork in The Squid and the Whale suggested that Baumbach had found a more dynamic way of filming his characters talk, here, working with the great cinematographer Harris Savides (Elephant [2003]), he stretches himself to become more of a visual storyteller than ever before, even something of a stylist: at one point, he places the camera inside a falling tree.

At times suggesting a remake of Woody Allen's Interiors (1978), the film begins with Margot and Claude arriving at the beachfront home where she and Pauline grew up to attend the latter's wedding to Malcom/Jack Black, a failed musician, and her presence serves as a catalyst, setting in motion various intrigues; early on, Margot alienates Pauline and Malcom's hillbilly neighbors by commenting on their abusive parenting, and Claude promptly spreads the news of Pauline's pregnancy to Ingrid/Flora Cross, Pauline's daughter from a previous marriage, who tells Malcom. The film is serious and intense (not at all slight like Kicking and Screaming), but it's also very funny; one of the things that made me laugh the most was when Malcom tries to run away from a beating from the father of a teenage girl he molested. The performances by Kidman and Leigh are especially fine, and Black turns in his best performance to-date, complicating his usual slacker persona with an undercurrent of rage and phedophilia. And Heather, if you're still not convinced, John Turturro's in it.

Juno (Jason Reitman, USA)
[SPOILERS] To paraphrase Roger Ebert, sometimes I like to see a movie like Juno just to remind myself that life's too short for movies like Juno. The slender storyline involves an unbearably precocious 16-year-old girl named Juno/Ellen Page, whose first sexual experience leads to an unwanted pregnancy, and after backing out of a "hasty abortion," she finds an infertile upper-middleclass couple to adopt her baby through an ad in the Pennysaver. Like Thank You for Smoking (2005), the previous film by the same director, it errors in assuming that audiences want to see the film for its snappy dialogue; the reason Noah Baumbach is a good writer and Diablo Cody, who wrote Juno, is still a promising one is that Baumbach knows that every line has to be an action. Apparently we're supposed to believe that Juno and her bestfriend, Leah/Olivia Thirlby, breathe pop culture referrences, yet watching the film I found myself picturing Cody before a word processor, carefully crafting each of the film's clever one-liners over a period of several months (I had a similar problem with the arch dialogue in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday [1940]). If Thank You for Smoking struck one as a shallow neo-conservative provocation, Juno is too muddled to qualify as either liberal or conservative. First we're supposed to think Mark/Jason Bateman is cool for liking Sonic Youth and obscure slasher movies, but later we're supposed to find him uncool for the very same reasons (Bateman is impeccable in spite of the film). And while, in the terms of the film, Juno can't give birth before regaining her faith that a man and a woman can stay together and be happy, and reconciling with the baby's father/Michael Cera (playing exactly the same character he played in Arrested Development [2003-06] and Superbad [2007]), which only happens after a heart-to-heart with Juno's dear old dad/J.K. Simmons, the film's ending with Juno giving the baby to a newly single Vanessa/Jennifer Garner unconditionally endorses single motherhood as an alternative to the nuclear family. Also, there are two sequences I found especially queasy, both involving minority characters (if memory serves, the only minority characters in the film): the first, with an Asian abortion protestor/Valerie Tian chanting "All babies want to be bored!" outside a women's clinic, is straight out of Lost in Translation (2003); the second has Juno's dear old step-mom/Allison Janney verbally bitch-slapping a fair-skinned ultrasound technician/Kaaren de Zilva, at one point telling her to go back to where she came from (both scenes scored big laughs with the mostly white audience I saw the film with). Juno, like its protagonist, is simply far too pleased with itself.

12/18

Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, USA)
The first feature directed by Ben Affleck, this begins as a movie about the search for a missing girl but then it develops into something more ambitious, arriving at a place of surprising moral ambiguity. Patrick/Casey Affleck and Angie/Michelle Monaghan are private eyes specializing in missing persons (specifically, people that owe money) who are hired by the aunt of a missing girl to augment the police investigation by talking to the people that don't talk to the police. From there, the film moves as a straight-forward procedural until it goes as far as it can in that direction; had it ended there, I would've recommended the film as a modest but engaging genre piece, although in hindsight, I realize that it never really could've ended there. Instead, the film keeps going, taking on a greater complexity and depth with each additional scene. The film's theme--that it's the things you don't choose (family, community, etc.) that make you who you are--is established in Patrick's opening narration, so it's significant that Det. Remmy Bressant/Ed Harris (in a very good performance) is originally from Louisiana but has lived in Boston longer than Patrick's been alive, because his character represents the alternative point of view. At one point, he tells Patrick about the time he framed a suspect, and when we hear why he did it, it seems like the only thing he could've done in that situation. Does Patrick make the right choice by playing by the book? I'm not sure. Gone Baby Gone puts its characters in such difficult ethical dilemmas that you'd swear it was written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, USA)
It occurred to me afterwards that this is only the third film I've seen by Sidney Lumet, after 12 Angry Men (1957) and Network (1976), but for what it's worth, this is easily the most interesting. The movie has one of those plots that begins with a botched robbery and then circles through time to show how the best laid plans of mice and men go astray and astray and still further astray, so it's hard to know how much of the story to reveal here: how do I describe the film without ruining it? I think I'm on safe ground revealing that Andy/Philip Seymour Hoffman is a real estate agent who's being audited after embezzling money to support his drug habit, and enlists his brother, Hank/Ethan Hawke, to rob a jewelry store. Hank, who's having an affair with Andy's wife, Gina/Marisa Tomei, agrees to it because he's three months behind on his child support. This is not a film that can be said to glamourize crime (a warmly lit sex scene between Andy and Gina that precedes the robbery serves to provide a contrast with the rest of the film, which has a much cooler palette). At no point do the characters seem to think they're going to get away with anything; instead, most of the movie is about damage control. The film takes place in a closed system where there are no good options, so what Andy does in the film's final stages is as shocking as it is inevitable. Hoffman, who's one of our best working actors, has seldom been better than he is here as a man who, on the surface, seems successful and normal but is capable of unspeakable acts, which makes him a lot scarier than an Anton Chiguhr. Deep into the film, a minor character explains that the world is an evil place and some people make money off this while others are destroyed by it; Before the Devil Knows Your Dead is about the second group.

12/20

Control (Anton Corbijn, UK)
This biopic of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis/Sam Riley is the first feature by music video director Anton Corbijn, and on the evidence available here, he has an undeniable talent for framing and lighting a shot but isn't much of a storyteller. But perhaps he's not to blame; in hindsight, it almost seems too easy to attribute the film's limitations to Curtis' widow, Deborah (portrayed in the film by Samantha Morton), who wrote the memoir upon which the script is based--which I haven't read--and recieves a co-producer credit on the film. If one accepts this theory, then it's not surprising that the film isn't remotely interested in the other members of Joy Division, who come across as insensitive creeps, let alone placing the band in a broader historical context. Nor does the film have anything to say about Curtis' creative process. At one point, we see him locked in a room with a pen and a pad of paper, and as Deborah knocks on the door and asks him to come to bed, Curtis writes at the top of the page: "She's Losing Control"; Corbijn then cuts to the band performing the finished song for an adoring audience. The movie does have some interesting insights into the pressures of being a rock star, but these don't surface until almost the very end of the film; Riley does a fine job of imitating what Curtis was like on stage, but he isn't able to convey what he was going through emotionally. The film is strongest on Curtis' affair with a glamourous Belgian woman because she provides such a stark contrast with Deborah, who isn't the least bit impressed with Curtis' celebrity; when a friend observes that he's become quite famous, Deborah replies matter of factly: "Not to me. I still wash his underwear." Ultimately however, the film shows that a biography can be historically accurate and still not touch on any deeper truths about the person's life. Though beautiful to look at, Control is dramatically shapeless, pointless and irrelevant.

12/22

The Savages (Tamara Jenkins, USA)
Engaging but minor, writer-director Tamara Jenkins' second feature is as morose and unsentimental (though never heavy-handed) as her debut, Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), was warm and ingratiating; some reviewers have described it as a comedy, but most of the laughs I heard were strained and defensive. Wendy/Laura Linney is a thirty-nine year old aspiring playwright who's having an affair with a married man, and her older brother, John/Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a theater professor who can't commit to his long time girlfriend, Kasia/Cara Seymour, even though her visa's about to expire. These terminal adolescents are finally pushed out of their respective comfort zones when their father, Lenny/Philip Bosco, begins to show symptoms of dementia and needs to be put in a nursing home. The film is absorbing on a scene-to-scene basis, but I didn't really get the point of it. I'm not saying every film needs to have a message (that said, it's downright weird for a film executive produced by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor to have a character who teaches Brecht and spends a lot of time talking about it), but I do ask that there be some underlying unity that would make the film something more than the sum of its parts. Linney and Hoffman are such fine actors that it's a pleasure to see them in almost anything, but The Savages doesn't have a purpose for them to work towards. Still, one hopes it won't be another nine years before Jenkins' next film.

12/23

Atonement (Joe Wright, UK)
Based on an Ian McEwan novel I haven't read, this big-budget weepy shows how a series of misunderstandings destroy three lives--so why does the film have to truck in all this stuff about World War 2? The film's first half, set in the English countryside in 1936, really could've been set in any era with handsome young gardeners who were secretly in love with a rich girl he had known since they were children, and precocious little girls who struggled to put on a play starring some cousins from the north who would rather play outside than stay in the house and rehearse. For all its already apparent limitations (you'd never to know it from looking at the film that a good portion of the British upper-class was quite sympathetic to Hitler), this part of the film never-the-less does an effective job of navigating a large cast of characters, but the film's second half, set four years later, mainly drifts: James McAvoy, the insipid British leading man who plays the gardener, is required to carry long stretches of the film all by himself (at one point, Jérémie Renier, who starred in La Promesse [1996] and L'Enfant [2005], turns up briefly as a wounded soldier to remind us of how a good actor can hold the screen while doing very little); and because the heroine--played as an eighteen year old by Romola Garai--isn't given the possibility of, well, atonement, there's really nowhere for the story to go. Yes, there's an astonishing piece of steadicam porn, but the intelligence behind the unbroken take seems closer to Gone With the Wind (1939) than Béla Tarr. Ultimately, this shot just underlines the problem with the film, which is that its canvas is too large for the story; in the middle of a world war, we're supposed to feel bad for two people who missed out on love (for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the war itself, which is simply backdrop), and another who has to live with the guilt of ruining their lives for the rest of hers. Atonement is both over-ambitious and inadequate at the same time.

The Kite Runner (Marc Forster, USA)
Another year-end Oscar contender adapted from a prestigous novel I haven't read, this is involving enough but I don't think I can quite recommend it. Although its story--which begins in Kabul in 1978 on the eve of the Soviet invasion and ends in San Francisco in 2000--ends just before the American-lead occupation of Afghanistan (alluded to only indirectly when the hero's father/Homayoun Ershadi, says of the Soviets: "Everyone leaves eventually. This country isn't kind to invaders"), the film doesn't trade completely in moral certainties. When the protagonist, Amir/Khalid Abdalla, returns to Afghanistan after two decades in exile in America, there's a sequence in an orphanage where we see a good man doing his best under impossible circumstances. Similarly, there's a scene in which Amir's father almost gets himself killed by standing up to a mercenary Russian soldier. These sequences seem to suggest that it's not always possible to live by one's principals. However, this sort of nuance is the exception rather than the rule: the film seems to forget that the U.S. backed the Taliban when they were fighting the Soviets, and the highly improbable climax, with Amir travelling to Kabul in search of a child who's been kidnapped and forced into sexual bondage, reminded me of John Ford's The Searchers (1956). Directed with the same heavy-handedness that marred Forster's Monster's Ball (2001) (when Amir tries to flirt with a nice Afghani girl/Atossa Leoni, we get not one but several jealous reaction shots of the girl's mother), this is absorbing but it pales next to a great film like Gone Baby Gone, which also deals with child abuse. The Kite Runner isn't a terrible film but I can't recommend you see it when there are so many excellent movies in theaters right now.

Into the Wild (Sean Penn, USA)
First of all, these are the ugliest titles I've seen in a long time, and this is a film with a lot of text in it, from the hideous green credits to the hand-written yellow text, signifying the hero's letters to a grain elevator operator he meets on his adventures (which Penn superimposes over second unit shots of the American landscape), to the chapter titles to dates and places. I know Penn is going for an early '90's vibe, but this is pushing it. Adapted from John Krakauer's non-fiction novel about Christopher McCandless/Emile Hirsch--a 22-year-old man from a middle-class family who suddenly dropped out of society and lived in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness for one hundred days--the film cuts between two different time frames, juxtaposing scenes set in Alaska with McCandless' travels across the southern United States where he meets a number of people who come to be like his second family: Jan/Catherine Keener and Rainey/Brain Dierker, a hippy couple travelling the country in their van, who are like his new parents; Wayne/Vince Vaughn, the aforementioned grain elevator operator who suggests an older brother; Tracy/Kristen Stewart, an aspiring folk singer with a Fünke-like affinity for cut-offs who's like his younger sister; and Ron/Hal Holbrook, an elderly man with no family who offers to adopt McCandless ("I could be your grandfather"). At times suggesting an American remake of Agnès Varda's Sans toi ni loi (1985), it lacks that film's critical distance from its protagonist; narrated by McCandless' biological sister, Carine/Jenna Malone, I think the film wants us to view him as both a troubled kid and the, uh, messiah at the same time. At one point, Rainey even asks him (albeit jokingly) if he's Jesus Christ. I'm not saying characters can't have contradictory attributes--far from it--but this is pushing it. It's one thing to be troubled and charismatic, but I draw the line at troubled and Christlike. The film's cinematographer, Eric Gautier, has photographed films for Olivier Assayas, Catherine Breillat, Leos Carax, Patrice Chereau, Arnaud Desplechin and Alain Resnais, so I'm guessing--just guessing--that the pointless and unattractive split-screen effects weren't his idea. Into the Wild has some intriguing elements but not enough for me to recommend it.

9 comments:

  1. Clipper Ship CaptainDecember 17, 2007 at 8:01 PM

    I doubt you'll see a better movie this week either.

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  2. i dont think you meant Blank Panthers. did you?

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  3. and i think more than the typo should be reconsidered from that statement.

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  4. Amazingly, I have yet to see the film. But I'm going tomorrow.

    So while I check out "I'm Not There," why don't you check out my new novel, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS.

    It's a murder-mystery. But not just any rock superstar is knocking on heaven's door. The murdered rock legend is none other than Bob Dorian, an enigmatic, obtuse, inscrutable, well, you get the picture...

    Suspects? Tons of them. The only problem is they're all characters in Bob's songs.

    You can get a copy on Amazon.com or go "behind the tracks" at www.bloodonthetracksnovel.com to learn more about the book.

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  5. Yeah, the Blank Panthers was definitely a typo.

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  6. i cant believe you even bothered to watch juno. you just cant pass up the arrested development nostalgia, can you?

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  7. Rowland from Match-Cut here, just chiming in to say that I'm enjoying your thoughts. Gone Baby Gone is one of my favorites of the year (the sticky moral dilemmas it sets up linger long after No Country's hopeless nihilism), and kudos as well for your appreciation of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which I found a lot more absorbing than I initially anticipated. Have you seen Bug yet? Michael Shannon is having a strong year that has gone generally unacknowledged.

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  8. I haven't yet had the opportunity to sit down and watch Bug, but I'll get around to it one of these days. Then again, I still haven't seen The Exorcist.

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