Toronto International Film Festival
4-13 September, 2003


Cremaster 3 (Matthew Barney, USA): 60
[Not the catalogue of pretentious knowing wankery I'd feared (that would be Cremasters 2 & 5), though it gets a little whiny and self-indulgent once the Entered Apprentice starts treating the Guggenheim like an aesthete's version of Pitfall. Best appreciated as a series of absurdist/surrealist mini-narratives; I'm sure it all Means Something, am considerably less certain that I really give a damn what.]

Casa de los Babys (John Sayles, USA): 52
[Very much of a piece with Sayles' recent work, which I've found disappointing in its emphasis on geography and sociology at the expense of, for lack of a better word, humanity; you're always aware that you're watching a movie about an Issue and a Milieu rather than a movie about the people grappling with and/or affected by the former and inhabiting the latter. This dude needs to make a killer zombie movie, pronto.]

Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, Australia): W/O
[Word is that the narrative veers in an unexpected direction shortly after the point at which I bailed, and said development may well make it worthwhile to endure the flat direction and smug culture-clash bickering that dominates the first two reels. I doubt it, though.]

Shara (Naomi Kawase, Japan): 48
[Dreamy, haunting opening shot creates expectations that the rest of this resolutely mundane film is all about refusing to fulfill. Much livelier than Kawase's Camera d'Or-winner Suzaku, with an emphasis on colorful pageantry and family rituals, but still pretty shrugworthy.]

The Tulse Luper Suitcases: Episodes 1-3 (Peter Greenaway, UK/Netherlands): 59
[Kind of like watching six of Greenaway's previous films simultaneously projected onto the same screen -- every shot contains roughly 20X more detail than the human brain can comfortably process, plus a welter of allusions and references and citations that will make sense only to the director's most rabid fans. This whole project is basically Tulse and Silent Cissie Strike Back. You have been warned.]

Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, Iran/France/Italy): 66
[Sharp, agonizing portrait of class resentment skirts the didacticism of The Circle and serves as a potent reminder of Kiarostami's gift for patient dramatic aggregation (long since abandoned in his own, increasingly meta-heavy work). Minor but gripping, with an unforgettable opening salvo that takes visual claustrophobia to a new level.]

The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, Canada): 57
[Speaking of class resentment, is it just me or does this film seem to suggest that money can in fact buy happiness, or at least rapprochement? Which might actually have been kind of bracing had Arcand tackled the subject head-on; instead, he lets his fine cast coast on pathos and camaraderie, drugging the audience into a pleasant half-stupor.]

The Station Agent (Tom McCarthy, USA): 60
[Kind of a miracle that this works as well as it does, given the potentially insipid premise. Dinklage's assured, understated work (let's, uh, overlook the grandstanding bar scene) deserves much of the credit; his level gaze and maddeningly even tone makes the film seem less broad, coarse and clumsy than it sometimes -- well, often -- is.]

My Life Without Me (Isabel Coixet, Canada/Spain): W/O
[We wish.]

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, USA): 57
[Strives for delicacy and lyricism, sometimes achieves it, is glorious on those occasions. Otherwise marred by painfully broad fish-out-of-water comedy (I look forward to defenses of the "lip my stocking" scene from the film's many fans), overdetermined supporting characters (Murray's offscreen spouse consistently sounds like she's just emerged from six weeks in a meat locker) and a powerfully bittersweet ending (in the hotel lobby) that Coppola subsequently trashes with a feel-good coda. Not bad, by any means, but it needed the sensual touch of a Chereau or Denis; in many ways it feels like an American knockoff of Friday Night. Best moment by far: Giovanni Ribisi's abrupt PDA attack with wife Johansson when they run into Anna Faris; his body language practically screams "I fucked this woman behind your back."]

The Human Stain (Robert Benton, USA): 41
[Standard-issue prestige Hollywood literary adaptation, which is to say pushy, self-important and fundamentally lifeless (in spite of all the mannered shouting and whispering from the all-star cast). Giggleworthy highlight: Kidman's exegesis of the film's subtext, delivered in husky monologue to (sigh) a caged bird. (Incredibly, a quick skim through the novel suggests that Roth may actually be to blame for this whitehead.) Can't we just issue these films their Oscars as soon as they're announced and dispense with the tedium of actually watching them?]

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (Lone Scherfig, Denmark/UK): 50
[And I had no real desire to see this act prevented or even forestalled. A few nice moments courtesy of Adrian Rawlins and Shirley Henderson -- the latter's drowsy murmur enhances any film in which she appears -- but the film is at once too cute to take seriously and too maudlin to be any fun. Nice to see a non-Dogmatized Danish movie for a change, though.]

Matchstick Men (Ridley Scott, USA): 70
[Utter piffle, but I'm a sucker for clever swindles, Nicolas Cage in heavy-tic mode and something else I won't mention but you'll know when you see it. Review forthcoming almost immediately (as in I have to write it before I leave town).]

Pieces of April (Peter Hedges, USA): W/O
[Hey, could somebody at Sundance '04 please grab Scott Renshaw and bury him in the snow until the hypothermia dulls his annual case of post-holiday warm fuzzies? That way I can avoid next year's unbearably whimsical American indie about grief management. Thanks in advance.]

Underworld (Len Wiseman, USA/UK/Germany/Hungary): W/O
[Just nifty, provided you like your genre flicks sleek, dull, ponderous, stilted and pseudomonochromatic.]

Osama (Siddiq Barmak, Afghanistan/Japan): 58
[Better than it looks (and a hell of a lot better than Baran, which it resembles). Barmak keeps things fleeting and impressionistic enough that you rarely feel hectored; suffers mostly from familiarity and -- this seems like a worldwide epidemic -- one ending too many.]

(Check out my Cannes report for remarks about Where Is Madame Catherine? (W/O); Come and Go (W/O); Distant (76); A Heart Elsewhere (42); Who Killed Bambi? (33); Elephant (0); Young Adam (W/O); Gozu (54); Carandiru (36); Dogville (92); Bright Future (43); Hour of the Wolf (55); The Brown Bunny (51); The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons Taken From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (67); At Five in the Afternoon (38); and Purple Butterfly (42).

[NOTE: The tentative schedule that follows is highly subject to change. On some days, if buzz about an unheralded title necessitates last-minute scrambling, it may well be entirely discarded, since a substitution early on often results in a domino effect. But this is the current plan of attack. Double asterisks indicate a public screening for which I do not have a ticket and will have to rely on luck, wiles, etc.]

Thu 4

Clouds of May (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey): 71
[Not quite as formally accomplished as Distant, but Ceylan's observant eye, dry sense of humor and knack for the telling detail are already very much in evidence; people should really have seen him coming. Apparently this:The Small Town::Through the Olive Trees:And Life Goes On, but if the film-school reflexivity sometimes threatens to become irritatingly glib ("There's something to live for! Jesus told me so!" popped into my head during one scene), the film also offers two qualities -- patience and wisdom -- that are anything but bratty.]

Identity Kills (Sören Voigt, Germany): W/O
[Hard to say which is uglier: the heroine's tediously dysfunctional marriage or Voigt's hideously washed-out videography. Variety review calls the film "deceptively slow," though, so this may be another Japanese Story deal where I fled right before it got interesting.]

Fate (Zeki Demirkubuz, Turkey): 53
[Intermittently fascinating take on Camus' The Stranger benefits from matter-of-fact narrative ellipses (years quietly pass between certain cuts), suffers from a reductive, too-emphatic portrait of emotional withdrawal. Strong candidate for Shot of the Fest: some authority figure rattles off several minutes' worth of exposition while the camera, representing the Turkish Meursault's POV, roams distractedly around the room, even less interested than we are.]

Koktebel (Boris Khlebnikov & Alexei Popogrebsky, Russia): 65
[Walked into this on impulse and was rewarded with a minor and episodic but thoroughly charming (as opposed to winsome) father/son road movie -- imagine a Russian Stellan Skarsgård as Dad and (this one's a little trickier) an 11-year-old Fassbinder as Jr. (It's the eyes, mostly, playful and cruel and wary and semi-epicanthic.) First sleeper.

Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea): 61
[Kind of a relief to eventually discover that Bong means to examine the genesis of police brutality rather than advocate its employment, but my addled brain failed to keep pace with the fabled S. Korean tonal shifts, especially when Goofus is juxtaposed not with Gallant but with Grim (or Grimm). Ends strongly, which helps.]

Fri 5

I Love Your Work (Adam Goldberg, USA): 51
[Scattershot perils-of-celebrity satire scores some great lines (dialogue, not coke) but stumbles badly when Goldberg tries to push his flimsy material into darker territory. Ribisi, who I generally like, is badly miscast; likewise Potente. Best opening title card of the year.]

Ong-Bak Muay Thai Warrior (Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand): W/O
[Not one remotely exciting fight/chase scene in nearly 40 minutes? Are they under the impression we go to these films for the plot?]

Zhou Yu's Train (Sun Zhou, China/Hong Kong): W/O
[Very Tradition of Quality (i.e., very Sony Classics; yes, Barker, I do now have something against your pansy-ass company), with a pointlessly scrambled chronology to simulate hipness and altogether the wrong Tony Leung. Almost stuck around just to drink in some more Gong Li, though; it had been far too long.]

The Tesseract (Oxide Pang, Thailand/UK/Japan): 37
[A Wrinkle in Time this ain't. And I was so hoping Danny would turn out to be the hack -- didn't realize they're identical twins.]

Cypher (Vincenzo Natali, USA): 68
[Incredibly stupid, but also terrifically fun if you like this sort of thing (= paranoiac low-budget high-tech sci-fi). Dick for Dummies.]

Sat 6

The Green Butchers (Anders Thomas Jensen, Denmark): W/O
[Attend the tale of ATJ/His wit was pale and his plot cliché/He switched to camera from his pen/And never thereafter was heard of again...]

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (Kim Ki-Duk, South Korea/Germany): 81
[Sublimely simple, breathtakingly lovely. From a conceptual standpoint it's perhaps a little too tidy, but one could credibly blame God or astronomy for setting the planet on infinite repeat; Kim, for his part, makes the most remarkable single-film transformation since Von Trier followed Zentropa with Breaking the Waves, abandoning his Theater of Cruelty for the contemplative rigor of a Mizoguchi. Overtly spiritual movies rarely get to me. It says a lot that this one did.]

Good bye dragon inn (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan): 55
[Easily Tsai's weakest film ever, and hence a massive disappointment; many of his patented long takes smack of quiet desperation, and the stuff involving the crippled cashier seems like special pleading. (I speculated afterwards that Tsai gave her a limp for the sole purpose of slowing her down.) Often potent nonetheless, even if largely by association with the director's previous work; the autumnal quality suggests that Tsai wanted to get that Final Film out of the way early and just plug ahead. I approve.]

Free Radicals (Barbara Albert, Austria): 48
[Okay, I'm officially sick and tired of this movie. Started cringing early, when Albert cut for no reason to a butterfly flapping its wings. "Please don't let that be the wing-flapping butterfly," I begged. Then a plane crashed. Then somebody started talking about fractals. Then lots of characters started having vague symbolic connections. Then I started to sink lower and lower in my seat.]

Sexual Dependency (Rodrigo Bellott, Bolivia/USA): W/O
[If I wanted to see people speaking Spanish in pointless, distracting split-screen, I'd watch Mike Figgis movies on Telemundo.]

Sun 7

Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, Japan): 71
[Most of my reservations about Kitano involve his limitations as an actor, which is why Kids Return had previously been my favorite of his films. Let's face it, though, the guy can play this role with his eyes closed. (Sorry.) Weightless and choppy, but also thrillingly dynamic and oddly effervescent; it's probably as close as Kitano will ever come to making a full-blown musical, and the celebratory finale sent me out the door on a high that hasn't yet worn off. How NYFF could have wanted Brother but not this is beyond my comprehension.]

Jesus, You Know (Ulrich Seidl, Austria): 19
[Like sitting in on other people's therapy sessions, which I gather is the point; 87 minutes of whining and pleading is a lot to take, however. And I just plain don't trust documentaries in which nobody acknowledges the camera.]

Rick (Curtiss Clayton, USA): 35
[Largely incompetent, but I couldn't bring myself to leave because every few minutes brought some priceless zinger or random bit of business -- it was worth sitting it out just to see the receptionist quit, or for the sharp, high-pitched scream Pullman lets out every time he's startled.]

Love Actually (Richard Curtis, UK/France): 51
[A dozen fluffy, formulaic romantic comedies rolled into one; roughly half a dozen of them are charming and/or hilarious, at least until that tsunami of triumphalism in the home stretch. Poised to be the biggest word-of-mouth smash in a long, long time. Hugh Grant: still awesome.]

The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, Canada): 66
[One of Maddin's goofy, perverse doodles, hampered somewhat by a more naturalistic acting style than he customarily employs and by a general lack of urgency. Might have impressed me more if I hadn't already been wowed by Dracula and Cowards this year; still a treat.]

Mon 8

The Company (Robert Altman, USA/Germany): 70
[Sure to drive many people crazy with its focus on process to the exclusion of almost everything else -- it sometimes feels more like a Mike Leigh picture than the typical Altman mosaic. Loses focus in the final third, but otherwise consistently enthralling and occasionally magnificent; perhaps the highest compliment I can pay is that at one point I found myself thinking, "Wait, I don't like I?"]

The School of Rock (Richard Linklater, USA): 68
[So-so when judged by the standard of Linklater's previous work; outstanding when judged by the standard of formulaic Hollywood comedies. Important prerequisite: You must still find Jack Black's demented-slobbo shtick hysterically funny, as he's the whole show here. Pity the original songs aren't better, and that they couldn't a single funny line to give to Sarah Silverman (except she melts my glasses just standing there so who really cares I suppose).]

In the Cut (Jane Campion, USA/Australia): 49
[Probably the best film that could have been made from what seems to me like trite, mundane material. (I haven't read the book.) Skillfully made, eminently shrugworthy. Yes, Ryan gets extremely naked.]

Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, France): 63
[Let's just say the rating dropped about 20 points in the last 15 minutes and leave it at that for now.]

Tue 9

Cheeky (David Thewlis, UK/France): 42
[David Thewlis is a very fine actor.]

Feathers in My Head (Thomas de Thier, France/Belgium): 59
[Superlative for as long as it remains mysterious, which is to say for as long as it's characterized by a disarming amalgam of naturalism and surrealism (encapsulated by the startling opening shot, which I'd love to be able to see every time I start up my computer). Much less interesting once an unmistakable theme emerges from all the avian imagery, but there are still enough vivid moments to earn De Thier a prominent place in the Ones to Watch file.]

Shattered Glass (Billy Ray, USA): 66
[Solid, engrossing depiction of a scandal that to my mind doesn't really merit all the hand-wringing it received, much less a Major Motion Picture treatment. (Imagine a hypothetical movie in which we discover that Stuart Klawans didn't actually see most of the films he's reviewed for The Nation -- it's about that momentous.) That said, Ray deserves full credit for the gutsy decision to portray Glass almost entirely from the outside, letting Christensen's increasingly frantic performance fill in the blanks. (Sarsgaard is even better in a very tricky role.) Most dramatic revelation by far: Melanie Lynskey is now arguably hotter than Kate Winslet. When the hell did that happen?]

A Good Lawyer's Wife (Im Sang-soo, South Korea): 50
[As I've mentioned elsewhere, individual ratings on my goofy 100-point scale are gradually developing distinct personalities. 50 seems to be the "thoroughly watchable but I didn't ultimately get much out of it" rating; individual scenes impress, but the gestalt escapes me. Memo to the prurient: Sometimes the actors wear clothes, stop fucking, etc.]

Nicotina (Hugo Rodriguez, Mexico/Argentina/Spain): W/O
[Why didn't I read the festival blurb, which includes the 100% accurate phrase "Mexico's answer to Guy Ritchie's Snatch"?]

Wed 10

interMission (John Crowley, Ireland): 47
[As David Poland pointed out before I had a chance to update, this film is basically Love Actually in pseudo-edgy Irish drag. Squint hard and you can almost make out a few affecting exchanges through the DV murk.]

Nathalie... (Anne Fontaine, France): 55
[Ardant is sublime and Béart is smokin', but I saw exactly where this was headed midway through Monologue #1, whereupon a great deal of thumb-twiddling ensued. Elegant, understated, forgettable.]

The Agronomist (Jonathan Demme, USA): 52
[Looks like what it is: a bunch of footage retroactively assembled into something kind of resembling a documentary. I was more interested in Montas than in Dominique, and would probably rather have seen The Good Agronomist's Wife.]

The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia): 48
[Tyrannical dads rank just beneath sexual masochism on my list of Dramatic Subjects I'd Really Rather Avoid If At All Possible. Bias aside, though, this just didn't strike me as especially rich or enthralling; compare and contrast to the quietly adrenaline-charged relationship between Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier in La Promesse (though admittedly the circumstances here are entirely different). Kim Ki-Duk wuz robbed.]

Thu 11

Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, USA): 69
[Half brilliant, half just Jarmusch kind of dicking around. Somewhere along the line -- quite recently, it seems, though the Iggy/Waits piece from '93 provides the first inkling -- the project metamorphosed into a wry, absurdist meditation on the nature of celebrity -- Blanchett's caustic self-interrogation, Molina and Coogan's passive-aggressive dick-measuring, RZA and GZA's incantatory use of Bill Murray's entire name. The early doodles don't fit, though (nor are they very good), and cutesy crap like the White Stripes segment just seems like filler. Worth seeing for the choice cuts. B&W celluloid, ahhhh.]

Dallas 362 (Scott Caan, USA): 83
[Fairly explodes off the screen, and that's before the most kinetic, astonishing opening-credits sequence since Se7en. Settles down thereafter into a freewheeling, raggedy, '70s-on-steroids groove, telling a familiar (maybe even trite) story with such confidence, exuberance and virtuosity that the occasional missteps (mostly in the last few minutes) hardly even register. In a just and righteous universe, Hatosy, Goldblum and Lynch would have a realistic shot at an Oscar-night hat trick. Camera forever precisely where it ought to be. Edited so deftly that every cut threatens to draw blood. Best source music you've heard in ages. In every way a superlative debut. Bite me, Sofia.]

Vodka Lemon (Hiner Saleem, France/Italy/Switzerland/Armenia): W/O
[Technically speaking, I didn't walk out of this one, but I did deliberately allow myself to nod off for roughly half an hour, right at the end of reel two. What I saw seemed thoroughly harmless.]

Guest Room (Skander Halim, Canada): N/A
[I don't rate short films and Skander's a bud, but this portrait of a reluctant catalyst is plenty impressive: sharp, funny, nicely acted, visually assured. Somebody hire the guy to make a feature about teenage lesbian vampires on a submarine, pronto.]

The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth & Lars von Trier, Denmark/Switzerland/Belgium/France): 75
[Given (a) how fervently I agree with Von Trier's basic tenet (viz., limitations and restrictions tend to enhance creativity; i.e., FREEDOM = SLAVERY) and (b) the inspired lunacy of the film's premise, this seemed like a lock for my favorite film of the year. Instead, it's merely among my favorites, mostly because Obstruction #3 goes horribly awry (or, rather, it doesn't, but Leth and Von Trier think it does, which amounts to the same thing) and Obstruction #5, while clever, isn't an obstruction so much as a grand summation. Still heady and hilarious -- just not the masterpiece it initially appeared to be. I'll stop grumbling in a moment.]

Fri 12

The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo, USA): 64 (Cannes cut: 51)
[Much improved -- this is such a small, fragile film that it's hard to believe Gallo ever thought it should run two full hours. Ending still doesn't work, but at least now it's mildly unsatisfying rather than mind-bogglingly stupid. Driving sequences still intact, thank god.]

Histoire de Marie et Julien (Jacques Rivette, France): 40
[I find Rivette deadly when he's not being overtly playful, and it's all downhill for this somber anti-thriller-cum-quasi-romance after the cat tosses several bemused glances at the boom mic. (It also skitters back in fright at one point when the camera pushes in a little too close.) "Interesting" but bloodless.]

20h17 rue Darling (Bernard Emond, Canada): 58
[Too much voiceover, and movies about recovering alcoholics always take a nosedive when the inevitable relapse kicks in, but Emond has a secret weapon in quietly doleful lead actor Luc Picard (no "Engage!" jokes, please), who manages to sell even the hokiest scenes.]

Nine Souls (Toshiaki Toyoda, Japan): W/O
[Man oh man is this thing not funny at all. It does feature a sheep-fucking scene, however, which could potentially be helpful for any TIFF attendees who are experiencing goat-fucking withdrawal symptoms.]

Sat 13

/Dallas 362/ (Scott Caan, USA): 83
[Emblematic moment here is the big heart-to-heart between Rusty and his mom, with focus shifting from the foreground drama to Goldblum's stealthy approach and retreat in the background; it's essentially the humanistic flipside to the bad-samaritan moment in Irreversible, inaction as a gesture of love and respect. Still see the flaws, still don't care.]

The Small Town (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey): 43
[Starts off as a gorgeous, near-silent reverie, with wet socks dripping onto a furnace and fairgoers whizzing over the head of Ceylan axiom Emin Toprak. Then it gets bogged down in an endless campfire conversation, which demonstrates that dialogue isn't this filmmaker's strong suit. Thankfully, he seems to have figured that out almost immediately.]

Undead (The Spierig Brothers, Australia): 46
[Genially inept low-budget zombie flick boasts a handful of awesome moments, most notably an actor named Mungo (as a brooding loner named Marion -- a nod to John Wayne?) punching a school of killer flying fish. Not the greatest sendoff for the late, lamented Uptown 1.]