Toronto International Film Festival
8-17 September, 2005

Thu 8

District B13 (Pierre Morel, France): 61
[Serviceable French attempt at HK-style pyrotechnics, though it could have used more scenes of vaulting and/or ass-kicking and fewer impassioned monologues about human dignity. Bonus points for a political worldview so bracingly cynical that it might seem ludicrous were a more passive version of the same scenario not currently playing in New Orleans.]

3 Needles (Thom Fitzgerald, Canada): 46
[A moronic idea fairly well executed, which I suppose may be preferable to a brilliant idea utterly botched. Fitzgerald has a nice touch with moments of repose, and his multinational cast oozes conviction, but he can only disguise the film's thudding didacticism for so long. And even then, I'm not sure exactly what he's trying to say with this preposterous triptych. AIDS is bad? Don't give blood? Porn kills? Jabbing at random will inflict a few superficial puncture wounds, but that's about it.]

Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan): W/O
[Imagine The Commitments with dour Japanese schoolgirls in lieu of boisterous Irish layabouts. Now imagine it at half-speed. Now imagine that you're watching it through binoculars from two miles away. Got a mental picture? Ten times as dynamic as what I saw of this, though (lukewarm) local reviews claim it picks up a bit in the second half.]

Hell (Danis Tanovic, France/Italy/Belgium/Japan): 39
[So much for this trilogy. (Then again, I thought Red was the only keeper from "Three Colors.") As one of Heaven's handful of supporters, I wish I could blame Tanovic; unfortunately, the sub-Chekhovian banality permeating this film is pretty clearly encoded in its conceptual double helix. Though I still find it hard to believe that Piesiewicz would resort to the hoary old "cascading lines of previously heard dialogue taunt our distraught protagonist" device, especially after it was so expertly punctured in Citizen Ruth. Also, I need to develop little icons for certain recurring irritations, e.g. female characters whose internal transformation is symbolized by a new haircut. Then I could just add [scissors icon] at the end, saving both myself and the reader time and energy. Anyone know a suitable icon for "spells out subtext via laughably gratuituous literary reference"?]

Cold Showers (Antony Cordier, France): 56
[I actually could have used one about midway through, which is a partial recommendation right there. Generally more interesting and incisive when not striving to be the French Threesome, though the unforced spontaneity of the wrestling-mat ménage contributes enormously to its eroticism. One of those small, nebulous yet overdetermined movies in which the details are sharp but the gestalt is maddeningly fuzzy.]

Fri 9

Mrs Henderson Presents (Stephen Frears, UK): 48
[First viewing of the Weinstein Company logo confirms that the boys haven't lost their taste for innocuous feel-good claptrap. Brittle witticisms, stiff upper lips, tasteful "naughtiness," all culminating in an inspirational speech in which Dame Judi Dench says Fuck. In short, this is Saving Grace with tits instead of pot. (There's also full-frontal Hoskins for the ursine crowd.)]

Sa-kwa (Kang Yi-Kwan, South Korea): 53
[Nicely judged, expertly acted relationship drama peters out in the final act, eliciting a So-kwat? response. Nothing wrong with it, per se -- it's just tackling very familiar emotional terrain, and never delves deep enough to get really involving. Worth seeing mostly as the latest in an apparently neverending string of indelible Moon So-ri performances.]

Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, USA): 66
[Pretty much the best adaptation of Proulx's story imaginable -- I just don't happen to think cinema is the right medium to depict an impossible romance spanning almost two decades. Petty though it may seem, verisimilitude is a real problem: Jake Gyllenhaal with a '70s porn mustache is still Jake Gyllenhaal, and makeup's increasingly desperate attempts to age Anne Hathaway would probably make for a hilarious documentary short subject. Even if I make allowances, though, I find that, with very few exceptions (e.g., Citizen Kane), movies tend to falter the further they stray from the Aristotelian unities. I have the same complaint about The Age of Innocence, and this is essentially a gay-cowboy rendition of Wharton's tragedy of accommodation; those who love Scorsese's film should upgrade their expectations accordingly. Heath Ledger: Actor of the Year.]

Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe, USA): 49
[Crowe reportedly is still making changes as we speak, so many of you may never see some of this cut's most embarrassing indulgences -- hopefully he'll have the sense to lose Susan Sarandon's "Moon River" tap dance, not to mention the bit where Drew scatters his father's ashes in front of the balcony where MLK was shot while "Pride (In the Name of Love)" thunders on the soundtrack. However, there is no possible version of Elizabethtown in which Dunst will not be gratingly, excessively winsome (not really her fault -- the character as written is pure geek fantasy), and in which most of the material involving the funeral won't come across as personal baggage best handled via twice-a-week therapy. Starts off wobbly, ends up borderline disastrous -- really, it's only Crowe's sheer amiability that keeps this in Mixed territory, along with a giddily romantic all-night phone conversation that nails the rare, febrile connection forged between two people who desperately want to kiss but have to settle for one earnest confession after another.]

Day Break (Hamid Rahmanian, Iran): W/O
[Capital punishment is bad. Criminals are not evil. The end.]

Sat 10

Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, USA): 57
[Sharp and funny when exploring the "moral flexibility" of Big Tobacco lobbyists; broad and tired when satirizing Hollywood narcissism or generic corporate backstabbing. The scene in which our "hero" (Aaron Eckhart in fine charming-sleazeball form) explains his job to his son via an argument about the merits of chocolate vs. vanilla ice cream, subtly but decisively changing the terms of debate in a way that puts the kid on the defensive, should be transcribed (or just copied from the novel, I imagine) and taught to schoolkids alongside Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."]

Tideland (Terry Gilliam, UK/Canada): 51
[Not the disaster most people will claim, but not very good, either, I'm afraid. So long as he sticks to the little girl and her decapitated Barbies and the putrefying corpse of her father (no kidding), Gilliam conjures a genuinely disturbing portrait of childhood solipsism; unfortunately, the supporting characters unleash his penchant for unrestrained grotesquerie, repeatedly breaking the spell. Still, I'd sooner revisit this dank, morbid semi-fiasco than endure a second round of Grimm's hectic pyrotechnics -- better Gilliam on steroids than Gilliam on autopilot. Absolutely gorgeous ending, and where the hell did he find that kid?]

Mary (Abel Ferrara, France/Italy): 34
[Then Bildad the Shuhite replied: "When will you end these speeches? Be sensible, and then we can talk. Why are we regarded as cattle and considered stupid in your sight? You who tear yourself to pieces in your anger, is the earth to be abandoned for your sake? Or must the rocks be moved from their place? Also, Heather Graham? Come on, dude." -- Job, 18:1-4]

Seven Swords (Tsui Hark, Hong Kong/China): 50
[Rousing enough, I suppose, but each new scene makes you feel as if you've just walked into the movie halfway through. Plus, the bar for this genre has been set awfully high over the years, and Tsui doesn't seem to be trying very hard a lot of the time. I was drifting in and out of semi-consciousness, so I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt, but I must say I was exceedingly grateful when it finally ended.]

Sisters (Julia Solomonoff, Argentina/Spain): W/O
[Eventually, somebody's bound to make a movie about post-Peronist Argentina that isn't earnest and preachy and dull. It will not have flashbacks.]

Sun 11

You Bet Your Life (Antonin Svoboda, Austria/Switzerland): 45
[Seems to me there's an inherent problem with the story of a man who chooses to let chance dictate his entire existence: no agency = no drama. Sure enough, after a while it felt as if Svoboda were himself rolling a die to determine the direction each successive scene would take. When Choose Your Own Conclusion revealed that this was very much by design, I had to decide whether this formal strategy validated or subverted my sense of the film's pointlessness. My coin landed tails up. Theory validated.]

Brothers of the Head (Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe, UK): 45
[Scrupulous, entirely credible simulacrum of a dull documentary; only the foreknowledge that it's actually fiction makes it remotely interesting, and even then my interest remained, well, remote. This Is Spinal Tap and Stuck on You are more incisive about rock and roll rivalry and separation anxiety, respectively, and funny besides.]

Duelist (Lee Myung-se, South Korea): 63
[At the top of his game -- about the first hour or so here -- Lee may be the best avant-garde filmmaker currently working in feature-length narrative cinema. It's only when he allows himself to be distracted by piddling plot concerns or (the horror) attempts to invest his sui generis imagery with conventional emotion that he falters. Half of Duelist makes Seijun Suzuki look like a McKee grad student; the other half is the cinematic equivalent of NutraSweet. If he ever makes a movie that manages to sustain the sheer, surrealistic kineticism of this film's midnight alley battle, though, the action genre may simply have to be retired.]

Heading South (Laurent Cantet, France/Canada): 40
[Astonishingly smug, hamhanded and lazy, considering the source. Emblematic moment: Brenda chides the restauranteur for his racism, and the audience duly chortles at her unthinking hypocrisy. Painful to watch the actors contend with their helpful expository monologues. Basically a waste of some really gorgeous scenery, not to mention Rampling.]

Takeshis' (Takeshi Kitano, Japan): 26
[Sorry, I just didn't care. Kitano's hypermasculine, stoic-weepy persona has never much interested me to begin with, so the last thing I want to see is a playful deconstruction of same; truth be told, I'd be quite happy if the dude never stepped in front of the camera again. (Kids Return, in which he doesn't appear, was for a long time my favorite of his films.) And if you're not of a mind to connect various scenes to the rest of Kitano's oeuvre, and not in sync with his unblinking absurdist sense of humor, this is one excruciating sit. No doubt someone will argue that making gunfire tedious was part of his grand design, but it's still a dubious accomplishment, like making sex ugly.]

Mon 12

The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron, USA): 67
[Shallow and hollow, but enormously entertaining, at least up until its historically accurate wet noodle of an ending. Gretchen Mol, with her fetching dimples and spectacular bod, couldn't be more perfectly cast -- indeed, I defy anyone to tell the difference between Bettie's bad acting in various auditions/class exercises and Mol's performance in Rounders. Granted, the movie has only one idea -- basically Edward D. Wood, Jr. as a pinup girl -- but there's something both poignant and (for me at least) intensely erotic about Page's goggle-eyed enthusiasm in the midst of depravity. It may not be psychologically credible (and the way the film introduces the specter of rape and childhood sexual abuse only to completely ignore them thereafter is downright weird, albeit still preferable to Tim Robbins bucking for an Oscar as Perpetually Tramautized Dave), but then this is less a character study than the further mythologizing of an icon. On those limited terms, it works.]

Harsh Times (David Ayer, USA): W/O
[Give Ayer credit -- the guy's not afraid to write unsympathetic characters. Two reels of Christian Bale as a bullet-headed asshole, however, was more than sufficient. Training Day's Alonzo and Dark Blue's Eldon Perry were ambiguous, charismatic monsters; this guy's just a douchebag, and Ayer seems to be taking a little too much pleasure in his transgressions. (Jeff McCloud: "This picture sounds awesome.") Let me know if it goes somewhere other than where it pretty clearly seems to be headed.]

C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallée, Canada): W/O
["Brimming with humour and bittersweet drama, C.R.A.Z.Y. is ultimately the triumphant story of a beautifully ordinary family, of parental love, of outsiders struggling to find their place in the world and of the challenges of growing up different."

Remember when Bettie Page made the saucy face. That was awesome.]

Everlasting Regret (Stanley Kwan, China/Hong Kong): 42
[{ICON representing a movie that follows one or more passive characters over several decades of their country's tumultuous history, watching with detached sorrow as they're battered by forces beyond their control.}]

A Little Trip to Heaven (Baltasar Kormákur, Iceland): 44
{ICON representing a movie in which Forest Whitaker attempts an accent of indeterminate origin, thereby rendering 35% of the dialogue unintelligible.}]

Tue 13

Iron Island (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran): 61
[One of those movies in which a vividly photogenic setting -- here, a rusting oil tanker that serves as makeshift digs for a community of squatters -- does most of the heavy lifting. Mostly observational, though it takes a somewhat harrowing turn in the home stretch; too bad Rasoulof didn't focus more on the "captain," who at times seems genuinely and intriguingly torn between altruism and opportunism. Worth a look for those with a jones for the decrepit.]

A Perfect Couple (Nobuhiro Suwa, France/Japan): 28
[Yes, it's all here: the (drab) static compositions, the (tedious) improvised dialogue, the (misguided) commitment to "truth" at the expense of drama, or even of the occasional mild diversion from quotidian tedium. Plus I've been here, and it doesn't ring true at all: One girlfriend abruptly dumped me two days into a week-long visit, and while it was weird and uncomfortable and probably a bad idea that she didn't change her flight and get the hell out of there, we did not spend that time engaged in heavy silences, unprovoked backbiting and desultory sex. (In fact, the infamous r.a.m.c-f fellatio post -- don't bother asking if you don't already know -- actually took place while we were broken up.) Nice final shot, but otherwise the quintessential Boring Art Film.]

April Snow (Hur Jin-ho, South Korea): W/O
[Believe it or not, this movie was about 50x more interesting when it was directed by Sydney Pollack and called Random Hearts.]

Transit Cafe (Kambozia Partovi, Iran/France): W/O
[{ICON representing an Iranian movie that assumes the viewer has no idea that women are currently second-class citizens in that country and needs to be awakened to their plight via didactic melodrama.}]

Wassup Rockers (Larry Clark, USA): 53
[Starts off as the usual Clark nonsense -- fetishization of youth, unashamed leering, lethargy-as-dynamism, etc. -- but once the boys hit Beverly Hills the film abruptly metamorphoses into high camp, closer in spirit to early Araki than to any of Clark's previous work (with the notable exception of the undistributed Teenage Caveman). Choice comic highlights include Beverly Hills teens who seem to have taken a break from a school production of Less Than Zero; Clint Eastwood bagging himself a wetback in his backyard; and a thrash-scored fight sequence that stops dead for a minute-long interlude in which one of our heroes struggles to get his skin-tight jeans over his hip bones. Not exactly what I'd call good -- I enjoyed it on roughly the same level that I enjoyed, say, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls -- but certainly preferable to Clark's allegedly "serious" work. This one is retarded on purpose.]

Wed 14

In Her Shoes (Curtis Hanson, USA): 55
[Maybe it's just the sudden infusion of Hollywood schmaltz after a week of concentrated austerity, but I must confess to leaking tears at several points during this formulaic trifle -- once in response to a subplot in which a blind hospital patient helps Cameron Diaz overcome her dyslexia via poetry readings/analysis. Shameless stuff, but superficially effective; Hanson stays out of the way, hitting his marks with professional aplomb. (He also preps viewers for his forthcoming poker movie with brief shots of Ivey and Lederer on background TV screens.)]

The Great Yokai War (Takashi Miike, Japan): 47
[Reminiscent of dorky '80s kidflicks like Krull and The Last Starfighter, except with creatures from Japanese folklore in lieu of the Star Wars cantina regulars. A handful of striking images and a few stray moments of wit don't remotely justify the two-hour running time. And after six years and 600+ movies, I think it's now official: Audition was a fluke.]

Romance & Cigarettes (John Turturro, USA): 11
[Excruciating from frame one. Aims for charming and delightful but only achieves stupid and strident; between this and Elizabethtown, Susan Sarandon appears to have embarked upon a bizarre campaign to sabotage her career. Everybody's clearly having a swell time, but the fun doesn't translate -- it plays like a skit the actors put together to amuse themselves during downtime on some other project. And only a relative would allow a performance as obtrusively annoying as Aida Turturro's.]

Citizen Dog (Wisit Sasanatieng, Thailand): 65
[Still haven't seen Tears of the Black Tiger, but on the evidence of his sophomore effort Wisit is Thailand's answer to Jeunet, all bulldozing whimsy and fanciful digressions in Starburst colors. I quite liked Amélie, but those who consider that film symbolic of Everything Wrong With World Cinema Today should keep their distance from this one, which features the same chirpy omniscient narrator, the same one-dimensional quirk repositories (a.k.a. "characters"), the same aggressively cartoonish visual sense, the same tendency to flatten and compartmentalize everything in sight. Except you'll miss Film Comment's Chuck Stephens somehow managing to overact in a deliberately ludicrous context, plus the single catchiest pop song I've heard in maybe three or four years.]

Pavee Lackeen: The Traveller Girl (Perry Ogden, Ireland): W/O
[While I'm not having a very good festival this year -- looks like most of the really good fall films are awaiting me at NYFF -- I've been pretty fortunate in terms of aesthetics: This is the first movie I've seen here that looks like complete ass. Contentwise, Loach on an off day.]

Thu 15

The Matador (Richard Shepard, USA): 64
[Shockingly good -- the buzz at Sundance made it sound dispensable (which impression was only strengthened when Miramax snapped it up), but in fact it's a nimble, elegant little comedy of manners, and easily could have been a lot more. Unfortunately, Shepard chickens out at the eleventh hour, blowing what should rightfully have been a gutpunch of an ending. (Indeed, the way the film skates right up to the edge of this moment before suddenly fading out suggests that a compromise may have been made somewhere along the line.) Nonetheless, the broad strokes are discernible, and both Brosnan and Kinnear are note-perfect in tricky roles. I just wish they'd taken that one extra step.]

Drawing Restraint 9 (Matthew Barney, USA): 60
[Not a film that's going to change anyone's mind about Barney. As usual, I grooved on a lot of the outré imagery but never had a clue what the hell various objects and rituals are intended to symbolize. Thought for a while he might simply be foregrounding the bizarre, arbitrary nature of the marriage ceremony, but how that fits in with the couple's status as "Occidental Guests" in maritime Japan I have no idea. And as with the Cremaster cycle, I don't really truly care. This one peaks early, with the parade/mold-pouring sequence (set to a fabulously moody Björk track that sounds like your upstairs neighbor's stereo system as filtered through several feet of plaster, wood and carpet), but I remained mildly fascinated throughout.]

Tsotsi (Gavin Hood, UK/South Africa): W/O
[{ICON representing a movie in which somebody experiences personal growth when forced to care for a small child.} I'm thinking maybe a little floating-head pyramid: Danson, Selleck, Guttenberg.]

The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang, France/Taiwan): 82 [first viewing: 74]
[Not really "improved" -- I just needed to rewatch the entire film with foreknowledge of its bombshell of an ending. Having done so, I now feel comfortable declaring it Tsai's best film, not to mention a bolder and more devastating quasi-sequel than 2046. Seeing his familiar tropes employed in this hardcore context is as bracing an experience as I've had this year; I staggered out of it at Cannes, and I staggered out of it again this afternoon. Where can Tsai possibly go from here?]

Angel (Jim McKay, USA): 59
[Better than it looks. This is the patient, observational McKay of Our Song, not the didactic, hectoring McKay of Everyday People; every scene is credible and compelling, and the actors are terrific across the board. That there's no real narrative isn't a problem, but the movie just keeps meandering aimlessly, adding new characters and circumstances as if this were the pilot episode for a sharp TV show rather than a self-contained feature (and then concluding abruptly on a pat note of self-assertion). Impressive but unformed.]

Fri 16

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Nick Park & Steve Box, UK): 68
[Just like the other Wallace & Gromit adventures, only three times as long. Many hilarious bits before it runs out of steam, though, and Gromit remains the most freakishly expressive animated character of all time. Plus I love watching these on film, where if you look closely you can see the animators' fingerprint ridges stippling the skin.]

Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream (Stuart Samuels, Canada): 51
[Ignore that subtitle -- Samuels certainly did, addressing the transition only in the film's final two minutes. (Incredibly, he never mentions Donnie Darko, even in a fleeting just-not-the-same kind of way.) Copious clips, filmmaker reminiscences, superficial comments from J-Ho and J-Ro (the latter is actually sitting next to me as I type this, reading e-mail from Nicole Brenez; I fully expect him to visit SuperHappyFun next), etc. etc. Watchable, but nothing more. Crappy video projection rendered flesh tones in a sickly shade of green.]

Pusher II (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark): 43
[Wasn't planning on seeing these, since I didn't like the original (and despised Winding Refn's Fear X), but then a person who shall remain unnamed insisted that that they are totally awesome, etc. And so I duly subjected myself to the gritty, uncompromising tale of a poor little wannabe badass whose Daddy never gave him a hug. Awww. Anyway, that was subjection enough.]

Sat 17

Day largely abandoned due to exhaustion and the revelation that NYFF press screenings kick off the day after tomorrow. I did show up for Hostel, the closing Midnight Madness flick, but then director Eli Roth cheerfully announced that the film is unfinished, launching into an inventory of imperfections (including the sound of his own voice shouting instructions to the actors, still present in the "sound mix") that drove me from the theater. Advance word suggests I didn't miss anything. And I have nothing to say about the film and a third that I did see.

The Forsaken Land (Vimukthi Jayasundara, France/Sri Lanka): W/O

All the Invisible Children (Mehdi Charef/Emir Kusturica/Spike Lee/Katia Lund/Jordan Scott & Ridley Scott/Stefano Veneruso/John Woo, Italy): 23
[Zzzzzzzzz. Not even one semi-watchable short in the bunch.]


Bubble (Steven Soderbergh)
Gabrielle (Patrice Chéreau)
I Am (Dorota Kedzierzawska)
The President's Last Bang (Im Sang-soo)
Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel)
Something Like Happiness (Bohdan Sláma)
The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook)
Through the Forest (Jean-Paul Civeyrac)


Battle in Heaven (Carlos Reygadas): 17
Be With Me (Eric Khoo): W/O
Breakfast on Pluto (Neil Jordan): 20
Capote (Bennett Miller): 54
The Child (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne): 71
A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom): 52
Dear Wendy (Thomas Vinterberg): 63
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu): W/O*
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig): 69
Free Zone (Amos Gitai): 48
Hidden (Michael Haneke): 69
A History of Violence (David Cronenberg): 58
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black): 68
Manderlay (Lars von Trier): 43
Paradise Now (Hany Abu-Assad): W/O*
Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic (Liam Lynch): 60
Shanghai Dreams (Wang Xiaoshuai): 47
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach): 58
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones): 52
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien): 54
Thumbsucker (Mike Mills): 43
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (Mike Johnson & Tim Burton): 66
Time to Leave (François Ozon): 42
Where the Truth Lies (Atom Egoyan): 49

* (will rewatch in its entirety at NYFF)