The following hasty roundup of the movies I saw over the past couple of months is brought to you by the letter F (standing for both Fall and Festival) and by the number 74 (representing the total number of films, not counting repeat viewings, that I saw at Toronto, New York and Thessaloniki). Analysis is guaranteed to be shallow and superficial or your money back. (So what else is new?) From the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe we tender these premium reviews for your enjoyment, as a tribute to your good taste. They come from the mountain springs to you. "33"

7-16 September, 2000

Don't tell the type-A contingent -- as a society, we surely need its collective va-va-voom -- but one of the several advantages of chronic procrastination is this: Frequently, if you wait long enough, somebody else will do the work for you. This being my first time at the Toronto International Film Festival, a brief introduction to the event seems in order...and I'm happy to say that Alex Fung has saved me the trouble of composing one. Go check out his invaluable historical and methodological lowdown, if you haven't already, and when you come back I'll tell you about the festival's true glory: the sausages.


The sausages rock. Virtually every streetcorner in the Bloor/Yonge region boasts a vendor, each commanding both an open grill and a knife that any horror-movie psycho would envy, the latter used to make diagonal gaping-wound slices down the length of the dog. Hot, sharp, succulent. I lived on these babies for ten days straight, and they alone justify making the trek -- especially for New Yorkers accustomed to the mealy, weak-ass frankfurters available in front of the Museum of Modern Art.

Oh yeah, there are movies as well. I saw a few.

Day One: Excited to be in another country for the first time (albeit one that resembles a slightly cleaner version of the U.S.; the currency was my only real reminder that I was Elsewhere), and stoked for cinematic treasures, I suspect that I may have slightly overrated Sade (B), the latest from French moodmaster Benoît Jacquot. True, it boasts a typically fine performance by Daniel Auteuil in the title role (he makes a more cerebral, less rambunctious marquis than does Geoffrey Rush, needless to say), and Jacquot neatly sidesteps the primary weakness of the biopic, concentrating on a very brief period in his subject's life. Yet it doesn't, in retrospect, really seem to be about much of anything. Corruption and liberation, I suppose, and the ways in which the two overlap; but apart from a general sense of Jacquot's adroitness behind the lens, everything has long since faded (that being one of the several disadvantages of chronic procrastination).

By contrast, I thought for some time that I might have underrated Agnès Varda's irresistible personal-essay video The Gleaners and I (B); there were hints here and there -- repeated shots of her liver-spotted hands; her curbside retrieval of a clock without hands -- that she'd made a movie about her fear of aging and craftily disguised it as an examination of humanity's scavengers. A second viewing at Thessaloniki, however, put the kibosh on my tentative reading (it's but one element of many, not a hidden keystone), and confirmed my initial sense that the and-here's-another-example structure ultimately gets a bit repetitious, even at a mere 82 minutes. What's more, Varda occasionally tries to push the filmmaker-as-gleaner metaphor a bit too far. "I know where I've been by looking at what I've gleaned," she says (words approximate), as her camera examines commercial souvenirs brought back from Japan. Uh, Agnès, you can't glean something until somebody else discards it. Save that footage for your sequel, The Packrats and I.

Next up -- separated by Fred Schepisi's excellent 1976 film The Devil's Playground, seen because none of the contemporary films in that time slot was remotely enticing -- were Christopher Guest's rather wan mockumentary Best in Show (C+) and Amos Gitaï's sluggish wartime anti-epic Kippur (B-), both of which I've already reviewed for Time Out New York. Not a bad start, all things considered; true excellence, as it happened, was just around the corner.

Day Two: That Tran Anh Hung establishes an expertly lazy, sensuous ambience in The Vertical Ray of the Sun (B-) isn't in doubt; hell, the title alone (a clumsily literal translation of the French title, A la verticale de l'été) makes you want to stretch out in a hammock with a tall glass of lemonade. The pertinent question is whether he succeeds in establishing much of anything else. In truth, I can't claim that I ever cared much about his impossibly beautiful characters or their various dilemmas (there are a surprising number of subplots for a movie this deliberately arty), but his bravura imagemaking nearly won me over all the same; it's no accident that the repeated, almost talismanic scenes of brother and sister awakening are set to Lou Reed's hypnotic drone (plus soundalike artists), as the film aspires to be the visual equivalent of something like "Pale Blue Eyes" or "Femme Fatale." Not enough there there for me, ultimately, but damned if those rise and shine sequences haven't lingered.

Blackboards (C+), on the other hand, has been erased from my memory like...well, bit obvious, isn't it? Hadn't originally intended to see this one, as I was no great fan of Samira Makhmalbaf's debut, The Apple (NYFF '99 -- never did write that review), but my last-minute change of plans turned out to be the single best decision I made in Toronto. For while I didn't care much for this malnourished entry in Iran's burgeoning is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex? genre (live = documentary; Memorex = fiction), choosing to see it screwed up my schedule for the entire day, thus forcing me to improvise. Matter of fact, I spent a fair bit of Blackboards' running time idly contemplating my next move, unable to get involved in the film's too-insistent naturalism or its array of ungainly anti-performances. (One of the leading roles, I now see, is played by the director of A Time for Drunken Horses; hope he's more skilled behind the camera than before it.) Makhmalbaf's compassion for these beleaguered Kurdish refugees and desperate intellectuals is unmistakable (and laudable), but she still seems to be largely winging it, demonstrating little of her dad's restless intelligence or formal mastery. I left the theater unsatisfied and adrift, thinking that maybe that American movie starring Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss might be the right tonic...

There's no feeling quite like it. Sure, it's a pleasure to have ridiculously high expectations met -- to discover that the new Wong or Leigh or Egoyan is everything you'd hoped it would be. But I think I get more of a charge from the masterpieces that arrive out of nowhere, unheralded and unassuming, like a stranger who turns up at a party you nearly didn't bother attending and proceeds to knock you on your ass. Christopher Nolan's Following had shown considerable promise, it's true, but I still wasn't remotely prepared for Memento (A), his sophomore effort, which is simply the single greatest gimmick movie ever made. What makes it much more than a clever curiosity is that the gimmickry -- unlike the chronological tomfoolery in Following, for example -- carries genuine thematic weight, placing the audience in the same position as the film's chronically confused protagonist and building to a climactic revelation that speaks as cogently about the human capacity for self-deception as any angst-filled Bergman chamber drama. Not to mention that it's funny and inventive as hell, with Nolan milking the oddball premise for every possible gag and narrative fillip; the second time (NB.: this movie must be seen twice to be fully appreciated), I got chills watching Natalie subtly but methodically collect every writing instrument in her apartment in preparation for one of the most diabolically sadistic assaults I've ever seen on a movie screen. What's more, fans of great character acting get both Joe Pantoliano and Stephen Tobolowsky...albeit not at the same time, alas. Some will no doubt find it overly mechanical, insufficiently aerated (it's the detective thriller as Swiss timepiece + German timetable), but who says every movie necessarily has to be heartfelt?

Not the Coens, that's for sure. There's a touch of Barton Fink's creeping surrealism informing Michael Walker's Chasing Sleep (C-), starring Jeff Daniels as a college professor gradually losing it following the unexplained disappearance of his wife...though the film's primary antecedent, ominously dripping pipes notwithstanding, is pretty clearly Polanski's Repulsion, given the strong sexual subtext. Hate to say it, but this one's largely undone by its meager budget -- which is not to say that it would have altogether worked had Walker been given more money to work with (his touch is alternately clumsy and overwrought), but at least the scenes intended to provoke anxiety and horror wouldn't provoke gales of laughter instead. Daniels and the bizarrely fetching Emily Bergl (The Rage: Carrie 2) provide a respectable watchability quotient, but the whole thing's kinda silly, to be honest.

Toronto doesn't get many genuinely exciting premieres, but the festival did score the new Kathryn Bigelow flick, activating the salivary glands of those of us who consider Near Dark one of the finest genre movies of the '80s. Of course, nothing Bigelow's done since has inhabited the same zip code, much less the same ballpark, and The Weight of Water (C) doesn't even offer the sleazy, propriety-be-damned kicks of Strange Days or Blue Steel. No, it's the director's bid at respectability: not merely an adaptation of a novel, but an adaptation of a novel that includes a Nobel laureate among the main characters. (Or maybe it was the Pulitzer he'd won. Same difference, especially since Sean Penn seems trapped in some unfortunate limbo halfway between Eliot and Bukowski.) Crosscutting frantically between two tangentially related storylines -- one set in the present, the other in 1873 -- Bigelow utterly fails to connect them thematically; both involve female jealousy, but that's about it, and while the 19th-century tale occasionally packs a punch (thanks mostly to Sarah Polley's smoldering visage), its contemporary counterpart offers little more than a few sidelong glimpses of Liz Hurley's tits. Quite a disappointment; with one first-rate movie already under my belt, however, I was in too good a mood to dwell on the loss.

Day Three: Another slight tweak in the schedule, as the enthusiasm of A Person Who Shall Remain Nameless but He Writes for a Goddamn Herb convinced me to forgo buzz magnet Shadow of the Vampire in favor of Hong Sangsoo's provocatively titled Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (C+). ("At least there'll be skin," I figured, ever the sophisticate.) Now, I'm generally predisposed toward movies that examine the same event(s) from multiple perspectives, explore the troubling nature of subjectivity, all that heady philosophical stuff...but I also find that the Rashomon effect works best when the different POVs actually, y'know, differ. Here, after a reasonably absorbing hour of muted romantic parry-'n'-thrust among a trio of South Korean art/media types, the movie simply restarts -- CHONNNNNNNNNG! -- and we get the whole damn thing over again, with only a few minute and essentially meaningless variations. Last time somebody dropped a fork; this time a spoon clatters to the floor! Effect same; utensil altered. Possibly Hong's poking poker-faced fun at the conventions of the he-said-she-said genre...but the joke, if joke it is, winds up attenuated to the point where the humor is theoretical at best. Skillfully made, but ultimately pointless; maybe, just maybe, the time has come for me to tender my apologies to Windows users, who are still wondering what the hell that CHONNNNNNNNNG! was about. Get a real computer, and it'll all come clear. This has been an unpaid endorsement.

Wish I could endorse Liam (C+), Stephen Frears' tale of working-class strife in 1930s Liverpool, with the same enthusiasm -- or indeed any enthusiasm -- but while the film was warmly received by most of my peers, I found its cheerful dreariness too cozily familiar; its title character's stutter too self-consciously affecting; its climactic act of violence much too neatly ironic. Also problematic -- though not entirely fair, I admit -- was my exasperated, oh-come-now reaction to the numerous scenes involving wide-eyed preadolescent schoolchildren having the fear of God drummed into them by crazed Jonathan Edwards wannabes; historically accurate or no, dire warnings of eternal hellfire invariably strike me as laughably over-the-top, effectively short-circuiting any sort of empathetic response. (Same deal when it comes to irredeemably tyrannical/monstrous parents in movies -- I immediately switch off. Maybe it's a self-defense mechanism or something, though my own childhood was pretty much abuse- and intimidation-free.) Strong performances (especially from the young 'uns) and Jimmy McGovern's typically generous worldview compensate to some extent, but if my mind wanders so far afield that I have time to note that the movie's title is a palindrome of 'mail,' it ain't really workin'.

Chinese Coffee, directed by Mr. Al Pacino, was up next on my tentative schedule, but the press screening wound up being postponed for several days. (Can't say I was all torn up about it, either, since the buzz from Telluride basically amounted to: Ugh.) Instead, I almost literally clawed my way into a sold-out public screening of Memento -- Moss graciously answering questions about the Matrix sequels, Pantoliano radiating a laid-back hipster vibe -- then badgered some poor Sony flack into giving me a ticket for Girlfight (C+), another film I've since reviewed for TONY. Actually had to struggle a bit with the grade for that one, having already doled out two C+'s that day, but my conscience ultimately triumphed over my fear of looking like I was stuck in a critical rut. Some days are like that.