Toronto International Film Festival
9-18 September, 2004

Thu 9

3-iron (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea): 75
[Intriguing, assured amalgam of the New Kim (Zen humanism, ostentatiously lovely compositions, formal repetition) and Kim Classic (mute characters, perverse violence, sick humor). Errs on the side of schmaltz, perhaps, but the ending is so weirdly ambivalent (interpretable as either an endorsement or a rejection of solipsism, or perhaps both at once), and the film as a whole so blatantly masterful, that the warm fuzzies feel earned. If it makes you feel any better, Charles, I suspect Samaritan Girl is more your speed.]

Private (Saverio Costanzo, Italy): 48
[Blunt, hamhanded metaphor -- Occupation as a House, Stults quipped -- but it's still kind of potent, perhaps simply because it's so direct. Unfortunately, the inherently gripping scenario and a host of strong performances wind up undermined by laughably on-the-nose dialogue ("Why don't you just leave this house?" "Why should I? It is my house. Why don't you leave this house?"), egregious shaky-cam videography, and a climactic, pseudo-Aesopian burst of Roger Waters circa 1992. At least Bellocchio knew enough to use instrumental Floyd.]

Antares (Götz Spielmann, Austria): 55
[Apparently Spielmann didn't get the memo about triptychs involving ordinary people who are gradually revealed to be connected by chance/fate/vague thematic elements/dreary housing projects/car accidents and how nobody should ever make one ever ever again. That's Ed, the individual stories are quite compelling in their own right, Spielmann remains an expert at dashing narrative expectation, and the whole thing was worth seeing just for the dirty, conspiratorial grin Petra Morzé flashes at the hotel functionary who sees her taking it doggy-style -- it's like somebody morphed Asia Argento and Meryl Streep.]

After the Day Before (Attila Janisch, Hungary): W/O
[Pretentious twaddle. By all accounts it only gets worse.]

Fri 10

I [Heart] Huckabees (David O. Russell, USA): 79
[Won't work for everyone, but give Russell credit, at the very least, for making what are by far the most ambitious comedies of our time. This one is basically Being and Nothingness in screwball idiom, tackling the Big Questions with both the awe and the ridicule they deserve; tone wobbles on the threshold separating manic from hysteric, only occasionally crossing the line. Actually, it's rather similar in many ways to Akerman's Tomorrow We Move, except it's actually funny instead of theoretically "funny." (Beware my pulp, Wazowski.) Treasurable bits far too numerous to list, but surely Naomi Watts' post-epiphanic Huckabees ad ("Last year, last fashions, not so good") deserves a spot in the Moments Out of Time Hall of Fame.]

Blood (Jerry Ciccoritti, Canada): W/O
[Not sure which I find more irritating: plays depicting quasi-incestual relationships or movies that attempt to disguise/heighten/enhance the theatrical origins of such plays via the arbitrary use of split-screen and superimposition. Bring back Perspective Canada; it used to make this crap ever so much easier to avoid.]

Beyond the Sea (Kevin Spacey, USA): 35
[Scathing remarks to come in future Esquire column -- the only reason I bothered with this (and will be bothering with Ray tomorrow). It's exactly what you'd expect, assuming that you'd expect a movie with no reason to exist other than Spacey's desire to impersonate Bobby Darin. Which I mean please, was that not obvious?]

Gilles' Wife (Frédéric Fonteyne, Belgium/France/Luxembourg/Italy/Switzerland): 54
[Exquisite filmmaking in the service of a banal tale of romantic martyrdom -- imagine an early silent melodrama reconceived in the syntax of Late Modern Eurorigor. Emmanuelle Devos, with her penetrating eyes and her jagged wound of a mouth, does a heroic job of conveying the title character's interior monologue (the film was adapted from a novel, though you wouldn't necessarily guess that) entirely via minute facial adjustments, but it still felt to me as if something vital wound up lost in translation. Confirms Fonteyne as a major talent, though.]

They Came Back (Robin Campillo, France): 48
[And I still have no idea why. There's surely an allegory buried somewhere in this elegantly creepy, studiously bureaucratic spin on the zombie flick, but I'm damned if I can figure out what real-world social group these shuffling, aphasic outcasts are meant to represent. Since Campillo clearly has no interest in exploring how people might actually react if those they'd lost, mourned and then half-forgotten suddenly reappeared, there's little to do but strap on the spelunking gear and dig for the subtext; I rejected "political refugees," "Alzheimer's victims" and "some terminally vague corporeal manifestation of one's past sins" before finding a disturbing visual analogue in the sight of several hundred no doubt equally bewildered viewers filing out of the Varsity 8 en masse, one tentative step after another.]

A hole in my heart (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden/Denmark): 46
[A porn flick shot in my living room. A surgical needle in my labia. A sadistic bald dude vomiting in my mouth. A metal baseball bat in my personal space. A stiletto driven deep in my morose Goth-inflected childhood innocence. A fat pimply ass in my field of vision. A churning in my gut. An entry in my official Fox Searchlight notepad: "pathetic and repulsive not inherently more truthful than [unreadable]." An uncertainty in my response to an unexpectedly gentle, playful conclusion.]

Sat 11

Kinsey (Bill Condon, USA): 51
[Looks promising at the outset, especially in the clever way that pro forma details of Kinsey's background are filtered through his own investigative method. (Pity this structure doesn't inform the entire film, though I suppose that sort of dialectic approach would have a very limited appeal.) Conventional biopic elements soon take hold, however, leaving only an admirable frankness (by Hollywood standards) by way of distinction. And even that frankness is primarily verbal: When Kinsey decides to explore his homoerotic impulses, we get one steamy kiss and then a tasteful fade to black. Who's being prudish now?]

My Father Is an Engineer (Robert Guédiguian, France): 43
[No fathers, no engineers -- just Ariane Ascaride in a catatonic stupor and Jean-Pierre Darroussin striving mightily to create a character amidst a tiresome, disconnected series of flashbacks and fantasy sequences. Subplot involving a teenage interracial romance removed from the oven several hours too early. NB.: Very tired, kept dozing off for what I hope was a few seconds at a time.]

Cinévardaphoto (Agnès Varda, France): 61
[Two keepers and a clunker. The newest film, about an exhibition of photographs that feature teddy bears, is simply marvelous, both as an exploration of the project itself (which is way more complicated and even profound than you'd guess from a mere description) and as yet another portrait of the workings of Varda's witty, humane, endlessly inquisitive mind. A 1982 short about one of Varda's photographs from the 1950s, recollected by its subjects decades later, works very nicely as an embryonic treatise on similar ideas. But the earliest film, a kaleidoscopic montage of images from a 1963 trip to Cuba, is little more than filler, lacking the philosophical reflections and playful verve of Varda's later work. Still, I adore this woman.]

Ray (Taylor Hackford): 41
[See Beyond the Sea, above. This one's at least marginally less smug.]

Sun 12

Buffalo Boy (Minh Nguyen-Vô, France/Belgium/Vietnam): W/O
[Basically the Vietnamese equivalent of a cattle-drive picture -- not Red River, but one of those mundane, forgotten oaters that crop up on AMC around 4am. Often quite beautiful, but that's about it. Spooky flute score calls to mind various Japanese classics, which doesn't help.]

The Intruder (Claire Denis, France): 29
[What. The. Mighty. Mother. Fuck.]

Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France): 65
[Another disappointingly blatant allegory -- they're back in fashion, it seems -- but in this case it doesn't matter so much, as Hadzihalilovic's unnervingly precise direction kept me thoroughly engrossed even when the sound of Peggy Lee crooning "Is That All There Is?" began reverberating in my forebrain. Unlike Private (above), which looks like ass and has a clunky Message to impart, Innocence is 100% atmosphere; the opening sequence of "establishing shots" alone is so exquisitely judged, in terms of composition and juxtaposition and even duration, that it more than compensates for the jejune content. And as predictable as the conclusion was, damned if it didn't get to me. I'd see her next movie in a heartbeat.]

Mon 13

Millions (Danny Boyle, UK/USA): 56
[Consistently cute, intermittently clever. Dopey subplot about the bad ol' robber trying to regain his booty will appeal to kids, I suppose.]

Dead Man's Shoes (Shane Meadows, UK): 38
[Revenge movies should either (a) grapple with moral ambiguity or (b) appeal to our suppressed bloodlust. The best of them, of course, (c) manage to do both. This one accomplishes (d) none of the above. It is just some dude we don't care about killing a bunch of other dudes we don't care about to avenge his retarded brother, about whom we do not so much care. Neither exciting nor unsettling -- merely unpleasant, and finally rather dull.]

Five Children and It (John Stephenson, UK): W/O
[I say, it's UK day. An additional press screening was added at the last minute, smack in the middle of a hole in my schedule, so I thought I'd see whether Eddie Izzard is funny as the voice of It. Barely got any of him in the first two reels, but more than enough of Kenny Branagh in hambone mode and a battery of colorless twerps.]

Shadows of Time (Florian Gallenberger, Germany): W/O
[Um, yeah. What it is is I kind of walked into the wrong theater by mistake. And Susan Norget is handling this film and I like her and so I didn't want to disappoint her by walking right back out again. So I gave it a chance. And it's exactly the stodgy goodhearted suffer-the-children melodrama I'd expected when I crossed it off my to-see list.]

Tue 14

The Sea Within (Alejandro Amenábar, Spain/France/Italy): 42
[Exactly as I'd feared: Whose Vida Is It, Anyway? At least Dreyfuss tapped into his character's reserves of anger, whereas the usually redoubtable Bardem leans so hard on a sickly Pagliacci smile that by the third reel I was ready to leap onscreen à la Buster K. and euthanize the fucker myself. Redeemed by occasional glints of dry humor, but this is strictly for the Seabiscuit crowd.]

5 X 2 / Cinq Fois Deux (François Ozon, France): 47
[Apologies to those who assumed I'd automatically flip for the backwards movie, but I'm afraid I can't get behind Prick Cowardly a Married I. Jane Campion employed roughly the same structural conceit in Two Friends with considerably more skill and nuance, and while I (shamefully) haven't yet seen any version of Pinter's Betrayal, I'll make a blind wager that it's far superior as well. Certainly it can't be this pathetically one-sided, although Ozon's belated, contrived attempt to balance the scales in the fourth segment is arguably more risible than the deck-stacking that precedes it (and both are even more annoying than the mixed metaphor you just had to reread twice in order to parse). Not to mention that Ozon has somehow managed to locate the only bad actor in France, who comes across like Bruce Greenwood on meds. A few sharply observed moments here and there deserved a more discerning context. Finally, do not on any account listen to Theo, whose admiration for the film is largely predicated on an exquisite and revelatory final scene that, when pressed, he admits doesn't actually exist.]

Land of Plenty (Wim Wenders, USA): 48
[Not sure why I kind of liked this, but I kind of did, despite the lowish rating. It's a silly and somewhat motononous film, shot in grimy DV, but it taps into post-9/11 anxiety in a way that's at once comforting and distressing, and John Diehl stubbornly refuses to let his wacked-out character devolve into caricature, even as he's the butt of some pretty good jokes. Or maybe it just looks good compared to The End of Violence and The Million Dollar Hotel.]

Wed 15

Eros (Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong/China; Steven Soderbergh, USA; Michelangelo Antonioni, France/Italy/Luxembourg): 54
[One out of three is about par for the international omnibus extravaganza, I suppose. Wong's contribution revels in the same soporifically gorgeous romanticism as 2046, substituting Chang Chen for Tony Leung but retaining Gong Li, Peer Raben, the 60s and a vague air of tragic languor. Antonioni populates various imposing locations with vacuous mannequins, who prance around naked and exchange risible dialogue as symbolic wild horses thunder past. Only Soderbergh delivers, though his brief comic sketch, featuring wonderfully garrulous work from Robert Downey Jr. and a symphony of furtive lechery from Alan Arkin, doesn't exactly qualify as erotic. And it's smack in the middle, too, so I'm afraid you can neither split super-early nor arrive very late.]

Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, Hong Kong/China): 63
[My first encounter with Mr. Chow, and I find that I prefer his blustery comic persona onscreen to the cartoonish digital manipulation he favors behind the camera. There's a pleasing, ZAZ-like absurdist flavor to many of the gags here, but the physical stuff quickly becomes tiresome in its aggressive plasticity; if I want to watch characters leaving plumes of smoke behind them as they run or being catapulted into space, I'll stick with animation, thanks.]

Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, USA): 47
[Nice to see Araki maturing a little without abandoning his trangressive instincts, but this is still a fairly banal therapeutic exercise, building very very slowly to a revelation that's been painfully obvious since the end of reel one. Fearless, riveting work by Joseph Gordon-Levitt confirms him (following the little-seen Manic) as one of the best actors of his generation.]

Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico): 64
[Slow to get rolling (I nearly walked out), but a font of droll hilarity in its second half and quietly moving in its resolution. A minor treat.]

Thu 16

The Ordeal (Fabrice du Welz, Belgium/France/Luxembourg): 53
[Rating might well be lower had any other actor played the lead role, as I can't stand Laurent Lucas and thus took great pleasure in watching him being tortured and humiliated. Subtext is a bit more nuanced than some are crediting, I think -- it's significant that our "hero"'s vanity and insensitivity are repeatedly tied to his status as an object of desire to people who are themselves patently undesirable -- but with the singular exception of that bugfuck tavern hoedown (note to self: clip party), the film rarely transcends its generic horror trappings. Also, Q: Has there ever been a movie in which someone gets lost in the middle of nowhere and takes refuge in a creepy hostel populated by ominously eccentric character actors and then himself turns out to be a deranged killer? I would like to see this picture or perhaps Write it if it does not exist.]

Vital (Shinya Tsukamoto, Japan): 42
[Perhaps the least interesting film imaginable about an amnesiac med student who winds up assigned to dissect the corpse of the ex-girlfriend for whose death he feels partially responsible. And why doesn't it fulfill its promise? That's right: It's another goddamn therapy movie. Stop it.]

Stray Dogs (Marziyeh Meshkini, Iran/France): 60
[One good turn deserves another. After clearing the way for the second wave to enjoy The Intruder by talking up its incomprehensibility, I wound up benefiting enormously from Josh Rothkopf's assessment of this film as mawkish drivel. On the contrary, it's a sly and often quite funny satire that acknowledges the limitations of neo-realism, both the original model and its even more neo- Iranian successor. Kind of draggy, especially in its first half, but Meshkini's sensibility remains sharp and complicated. Key line: "Stop breaking my heart, little one."]

Brodeuses (Eléonore Faucher, France): W/O
[The alternate English title is A Common Thread. The scenario concerns a pregnant teenager and a grieving middle-aged woman who form a tentative bond while working together as seamstresses. Need I continue?]

Fri 17/Sat 18

Yes, I saw only three films in the final two days. There just wasn't much left in which I had any real interest -- press screenings were effectively over, and I wasn't prepared to get up on five hours' sleep and/or wait in hour-long RUSH lines for marginal titles. It just so happened that most of the films playing for the public at the end were ones I'd already seen, either before or during the festival. And the rest was Planet Africa/Canada First/Geographical Marginalia/The Green Mango Beckons.

Omagh (Pete Travis, Ireland/UK): 49
[Solid, unexceptional Troubles drama, problematic for me because it valorizes a kind of organization I tend to find intensely annoying: coalitions of victims' relatives, who band together with an understandable and yet to me noxious sense of entitlement, as if the government somehow owes them (as opposed to society) certain results. In this particular instance -- at least as this movie tells the story -- they happened to be right, and their bitching exposed a grave injustice. But I must admit I was rooting throughout for our hero to realize his folly and throw in the towel. No doubt that's just me.]

The Forest for the Trees (Maren Ade, Germany): 76
[No Midnight Madness selection could possibly have induced as many cringes as this beautifully calibrated portrait of toxic neediness. Ade and her remarkable lead actress, Eva Löbau, somehow create a character who's intensely lovable despite her ignorance of pretty much every social convention known to man; each faux pas registers like a million tiny pinpricks. Imagine Single White Female as a naturalistic European drama instead of a dopey American thriller. And the ending, like that of 3-iron, cuts two different ways, equally readable as affirmation or negation. Punchline: This is a student film. In that context: A]

Saw (James Wan, USA): 40
[This movie's stupid. But it's still kind of fun if seen with a rowdy audience prepared to overlook the fact that it's 90% exposition. Very disappointed that there wasn't a climactic saw-off -- did Chekhov ever say what ought to happen if two guns are introduced in the first act?]