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TIFF Diary 2002

2002-09-15 - 10:10 p.m.

After another brief scare at customs (you do need a birth certificate to fly to Canada, I learned too late), I'm back in the comfort of my Brooklyn home. I'll do full reviews for these over the next week or two (though it might be later rather than sooner, since the NYC retrospective scene is hoppin' these days...), but I'll give my final star ratings for the fest: 

Ten Minutes Older: The Cello (* *) - Mostly a wank-fest, this one's redeemed by the typically wonderful Godard short that wraps it up.

Ginostra (* *) - An art house camp classic. I fell asleep an hour, and didn't even mind. The last forty minutes or so almost defy description. (Think exploding lambs and Andie MacDowell as the Virgin Mary!!)

Cabin Fever (* * ) - This horror flick would have been way more fun if I never saw The Evil Dead I imagine, but it's pretty okay. I can't resist complaining that it relies more on gross-outs than scares though, which made it all seem a tad pointless.


2002-09-14 - 5:37 p.m.
No time to elaborate much, but here goes:

In America (* *) - Jim Sheridan delivers an awfully generic tearjerker with several solid actors wasted. A year in the life of a rather unexceptional immigrant family in modern day Manhattan (that still manages to wrangle a better apartment than me). It's one of those movies that's so earnest that it can't even say the word AIDS when one of the main characters is dying of it. The puffball with the camcorder who tells us how to feel is pretty insufferable as well. It doesn't feel like a miss at times thanks to the actors, but overall it's tough to swallow.

The Other Side of the Bed (*) - An immature Spanish musical-comedy that plays like an extended, unrated episode of "Friends". The running gags are awful here (especially the one where characters are stunned to learn of bisexuality), and you'd think that it would have been enough to show a frustrated tennis match turning into an argument only once. The musical bits don't help matters. They're build upon the lamest pop music imaginable and have a look to them that's probably supposed to be charmingly and clumsily realistic, but ends up looking like a serious lack of production values. The cast is filled with unlikable sorts, and the one that shows any sort of presence (Maria Esteve's bubbly Pilar) is treated like a freak by a script that has no idea what to do with her energy.

Ken Park (* * 1/2) - Far from Larry Clark's Bully in quality, but also far above the dire state of affairs that was Kids, this exercise in teenage miserablism works more often than not, but there's no denying that large swaths of it don't. There's some great photography here, and the message (Parents are partly to blame for bad kids' actions) is presented with more shading than you might suspect (notice that Claude's dad doesn't close the door), but at this point it seems like some of the director's shock tactics only still shock himself.


2002-09-14 - 7:03 a.m.
I must say, on today, the last day of the Festival, that burnout has never set in for more than a film or two. I'm really astonished at my ability to be totally receptive to great movies after watching many films, most of them less than superb, for over a week straight. Overall, Friday was my best day of the festival thus far, by far. Here's what I saw in addition to the aforementioned Sex is Comedy & Sympathy for Mr. Vengance:

Dirty Pretty Things (* * *) - A real surprise for me, actually, I didn't expect a lot from this Steven Frears thriller, but it's solidly done, in its slick way. The second stolen kidney movie that I saw in a row (after Mr. Vengance), it shows us a world rarely seen in this sort of film (this sort of film being the glossy sort): the London underclass of illegal immigrants. For most of the first hour, before the mechanics of the plot become wholly apparent, it's really quite exciting. The visual gloss doesn't suffocate the realistic feel, and the performances manage to be likable without much whimsy, even with Audrey Tatou - Amelie herself - featured prominently. I think it helps a lot that there isn't a cloying kid plugged into this formula (a small wonder considering Miramax financed it), and the movie's focus on the work that these people do is nice. Instead of gunplay in the set pieces, we get immigration raids, and the change of pace is refreshing and intellegent. As it moves into the last hour, it's far less satisfying, and a tendency crops up to verbally state everything that we've already understood up until that point, but that's not much reason to keep you away from this tight piece of work.

Bear's Kiss (* 1/2) - Dismal really, and I'm only giving that 1/2 star because I nodded off for a solid fifteen minutes somewhere along the line (trust me though, it hardly mattered) and I don't want to damn something that I haven't seen in its entirety. I can't quite fathom who this film, which straddles the line between contemporary fairy tale and porno fantasy, was conceived for, but I can say pretty definitively that it wasn't me. Flat performances and a predictable script are just about all this one has to offer. Even the photography of this circus-set tale of a girl that falls in love with a shape-shifting bear is a letdown.

Vendredi Soir (* * * *) - This is more like it! I have to puzzle a bit why I hated Blissfully Yours so much, since this new film by Claire Denis is essentially the same in plot and approach (a long, near-real time look at a brief sexual encounter). I guess it's just that Denis is so rigorous here in creating a subjective point of view for her main character. Certainly, this one's not as hypnotic as Trouble Every Day or Beau Travail (though I probably prefer it to the former), since the score is much less forceful, but Denis just as wordlessly puts us in the mind of her protagonist here as in either of those two. It feels like it might be her best film yet, since it's such a total distillation of her style, but I'll wait until I see it again in New York in a few weeks before I make any kind of sweeping judgments.

Punch Drunk Love (* * * *) - I suppose I could understand after watching this one why the buzz was sort of mixed, and though I could completely understand the complaints that I heard about PT Anderson's new film (it's got a weird juxtaposition of violent outbursts and delicate humor, it's a bit insubstantial, it never slows down in pitch), for me those elements played as strengths. Perhaps that was because I went in expecting them, but I don't think anything can quite prepare you for the directorial tour de force that Anderson launches here. I'll try though, without spoiling anything.

The visual scheme of the movie is probably it's greatest strength. Clearly this time out, Anderson's going to be accused of ripping of Jacques Tati, since so many of his gags rely on the physical exploitation of his widescreen frame, but this film is far more plot bound than anything Tati's done. Still, it doesn't ever feel a slave to that plot (the pudding coupon redemption subplot doesn't amount to much beyond quirkiness, for example). Anderson uses his score to assault us in a way, and creates a sense of rising tension that keeps escalating until it has to explode somewhere (sort of like Magnolia worked, but here it explodes more frequently). I love the way that he uses L.A.'s aggressive non-look to create a really unique aesthetic. The way that he plays with color, light, and darkness is incredibly sophisticated (especially, like everything here, for a studio project) and when his characters finally become shadow puppets the effect is breathtaking. There are also some amazing shots in which Sandler's character fades to black and white as he wanders into the back of the frame. Essentially, it's an examination of the wonderful and frightening way that love makes us re-evaluate our self-worth, but don't go in expecting any depth, and you might be surprised by the amount of emotion that the movie actually has. I could deal without Sandler's quirky profession, but that's a minor reservation in what's a superb piece of work.


2002-09-13 - 1:53 p.m.
I have about a half an hour before I head off to see Dirty Pretty Things, so I figured I'd type out some capsules...

Dirty Deeds (* * 1/2) - As noted above, this '60s-set Aussie casino caper flick rather sub-Ritchie, but it's not awful, even if it's terribly by the book. Certainly, it's got a lighter tone than your average heist flick, and I certainly preferred this one to either version of Ocean's 11. To go into more detail now seems silly, since there are much more important movies to talk about...

Max (*) - Probably the worst of the fest so far, with little likely to topple it... About 5 minutes in, when I realized that Noah Taylor's Hitler is the only main character with a thick German accent, I was ready to leave. He wears a constant sneer, which makes it pretty much impossible to see any sort of humanity in him, which seems to be the point of this exercise. The production values aren't inept or anything, but the thought process behind the film seems to be. It requires us to have knowledge of what Hitler's to become to feel any kind of suspense throughout, but at the same time operates by sowing false hopes that he'll somehow focus his energies into becoming some sort of great artist. Since it assumes we think he's inherently evil, its surface level psychoanalysis fails completely to impress. It wants us to sympathize with him, but would never be so bold as to present his viewpoint rationally, so his character never evolves beyond a cartoon-like imitation. It's really retarded, honestly, and just about the only thing missing from its grade-school recap of this era of German history is a end title card saying "and then, Young Adolph went on to become the Fuhrer."

The Crime of Father Amaro (* *) - This one recently shattered some box-office records in Mexico, which probably means that it's working for someone, if seen in proper context. To me it seemed a rather bilious assault on organized religion without much of an alternative solution offered up, leaving an end result that felt like an empty exercise in controversy. It's rare to see complex priests on screen in modern films (at least when they aren't battling literal demons), so there's something refreshing about it (though casting a strapping young guy like Gael García Bernal makes it a bit less believable), but since the movie is set up as a melodramatic series of scandalous revelations, each more shocking than the rest, it begins growing stale just as its criticisms should be their most potent.

Julie Walking Home (* * 1/2) - Director Agnieszka Holland returns here with a fine, but manipulative drama about family breakups and faith healing, that still manages to be affecting at times. The proximity to her characters makes emotions feel immediate, even when the plot seems randomly constructed and the symbolism gets heavy handed (because his parents are divorcing, a boy gets heart cancer!). There's a really interesting screenwritng mechanism at work here that continually sets up false expectations, and the occasional moments that ring true, many of them comic, resonate throughout and power you through a lot of the muck.

Irreversible (* * * 1/2) - You Now Have 30 Seconds To Leave This Review... 29... 28... 27 ... Just kidding, but not entirely. Those who have seen Noe's I Stand Alone will get the above reference, but his new film should carry some sort of warning before audiences even set foot in the theater.

I was told to expect a love/hate reaction from this one, but I ended up a lot of with both (though most of the "hate" has resolved itself). Certainly an aesthetic triumph (except perhaps in how it aestheticizes misogyny and presents gays, minorities, and transgendered folks as denizens of a world gone profoundly wrong), Gaspar Noe's clearly improved as a director since I Stand Alone, and uses excellent digital effects freely here to create a lucid but nightmarish look at fate. The tumbling camerawork that he uses makes the entire film seem like one continual shot, even though the chronology of his sequences travels backward. Early on he has a character say, "You know what? Time destroys all things," but by reversing the flow of time in this film, he seems to be working toward a denial of fate instead of a surrender to it.

That hopefulness is hard won though, and for many that conceit won't be enough. You have to sit through some of the most brutal sequences that I've ever seen to get to it, and for anyone the least bit squeamish, I'd suggest sitting this one out. I don't want to disproportionately criticize the content of a film that's so much more about style than ideas, so I'll lay off that stuff, but I will note that many of the bits that initially had me worked up later revealed themselves to be a running joke, so I was cool with them by the time the movie was over.

Alive (* *) - Midnight Madness continues to underwhelm this year... Boring as hell for the first ninety minutes or so, where it assumes the form of a prison-set chamber drama, this Japanese sci-fi flick reinvents itself in its final act as a campy self-deprecating thrill ride that really works. Its lulls aren't filled with any depth whatsoever, so it's tough to recommend to anyone beyond die-hard fans of wire-fu action flicks.

Sex is Comedy (* * *) - Briellat doesn't seem to be growing as an artist here or anything, but this examintion of the filming of Fat Girl's central sex scene is a likable enough look at her creative process. It gets a lot of mileage out of the prosthetic penis that the lead actor wears, and the relationship that she has with the rest of her cast and crew seems almost too simple to be real, but the biggest hurdle, surprisingly is the director's own hang-ups. The on-set friction that she feels with her lead actor (much of it caused by her directorial insufficiencies) makes her to doubt herself, and watching her re-examine her conceptualization of the scene is genuinely interesting.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengance (* * *) - This Korean kidnapping flick sort of plays out like a reverse version of Kurosawa's High & Low with us understanding the motivation of the victimizer before the victim. After the kidnapping is botched, however, a cycle of revenge plots builds up that makes a pretty effective statement about the toll of this gory business. Surprisingly comic for most of its run time, when it kicks into its last half hour into a more graphic series of showdowns it manages to shock. If not a great film by any means, it isn't one that seems to be compromising much either in its vision.

Well, that's gotten me up to date for now... I'm off...


2002-09-13 - 7:54 a.m.
Since the festival was paying reverence to September 11th and started the screenings later in the day, I only saw four movies on Wednesday. Quick capsules follow:

Phone Booth (* * *) – Not nearly great, but much better than I really expected, this Joel Schumacher thriller hews closely throughout to its high-concept premise and is the better for it. Clocking in at just over 80 minutes, it has no time for silly subplots or much unnecessary sentimentality. After roughly fifteen minutes of setup, it gets locked into its single, titular locale, but never has a chance to grow boring after it does so. Sure, it has a somewhat corny absolution scene at the end and some of the visual gags (the robot, for example) are overdone, but mostly Schumacher’s direction, which uses split screens well and has a garishly exaggerated sense of city life, serves the script. I was also quite amazed to learn after watching the movie that it only cost $1.5 million, digital effects and all. I would have guessed an amount about ten or twenty times higher.

Evelyn (* *) – The crowd sure loved this one, but for me it was rough going. Earnest in the extreme, this light drama about of a single Irish father’s (Pierce Brosnan) attempts to get back his children after the court removes them from his home in 1954. With next to no legal mumbo jumbo, the film lunges straight for your heart, and if it seemed maudlin to me, I was all-too-aware that the majority of the audience seemed to be moved. I couldn’t help but scoff when the lawyers made sweeping statements like, “You’ll lose this case, because if you win the whole of family law would be upended.” There are moments that are really effective here, but generally things are overplayed. It’s not enough for Brosnan’s character to be a well-meaning father. He’s also an established crooner and a more than competent artist. It makes you puzzle about why his wife left him in the first place and makes the attempts to wring suspense over which guy the only attractive woman in the film who isn’t a nun will pick seem academic.

Kedma (* * 1/2) – Set in 1948 on the day before the creation of the Israeli state, Amos Gitai’s Kedma suffers since it offers biases under the illusion of evenhandedness. The last words in the film for example, are an impassioned speech from a riled up Palestinian who suggests the Jews are as powerful as they are because of their willingness to suffer. He makes some rabid, but cognizant points that seem an excellent counterbalance to much of what’s come before, but then has to pause to wipe the foam that’s frothing from his mouth away. Kedma is the name of the ship that the Israelites that the film follows arrived at their homeland on, and as soon as they get off of it, they’re greeted with gunfire from British soldiers who want to stop the creation of the state. Several battle scenes ensue, but they all have an odd, stagy quality about them. Explosions almost always take place within the camera’s frame – there’s no sense of off screen space here – and the characters have a tendency to launch into a political rant that ends on a hopeful note… right before they die. Kedma a not exactly bad film, but it’s in many ways one that is hard to swallow.

Happy Here and Now (* * *) – Surely I need to see this one again. For its first hour I was a bit bored, to be frank, but in its last half hour, it became something (or I finally realized what it was doing) that was exciting and perhaps revolutionary. Essentially, it boils down to a meditation about how our relationship with film, and art in general, is a two-way exchange, but it confounds the expectations that it sets up inside itself in order to do that. The plot is set up as a mystery without much of an answer, and while watching it unfold, you’ll inevitably be perplexed since things don’t pan out as you’d expect. Still, every red herring that the script offers up seems somehow tied into the greater thematic web of the film, and once they all start clicking, the film takes off. I’m excited to view it again to see how those thematic hooks plug into the first two thirds of the film and to check out whether that title’s ironic or heartfelt.


2002-09-12 - 10:58 a.m.
I forgot the disk with my writing from last night back at my hotel room, so I'll just give star ratings & upload them next time.

Phone Booth (* * *)

Evelyn (* *)

Kedma (* * 1/2)

Happy Here & Now (* * *)

Also, this morning I've already seen the Aussie heist film Dirty Deeds (* * 1/2), which is a bit sub-Ritchie, but entertaining enough for what it is.


2002-09-11 - 10:27 a.m.

Not a lot of time today, since I slept later than I probably should of, so here are some quick & dirty capsules:

Lost in Lamancha (* * *) - A documentary about the decline of Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. If this production can't quite compare to Fitzcarraldo, it still seemed awfully troubled, and watching it fall apart was alternatively humorous and harrowing. The filmmaker's total open access to nearly everyone involved seems like a fortunate mistake, and the film shifts to the absurdist as it shows just how hard it is to shut down a mega-production.

Spider (* * * *) - Almost perfectly realized, really, though I would have preferred if all of the protagonists flashbacks would have been things he actually experienced (instead of what he imagined). There are moments of sheer terror when we realize that the schizophrenic Spider simply has no ability to discern from the layers of his reality, and Cronenberg's decision not to use any effect to indicate a flashback makes the film harrowing. Some of the best scenes of the year are here, though I seem to be in the minority on this one. . .

Sweet Sixteen (* * * 1/2) - Slightly better than Mike Leigh's excellent All or Nothing, this one features a devastating lead performance. It's the story of a Scottish youth who decides he has to become a thug to save his mother from thugs, and for the last half hour or so, it's utterly heartbreaking in a way that similarly masochistic exercises such as Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever aren't.

Blissfully Yours (*) - Really, the epitome of bad art films. Watching it, I couldn't help escaping the notion that instead of watching these people laze about outside in real time, I could have done the same. There's a 20 minute car ride with only incidental dialogue, a 15 minute walk through the woods, a 20 minute dip in a creek, etc...

Aiki (* * 1/2) - Really entertaining, earnest, and mainstream with some quirks (surgery nightmares & Viagara dreams) that remind you that its director wrote Miike's Audition. Ultimately it's a bit too scattershot to earn my recommendation, but I sure didn't mind watching it, especially since it never gets old to see Aikido masters flipping opponents on the ground.

My Little Eye (*) - My little eyes would have rather been in bed than watching this dumb thriller. I can't wait until internet technology evolves to the point where movies that ape it as their aesthetic won't look like total shit.


2002-09-10 - 8:15 a.m.
An extra two hours of sleep made a huge difference for me on Monday. I felt completely refreshed and ready to tackle the five movies that I had scheduled. Even a 9 a.m. screening of Samantha Lang’s slow-paced sex drama L’Idole (* * 1/2) went down easy. The main attraction to seeing the film was the prospect of seeing the talented young actress Leelee Sobieski acting in fluent French. It’s probably a great compliment to the film that within a few minutes I wasn’t paying attention to that gimmick, but was instead interested in what the characters were actually saying.

The movie follows Sobieski’s character Sarah, an understudy who travels with a play to Paris, as she strikes up a relationship with an elderly Chinese neighbor while attempting to salvage a disintegrating one with her co-star (call it Mon Premier Monsieur if you like). At first it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t intensively explore the sexual desires of its protagonist, but as the film continues we realize that it’s because her sexual desire, much like her later depression, is less a natural impulse than an overly romantic one. She seems a bit unable to distinguish between her actorly flamboyance and her genuine reaction to things, and as a result goes a bit too far in her actions. Watching the movie, you’re often surprised by its oddly whimsical take on its serious subject matter. It’s only when dealing with the nosy neighbors in her apartment building that it goes too far in this direction, though. The central friendship that develops between Sarah and her neighbor Mr. Zao (James Hong) is alternatively tender, sexually charged, and fraternal. If L’Idole doesn’t exactly stir your passions (there’s next to no nudity, which seems odd) it does a reasonable job of stirring your intellect.


Next up was Todd Haynes’ brilliant tribute to Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows, Far From Heaven (* * * *), which is not only the best film I’ve seen thus far at the festival, but also one of the very best films I’ve seen this year. Reteaming Haynes with the superb Julianne Moore for the first time since Safe, the film exhilarates in the same way that Safe did, by toeing the thin line between humorous irony and poignant emotion. Unlike Safe though, which never really declared an allegiance to either, Heaven uses ironic jokes and witty dialogue in its first half to close the rift between modern audiences and the film’s 1950s setting and then later reduces his humorous touches as the drama becomes more intense. Haynes lulls us into a position where we feel a little superior to, but not emotionally detached from, his characters and then goes on to show a series of melodramatic twists (many taken almost directly from Sirk’s Heaven) that confound our expectations by actually making us feel something genuine. By the time our opinion of Moore’s blonde Connecticut housewife matters to the film’s emotional success, we’ve been made fully aware of her limitations as a thinker and a resident of her community, and that allows us to better understand the decisions that she makes. When she says, “I don’t understand,” we understand that she really doesn’t.

Moore’s fantastic performance doesn’t hurt in endearing us to her character either. She disappears completely into her role, and before long we don’t see the actress when we look at her. The supporting cast is equally fine, without a bad line reading in the film. Technically, the film is irreproachable. Haynes adopts the cinematography and elaborate art direction of Sirk’s film, but then uses his own editing rhythms and camera placement so that the end result never feels like a carbon copy. Still, when the camera launches into a crane shot and Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent score swells, the sheer technique bowls us over. Instead of focusing on the class politics the caused the drama in Sirk’s film, Haynes examines the sexual and racial hang-ups that lurked beneath the attractive veneer of ‘50s life. The most frightening thing we realize is that underneath all of the stylization that he employs, we realize how little has changed today, and when that happens all of the ironic distance that we felt evaporates totally.

Anything would probably have been a bit of a letdown after Far From Heaven, and the 45 minute delay before the start of Todd Louiso’s Love Liza (* *) probably didn’t help to enhance my opinion of it. For what it’s worth, the film features Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his most prominent role to date, but I don’t know that he’s given a performance this empty since his Twister days. I could understand what the film, which follows Hoffman’s character along the long road to emotional stability after his wife unexpectedly commits suicide, was trying to do, but it seemed to fail miserably at it for the most part. Most of its attempts to show his mourning seemed loaded with forced pathos, and that the plot’s resolution hung on his character’s resistance to open his wife’s suicide note seemed to reveal everything leading up to that point as a screenwriter’s construct. For no apparent reason except for the film’s need to dredge up some edgy conflict, he becomes addicted to huffing gasoline (a habit that ensures practically every third scene is a musical montage). Perhaps special mention should be given to the protagonist’s occupation: he programs internet pop-up ads. This automatically makes him just about the least likable character in the entire history of the movies.

After Love Liza, I went straight to another huffing movie: Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever (* * *), which features several scenes of children in the ex-Soviet Union huffing glue in an attempt to escape the harsh realities of their lives. After Moodysson’s last films, which seemed infinitely generous in their depiction of humanity, Lilya came as a bit of a shock. Sorrow has moved in this movie from the subtext to the text itself, and the results are somewhat uncomfortable. It is rather (deservedly) contemptuous of nearly everyone who lives in its world, since they are all too willing to take advantage of the protagonist and those like her. After a stunningly cut opening that plays an aria of teen angst set to music that sounds like Rammstein, it flashes backward three months to a happier time where we see the 16-year old Lilya eagerly anticipating her move to America. As brutal and visceral as the opening moments of the film are, we have no inkling that poor Lilya’s situation will become as dire as it does.

The film sets up the United States as the embodiment of heaven for these Eastern Europeans. They live in abject poverty but still bring up Michael Jordan and Britney Spears in their conversations. As the hope of Lilya’s escape to this paradise dwindles, and her circumstances continually worsen, the atmosphere grows increasingly more violent and sexually charged. By the time the climax rolls around, it feels like a horror movie. Lilya’s plight is heartbreaking and Moodysson’s filmmaking never fails to implicate her environment in her downfall. He opens many scenes by showing a master shot, then quickly zooming into a close-up so that we never forget about the surroundings that they inhabit. The ending of the film isn’t quite devastating on its own terms, though it tries to be. Still, I was relieved when my being subjected to Lilya’s pain could end. For many audience members the experience was even more harrowing.

From the frying pan to the fire, I followed up Lilya with Mike Leigh’s terrific new film All or Nothing (* * * 1/2) which finds the director returning to his working class British roots after a detour into Topsy Turvy territory. I don’t have much time to go into detail here, but suffice to say that it seems conceived on a slightly larger scale than his usual work. It examines the debilitating effects of work on three families in a London apartment complex, but any one of them would be more than interesting enough to carry their own film. The richness of character is a given though with Leigh, though, as are the wonderful ensemble performances, I suppose, but that doesn’t reduce the pleasure that you feel watching this world unspool. It’s only once he has one of his working class characters wander onto a placid, almost surreally beautiful beach setting that you realize how damn effectively he’s created the places that the rest of the film takes place in. They seem an aberration in a conventionally beautiful world. I suppose you could complain it’s slow going for the first hour, where it seems almost random and plotless, but all along the movie is working to set up for a climax that packs an incredible tragicomic punch.


2002-09-09 - 8:05 a.m.
I haven’t updated in two days now, but that’s only because I’ve been forced to choose between sleep and updating, and I chose the former. As such, I got a whopping three hours of rest on Friday night before heading off to my first screening of the day.

Peter Kosminsky’s well-intentioned chick flick White Oleander (* * 1/2) was my first task on Saturday morning and it wasn’t exactly a disappointment, but it failed to live up to the positive buzz that I had heard for it. Certainly the acting in the film is a little less superb than you might expect from a film with its cast. Instead of completely satisfying, fully rounded performances, we get characters that shine only in a few individual scenes, and the emotional arc of the film suffers as a result. The script might be more to blame here than the actors though. Things start off badly as the voiceover narration intones obviously scripted observations such as, “Maybe the wind was the reason my mom did what she did.” Most of the dialogue throughout suffers from similar pratfalls, and few moments in the film feel the least bit improvisational. Only Renee Zellweger, who has a tendency to crinkle her nose and pause a bit before speaking, ever manages to consistently convince us that her character, and not screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue, is thinking her thoughts.

Each of the actors has at least one scene that justifies their presence though. The most unexpected of these was a powerful scene in which Michelle Pfeiffer’s jailbird mom attacked organized religion (in a Hollywood film!) in order to encourage her to think for herself. It is perhaps the only time that the film’s Oprah’s book club-endorsed message really stirs you though. Mostly, we just see a series of pseudo-edgy encounters with the people that enter the teen protagonist’s life once she’s placed into the foster care system. None of the stories linger long enough to bore you, but all of them would have been more effective if at least one of them didn’t end in an explosively physical climax. For all of the articulation of feelings that fill the generally intelligent White Oleander, none of its episodes are allowed to resolve with a simple conversation. It’s that it always needs to elevate things to a melodramatic head that disappoints the most.

Next up, I saw Kim Ki-duk’s Bad Guy (* *), which is one of the many South Korean films playing in this year’s festival. Telling the tale of a young woman who is forced to get a loan from a loan shark that she knows she won’t be able to repay, it follows her as she enters into a life of prostitution to work off her debt. With a surprising amount of misogynistic venom, the movie proceeds as she is deflowered, beaten, threatened, and smacked around by her peers. Although several of the sharks, one of who is mute, are attracted to her, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for a rescue from her newfound lifestyle, since they’re all preoccupied with taking each other out in imaginative ways. The movie is never as exploitatively campy as it would need to be to make us enjoy its stroll through the muck in an ironic way, but it also fails to feel genuine in its desire to pull our heartstrings. The wildcard ending, which is about as far from the Pretty Woman-style resolution that you’d expect, reassured me that the film wanted me to take pleasure in its series of killings and beatings. I’m almost glad that I didn’t.

Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (* *), or more appropriately “Dollzzzzz…” was up next, and by that time my lack of sleep was clearly taking its toll on me. Though I didn’t ever conk out for more than a moment or two, I’m sure that dozing a bit would have been unavoidable even under the best of circumstances. I’ve grown used to Kitano’s slow pacing from watching his film, and Kikujiro, which might be his most placidly paced until Dolls came around, is my favorite of his works. The rather unengaging plot of this new movie suggests that after the relative failure of Brother to make him a big thing in the United States, he wanted to tell a tale that was more homebound. It recounts a Japanese folk tale using Bunraku theater dolls and then recreates that tale in a modern day setting. Set over the course of a year - and allowing for some amazing seasonal cinematography, which is the one saving grace here – the movie features protagonists who were fiancées that regress after he stands her up at the altar. They revert at that point into a childlike state, and begin to roam the country. Along the way Kitano also incorporates a touching tale about the father of the bride, who is a Yakuza boss, and a somewhat incomprehensible story about a female pop idol. The movie seems to attempt to make some commentary about the various ways that Kitano’s home country builds myths and in doing so it seems to incorporate elements from almost everything the director has ever done. It might all make for an interesting stew if it were not for the deadly pacing, which drains all fun from the proceedings. Images are held for what seems like an eternity then later repeated again. As glorious as many of them are, it doesn’t make for fun watching… at least not when you’re dead tired.

The tough-to-describe Intacto (* * *), which I saw after Dolls, didn’t exactly make me doze off, but it was far from revelatory as well. Although it’s a serviceable thriller, especially considering it’s coming from a first time director, it seems to have made several miscalculations in its execution. First and foremost, this gambling flick, which examines a parallel world in which luck itself is the most valuable asset that one can bet, seems to think that the outcome of gambling depends foremost on luck. The glory of almost every other gambling film ever made has been in showing us that it’s the skill of the hustler that makes watching the game exciting. Even though the stakes are higher in Intacto, the level of tension is usually much lower than in other films, since we know that it’s going to be chance and not skill that determines the outcome of its frequent match-ups. The desultory narrative structure hurts more than it helps too. Motivations often seem unfocused or fuzzy, and the film becomes a head-scratcher to such an extent that your scalp might be exposed by its end. When the motivation behind Max von Sydow’s godlike gambler’s actions is finally revealed, it’s weak at best. Still, to worry about the plot when set pieces like the ones Intacto tosses out every few minutes are in a film seems beside the point. I can’t remember the last time I was so thrilled by a simple run though the forest as I was in this film. Helmer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo proves himself here as one to watch even if this effort’s inconsistently watchable.

Next up for me on Friday was another feature debut, Raising Victor Vargas (* * * *), which is about as different in tone as possible from Intacto. Set in New York City’s Lower East Side during a few hot summer afternoons, it wonderfully captures both the innocent side of teenage puppy love and the posturing that threatens to end that innocence. With a cast of unknowns, Peter Sollet creates a cast of characters whose lives seem to extend well beyond the edges of the screen. Focusing on the titular character and his small family, which includes his brother, his sister, and his irascible and feisty grandmother the film looks at what happens to this barely stable environment once the hormones start to flow in its inhabitants. Not so much a coming of age story as a snapshot of their lives, the tone is far more often comic than dramatic (and never tragic), and the characters are much more endearing as a result.

The movie has next to no dead space. Its central character’s evolution as a ladykiller prompts a series of hilarious scenes that flaunt the director’s winning ear for dialogue and excellent ability to cull great performances from untrained performers. Nothing feels scripted when Victor’s exasperated and irritated sister exclaims, “You’re so stupid! How can you live with yourself!?” and when we see that Victor still has his grandmother wash his hair, he’s revealed as the harmless guy that we hoped he was. As the movie progresses, it sometimes momentarily threatens to get more serious, but it never really does, much to its credit. The film accepts and embraces its small scope, and never for a moment exploits its characters. The only real problem is that the ending seems a bit too schematic in its near-simultaneous resolution of several narrative threads at once, but that might have as much to do with the unforced feel of what’s come before as the toll of the plotting. Even if it’s not quite the great film that George Washington (which cinematographer Tim Orr also shot) was, Raising Victor Vargas deserves a place amongst the best of all teen movies.

Bubba Ho-tep (* 1/2), Friday’s midnight screening, was such a big disappointment that I can hardly bring myself to write about it. After launching a promising premise (which features a rest-home bound Elvis fighting a mummy who preys on his fellow residents) the film falls into a languor that it never gets out of. Bruce Campbell’s performance provides nearly all of the sparks of this almost goreless horror flick, but even Bruce can only do so much. His animated Q&A session (* * * *) was a friggin’ blast though, and almost made it all worthwhile.


Well, it’s past 2 a.m. now on Monday morning & I haven’t touched upon my Sunday shows yet. An in-depth look will have to wait, I’m afraid. In brief though:

Frida (* * *) – Far, far more conventional than Titus, I’m afraid, this one still has its moments. The acting is solid if unspectacular (Hayek is quite far from bad), and none of the many celebrity cameos distracted me, for what it’s worth. What was most surprising about it was that the film is far more interested in Frida’s relationship with Diego Rivera than with her art (which might be a good thing… whenever it tries to visually explain her art, it seems to always find a 1:1 correlation with the events in the screenplay).

Gerry (* * *) – I was neither galled nor rapturous with this one, which was a bit disappointing in itself. Clearly owing a debt to Bela Tarr, who’s thanked in the credits, van Sant copies a few shots verbatim from Satantango in this surprisingly funny story about two guys who get lost in the desert. Going into much detail would spoil the unique feel that van Sant gives this material, so I won’t, but I will say that as much as I adored the lyrical opening and closing thirds of the film, I found most of the middle to be like a bad Far Side cartoon, with about as much existentialist concern. This flippant worldview decked out in homage becomes much more troubling when you remember that van Sant's the dude who remade psycho.

Japón (* * * 1/2) – This one’s definitely not for all tastes, but it fit mine nearly perfectly. Almost a sick co-mingling of Gerry, Frida, and Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, it follows a Mexican artist who goes on a pilgrimage to die. With some beautiful scope photography (almost all shot with natural light), the film shows us a dirty side of its home country that’s barely explored in any of the recent Mexican films to make it big stateside. Thankfully, it’s also the best of that bunch (which includes Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien), but it’s a rarefied sort of film that only the most ardent viewers will be able to enjoy. It’s one of those comedies that seem to its detractors a ridiculously grim and pretentious drama, but because it often plays as a drama, it’s quite moving as well.

Essentially it’s the tale of a guy whose suicide attempts are continually frustrated by his inability to find a place quiet enough so that he can achieve the grace that he needs to feel before he’s ready to leave the planet. Of course, since he’s looking for grace in the first place his suicide threats seem phony, but that doesn’t mean that he realizes it. Warning: there’s a lot of animal torture here, I guess, but it didn’t bug me, since it seemed to all tie into the main theme, which examines how tough (or superficially tough) dying can be. If that sounds like fun to you check it out.

There’s one key moment that strives for transcendence (white screen and all), but fails, and that’s probably what keeps me from giving it four stars, but I’m quite eager to see it again. Right before that moment though, is the most gorgeous moment in the film, so maybe I’m not thinking clearly on this one yet … One thing’s for sure: this is astonishing for a debut film.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (* *) – This film’s far from inept, but it’s essentially Disney’s Homeward Bound with cute Aboriginal kids instead of cute dogs and cats. If that sounds like fun to you, check it out. I found it less than fun by a good deal. The way that it stacks the cards by judging the past’s villains by today’s moral standards is pretty simpleminded and manipulative, and even though many folks are likely to overlook that in the name of being an Important Movie about an Important Issue, I just couldn’t. Mystical Negroes and White Devils abound which usually means something dreadful, but then again most people loved The Green Mile, didn’t they?

La Vie Nouvelle (* * *) – I haven’t seen Irreversible or Ken Park yet, but it’s tough to imagine either of them topping this one’s walk-out ratio. Nearly every scene had the film’s impressive sound design punctuated by the thowmp of a theater seat flipping up as another viewer stormed off. Clearly this is tough going, and I was sometimes uncomfortable with what I was seeing, but as far as non-narrative examinations of sexual aggression go, you could do far worse than La Vie Nouvelle. It looks more intently at the actual physical bodies of people more intently than any film in recent memory and keeps filtering how it is that we see those bodies. There’s tons of violence here, but there are also a lovely moment or two where we spy someone sleeping with a bit of peace washed across their face, and those images justify much of what we see. Like Japón and Gerry have to go into this one in more depth, to be sure. Until then know that it has what surely must be the best rave sequence ever recorded on film.

Interesting thought --- Frida probably had more dialogue than all the other movies I saw today combined….

That’s gotta be all for now…. Sorry kids.... More to come…


2002-09-07 - 7:30 a.m.
Friday was a "light" day for me at the festival, with only three scheduled screenings, but I can already understand how festival fatigue could kick in. It's about quarter to 3:00 AM on Saturday morning (I'll post this in the morning), and I'm finally getting a chance to do some writing. The city seems to have an internet cafe every few blocks, but time's a more valuable commodity than bandwidth here to be sure.

My morning started at about 7:30 when I had to run down to the box office to pick up my tickets. Afterwards, I found out that in order to fill any gaps in my schedule for that day, I'd have to get tickets directly from the box office of the theater where the film I want to see is playing. That's a bit of an inconvenience, to be sure, but I hiked uptown so that I could try to score some tickets to the 3:00 show of Russian Ark (* * * 1/2). Luckily, all my waiting wasn’t in vain, and I was able to catch what’s an early contender for the highlight of the festival.

Surely one of the most technically impressive stunts ever attempted on film, I suppose one could say that Sokoruv's new film centers around a gimmick, but it's one hell of a gimmick once it's implemented. Filmed entirely in one shot, this digital experiment is insanely elaborate in its compositions and costuming. It makes even the multiple split screen techniques of Time Code look simplistic. What begins as a exploration of the halls of the Royal Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg soon becomes a tour of modern Russian, and human, history. Instead of the series of relatively static tableaux that I expected, though, Sokoruv ducks, bobs and weaves his way throughout the museum with as much aplomb as any director working without a one-shot quota. History becomes a malleable and transient thing as each decked out room seems to enter into another era. When we encounter an elderly Catherine II after earlier seeing a younger version of her frolicking about in the same shot some minutes earlier, it comments mournfully on the rapidity with which we age.

All of the sumptuous period detail that he piles on during the film is given the expected reverence of a film that's been made with the blessing of a state museum, but it's never didactic or boring because of the larger theme that binds together all of the temporal and spatial places that we travel during the course of the shot. With his typically sparse philosophical aloofness, the director puts forth the intriguing idea that we honor history and save art so that we might fend off our own undeniable mortality. In scattered moments throughout the film, this premise achieves real emotional poignancy. The gracefully floating camera conveys the unseen narrator’s point of view, but he occasionally interacts with a mysterious European man in black, who is a lot more vocal about his sense of loss. Through their relationship, which echoes the rapport between Russia and the rest of Europe, we come to understand the way that Russia became a country that became so utterly convinced of the power of its own pageantry. Other scenes, such as the indelible one where we see a blind woman caressing the works of a master sculptor so she might understand their greatness, are no less affecting. It becomes quite apparent that the bond between the transcendent nature of great art and the inevitability of human foible is an unbreakable and necessary link. Even for those who find Sokurov’s philosophies tiresome though, Russian Ark is a must-see. Even before it builds up to it’s insanely staged ballroom scene, in which 3000 actors appear in full regalia, it’s entered itself into the art film pantheon.

After the splendor of Russian Ark, nearly anything would seem to be a comedown, but Morvern Callar (* * *), Lynne Ramsey’s follow-up to her terrific debut Ratcatcher, holds up remarkably well in comparison. Certainly, it’s got a powerhouse opening, with us first seeing its titular protagonist (Samantha Morton) as she has a disturbingly sensual mourning scene upon finding her boyfriend’s corpse just after he’s killed himself on the kitchen floor. The buzz of the electric lights on Morvern’s Christmas tree make the image fade in and out, but as it does, a bit of her face seems to stay behind like some sort of ghost. Make no mistake though: Morvern’s not a ghost; she’s the haunted one. Unable to cope directly with her mate’s death, she goes off on a hedonistic night of excess, only to find that the clear light of the morning doesn’t help matters. When we see her playing with a lighter he intended to give her as she’s sobering up, the film hits its emotional high point. In these early scenes, there’s a remarkable sense of the environment’s temperature and the way that the heat or lack of it affects the state of mind that Morvern finds herself in. The color of the lights that Ramsey uses to light her sets only further reminds us of the internal churnings of her character.

It’s not long before Morvern takes off on a vacation with the departed’s cash in tow, and the only copy of his unpublished novel sent off to a publisher with her name attached. The film settles into a more conventional mode here, to its slight detriment, as Morvern begins her search for herself. Though the film never falls into clichés, there is a noticeable lack of suspense. Just as we knew in the early scenes that Morvern’s murky existence was temporary because the novel was a golden ticket out of her working life, the presence of a publisher’s rabid interest diffuses much of the anxiety as Morvern and her best mate blunder about the Spanish countryside. One could quite easily argue that the journey and not the destination is what matters here, especially since the question seems to be not if Morvern will take advantage of the novel, but when. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that I wanted more mystery about the eventual destination anyhow.

Plot aside, there’s plenty to love about Morvern Callar. The aforementioned visual sensuality is no small feat, and the film is carried by two solid performances. Whenever Ramsey extends the scope of Morvern’s concerns beyond her protagonist, and into a generational anxiety, the results are impressive. Perhaps the most well done moment in the film occurs when Ramsey turns her pop soundtrack into a tinny shadow of itself, and suggests that it’s the listeners of pop music that make the songs sing and add whatever life that exists in them to them. Nonetheless, there seems to be something a bit too eager in the film’s desire to dwell in life’s ugly moments. When Morvern stops at a Club-Med style youth spa, she tracks a roach into the bedroom of a boy who’s just learned of his mother’s death, and then gets lost in a sexual frenzy with him. When she wanders back to her own hotel room the next morning, despite what seemed to be a sort of catharsis, she can’t help but chip away at the paint by the door jamb. When her maturation finally does occur (evidenced by her sudden tendency to keep her head indoors while in a speeding car), the sensual nature of the first half of the film returns, though we watch Morvern play with coins and unwrap a new dress instead of digging up worms and getting bloodied up. If Morvern Callar isn’t quite as good as Ratcatcher was since many of its emotional elements feel a bit put on, it does still seem to show maturation in the development of its most promising director. I’ll certainly be excited to see her next offering.

If Morvern Callar suffered a tiny bit in my eyes from being seen just after the technically stunning Russian Ark, the comparison between Callar and the film that I saw next, Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity (* 1/2), must be some sort of cruel joke. I suppose in some sort of alternative universe where auteurism doesn’t exist, and the genre reigns supreme, both Movern and Personal Velocity could be considered “chick flicks”, but the levels of ambition, emotional clarity, and insight found in the former are all completely absent in the latter. Shot quite shoddily on digital video, Personal Velocity somehow wrangled the top dramatic prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, though that achievement surely has as much to do with weak competition its own strengths. There’s next to nothing to get excited to get about in this anthology film, self-described as “three portraits” of women with low self-esteem. Assumedly each of these tales is meant in some way to show liberation of its protagonist, but the messages all come out cloudy and ill-formed, since the women invariably end up humiliating themselves and compromising greatly in order to push toward something resembling a happy ending.

The first, and least rewarding by far, stars Kyra Sedgwick in full-on Erin Brockovich mode (all tits and attitude) as an abused wife who works up the courage to leave her man. The second, and best, tale features Parker Posey as a New York copy editor who flirts with success, among other things. The final story of the bunch stars Fairuza Balk in a story about the way that fate tends to twist itself. I suppose if you wanted to find a common thread amongst these stories, you could note that each of the women has self-esteem issues that are rooted in their relationship with their father. The cumulative effect of that cause for their problems though comes off as uncreative instead of revelatory. Miller’s direction doesn’t do much to build emotional momentum. A male narrator reads excerpts from the source novel (which Miller also wrote... you can’t imagine any other director leaving all of this stuff in) that frequently simplify more than they explain the interior thoughts of the characters. Most of Millers more idiosyncratic touches, such as the way that she incorporates montages of freeze-frames at key moments of her story or the exceptionally obvious soundtrack only further take whatever class the picture might have away.

If my final film of the night, Jonas Akerlund’s feature directorial debut Spun (* * *), doesn’t quite wash away the swill of Personal Velocity, it at least has the nerve to make swill an aesthetic of its own. This all-star romp about a group of Los Angeles-based crystal meth addicts takes place in a twisted version of America that exists only as a foreigner could envision it. Only pro wrestling and reality Cops-style shows seem to show on the airwaves, and the freedom of speech afforded by the Constitution seems to have resulted mostly in a proliferation of porn shacks and speeches about sex that would make Cheech’s character in From Dusk Till Dawn blush.When the movie begins, everything about the film seems appropriately cranked off the charts, and then you realize that none of the characters are even high yet. It only escalates from there into a frenzy of animated fantasies and fast forwarded footage that could challenge Requiem for a Dream in the kinetic department.

Since Spun is a comedy though, the preordained moral (Don’t Do Drugs!) doesn’t irk like it does in Aronfosky’s film. Instead the whole enterprise seems calculated as a chance for us to see pretty celebrities act pretty ugly. Can anything compare in shock value to the moment where we get to see not only American Beauty Mena Suvari as she strains on the toilet in an attempt to go to the bathroom, but also a close-up of the end result? Perhaps John Leguizamo’s action sequence in which he only wears a sock on his crotch tops it, but I may have already blocked that from my mind. In addition to this smorgasbord of hideousness, which is played almost entirely for kicks, we get to see Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit as an impossibly pimpled meth-head, Debbie Harry as a butch lesbian phone sex operator, Jason Schwartzman as our grizzled and addicted protagonist, and Mickey Rourke and Brittany Murphy as “the Cook” and Cookie, who keep this group of losers well-stocked (at least when they aren’t losing their stash). Murphy is the standout of the cast, perhaps because her default acting mode is so close to the hyper-fast babble that everyone else begins talking in. The ebullient perkiness that she’s always shown in the past is twisted into something more desperate and sad here, to great effect. It’s only when Ackerlund begins his extended musical montages (which unfortunately occur quite frequently) that the film seems to switch undeniably into music video mode. Heavy-handed moralizing starts kicking in about the time that it's least welcome too, and you have to wonder if it's supposed to be ironic or something. Otherwise, it’s about as wild a ride as you’re likely to see on screen this year, and it marked a terrific way to kick off the festival’s Midnight Madness program.

All right… I’m beat. It looks like I’m up for either 5 or 6 films tomorrow. Hopefully that’s do-able on about 3 or 4 hours of sleep.


2002-09-06 - 2:15 a.m.

So, I’ve arrived in Toronto, though I was as expected a bit too late getting to the party to catch any films today. I hope to rectify that though soon though, in a big way. Hopefully the rush lines will allow me to catch a screening or two before my first scheduled one (Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher follow-up Morvern Callar).

Since I wasn’t able to procure a ticket to tomorrow’s screening/Q&A of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, I watched it at home before my flight. I’m almost glad that I didn’t see it on the big screen, since it left me relatively underwhelmed. Something about the way that Coppola cranked the jazz score every time he wanted us to feel Gene Hackman’s paranoid disconnection from the world rang false. He wants us to align with the paranoid impulses that his character feels, but the performance is too grounded for most of the running time for any sort of frenzied or escalating excitement to build. The clumsy inclusion of religious iconography felt like a forced wannabe-auteurist touch, especially with knowledge of stuff like the baptism scene from The Godfather looming in the back of my mind. I can’t deny that there were some stunning set pieces here (with the opening bit the best by far), but they seemed inadequate and somewhat separate from the emotional slide that the protagonist is going through. The filmmaking is so tight and exciting, I suppose, that it’s tough to pay attention to the emotional arc of Hackman’s character. As much as The Conversation deserves credit for its prescience in its paranoid questions about our personal privacy, it fails to make us feel much of the fear that we should after those questions are posed.

There’s a good deal of excitement in the air because of the festival, even before I’ve watched my first movie. Already I’m hearing about the disappointments and finds of the fest, and my level of anticipation is only growing by the moment. I just got back from an outing where we had an impassioned argument about the merits of Sokurov’s Mother and Son. This city is quite obviously packed with folks who love movies. Here’s to hoping that the films live up to our expectations...


2002-09-05 - 10:42 a.m.
This is just a page I set up so that my web site updates would be easier while I wasn't at home. Hopefully, you don't mind the lack of pictures and stuff... I'll deal with that stuff after I return to NYC on 9/15. For the time being you'll have to cope with this more Spartan look. In theory though by only providing text updates I should be able to be a bit more prolific than I would be if I had to wrangle with HTML, and I should also be able to update occasionally throughout the day (assuming there's a gap in my rather hectic movie viewing schedule) as computers become available. I'm probably going to see my first films of the fest sometime on Friday... see you then.