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Published: Sunday, 9/21/2003

Toronto Film Festival: Dark themes dominate at annual cinematic gathering

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TORONTO - On the second to last day of the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, which wrapped last week, I stood in line for 45 minutes with dozens of other movie critics to ensure we would get into a film every one of us was certain was not merely dumb or disappointing, but awe-inspiringly terrible.

Duty called, and besides, many were coming in out of the proverbial cold, for a needed laugh at the end of what had been an artistically rich but emotionally draining week of heavy dramas and devastating meditations on terminal illness.

Perhaps you heard of the film, Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny. It became infamous last spring after screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Here's why: Critic Roger Ebert declared it the worst film ever to play Cannes.

This led Gallo to publicly wish a disease on Ebert, who in turn replied that he had recently had a colonoscopy and watched the video footage of it in his doctor's office - and found that film far more memorable than Brown Bunny. What wonderful theater.

This past summer I even heard teenagers talking about Brown Bunny. It was the art house Gigli, they heard. It was with these thoughts that I settled into my theater seat, and waited for shock and awe.

Instead, I found myself surprised at how ordinarily dull and misguided the film was. Edited down a bit from its Cannes incarnation, Brown Bunny is still not a good movie, but its spectacular failure is greatly exaggerated. Gallo wrote, directed, and stars in the story of a lonely, indulgent drifter (Gallo) traveling cross-country to see his girlfriend, Daisy (Chloe Sevigny). Gallo does this in long, static takes in which nothing happens. We watch him drive in real time, shop in real time, wait in the car in real time. The conceit of life happening without the intrusion of editing isn't new; just last year at Sundance, Gus Van Sant used it to better (and not nearly as controversial) effect in Gerry.

Still, there were giggles in the theater, and finally an awkward, silent disgust when Gallo and Sevigny, an indie film queen best remembered for Boys Don't Cry, engaged in a graphic sex act. I'm not sure how I felt about it, other than ashamed. But those snickers at the monumental lack of drama in Brown Bunny felt hypocritical. Especially considering that two of the best-received films were Tsai Ming-liang's Good Bye, Dragon Inn and Van Sant's hypnotic Elephant.

Van Sant fictionalizes a Columbine-style massacre at a high school, but it's how he gets to that point that's most striking. The title comes from the old adage about the elephant sitting the middle of the room that no one wants to acknowledge. There's no drama, no real plot, no heroes or easy villains. The camera simply follows close behind as kids move through their hallways to classes (“I was playing a lot of Tomb Raider,” the director told me) or stop to talk or whine about their teachers and boyfriends; as a nonhysterical portrait of daily high school life, it's unparalleled, virtually a documentary. So when the shooting begins, if you know nothing about the movie going in, you're as shocked as the characters.

Maintaining a sleepier pulse was Taiwanese director Ming-liang, best known for What Time Is It There?, whose Dragon Inn is about an evening in a mostly empty movie house playing a martial arts epic. An usher cleans. A moviegoer listens as someone behind drops peanut shells on the floor. What ekes out of these excruciatingly long cuts is a bittersweet snapshot of movie love, and a eulogy to its ghosts, on the last night of a theater's business.

At Toronto, that's what's called Art Among the Rushing About. All of which made me even more appreciative of the mid-festival brain break, an invitation-only screening of Love Actually, opening in November and certain to be one of the holiday season's biggest hits. Probably the most obviously mainstream of the 336 films at the festival, it was directed by Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary. He constructs a kind of romantic comedy layer cake: sweet and rich and fattening, but surprisingly satisfying (and I'm not exactly a romantic comedy kind of guy). With a huge cast including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, and Alan Rickman, consider it the charming traffic jam ensemble film that studios have pleaded with Robert Altman to make for 35 years.

Instead the old master drops something like The Company (opening at Christmas) in Sony's lap - which had a lot of critics shaking their heads at its lack of drama or clear storyline. But I liked it. A lot (and I'm not exactly a ballet kind of guy). Indeed, everything about this film is improbable: Altman is working off a fine story co-written by actress Neve Campbell, who gives a fine performance as a Chicago dancer. The story, such as it exists, revolves around the day-to-day lives and politics of the real-life Joffrey Ballet; there's no real suspense or climax but rather you learn with Altman (who admitted to knowing nothing of ballet) to appreciate the tension between running an arts institution and creating art.

See, the thing is, to cover Toronto is like entering your own personal version of one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books. One choice branches into others. In the past you could go the light and mainstream route or the challenging and connoisseur route; this year there was a surprisingly rich path if you just stuck to studio releases like Lost in Translation and School of Rock (both opening in Toledo in the next couple of weeks). But light fare like The Company or Love Actually or The Triplets of Belleville - a luminous, dialogue-free animated comedy from France (coming this winter) that was bliss - had to be searched out.

It was a pretty dark year, and it makes sense if you consider what happened two years ago this fall - the terrorist attacks of 9/11 - and that the average movie goes through two years of production, from first draft to theatrical release. Is this finally the windfall of serious films critics expected from a country with a more serious disposition? Let's hope so, because one of the more intimate studio examinations in memory about loss is the second feature from Mexican wunderkind Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, following up 2001's Amores Perros with the English-language 21 Grams. The title doesn't refer to drugs but the amount of weight a body supposedly loses at the time of death - 21 grams is said to be the weight of a soul.

Like Amores Perros, Inarritu launches a trio of stories from the consequences of a fatal auto accident. But this one doesn't merely splinter the narrative so much as fracture the time frame entirely and scatter it - beginning, middle, and end - to the wind, allowing devastating (and yes, very Oscar-friendly) performances to fall gradually into place from not only Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro, but a frighteningly intense Naomi Watts (The Ring).

What else scares people these days? You could get a comprehensive world view at Toronto. For one: the rise of technology and the subsequent erosion of civil liberties is on the mind of British director Michael Winterbottom. His Tim Robbins-Samantha Morton sci-fi story, Code 46 (scheduled for next year), envisions a world where genes and memory can be altered, the center of civilization resides in the Middle East, and Europe and North America go eerily unmentioned. This is the sci-fi of ideas (think Minority Report) and another ambitious leap into yet another genre for Winterbottom, who's made both literary adaptations like Jude and rousing music flicks like 24 Hour Party People.

This year's Toronto festival confirmed what critics have only mumbled quietly among themselves about Winterbottom: that he's become one of the most versatile English-language directors alive. Indeed Code 46 wasn't even the best film he had at the festival; his second, In This World, was a digitally shot, filmed-on-the-run adventure about two Afghan refugees smuggling themselves into London - and it deserves a wide American release.

Another political hot button was Errol Morris' The Fog of War (another shoo-in at Oscar time), which led a strong batch of documentaries with a surprisingly compassionate profile of Robert McNamara, former United States Defense Secretary for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, often blamed for escalating the war in Vietnam. The now 87-year old McNamara talks candidly about morality and decisions that cost thousands of lives; in an alternative universe, he admits, he'd probably be a war criminal. Morris doesn't use the film to exonerate but deepen our understanding of war. (When the film is released in December, expect McNamara to make headlines again: though he is as potent a military hawk as we've had in the past half century, he insists the U.S. should never take unilateral military action.)

Bound to be simplistically read as anti-American is Dogville, a flawed but bold experiment from Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark). Shooting entirely on a soundstage with the sets outlined in chalk on the floor (it resembles a giant Monopoly board), he runs Nicole Kidman and Lauren Bacall through a sort of Our Town that carries paper-thin allusions (some insightful, some shallow) to an America spinning out of control.

One movie that won't do anything for the stature of American media - but was kind of a nice surprise considering how slight and TV movie-ish it looked going into Toronto - is Shattered Glass. First-time director Billy Ray gives a finely detailed and accurate account of the fiasco that ensued at the New Republic when it was discovered that their young scribe Stephen Glass (played by Hayden “Anakin Skywalker” Christensen) was making up stories.

What didn't work: In the Cut, Jane Campion's stumble in the erotic-thriller genre, with “America's Sweetheart,” Meg Ryan, turning in a full-frontal, not-ready-for-Tom-Hanks performance; and Veronica Guerin, with Cate Blanchett as a real-life Irish reporter who was murdered in 1996. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Joel Schumacher, it's as simple-minded and idealized about journalism as Shattered Glass was matter-of-fact.

Another film drawing hisses, particularly from Americans, was an advertisement that showed before many screenings: a pitch to filmmakers to shoot in Ontario. In that short ad alone I spotted two clips of Toronto standing in for Chicago.

Then the point hit hard when I saw Thom Andersen's documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. For three hours he flips through hundreds of movie clips, riffing in a slow drawl on how Hollywood presents Southern California to the world. There's a tension in a place when the majority of its residents have nothing to do with how their image is used by a minority of their neighbors. The film works as criticism; as architectural history; as an essay on the weird nature of filmmaking itself.

New York is up close, sharp, in focus, Andersen says. “Los Angeles dissolves into the distance, in all directions.” That's the fate of a city so ironic that no one seems to notice that the motto on the doors of L.A. police cruisers - “To serve and protect” - is in quotation marks.

That got a big laugh. But then again, you got laughs this year where you found them -even the actors did. One cheap bit of entertainment is always the daily press conferences, overcrowded ballrooms swimming with celebrity sycophants. I ducked into the press conference for 21 Grams, where a woman in frizzy yellow hair had this to say to Benicio Del Toro: “Do you realize I just left a Robert Altman film to come here? You have got to be the sexiest man alive.” The press corps sighed loudly. “You were fantastic in Traffic,” she continued, “but you are improving. You are better than ever now.” The moderator moaned.

“Excuse me,” he said, interrupting, “but do you have a question for Mr. Del Toro?”

Del Toro waved him off. “No, no. I love that question. Let's do it again.”



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