Toronto International Film Festival 2002


Festival Day One (Thur., Sept 5)

Take Care Of My Cat (B)-- A very nice youth film about friendships
that drift (or intensify) after high-school graduation, with a strong
if obvious emphasis on class differences and material things. As with
All About Lily Chou-Chou, the use of on-screen text to relate digital exchanges
works well; I think both movies get at a shift in the way people
communicate, though Lily is certainly the deeper of the two. Too bad
about that whammy tacked on to the third act.

Talk To Her (B+)-- A continuation of the "mature" Almodovar of All About
My Mother, which I may need to revisit since I responded to
this one so much better. I confess to merely admiring it from afar
until the much-ballyhooed silent sequence (an early Skandie scene
favorite for sure) snapped the whole enterprise into place. A tragic
story, but handled with humor and incredible delicacy. The grade may
go up on repeat viewings.

Les Diables (C+)-- It appears I'm the only one with even a shred of
tolerance for this crazed, deeply personal amalgam of Truffaut films
about children (namely, The 400 Blows, The Wild Child, and Small
Change
), which admittedly flies clear off the rails by the end. But I
think the great parts (in the first half) and the terrible parts (in
the second half) arise from the same go-for-broke intensity. Of
course, going-for-broke means that sometimes you flat-out bust.


Festival Day Two (Fri., Sept 6)

Sweet Sixteen (A-)-- This is the kind of Loach I like, with social
concerns fully integrated into the story without any additional
soapboxing (a la Bread And Roses and Carla's Song). Loach follows a
young hoodlum as he delves perilously further into a life of crime,
yet he makes his motivations so clear that the kid's scruffy nobility
becomes absolutely heartbreaking. Those less suckered by melodrama
may have their complaints.

Bowling For Columbine (B)-- Explosive applause-- at a press and
industry screening, no less -- points to this film's power and
relevancy, even if it does suffer from a few Michael Moore-isms.
Moore attacks the broad issue of violence and guns in America in the
only way he can, broadly, yet I think certain truths need to be
trumpeted-- namely, that we have a problem. Moore's oft-hilarious
points about gun proliferation start (he starts with a bank that
offer a free rifle to people opening a new account) are deepened by a
convincing examination of our "culture of fear." But there are a few
skin-crawling moments of self-aggrandizement andI could have done
without that crude montage set ironically to "It's A Wonderful World."

Man Without A Past (B+)-- Not sure what all the Cannes fuss is about;
this tale of identity lost and regained doesn't have anything like
the resonance of, say, PARIS, TEXAS, though I found myself warming
more and more to Kaurismaki's unmistakable sensibility as the film
wore on. Maybe Le Chuck, one of our resident Kaurismaki nuts, can
bring it all into sharper focus for me after he sees it.

Bad Guy (B-)-- This is the second Kim Ki-duk film I've seen and it's
not much different from The Isle in its particulars. On balance, I
prefer the earlier film for its economy of setting and characters,
and also because it doesn't have five endings.

City Of God (B+)-- A thrilling wisp of a movie, centered on a Rio de
Janeiro slum so wildly aestheticized that I didn't even think about
its relation to reality until Rex Reed told me he found the story
depressing. Rex Reed! How's that for name-dropping!


Festival Day Three (Sat., Sept 7)

Frida (C)-- I was hoping that Harvey was upset because Julie Taymor
had taken this film too far into Titus territory, but it turns out
she doesn't go nearly far enough. Only a couple bravura sequences
express the artist's life with Taymor's bold conceptual fervor; the
rest is just standard biopic stuff, boring as ass.

Gerry (A)-- I had feared that Van Sant's Bela Tarr homage would lack
purpose or, worse, veer into mindless Psycho-level mimicry. Instead,
he's made the best movie of his career, a gorgeous existential
landscape film that finds (often uproariously comedic) tension in the
disconnect between its characters and the natural world.
Unfortunately, stadium seating allowed us full view of the expected
walkouts, which were completely exasperating when you consider (a)
that journalists and industry people should have known what they were
getting into and (b) that the film is just so frickin' great.

Lost In La Mancha (B)-- It's no Burden Of Dreams, but still a funny
and horrifying account of Terry Gilliam's quixotic Don Quixote
project, which was plagued by an impossible budget and shooting
schedule, lousy weather and location scouting, and a lead actor (Jean
Rochefort) who was a literal pain in the ass.

The Way Home (D)-- Bratty young boy from the city spends time with
mute, ridiculously patient old grandmother in the country, learns
that bleeping electronic games and Kentucky Fried Chicken aren't that
important. Yeech. This was a blatent time-slot-filler and I paid for
it, especially since I may have to see it again when Paramount
Classic (*pfft*) releases it in November.

Far From Heaven (B+)-- My heart sank in the opening minutes, which
seemed to play to those snickering ironists who laugh their way
through Douglas Sirk movies. But Haynes tweaks Sirk's All That Heaven
Allows
to where it rhymes beautifully with Safe's themes of suburban
repression and unrest. Perfectly realized to the last detail, yet the
irony kept me curiously detached on an emotional level, even though
the film plays right into my proverbial wheelhouse with its tale of
unrequited love and private anguish. As an object of art, though,
this is undeniably accomplished.

Festival Day Four (Sun., Sept 8)

Stevie (B+)-- I was a little uncomfortable at first with this new
Steve James (Hoop Dreams) documentary, in which James revisits the
troubled young man to whom he was a Big Brother back in college and
had since fallen out of touch. But his uneasiness in filming this
reunion -- film tends to take away more than it gives -- is fully
acknowledged and part of its emotional power. As Stevie prepares to
face child molestation charges, James confronts the fact that he
never really understood his "little brother" and tests the limits of
his support for him.

Morvern Callar (B)-- This festival has found many auteurs (and, in
this case, budding auteurs) "purifying" their style, refining to a
crisp and often severe aesthetic (see also: Spider, Le Fils). For
this new film, Lynne Ramsey keeps only the barest narrative thread
and attempts to stretch out the episodic, snapshot-impressionism of
her shots to feature length. The result is a little frustrating if
you're trying to figure out the title character, but Ramsey has got
one hell of an eye and her use of music is equally impressive. Now
that I know what I'm in for, the film will probably look better on second
viewing.

Spider (C+)-- A perfect film. Perfectly realized, perfectly
structured, perfectly dull. Cronenberg returns to Naked Lunch
territory by exploring the ambiguous relationship between the writer
and his work, with a little Freudian dimension. But the film looks
and plays like it's been suspended in amber, where it can be admired
without actually moving.

Horns And Halos (C)-- A last-minute time-slot filler that didn't pay
off. For those unfamiliar with the subject, it concerns the debacle
surrounding Fortunate Son, the notorious Dubya bio with the trumped-
up cocaine allegations that was pulled by St. Martin's Press after
they discovered the author (J.H. Hatfield) had served time in prison
for conspiring to commit murder. The book was subsequently picked up
by the self-style punk-rock label Soft Shell Press, where it was
mired in another round of legal battles. Hatfield, who later
committed suicide, and the Soft Shell publisher are crazy,
fascinating men, but the movie is really half-assed. The filmmakers
just don't get the footage they need. Where's D.A. Pennebaker when
you need him?

Festival Day Five (Mon, Sept. 9)

Happy Here And Now (C+)-- Lots of interesting, free-floating elements
that didn't come close to cohering for me. (Jeremy Heilman has some solid
theories, however.) Nice evocation of the New Orleans music scene and
Almareyda is a master with visual/aural texture, but you know a
movie is in trouble when David Arquette is the stand-out in a large
ensemble cast.

Raising Victor Vargas (B+)-- The grade would be higher if it
ultimately weren't so slight, but films don't get any more lovable
than this one, a tender and hilarious coming-of-age comedy with
remarkably naturalistic performances. There was some question over
whether NYC kids this clean-cut and innocent actually exist, but the
movie makes you want to believe that they do, which is all that
counts, really. Similar to George Washington in some respects, with a
shared cinematographer (Tim Orr) and heavy improvisation with young
people. (The director, Peter Sollitt, wrote a full script, but
wouldn't show it to the cast. Instead, he would tell them what their
character wanted in each scene, and then refine their improvisations.
Sounds a bit willy-nilly, but it works like magic.) Alternate title:
Larry Clark's (Nice) Kids.

Blissfully Yours (B+)-- I'm not quite convinced there's much to
unpack in this film, but boy is it easy going down, especially after
the opening credits, when it shifts into a gorgeous and weirdly
erotic reverie. Jim Ridley, who loved the film, said it best when he
compared the experience to going on a picnic. Once you get into its
rhythms, it's an enormously pleasurable two hours in the sun.

All Or Nothing (A-)-- As everyone has noted, Mike Leigh returns to
the familiar territory of contemporary domestic melodrama after the
anomalous Topsy Turvy, but he and his actors create characters and a
mileau that are so specific, Leigh's effects seem freshly devastating
all over again.

The Eye (C+)-- The Pang Brothers recast The Sixth Sense as a Asian
ghost story, which leads to a few huge shocks and a lot of dead time
between them. The Mothman Prophecies-esque climax is particuarly
tasteless. Perhaps the cool-sounding Oxide Pang should just ditch his
brother for the next one.

Festival Day Six (Tues., Sept 10)

Phone Booth (D+)-- Cool premise by high-concept maestro Larry Cohen,
botched overdirection by Hollywood hack Joel Schumacher. What should
have been a simple, down-and-dirty production opens in outer-frickin'-
space and presents a pre-Giuliani Times Square that's utterly
unconvincing. Negative points for morality lesson, too.

Lilya 4-Ever (C)-- The biggest letdown of the festival for me. Hard
to believe Lukas Moodysson would make a film this determinedly bleak
and colorless, dragging his victimized protagonist through an
escalating series of horrors. Not even a basketball can stay inflated
for more than a few dribbles. Imagine Rosetta with a passive title
character and you're close.

Assassination Tango (C)-- Duvall the actor is impressive as always,
but Duvall the writer-director bungles the job severely, with a goofy
high-concept premise (a dancing hitman!) and a loose structure that's
missing the rudders.

Le Fils (B+)-- If anything, the Dardenne Brothers advance a more
rigorous documentary style than Rosetta, following much of the action
in tight close-up, often trailing just behind the hero's shoulder.
Contains everything you wanted to know about carpentry (and didn't
think to ask) in the first half, but then morphs into a tense,
agonizingly suspenseful drama for the finale. Screenwriters take
note: This film is a lesson in covering up exposition.

11'9"01 (D+ overall)-- 11 films: One good (Makhmalbaf), one passable
(Imamura, who all but ignores the assignment), and nine stinkers. Not
a great result for one of these omnibus shorts projects, with
politics kicking the crap out of aesthetics. I have yet to decide the
worst: Chahine, Penn, LaLouch, and Nair are all strong candidates.

Etre Et Avoir (A-)-- Didn't think I'd see a film as warm and
ingratiating as Victor Vargas, but I was delighted to be proven wrong
by this wonderful documentary. A simple idea -- a year in a small
elementary classroom in rural France -- but rather than follow (or
generate) any dramatic narrative threads, the film presents a series
of episodes with children learning the basics under the sure, patient
hand of a teacher nearing retirement. Peerless fly-on-the-wall style,
interspersed with lovely pastoral interludes. The kids are great,
too.

Festival Day Seven (Wed., Sept 11)


Turning Gate (B+)-- More refinement: Hong simplifies the two-halved
structure of Virgin Stripped Bare... with the more elegantly
novelistic use of chapters. The long takes don't feel long because
there's so much activity within the frame; an early scene involving
four characters playing a drinking game invites the eye to happily
bounce from one person to another. Hong also isn't afraid to put a
few dents in his leading man, a heartbreaker whose romantic spirit
isn't matched by his commitment.

Ken Park (B-)-- Surprisingly good before stuff starts happening. Nice
to see Clark's wily sense of humor persist after Bully (love the
Scrabble scene) and the teen sex is hotter/hornier than ever. But if
there's one thing screenwriter Harmony Korine doesn't do right, it's
incident. Head-slappers abound in the third act.

Public Toilet (W/O)-- My only walkout of the festival; it was just
too painful to watch a movie this ugly and incoherent on an empty
stomach.

L'Homme Du Train (C)-- Public Toilet aside, this may be the least
visually stimulating film I've seen in the festival, a drab
middlebrow comedy (?) shot in a bluish shade with zero variance
across the color spectrum. Jean Rochefort is charming enough to
sustain some interest until the incredibly goofy finale.

Sex Is Comedy (B+)-- Perhaps the best Breillat I've seen, or at least
the most wholly successful. Breillat examines her experience shooting
FAT GIRL, focusing primarily on the bravura sex scene at its center.
But what might have been a vanity project instead turns into a
brutally honest and oft-hilarious bit of self-examination, with Anne
Parillaud doing a spot-on Breillat impersonation. She gets her scene
at the end, of course, but the film is frank about her problems in
communicating her ideas to her actors.


Festival Day Eight (Thurs., Sept 12)

In America (C)-- A huge letdown, given two outstanding leads (Paddy
and Samantha Morton) and Jim Sheridan in the director's chair.
Sheridan tries to capture the immigrant experience in modern-day
America, but like a lot of foreign directors looking in on the
country, his version of urban life is completely off without being
illuminating in any way.

Dirty Pretty Things (C+)-- The second movie, after Sympathy For
Mr. Vengeance, to deal with the apparently budding underground organ-
transplant business. Stephen Frears gets some nice performances from
his supporting players -- Sergi Lopez, in particular, is a hammy
delight -- but the plot is pretty silly and it takes over completely
at around the halfway mark. You know who's not a convincing Turk?
Audrey Tautou.

Punch-Drunk Love (B)-- Though a major disappointment in relation to
my sky-high expectations, I admire P.T. Anderson for having the courage
to make one of least ingratiating romantic comedies ever made. Determined
to make a 90-minute Adam Sandler movie, Anderson tailors his style
all-too-well around Sandler's particular brand of rage comedy; his foregrounding
of an obtrusive music score makes sense, but it doesn't produce an atmosphere
conducive to, ya know, laughter.

Dolls (B-)-- More style refinement, this time with Takeshi Kitano
applying his formal framing and oft-kilter editing rhythms to a story
inspired by a form of Japanese puppetry. I liked it more than most,
even while I confess that it's a bit of a hard sit.

Irreversible (B-, maybe)-- I have a hard time settling on a grade for
this one, which is as technically spectacular as it is horrifically
sadistic. I joked beforehand that I'd probably appreciate it more as
an urban legend than an actual movie, but no amount of preparation
can really steel you for what's to come. The back-to-front timeline
has its purpose, I suppose, but Noe uses it to turn the screws ever
further, as our dread deepens over what we know to come. As Jim Ridley put
it, the happiest scenes are also the cruelest. You know that bit in
Funny Games with the remote control? Imagine a whole movie like that.


Festival Day Nine (Fri., Sept 13)

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (B-)-- A cool structure that changes
perspectives at the halfway point -- a couple have compared it aptly
to High And Low-- but what does it all mean? Beats me.

Femme Fatale (A-)-- In which Brian DePalma steps away
from the pressures and expectations of the Hollywood system, goes
where he's adored (France), and finds himself again. The first two
acts have their high points (the opening setpiece is a wow), but it's
all a prelude to act three, which is gloriously perverse. I won't say
any more, but suffice to say, my mouth was agape.

Vendredi Soir (A)-- Still more style refinement, with Claire Denis
making a masterpiece in miniature, a romantic encounter over one
magical night. Sorta like Before Sunrise without the chatter. Denis
comes closer than ever to making a silent movie, with maybe a few
pages worth of dialogue, if that. Now that I think about it my two
favorites of the festival, this one and Gerry, have the most
rudimentary stories and long stretches without a word spoken. Just
sound and image melding harmoniously.


Festival Day Ten (Sat., Sept 14)

Chicken Poets (C+)-- I've been searching for a Sixth Generation Chinese
filmmaker to embrace, and, for about 15 minutes, I thought I'd found one in
Meng Jinghui, a first-time director who carries over a sharp absurdist/formalist
visual sensibility from the avant-garde theater scene. But his fine imagemaking
is in service of the sort of disspiritingly quirky material that usually prefaced by
the Fox Searchlight logo.

10 (C)-- Abbas Kiarostami mounts two DV cameras on the dashboard and
records 10 (fictional) exchanges from a fixed position. Apparently, we're supposed
to hail this as pure cinema, without artiface: No mise en scene, no lighting, no
composition. Undoubtedly a brave and progressive statement on women's rights in
Iran, but the few powerful moments are overwhelmed by realist tedium. Sorry,
but I'm not ready to declare the Death Of Film yet.

Aiki (W/O)-- Not a bad film, really, tweaking convention just enough to keep
me interested despite the cliches. But not what one would hope from Shohei
Imamura's son, who also wrote the script for Audition. I'd have gone the distance,
but I had to get in the rush line for the last, sold-out, midnight screening of...

Cabin Fever (B-)-- Sloppy, intermittedly funny Evil Dead knock-off makes
for great midnight fare, certainly an improvement over last year's festival-closer
The Bunker, which was only slightly more entertaining than Tim Blake Nelson's
brutal Holocaust drama The Grey Zone. Great intro and Q&A by writer-director
Eli Roth brought the audience out on a high, though Lion's Gate may regret the
hangover when they try to release this one to theaters.