Sunday, October 02, 2005


(Gala Presentation, USA/France, 120 minutes)
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo

As “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (to be known henceforth as “Three Burials” because I’m too lazy to type that damn title) unfolded before me, I came to a realization: Tommy Lee Jones must be one unique dude, if this oddly compelling and surprisingly funny directorial debut is any indication. “Three Burials” picked up two awards earlier this year at Cannes (best screenplay and best actor for Jones) so there’s certainly a curiosity factor. How’d a good ol’ boy like Jones impress the jury at the biggest film festival in the world? Well, he starts with a great story populated by well-drawn, complex characters.

Writer Guillermo Arriaga is best known for his collaborations with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (most notably “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams”) and he continues here with his overlapping, time-shifting style. But while in his previous films the stories don’t come together until the last moments, in “Three Burials” everything connects at the halfway point, where the film becomes a very focused, character-driven drama. Rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) has a unique friendship with his Mexican ranch hand, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo). In flashbacks, we see that their comraderie is unusual in the often racist Texas bordertown where they live. Pete and Mel aren’t boss and subordinate, they’re truly equals, working together with mutual respect. When Mel is found shot to death in front of his humble desert home, Pete turns to local law enforcement – represented mostly by the hapless and lazy sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) – and finds a determined unwillingness to pay any attention to the case.

In fact, Mel is unceremoniously buried in a nearby plot for John and Jane Does, pretty much along with the investigation into his death. But Pete made a promise to Mel once: that if Mel died in Texas, his body would be sent back to his home town in Mexico to be buried near his family. And take him back to Mexico is just what Pete determines to do. Meanwhile, a newly minted border patrolman (Barry Pepper) arrives in town with his new bride (January Jones) and soon gets himself into trouble with his quick temper and brutal actions. His marriage is already failing due to boredom and neglect; his wife soon hooks up with a café waitress (Melissa Leo) and becomes a housewife/prostitute. And when his path crosses with Pete’s, he’s taken on a hellish journey that will change his life.

While Pete’s ultimate goal is a very solemn one, “Three Burials” is filled with a tongue-in-cheek humor that may not come across immediately. In fact for some time the only ones laughing were myself and the woman beside me, and we wondered why no one else was. But there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s plenty of humour here, often deadpan and sometimes quite dark (such as the lengths to which Pete goes to preserve Mel’s corpse on the way to Mexico).

I thought of “Three Burials” as a kind of representation of what dinner with Tommy Lee Jones might be like: long, twisting stories filled with rich characters, told with a twinkle in the eye over shots of tequila, satisfying, strange and unforgettable.

Monday, September 26, 2005


(Special Presentations, UK/Ireland, 135 minutes)
Directed by: Neil Jordan
Written by: Neil Jordan and Patrick McCabe, based upon the novel by Patrick McCabe
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Gavin Friday, Bryan Ferry

"Breakfast On Pluto" begins in a familiar milieu for longtime fans of Neil Jordan, whose last collaboration with novelist Patrick McCabe gave us the unheralded masterpiece "The Butcher Boy". Working-class Ireland, religious oppression, gender-bending, political violence, hallucinatory turns, the very presence of Stephen Rea--at first blush this could easily be read as a companion piece to his breakthrough art house hit "The Crying Game". But this rollicking--and too often rambling--first-person fable of is unique in that it's the cheeriest--dare-I-say "sweetest"?--movie Jordan's made since his unsuccessful attempts at mainstream yucks ("High Spirits", "We're No Angels").

Pushing a stroller, chatty transvestite Patrick/Patricia Brady (Murphy) begins "her" story in the 1958, when, as a toddler, he was abandoned on the doorstep of kindly parish priest Father Bernard (Neeson) and eventually adopted by a stern foster mother in working class Tyreelin, Ireland. It doesn't take long for Patrick to discover his proclivity for cross-dressing and theatricality, much to the chagrin of less-than-progessive Ma Braden. He learns from a friend's father that his real mother is Eily Bergin, who lives in London and bears an uncanny resemblence to glamourous screen siren Mitzi Gaynor. After getting into trouble for his class project--a story about Father Bernard's sexual encounter with his maid--and instigating a fight at a local dance club, Patrick decides its time to flee his repressive surroundings. He unveils his new, permanent persona as "Kitten", and determined to find his birth mother, runs off with a biker gang.

Kitten hooks up with musician Billy Rock (Friday), who invites him on the road to perform in Indian squaw attire as part of his country-rock act. Patrick lives for a time in Billy’s cramped coastal trailer and discovers a hidden weapons stash belong to his lover’s IRA buddies. Detesting violence, Kitten tosses them into the sea. Arriving in London, Kitten hooks up with several more eccentric characters: cynical John-Joe (Gleeson) who performs at a children's theme park, the suave but sinister Mr. Silky String ("Roxy Music"'s Bryan Ferry) who nearly strangles Kitten during his brief stab at prostitution, and the sweetly smitten Bertie (Rea) who hires him as an assistant to his magic act. During a performance, the club is bombed. The police brutally interrogate him but he's eventually released. He'll join a peep show, befriend unmarried mom-to-be Charlie, and learn of his mother's current residence...and at no time will he ever see the negative side of any person, place, or thing...

Sure there's IRA bombings, police brutality, and often violent homophobia to keep it above the level of a Gaelic "La Cage", but Jordan and McCabe keep things frothy with outrageous period detail, delightfully kitschy 70s bubblegum pop, computer-generated talking robins, and above all, Kitten's indefatigable optimism--like Forrest Gump, she's a conduit to history, albeit one with Oscar Wilde's wit and Marc Bolan's wardrobe.

Obviously, Jordan is so enchanted with this colourful lead and the turbulent period that he divides his adaptation into a whopping 36 chapters (presumably lifted directly from the McCabe book), and from this viewer's POV, it's all a little too much of a good thing sometimes. While much of its episodic structure is amusing and genuinely moving (it successfully avoids the uneven camp of "Velvet Goldmine"), the tale's inevitable confrontation with Kitten's mother feels like the umpteenth false climax. A small quibble perhaps, given Murphy's brave and gleefully go-for-broke performance, matched by supporting turns from a who's who of Ireland's finest thesps (but Neil--where's Colm Meaney?).

Best use of Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey"--ever.

Robert J. Lewis


(Special Presentations, Australia/United Kingdom, 104 minutes)
Directed by John Hillcoat
Screenplay by Nick Cave
Cast: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, John Hurt, David Wenham, Emily Watson, Richard Wilson

With the stunningly beautiful and frighteningly violent “The Proposition,” director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave (yes, he of The Bad Seeds) bring to vivid life the unforgiving Australian Outback of the late 1800s with an uncompromising story of the struggle between order and savagery in a desolate, isolated land.

Outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) has been terrorizing the area with his brothers Mikey (Richard Wilson) and Arthur (Danny Huston). When Charlie is captured with the younger, vulnerable Mikey by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), a deal is offered: Stanley promises not to execute Mikey if Charlie brings in the more dangerous Arthur. Faced with an impossible choice, Charlie must confront his own past and reconcile his complicity with Arthur’s poetic but psychotic nature as the ramifications of the deal play out. Stanley, on the other hand, struggles with the pressures from above to maintain law and order while his wife (Emily Watson) fends off despair and loneliness at their farmhouse. As the story builds to their inevitable showdown, the tension is skillfully wound, making the explosive climax all the more devastating.

More like “Unforgiven” than “High Noon,” “The Proposition” is gritty, sweaty, and grim, but often reaches to heights of poetic vision, in its brilliant direction, its gorgeous cinematography by Benoit Delhomme and in its well-crafted screenplay. Performances are first-rate, led by Pearce’s morally ambivalent Charlie and Winstone’s crumbling Captain Stanley. “The Proposition” is a real treat, but unfortunately without a North American release date. Hopefully it’ll find its way to theatres soon.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

TIFF 2005: "WALK THE LINE" (Review)

(Gala Presentation) USA, 136 minutes
Written by: Gill Dennis, James Mangold, based on "Man in Black" and "Cash: The Autobiography" by Johnny Cash
Directed by: James Mangold
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick, Waylon Malloy Payne, Tyler Hilton,
Shooter Jennings

As stoic as its subject--but never as profoundly resonant--"Walk The Line" has clearly been engineered as this year's "Ray" in an effort to woo boxed-set-collecting Oscar voters and appease aging boomers who think that a 24 hour biography channel just isn't enough. That being said, this patchy rumble through the early career of pioneering iconoclast Johnny Cash is arguably (depending on one's taste in music and melodrama) a superior film to Hackford's, even if it does shamelessly steal--sorry, it's "sample" these days--every note in the Biopic 101 songbook.

Once again, it all begins in an impoverished shacktown in the American South--this time 40s Arkansas. There's the defeatist, abusive father (Patrick). The brother whose life is claimed early in a tragic accident that Our Subject blames himself for (as well as dear old drunken Ray Cash, who maintains "The Devil... took the wrong son"). The first wife who doesn't believe in her husband's starry eyed dreams and tries to browbeat him back to reality. Granted, all of this actually did happen, but we've all heard this tune, too many times, before.

Things improve immensely once the film finds its musical hook. After a stint in the army, and inspired by the success of Elvis Presley and the Carter family, Cash persuades Sun Records' Sam Phillips to let him audition for his label. "Folsom Prison" wins over the soon-to-be-legendary producer and his first single, "Cry, Cry, Cry" is an instant hit.

Only 23, Cash joins Presley (Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Payne), and his radio dream girl June Carter (Witherspoon) on the road. Although each is married, June and Cash form a mutual admiration that blossoms into a turbulent but resilient relationship. His initial attempts to win her over following her divorce inspires him to compose his time "I Walk The Line". Drugs, booze, and groupies prove difficult for Cash to resist--destroying his first marriage and jeopardizing his career after an onstage collapse at The Sands in Las Vegas. But June, who admires Cash as much as she loves him, offers him a second-chance when he hits rock bottom. She'll write another classic, "Ring Of Fire", for him.

After proposing to June onstage in Toronto, Cash ignores the pleas of his management and insists on recording a live album at California's Folsom Prison that will become his defining testament.

While "Cop Land"s James Mangold displays a keen eye for gritty textures and evocative period details, he never strays far from TV movie terrain. It's the performances that make "I Walk The Line" a worthy experience. Phoenix wisely chooses to "suggest" Cash, rather than attempt an impersonation, ala Foxx in "Ray". He also provides his own singing vocals. Now, short of Andrew Philipe Gagnon, this would be a tall order for any performer, especially to mimic a voice so distinct and iconic. In an early sequence, when Phoenix's Cash first attempts "Folsom Prison Blues" for a skeptical Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) at an impromptu audition, I thought Phoenix came close, but was unconvincing. But over the course of the film, his baritone improved. It's something to behold as Phoenix gradually becomes the legend as the Man In Black onscreen gains confidence and conviction (even more remarkable when you consider that most films are shot out of sequence).

Witherspoon, whose toothy, pointy-chinned wholesomeness beamed out of every other downtown Toronto bus shelter promoting the release of "Sweet Home Alabama" (and no less than three major magazine covers this week alone), has her own burden to bear: her current sentence in America's wholesome prison. The young actress lacks June Carter's earthy countenance, but her southern accent and plucky timing make for a convincing foil, muse, and life partner--to steal a line from Springsteen, she and Phoenix "crackle like crossed-wires". It's their very special chemistry that gives this otherwise rote biopic a fire missing from so many other of its ilk.

Robert Lewis

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

TIFF 2005: "STONED" (Review)

(Discovery) United Kingdom, 103 minutes
Directed by: Stephen Woolley
Screenplay by: Neal Purvis and Robert Wade
Cast: Leo Gregory, Paddy Considine, Monet Mazur

There I sat, with my purse emblazoned with the “Some Girls” album cover by my side, anxiously awaiting “Stoned,” a film that was supposed to be about Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, one of the legendary band’s original members and, in the beginning, its driving force. I thought I was going to get a bit of insight into the one member I knew little about beyond the fact that he drowned in his swimming pool, another victim of the excesses of the 60s.

Now, I hate it when critics review a movie for what they think they it should be rather than for what it is, but in this case, I’ll allow myself the indulgence. I didn’t get what I was hoping for. Not even close.

The conceit of “Stoned” is not so much a biopic of Jones (played by Leo Gregory) – although there are flashes of Jones doing the early legwork that got the band noticed – but a long, drawn-out examination of an obscure theory that Jones was murdered rather than the victim of a tragic accident.

“Stoned” spends a great deal of time in Jones’ lonely mansion, perpetually under renovation, as the man himself spirals down that often-trod path of drug addiction, despair and madness. As the characters of Jones’ life – the other Stones, Anita Pallenberg – float through the story, they’re reduced to mere shadows, although Monet Mazur’s Pallenberg gets a more in-depth treatment than Mick or Keith, who only show up to tell Jones he’s out of the band. Mostly what we get is Jones getting stoned with hangers-on like contractor Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine) who leech off him until there’s nothing left.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a particularly interesting story and, aside from a few stylistic flourishes, it doesn’t make for a particularly interesting movie. By the time that fateful night rolled around I found myself completely uninterested in the circumstances of Brian Jones’ death as proposed by “Stoned.” At a certain point, does it really matter that he was killed when it’s made pretty clear by the events of the film that an early death was inevitable?

There’s something I’ve come to learn in my years of film fandom: I really hate watching people get high in movies. Drug addiction isn’t interesting, it’s a pathetic, desperate grind. Yes, there are some movies centred around addiction that have made the grade, such as “Trainspotting,” but in the hands of the wrong director it can really bog down a film, which I found happened with last year’s “Ray.” Woolley definitely falls into that trap here, and it’s unfortunate. Surely Brian Jones, who led the Rolling Stones from the blues and R&B to incorporating world music into their repertoire, deserves better than to be remembered on film simply as an overindulged, narcissistic druggie.

-Lidia Ferrari

Sunday, September 18, 2005

TIFF 2005: "NORTH COUNTRY" (Review)

(Gala Presentation) USA, 123 minutes
Directed by: Niki Caro
Screenplay by: Michael Seitzman
Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, Richard Jenkins, Sean Bean, Michelle Monaghan

Wearing its heart on its sleeve, “North Country” is a straightforward fictionalized telling of a landmark sexual harassment suit filed by female steel miners in Minnesota. Remarkably, this is not ancient labour history. The lawsuit was filed in the 1980s and wasn’t settled until 1997. It’s difficult for many of us to imagine these circumstances after the strides women made during the 70s, but the case – well documented in the book “Class Action,” on which the film is based – arose out of that sometimes still-lingering divisions between “men’s work” and “women’s work.”

To their credit, screenwriter Michael Seitzman and director Nike Caro (who took home a TIFF People’s Choice Award for her phenomenal debut, “Whale Rider”) mostly shy away from courtroom theatrics, focusing instead on the lead-up to the legal action and the personal stories of the characters involved.

Josey Aimes (Theron) finds herself alone and desperate after fleeing an abusive relationship with her teenage son and young daughter in tow. She lands on the doorstep of her parents (Spacek and Jenkins), with whom she has a tenuous relationship at best. When her friend Glory (McDormand) invites her to come and work with her at the local steel mine, she jumps at the chance to make as much money as her father and become self-sufficient. But at every turn this choice proves damaging to Josey: her father, already estranged due to his disapproval of her teenage pregnancy, turns his back on her. While boorish co-workers lay the obscenities on thick, others who might be sympathetic choose to turn a blind eye. Ultimately, Josey sees her reputation ruined and her relationship with her son in tatters as she pushes back against her tormentors.

She decides to file the aforementioned class action, with the help of downtrodden lawyer Bill White (Harrelson), but needs at least two more women to back her. However, despite what everyone knows is going on, a climate of willful obstinance from everyone around – including her female co-workers -- her makes that her biggest challenge.

Much like last year’s “The Sea Inside,” “North Country” is more about the issue and its effects on the people involved than the long, drawn-out lawsuit that inspired it. Caro uses the chill sparseness of the winter Minnesota landscape to full affect here, rendering the atmosphere bleak and unforgiving as Josey struggles to find her place within it. Performances are solid all around, with Theron leading the way and the supporting cast following suit. Jenkins, in particular, struck a chord as he takes the cold, stubborn, judgemental nature of Josey’s father and turns it into loving support and ardent defense. Sean Bean, finally clawing his way out of the stock villain role and playing a decent guy for a change, and Michelle Monaghan both show that even the smallest roles can be memorable ones when they’re well cast.

My only quibble is that Seitzman and Caro can’t quite do without the “great courtroom scene,” even if it is only at a preliminary hearing. It’s an ending that’s a bit heavy-handed after watching a story told with finesse and authenticity. That aside, it’s a very well-made film that’s bound to catch a great deal of attention come awards season.

-Lidia Ferrari


(Midnight Madness) Japan, 124 minutes
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Written by: Takashi Miike, Mitsushiko Sawamura
Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Chiaki Kuriyama, Bunta Sugawara

First up, a definition from the exclamation-mark-heavy press kit: "Yokai are creatures and supernatural beings from Japanese folklore who play tricks on unsuspecting humans, who cannot see them, but can feel their presence. " "Great" and "war"--pretty much self-explanatory. So that's about all the plot setup you'll need...

Okay, so there's a bit more (this is a Takashi Miike film, after all, where nothing is ever as it seems):

A calf born with a human head deck warns that "evil is coming!" to Japan, but in fact, it's already arrived: Children are disappearing and giant mechanical monsters are attacking cities. 10 year old Tadashi (Kamiki), a shy boy from a troubled home (his father suffers from dementia), is chosen by his village to become the "Kirin Rider", a mythic warrior who must first locate a powerful blade hidden on Goblin Mountain and guarded by... the Great Goblin. The mountain proves to be the domain of the "Yokai" as well--benign elementals (who are invisible to all humans except Tadashi) who are deadly when provoked. The disappearances are the work of overlord Kato (Toyokawa), who is assisted by lethal Agi (Kuriyama) and is gathering the dark energies of the dead in his plan for nothing less than world conquest. Claiming the sword, Tadashi joins forces with many of his bizarre bretheren--"The Snake-Necked Woman", "The Great Head", "The Umbrella Monster", "The Cat Sprite"--to bring peace between the supernatural and natural worlds.

Marketed on its home shores as the Japanese "Harry Potter" or "Lord Of The Rings", Takashi Miike's supremely deranged idea of a "kiddie flick" smacks more of a live-action piss-take on Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" with production design by Sid And Marty Kroft. While nowhere near as scatalogical or grand-guignol-violent as Miike's more famous works like the "Dead Or Alive" trilogy, "Ichi The Killer" or "Audition", "Yokai" still offers enough spurting fluids, malevolent beasties, and jaw-dropping child endangerment to induce night terrors for years.

Budgeted at $10 million (Japanese figures) "Yokai" is Miike's most epic production to date (ever prolific, the man makes about four movies a year, so who knows what's coming before the end of 0h-five?) and offers him a broader canvas to raise holy hell. As with last year's "Zebraman", Miike has embraced CG and has used it sparingly but inventively, combined with traditional puppetry and prosthetic gags to give life to envision a candy-coloured parade of oddities--think Clive Barker's "Nightbreed" gone East-- from snake beings to humanoid bamboo umbrellas to giant robots--even an enchanted"Azuki Bean Washer". The cutesy--read: "family friendly" elements--such as "Sunekosuri", a squeaky guinea-pig-in-jammies who partners with Tadashi, is so completely unconvincing and annoying that Miike must've surely intended its inclusion as fodder for gleeful cruelty (he even cops a bit from "Gremlins" and imprisons it in a microwave, to the Midnight Madness audiences' thunderous applause).

The film is probably best enjoyed by those with a healthy knowledge base of Japanese folklore, and pop culture for that matter: in between the usual empowerment homilies and pro-environment messages, Miike references Japanese commercials (one for beer), video game characters, and out-of-left-field catch phrases that--as a fella who doesn't know his Azuki from a Suzuki, left me completely baffled. Cultural niceties aside, it's still all a lot of spirited nonsense and eyeball-rubbing fun--but to a point: at more than two hours in length I was ready to cry "enough already" by the umpteenth false climax. And given its open-ended conclusion at the end of it all, I'm sure nothing less than a timely trilogy has been planned.

Miike slumming is better than no Miike at all (he's become something of a Midnight Madness tradition with Colin Geddes having taken over programming from Noah Cowan), and should be enough to tide fans over until he debuts his episode of Showtime's "Masters Of Horror" sometime next year.

Robert J. Lewis

TIFF 2005: "HOSTEL" (Review)

(Midnight Madness) USA, 95 minutes (work in progress)
Written & directed by: Eli Roth
Cast: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson, Barbara Nedeljakova, Jana Kaderabkova

After a meandering first act, Roth's long-waited followup to his remarkable--if scattershot--debut "Cabin Fever" becomes a more mature, controlled, and emotionally devastating work. "Hostel" is no less fun, especially in its first half, which Roth kneels at the altar of 80s slasher cinema the way Tarantino flashes his jones for the Shaw Bros. All that's missing from the freewheeling, episodic orgy of drugs, booze, fratboy banter and many exposed breasts is bad synth pop and the bleeding colours of a Super 16mm blowup. But an amiable cast makes these Forum Letter wannabees nuanced and oddly likeable--but lordie knows I wouldn't want to be seated next to these walking erections on a long train ride (remember, the cast of "Vamp" didn't have cell phone cameras, either!).

American college buddies Josh (Richardson) and Paxton (Hernandez) arrive in Amsterdam, the latest stop on their backpacking tour through Europe in which they hope for one last testosterone-fueled blowout before committing to studies and responsibility. They've hooked up with Icelandic alpha-viking Oli (Gudjonsson), who knows which cobblestone back alleys lead to forbidden thrills of the chemical and erotic varieties. The travellers learn of a secret hostel in Slovakia and its surplus of perfect and uninhibited women. When they arrive at the surprisingly lavish retreat, their wildest dreams are fulfilled--their roommates turn out to be a pair of impossibly beautiful women (Nedeljakova and Kaderabkova), who engage in the boys' every whim. Then Oli goes missing.

Another backpacker, a shy Asian girl, has evidence that Oli has left the country with her friend. This doesn't sit well with Pax, who is now convinced something's rotten this-close-to-Denmark when they glimpse Oli's fleeting form amidst the locals and mobilized street urchins. Then Josh vanishes, too. Josh awakens naked and bound in a carnage-strewn dungeon, where he is tortured and killed by a silent sadist sporting a variety of blades.

Pax's search for Josh reveals that he and countless others have been masterfully duped from their arrival at the hostel by a cabal of hedonistic extremists who prey upon the amoral appetites of foreigners to satisfy urges far more sinister. He's been lured into all-too-human hell that's definitely not in The Rough Guide.

It's to Roth's credit as a director--and one with an encyclopedic knowledge of genre cinema--that violence seems much worse than it is. When compared to the body count of vintage slasher swill like "Happy Birthday To Me" or last year's hit "Saw", "Hostel" is positively restrained. Roth has been vocal in his admiration of Takashi Miike (who cameos here), and takes a cue from "Audition" by making sure he's put a human face on his victims before submitting them to the most excruciating, graphic mutilations since Nacho Cerda's "Aftermath" (during the Q&A, Roth mentioned that Miike found it all a little "too much"--something they should put on the poster!)

Despite the depressingly plausible third-act explanation for the slaughter, "Hostel", perhaps because of its richly detailed and atmospheric locations, embodies something of the quality of European folk tales. It could be ready as a "tale from the Black Forest" updated to incorporate such timely urban legends as body traffickers and snuff websites.

TIFF audiences were treated to a "work in progress" print, digitally projected, with changes to colour timing, temp music tracks, and screen credits forthcoming, hopefully in time to ensure the planned November 2005 release. The first act could be tightened up a bit, but "Hostel" is otherwise a superb shocker as-is. Roth has promised several alternate endings for the "director's cut" DVD--without encroaching too much on "spoiler" territory here, the current climax relies a bit too heavily on coincidence and fails to take advantage of a key bit of character detail that would make for a much more satisfying, and savage, solution.

John Carpenter has taken credit for destroying "The Sexual Revolution" with his end-of-the-70s horror classic "Halloween". With "Hostel", Eric Roth might have done the same for European sex tourism. The next time I find myself in the old country, I'm sticking to the seniors' bus tour.

Robert J. Lewis

Saturday, September 17, 2005

TIFF 2005: "TSOTSI" (Review)

(Contemporary World Cinema) UK/South Africa, 94 minutes
Written by: Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Athol Fugard
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Cast: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi

This was 2005’s People’s Choice Award winner, which is pretty much the top prize for a festival without a jury. While it’s a well-made and simple tale, I can’t see how it managed to come out on top. Well-received at the screening but not exactly subject to wild applause, “Tsotsi” is really a middle-of-the-road story…perhaps that’s why it beat out some of the more challenging fare presented at this year’s fest.

The title character (“Tsotsi” means “thug” in the street language of South Africa’s townships) has been on his own since childhood, scraping out his survival on the mean streets with his gang. As portrayed by Presley Chweneyagae, Tsotsi is a young man whose life is spiraling out of control, rife with violence and despair. In frustration he heads off alone one night into the suburbs and carjacks a woman, shooting her and taking off with her car, even though he can’t drive. When he finally gives up on the driving and roots through the vehicle, he finds a baby in its car seat in the back. While his first instinct is to abandon the baby with the car, he inexplicably returns and takes the baby with him back to the township. There he finds that caring for the tot is much more than he can handle, and finds new mother Miriam (Terry Pheto) to help him out – at gunpoint. Slowly the innocent child’s presence in his life changes Tsotsi almost by osmosis as he creeps toward finally doing the right thing.

There’s nothing really wrong with “Tsotsi.” It’s a very straightforward and simple film, well-acted and shot by cinematographer Lance Gewer. It is sweet and uplifting, heart-warming and emotional. It wasn’t my personal favourite film at this year’s festival, but it obviously hit home for many people, and a People’s Choice win in Toronto has launched many careers. Be prepared to hear more from Gavin Hood in the future.


(Special Presentations) South Korea, 112 minutes
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Written by: Jeong Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook
Cast: Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik, Kim Shi-hu, Nam II-woo, Kim Byeong-ok

A choir of tofu-bearing Santas welcomes a woman released from prison. That same woman spoon feeds bleach to the cellblock bully while acting as her caregiver. The families of murdered children trade turns carving up the killer and pose for a communal photo.

It should come as no surprise that “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance”, the final chapter in Park Chan-wook’s “revenge trilogy”, is another gloriously operatic, squirm-inducing, and often uproariously funny meditation on the futility of Old Testament justice. Those expecting the trippy Kafka-meets-meets Ichi plot machinations and stylized splatter of the latter entry—2003’s Cannes Grand Prix winner “Oldboy”--might be disappointed if expecting a cheesy “Terminator 3”-styled gender switcheroo. More reminiscent of the first installment, “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance” (right down to the title), this is a more deliberate and less baroque take on the theme, with Chan-wook introducing the potentially de-fanging concept of redemption. Thankfully, he pulls no punches, even if this is no “Oldgirl”.

Hardly the first film to feature a woman as avenger--"Ms. 45", "Shame", "I Spit On Your Grave", “Angel", and of course, “Kill Bill” —few have been as concerned with consequences of violence, and most are a helluva lot easier to summarize. But here goes:

Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) is released from prison after thirteen-and-a-half years in jail for the murder an eight-year-old boy. Now a woman of thirty-two, she puts her skills to work at a bakery, attracting the puppy-dog affections of a smitten young apprentice. Seeking atonement for her alleged crime, she visits her victim’s parents and severs one of her fingers in a plea for forgiveness. Police chief Choi, always suspicious of Geum-ja’s confession, visits the bakery to lend a sympathetic ear, unaware that she is wasting no time in hatching a meticulous revenge plot against “Mr. Paek” (Oldboy himself Choi Min-shik), a grade school teacher who is in fact, a multiple murderer of children for whom Geum-ja took the rap. Why? To save her daughter Jenny, whom she discovers is alive and living with Australian foster parents. Her thirst for vengeance is intensified by her unresolved feelings for her abandoned child.

As an inmate, Geum-ja offered charity and offered spiritual guidance to her fellow prisoners. Now, she’s enlisting their help. One of them, an ex-con and former prostitute, provides her with a room. Another, a reformed bank robber, has her husband fashion Geum-ja a custom double-barreled pistol. Yet another has devoted herself to her friend’s cause above-and-beyond-the-call by marrying the disgusting Paek.

Gathering tokens of Paek’s involvement in his crimes—victims’ personal tokens, videotapes of the slayings—Geum-ja engineers a meeting of the families of the slain children at a remote, abandoned school, where all are given a chance to partake in a savage cleansing ritual to unleash their pent-up rage and vindicate the woman whom they’ve long feared and loathed.

Reteaming with his “Oldboy” and “Three Extremes” DOP Chung Chung-hoon, Chan-wook crafts one mournfully beautiful image after another, from the opening credits, in which tendrils of ink and blood snake across a stark, clean canvas, to the concluding(and appropriate in its symmetry) image of the still broken and weeping Geum-ja enveloped by falling white snow.

Chan-wook perfectly modulates the blackly farcical (prison rape is rarely played for laughs, but you will chortle) amidst the downright nightmarish (parents being made to watch videos of their murdered children’s pleading cries for mercy) as he delights in subverting this well-exhausted genre with an assured hand. The complex, elliptical structure shifts between Geum-ja’s past and present, while veering off into the lives of the supporting characters and, in the third act, daring to push the grieving parents to the forefront. The performances run the gamut from the theatrical to the crushingly real, with the remarkable Jeong Seo-kyung (of Chan-wook’s “JSA”) managing to remain a mysterious and utterly bewitching cipher while eliciting our somewhat questionable empathy. Perhaps this is why the film has been retitled, simply, "Lady Vengeance" for its North American release...?


(Special Presentations) USA, 100 minutes
Written by: Liev Schreiber, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
Directed by: Liev Schreiber
Cast: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin

A wonderfully entertaining and emotional adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling novel, “Everything Is Illuminated” is actor Liev Schreiber’s first outing behind the camera and, despite his protestations at the screening I attended, is hopefully not his last.

Not being familiar with Foer’s work I had no expectations for this film. Due to budget limitations, Schreiber decided to focus on the novel’s “road trip” story, in which a fictionalized Foer (Elijah Wood) travels to the Ukraine in search of the woman he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis during World War II. A fastidious collector of his family’s mementos and memories, Wood’s Jonathan seems at first to be a distant, withdrawn blank slate. But as the story progresses he shows remarkable resilience and determination, as well as a depth of emotion mostly shown through Wood’s bright blue eyes, magnified here by thick glasses. As Schreiber said in the Q&A after the screening, “If the eyes are the passageways to the soul, Elijah has garage doors.”

Jonathan is accompanied on his journey by an energetic and somewhat smarmy guide and translator named Alexei, played by Ukrainian folk/punk performer Eugene Hutz. Alexei seems to represent a new generation of Eastern Europe, leaving behind the stale bureaucracy of the former Communist regimes for the flash of Western culture. Driving the rather dilapidated car is Alexei’s grandfather (Alexei Sr., played by Boris Leskin), who claims to be blind, as well as his “righteous seeing-eye bitch,” a funny little mutt named Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. As the three journey to the lost town of Trachimbrod, the past and the present come together in unexpected and poignant ways, showing how even 60 years after its end, the events of the Second World War still have resonance and impact.

“Everything Is Illuminated” may have left out some of the novel’s more epic elements -- such as an extensive imaginary history of Trachimbrod – but I can’t say that this decision detracts from the film at all. Its humor, warmth and deep affection for its characters, coupled with lovely cinematography and a lively soundtrack, make it worthwhile. It seems to have been shortchanged as far as a theatrical release, but hopefully can find an audience on video when the time comes.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Monday, September 12, 2005

TIFF 2005: "CAPOTE" (Review)

(Special Presentations) USA, 110 minutes
Directed by Bennett Miller
Screenplay: Dan Futterman, based on the novel by Gerald Clarke
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper

Setting itself apart from most traditional “biopics,” “Capote” focuses on writer Truman Capote’s journey in writing his seminal work “In Cold Blood,” about the brutal murders of a Kansas family by a pair of thieves in 1959. Between Futterman’s caustic screenplay, Miller’s focused direction and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s uncannily eerie performance, this is one of the best examples of what the “based on a true story” genre can be.

Capote finds a small article in the New York Times about the murders of the Clutter family in their rural Kansas farmhouse and decides he wants to examine this further for an article for the New Yorker. However, once he infiltrates the town of Holcomb, winning over sheriff Alvin Dewey (the always solid Chris Cooper) with the help of friend and soon-to-be-famous-author Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), he finds the story to be much more than a magazine article can contain. As he delves deeper and gets to know not only the townspeople but the murderers – most notably Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) – he changes in such profound ways that he will never be the same.

Much has been made of Hoffman’s nailing of Capote – much like last year’s fanfare for Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles – but it’s more than just a good impression that makes the performance great. It carries the movie, and Hoffman captures many of Capote’s darker aspects in sometimes chilling detail. The author’s manipulation of people and events as the story unfolds, as well as its ultimate debilitating affect on him, provides a fascinating insight into the man that a simple by-the-numbers, event-driven telling of his life never could. By examining this crucial period of Capote’s life in detail, we come to know who he was before and after, even if it is in an abstract way. It’s a brilliant approach, rarely used but so effective in its simplicity it’s a wonder it’s not used more often.

"Capote" opens in select cities on September 30th.

TIFF 2005: "BUBBLE" (Review)

(Special Presentations, USA, 90 minutes)
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Coleman Howe
Cast: Dustin James Ashley, Omar Cowan, Debbie Doebereinner, Misty Wilkins, Laurie Lee

Well, with this one, it's obvious that his seemingly infallible Midas touch for critical and box office successes--many toplining the cream of Hollywood A-list talent like George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lopez, and Michael Douglas to name but a few--certainly hasn't caused Steven Soderbergh to forget his indie roots. Ever since his debut with 1988's Sundance sensation "Sex, Lies, And Videotape", writer/director/cinematographer (and occassional actor) Soderbergh has frequently surprised--and confounded--his fan base with 180 degree detours into highly personal and decidedly non-commercial experimental terrain with "Schizopolis", "Full Frontal", and his chapter in last year's little-seen erotic omnibus "Eros".

Having scored another box office home run with last year's "Ocean's 12", Soderbergh shatters any cynical film-snob dismissal that he's gone "mainstream" with the bleak, opaque "Bubble". But why, oh why, does this supremely talented filmmaker repeatedly feel the urge to atone for the alleged "sin" of achieving success, esp. while staying true to his artistic sensibility?

Not that "Bubble" feels like penance, mind you--it's well acted and unfolds with small but devastating revelations and at a scant 90 minute running time it wraps up just before its hermetically-sealed angst becomes too precious for its own good.

Employed at a doll factory in an economically depressed Ohio town, lonely, middle-aged Martha (Doebereiner) finds an unlikely friend in young slacker Kyle (Ashley), an aimless young man of few words who nonetheless makes for good company during lunch and commutes to work. At home, Martha cares for her aged, invalid father, while Kyle lives with his single mother.

When the attractive--and comparatively aggressive--twentysomething Rose (Wilkins) joins the staff and strikes up a mutual attraction with Kyle, Martha feels betrayed, especially after she agrees to babysit for Rose while the two arrange a date. When the duo returns from an abbreviated bar hop and quickie toke in Kyle's bedroom--Martha uncomfortably witnesses a late-night argument between Rose and her Jake, her jealous ex.

The following morning, Rose is found dead in her living room floor--strangled. Jake is dismissed as a suspect--all physical evidence points to Martha. But what is her motivation--if any? The investigating detective--and the audience--are left to wait out Martha's desperate backpeddling and vehement denial with the most startling realization is that there may be no reason for the crime at all...

Comparisons to "Fargo" may be obvious and somewhat appropriate if for no other reason to evoke some frame of reference for this truly strange bird---but Soderbergh chooses not to revel in regional lampoon by playing up the local colour and cutesy dialects. The cast are all non-professionals from the Ohio town where the film was shot, after screenwriter Coleman Hough spent some time there based upon a germ of an idea she concocted with the director (inspired by the true story of a woman who slit open an expectant mother's stomach to kidnap the fetus).

Shot on digital video by Soderbergh (one of six films he'll produce with Mark Cuban's HDNet Films, which plans to release "Bubble" to theatres, satellite TV, and DVD the same day), the film's anonymous faces and impersonal enviroments are rendered appropriately alien as afforded by the format's often shockingly clean "improvement" on celluloid's grainy, organic idealization of the "real". HD video could well be the Hallucinogenic-Hypnovision of the 21st century, with so much hoopla devoted to heralding the format that the content often seems irrevelent. Besides, anyone who really thinks celluloid has no "immediacy" hasn't seen the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman or the neo-realist dramas of DeSica. The decision to employ amateur actors for "authenticity" (whatever that means, esp. in the realm of fictional storytelling) is a curious move, since if anyone can draw richly nuanced out of baggage-heavy stars, it's Soderbergh.

In the end, "Bubble" is ultimately more of an exercise, really, than a satisfying whole, but its perfectly modulated shifts from sterile tableaus of Big Box-era angst to the more familiar machinations of a small town whodunit are definitely engrossing in a "you are there" kinda way.

Audiences will definitely be polarized, but you gotta hand it to Soderbergh--his "one for them/one for me" philosophy is certainly keeping moviemaking interesting for himself and moviegoing more pleasurable for us all.

Robert J. Lewis

TIFF 2005: "OLIVER TWIST" (Review)

(Special Presentations, UK/Czech Republic/France/Italy, 130 minutes)
Written by: Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Cast: Barney Clark, Ben Kingsley, Leanne Rowe, Jamie Foreman, Edward Hardwicke, Harry Eden

What can one possibly say about another handsomely mounted and oh-so-austere adaptation of an esteemed literary classic? One starring a "Sir", no less? Short of taking astonishingly misguided liberties on the level of 1996's inane Demi Moore vehicle "The Scarlett Letter", these things are largely critic proof--as if daring to suggest a flaw would expose the reviewer as some sort of semi-literate couch potato whose idea of "literature" is John Grisham. A Grisham talking book.

As it is, there's little to quibble about with this rare family-friendly entry from the usually controversial Roman Polanski. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood has made some minor changes to the 1838 classic (mostly structural--so gone is the subplot involving Oliver's half-brother "Monks"), but what results is a worthy equal to David Lean's definitive take, mostly because it feels so personal, despite being a tale oft-told (this is at least the 20th screen adaptation, including the famous musical!) and lampooned (remember the animated kitty singing the Billy Joel songs?).

Does anyone out there not know this story? Young Oliver Twist (Clark) arrives at a filthy British workhouse on his ninth birthday, having been left an orphan of the state after his mother died during childbirth. Daring to defy the strict rules of the house--demanding more food, questioning authority--he is sold to an undertaker as an apprentice, where the sadistic taunts of Noah, an older apprentice, forces him to flee to London.

There, he hooks up with a network of young street toughs led by The Artful Dodger (Eden), who introduces him to Fagin (Kingsley), a wizened kingpin who takes care of his boys in return for the rewards of their considerable skills as thieves and pickpockets. Fagin's partner is the malignant Bill Sykes (Foreman), whose teenaged mistress Nancy (Rowe) shows Oliver sympathy.

After a robbery goes wrong, Oliver is adopted by the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Hardwicke), who feels he can reform the boy through kindness, patience, and the fine arts. With Fagin and Sykes conspiring to snatch Oliver back, Nancy goes to Mr. Brownlow with a warning and pays for her defiance to her master with her life. Oliver will need all of his worldly experience and the help of his friend Dodger and even cruel Noah to evade the psychotic Sykes...

Since the story hinges on the charm of its titular character, 11-year old Barney Clarke has taken on quite the challenge for his screen debut. He's a wonderful discovery--in an impressive turn perhaps somewhat more "reactive" than we remember the character, and he bears more than a passing resemblence to the director (who's a noted performer himself). He's well matched by another young old soul: Harry Eden, who embodies The Artful Dodger's whiley charm and eventual crisis of regret with a skill that betrays his own relative newcomer status (although he'll soon appear in another Dickens adaptation, "Bleak House").

Sir Ben Kingsley's turn as Fagin is a gentler take on the character--despite his grotesque makeup--who is a craftier and more nefarious exploiter of his boys in the novel, and there explicitly caricatured as Jewish. Here, Fagin's prepubescent crime ring seems to exist out of economic and social necessity, in response to the hardships of the times and society's dubious concept of child welfare. Upon his final meeting with his imprisoned guardian, Oliver thanks Fagin for being kind--an added line not from Dickens.

The colourful supporting characters--from the evil Bill Sykes to the trusting Mr. Brownlow, are perfectly realized and avoid the obvious caricatures. Polanski's direction is decidely "European", in that it moves at a deliberate pace and finds "character" in its many environments as much as in its leads, but the patient will find this evocative and often relentlessly bleak take on the classic tale a moving experience that aspires to something more than a "boy's own" confection, perhaps to its detriment given the often over-caffeinated pace of most of today's kid friendly romps.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


(Gala) USA, 95 minutes
Written by: Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortenson, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Stephen McHattie

Don't let the TV spots and bus shelter ads fool you: David Cronenberg's latest might be considered "mainstream" if compared to the likes of his surreal (and downright bonkers) "Naked Lunch" or "Crash" adaptations, but "A History Of Violence" is a far cry from The Rock brandishing a two-by-four. Somewhat misleading marketed as the Canuck auteur's response to "Straw Dogs", "History" is a hard one to classify: alternately a domestic drama, a rousing revenge yarn, and a sly black comedy, it'll be sure to polarize audiences impatient with having their sensibilities toyed with--to the point of betrayal. But for fans of the director's every-evolving body of work (now spanning four decades!), this loose adaptation of the John Wagner/Vincent Locke graphic novel will fit comfortably amongst "The Brood", "The Fly", and "Dead Ringers" as his latest wrenching exploration of biology vs. destiny. Here, the parasite isn't a mutation or a monster or even a personality disorder--it's the very idea of violence itself as a neo-viral condition.

As with most Cronenberg chillers, it begins in a banal, unremarkable reality: Tom Stall (Mortensen) lives a modest existence with his wife Edie (Bello), teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and young daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) in Millbrook, Indiana (in actuality, the town of Millbrook, Ontario) where he runs the local greasy spoon. When two thugs attempt to rob the diner, Tom lashes back with an almost instinctual and precise savagery and he immediately becomes a local hero. Tom resists his newfound infamy, but the media coverage attracts the attention of the malignant gangster Fogarty (Harris), who slithers into town with his henchmen and insists that not only does he know Tom--as "Joey"-- from a shared and mysterious past--in "Philly"--but that they have unfinished business.

Tom's wife and children gradually begin to doubt his pleas that Fogarty is lying, and soon Edie and Jack find their own tempers flaring and their more rational natures stripped away--after all, how could they love a man who wasn't "real"? Does "Joey" really exist? If so, does he still live within "Tom"? And which one is the alter ego? A trip to Philadelphia and an encounter with the mysterious Richie Cusack (Hurt) will square Tom's score with Fogarty, but the Stall family will never be the same...

The tone might be a bit too arch and ironic in parts to be truly haunting ala "Taxi Driver", but Cronenberg is clearly revelling in punishing us for our responses. The climax is arguably as funny as it is horrible, and the teenage son's brutal reprisal against his high school bullies will initially arouse cheers that will quickly turn to embarrassed regret (well, let's hope--some within the premiere's audience had me looking over my shoulder on the way out). Over the years, Cronenberg has become a masterful director of unpredictable and nuanced performances--the cast here, from Mortenson's perfectly honed "aw shucks" demeanour masking a Mr. Hyde, to Bello's earthy grace, to Harris' more ghoulish theatricality, are pitch perfect for the story's disquieting undulations. All perfectly realized against Carol Spier's evocative environments and Peter Suschitzky's unflinching lens, as usual.

"A History Of Violence" is a more subversive and complex film than it may appear while actually watching it--it's short and traditionally-structured and could've been a lyrical John Ford parable in another time and genre. Sure, the gruesome inserts will spook you--but it's the realization of how easily most of us could surrender communication, decorum, loyalty, and empathy for our own personal survival at any and all costs that will crawl inside and stay there--just like those little slugs in "Shivers". And if not--well, then, one way or another, Cronenberg has proven his point.

TIFF 2005: "BANLIEUE 13" (Review)

(Midnight Madness) France, 85 minutes
Written by: Luc Besson & Luc Besson, Bibi Naceri
Directed by: Pierre Morel
Cast: Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Tony D'Amario, Bibi Naceri, Dany Verissimo

From the news-to-me department: in France, they have this thing called parkour, an urban freestyle sport in which participants ("traceurs", or "free runners") navigate various obstacles (railings, staircases, buildings) with amazing speeds and acrobatics without pauses or breaks. It combines the skill of martial arts with the aesthetic grace of dance and is for many a way of life. David Belle is one of the recent sport's true titans (his father invented it)--seeing this man in action makes you believe--if not a man can fly--then at least he can willfully defy gravity and control speed and time like Mike Jitlov. "Banlieu 13" was clearly created to exploit Belle's talents, but this thriller, thankfully, is more than just a foreign-language version of "Gymkata".

In the Paris of 2010, the city’s elite ruling class has been protected from the ghettos by a network of protective walls, with the only law enforcement stationed outside the anarchy-ridden slums at armed checkpoints. Inside the northern suburb's District 13, Taha (co-writer Naceri) rules as kingpin and chief supplier of drugs and illegal arms. After his goons raid an armored truck, he comes in possession of a neutron bomb (a plot device probably last used in "The New Avengers"), which accidentally become triggered to detonate within 24 hours.

Damien (frequent Besson stuntman Raffaelli), an undercover cop, pairs up with the district's agile avenger Leïto (Belle), who has made an enemy in Taha by destroying one of his drug hauls. For that, Taha turned Leito over to crooked cops and took his sister hostage. With his own score to be settled, Leito agrees to re-enter the concrete hellhole to free his sister and help Damien retrieve the bomb.

Luc Besson's latest martial arts side project following "Kiss Of The Dragon", "Unleashed", and two "Transporter" films--assuming he plans to direct again at all (the IMDB lists sixteen upcoming films as producer!)--owes an obvious conceptual debt to John Carpenter's "Escape From New York" (and the district's number is a likely a nod to "Assault On Precinct 13"), with the Snake Plissken character divvied up between the requisite mismatched duo. For some, this won't sound too promising, but if you're an action buff, just wait until you see this thing m-o-v-e. This one's an adrenaline shot of celluloid that brandishes its simplicity on its tattooed forearm like a badge of pride. At a short n' sweet 85 minutes, it's an ever flip-flopping pas de deux of amazing airborne ballets and cracking limbs without a flash frame of CGI or wirework.

Cinematographer-turned-director Pierre Morel (another Besson alumnus) wisely keeps his auteurist flourishes to a minimum and the production design rooted in reality--the most fantastical elements of this sci-fi fable are its two nimble leads. Still, he can't resist the impulse to work in some heavy-handed speechifying during the coda. Damien's vow to bring down the walls isn't quite the Tom Joad/"Grapes Of Wrath" speech Besson and Naceri might have intended, but when was the last time you saw Henry Fonda scale a 20 story building with his bare hands?

Robert J. Lewis

TIFF 2005: "TIDELAND" (Review)

(Special Presentations) Canada/United Kingdom, 121 minutes
Written by: Tony Grisoni, Terry Gilliam, based on the novel by Mitch Cullin
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Jodell Ferdland, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Tilly, Janet McTeer, Brendan Fletcher

Terry Gilliam's second film in under a month (following August's release of the long-delayed "The Brothers Grimm") could easily be dismissed by some wags as "Alice In Wonderland" on the prairie, with detours into "Eraserhead" and, believe it or not, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". The tenacious auteur of the weird has survived worse blows than those this bizarre, but oddly personal, fantasia will likely invite when--and being a Gilliam effort, "if"-- it secures a release. Cineaste lore has it that this was one of the only Toronto film festival screenings in the 30 year history of the event that failed to elicit a single round of applause following its premiere screening, and Toronto audiences are known to bestow dutiful accolades for just about anything, even "Loving Couples" and "Duets". I saw it at a press screening, where no one claps for a damn thing, so...

10 year old Jeliza-Rose (Ferland) is an only child who lives with her father Noah (Bridges), a middle-aged, still-aspiring musician, and layabout mother Queen Gunhilda (Tilly) in Los Angeles. When she's not helping her parents with their heroin habit and enduring her father's stoned-out monologues on Danish Jutland, she's engaging in conversations with her only friends: a collection of doll heads. When Gunhilda overdoses and dies, Noah insists that she be given a fiery Viking funeral--until his daughter talks him out of it--before he flees with his Jeliza-Rose on a bus trip to his mother's home on the Texas prairies.

They arrive to find a long-abandoned dump covered in dirt and graffiti. Noah immediately embarks on one of his "vacations" by shooting up again--this time a permanent one. Oblivious or uncaring that her father is dead, Jeliza-Rose pretties up his festering corpse in makeup and one of her grandmother's wigs and makes some new friends in the form of fireflies and a talking squirrel.

Out in the fields the girl meets the wraith-like Dell (McTeer), an obsessive woman from her father's past who lives with her manic, mentally challenged brother Dickens (Fletcher). Dell embalms Noah's corpse and repaints the house to create some semblence of a nuclear family, a perverse consensual fantasy that drives Jeliza-Rose even deeper into her own...

I have not read Mitch Cullin's novel "Tideland", but it's easy to see why Gilliam snatched it up (his rave is on the cover of the North American trade edition): its simple premise was perfect for him to infuse with his favorite ingredients . Here, again, he crafts a tragic and repellent reality entwined with a baroque fantasy world, oddball secondary characters, environments as psychic landscapes, and meticulous, far-from-random production design (in a Gilliam film, style is substance).

Jodelle Ferland--perhaps best known as the ghostly child in Stephen King's "Kingdom Hospital" miniseries-- is an amazing find and an actress of remarkable presence and conviction--and thank god for that, since here she's pretty much the whole damn show. With scenes of her helping her parents shoot up, and sexually experimenting with a too-friendly mentally handicapped "friend", this has to be the most disturbing kid's turn since David Bennett's debut as "Oskar" in "The Tin Drum". Bridges' brief role allows him some pathos before requiring to live (?) out the bulk of the story as "The Dude" gone Ma Bates. On the other hand, Jennifer Tilly's Courtney Love riff might be the most frightening thing Gilliam's ever committed to celluloid--those "baby" masks in "Brazil" included. McTeer and Fletcher are appropriately strange and appear to have been allowed to invent their top-of-the-lungs Jungian caricatures pretty much on-the-fly as they please.

Despite many surreal and often macabre set pieces, "Tideland" is a very small movie, concerned exclusively with Jeliza-Rose' subjective--and decidedly "skewed"--take on adult relationships before reaching a melancholy and moving ending that'll be a surefire turn off to those with an intolerance for ambiguity (who, presumably, wouldn't be caught dead at this film anyway).

Perhaps it's that Gilliam clearly loves these characters and the golden sandbox in which he's been allowed to play, or maybe it's that he got carried away being able to finally make a film from script-to-screen in under 12 months (the production was announced just last year during the Toronto film fest), but the worse thing about "Tideland" is that it's just too damn long. Even David Lynch had the good sense to trim 3o minutes out of "Eraserhead" following its first screening. Though challenging and often infuriating, "Tideland" is an inviting rabbit hole in which to disappear, but even Jeliza-Rose knew when it was time to snap out of fantasyland.

Robert J. Lewis

TIFF 2005: "NEVERWAS" (Review)

(Special Presentations) USA, 108 minutes
Written & directed by: Joshua Michael Stern
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Brittany Murphy, Ian McKellen, Jessica Lange, William Hurt

An exploration of the relevance of fairy tales in the adult world, of the perils of fame on a scale of J.K. Rowling, of what it must be like to grow up a real-life Christopher Robin--any of these would make for compelling drama with fantastical undercurrents ideal for a director like Terry Gilliam, whose "The Fisher King" successfully navigated madness vs. fantasy with tragedy and whimsy and nary a false note. Regrettably, "Neverwas" is nothing but another hackneyed, "feel-good" fable about those how cute insane people can teach us all a valuable lesson, and life would be better if we were half off our collective rockers.

Yale grad Zach Riley (Eckhart) has spent much of his life avoiding association with the literary legacy of his famous, and eccentric, father T.L. Pierson (Nolte), who wrote the classic children's novel "Neverwas". The blockbuster success of the book wreaked havoc on its author's reclusive lifestyle and lead to his eventual mental breakdown, which drove Zach to achieve success as a psychiatrist under a different name. In an effort to understand something of his famous father's last days, Zach takes a job at the very institution to which he was committed.

Amongst the colourful ensemble of patients and specialists he meets Gabriel (McKellen), a delusional senior with a flair for the theatrical who not only believes the world of "Neverwas" to be real, but that he is actually its ruler. Gabriel maintains that Pierson appropriated his accounts of his homeland for the novel and that Zach's return is a "sign". The old man's ominous pronouncements trigger Zach into revisiting the book. An encounter with his childhood friend Maggie (Murphy), a journalist on assignment and a lifelong fan of "Neverwas", adds further resonance to Zach's reluctant suspicion that his father's fanciful notions might have been based on fact and that Gabriel should be freed to resume his reign.

For a tale that champions the importance of reading, "Neverwas" plods along under tin-eared dialogue, random motivations, and the worst deus ex machina rug pull involving not the calvary to the rescue, not Superman spinning the earth back-- let's just say it involves a lawyer, an eviction notice, and the ability to get a cell phone signal deep in the Vancouver woods.

The "Neverwas" concept is nicely detailed--the book's interior art, Maggie's collection of vintage memorabilia, and Pierson's 70s-era archival interviews are more convincing than the Syd Field-patented plot machinations--it's 'K-Pax" meets "Griffin And Sabine".

The performances are as scattershot as the plotting: Eckhart makes for a feeble and reactive hero, Murphy turns on the perk into overdrive, Lange looks puffy and swills booze with a bad Southern accent, and Nolte growls and grumbles like Salinger on downers. Curiously, Alan Cumming, Michael Moriarty, and Cynthia Stevenson flinch and babble "Shine"-style in thankless, and rather baffling, cameos that contribute nothing to the narrative.
It's up to Sir Ian McKellen to carry the film, and he really lets 'er rip for the people in the back row. His histrionics are nearly drowned out by the wall-to-wall score by Philip Glass, who pounds the keyboards more steadily than that hophead in "Reefer Madness".

Stern has a background in direct-to-video schlock, with collaborations with David DeCoteau and "Amityville: Dollhouse" and the Greg Evigan "Alien" ripoff "Survivor" on his C.V. How this rather dubious filmography connected him to such Oscar-darlings as McKellen, Lang, and Nolte is probably a fairy tale more engrossing and affirming than the one presented here.

Robert J. Lewis

Saturday, September 10, 2005

TIFF 2005: "MANDERLAY" (Review)

(Masters) Denmark, 139 minutes
Written and directed by Lars von Trier
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Danny Glover, Lauren Bacall, Willem Dafoe, Isaach de Bankole

I haven't read Lars von Trier's "Dogme 95" manifesto since about...oh, 1995...but while I recall some condemnation therein on the use of artificial lighting, special effects, and even tripods, there was obviously no rule forbidding filmmakers from blithely recycling anything else. Here's the rare art house entry that conforms to the Joe Bob Briggs definition of sequel integrity: to make the exact same movie again and again ("which is not easy"-Joe Bob Briggs Goes To The Drive-In, 1987).

I'm being flippant, of course, but this is a film that invites--no, demands--extreme reactions: "Manderlay", the second installment in the Danish provocateur's "USA Trilogy", is hardly a spam-in-a-can rehash ala "Friday the 13th Part X" or a flashback-padded rip-off like "Rocky 4". But from the opening Griffith-era intertitles and familiar John Hurt narration we're clearly back in the same barren, Brechtian domain of partial sets (a staircase, an iron gate) and simple stage markings ("Red Clay", "The Garden", "The Barn") that was once so bold and innovative in the inaugural chapter--2003's "Dogville"--and now just seems lazy.

The events pick up immediately after the end of the first chapter, with Grace (then Nicole Kidman, now Howard) having fled the mining town of Dogville, Colorado, which in a torrent of Old Testament payback, she left slaughtered and in flames for her prostitution and degradation. She's travelling with crimelord father (then James Caan, now Dafoe) as part of a gangster caravan now entering the state of Alabama.

Having stopped by a plantation, Grace is accosted by a hysterical black woman who pleads for help to save her son from a public whipping. Ever the crusader (to her father's bemusement), Grace intervenes and reminds the plantation's owner, the ailing "Mam" (Bacall, confusing not reprising her original "Dogville" role), that slavery has been abolished in America for 70 years. Her father's cynical prediction that most whites won't honour the terms of emancipation (forty acres and a mule) is correct. The former slaves, with aged Wilhelm (Glover) as their chief spokesman, are bewildered by the concept of this sudden "freedom"--the old system at least provided some order in their lives. Mam takes ill and on her deathbed, requests that Grace destroy a journal she has kept long-hidden. Grace instead keeps the book--"Mam's Law", a self-penned chronicle of black stereotypes and predictable behaviors--and informs her father that she will stay at Manderlay to make sure the seeds of democracy are sewn--appropriately enough, until the first cotton harvest.

The second act is tightly plotted and well-acted, with von Trier gleefully toying with our character loyalities: with the tables turned and the remaining whites now the servants, Grace impatiently tries to ingratiate her to the community, who seem to have learned all the wrong lessons from their captors. She browbeats them into using the trees in the orchard to repairing their ramshackle homes, which destroys the crops' natural protection from the dust storms (a rare non-Dogme foray into digital FX). She introduces them to the concept of democratic vote, which soons turns to mob rule. When a sick child dies from malnutrition, the old woman who stole her food is sentenced to death. The former slaves, fed up with Grace's condescention and smug superiority, order her to execute justice (with a bullet), then demand that she step down and bestow the running of Manderlay to them. Insulted and bewildered by their apparent inability to embrace her noble ideals and tortured by her lust for the forbidden flesh of Timothy (de Bankole), the virile Mansi slave she first saved from flogging, Grace in turn reconsiders the simplistic, racist philosophy of "Mam's Law" and the hateful, brutish tactics of the former slavers.

Whereas "Dogville" was inspired by Bertolt Brecht's "The Three Penny Opera", von Trier discovered the seed of the idea for "Manderlay" in an unlikely source: Pauline Reage's notorious S&M staple "The Story Of O". The introduction by French critic Jean Paulhan included an anecdote about the fallout of a slave rebellion in 19th Bermuda, in which freed slaves requested that they be returned to captivity, and when their former master refused, he and his family were massacred.

Sensitively performed by the ensemble of vets and newcomers (it is, after all,essentially a filmed stage play against a black backdrop), "Manderlay" is a gripping and challenging in-your-face confrontation with timely issues, but like "Dogville", is ultimately undone by running a good half hour too long. Bryce Dallas Howard's goody-goody dad Ron must surely be shocked by his daughter's willingness to bare all, literally and figuratively, in a performance that is impassioned but lacking in Kidman's mounting fury. Howard's Grace comes off more like a whiny sophomore General Arts major in a do-rag than the hellfire-and-brimstone Angel Of Vengeance she became at the end of the previous film.

That this is all, in the end, an allegory for Bush's imposing of "regime change" on Iraq should come as no surprise. But for those who didn't pay attention or are hopelessly dim, David Bowie's "Young Americans" is cued up again over the end credits to further drive home the point with a sledgehammer, this time over a barrage of searing images of a praying Dubya, black soldiers in Afghanistan, the lynchings, segregation, MLK, babies in KKK garb, etc, etc. That von Trier repeatedly takes such fish-in-a-barrel shots at America, a country he has never visited, undermines the series' otherwise remarkable power and resonance for this viewer-- surely, a smart guy like this can't be oblivious to the history of slavery on his own continent, specifically, the former Danish West Indies.

All that highfalutin' aside, I wish von Trier would've pushed the technique more--cinematically, he's on cruise control here and is clearly more interested in heavy-handed polemics and making the audience flinch. He's becoming William Castle with a PhD... in "Misanthropy".

Robert J. Lewis

Friday, September 09, 2005

TIFF 2005: "CORPSE BRIDE" (Review)

(Special Presentations) United Kingdom, 76 minutes
Written by: John August & Pamela Pettler & Caroline Thompson
Directed by: Tim Burton & Mike Johnson
Voices: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Richard E. Grant, Albert Finney

Tim Burton's first foray into feature-length stop motion animation, 1993's "A Nightmare Before Christmas", was only a middling hit at the time but in the decade-plus has become something of a cult phenomena and holiday perennial (there seem to be new merchandise spin-offs debuting weekly at the local comics shop). Arguably, it was released just too darn early, just as animation was starting to become accepted as more than kidstuff thanks to the resurrection of Disney's 2D animation division ("The Little Mermaid", "Aladdin", "Beauty And The Beast") and with "South Park" and "Adult Swim" yet to be even napkin scribbles .

It'll be interesting to see if "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" fares better first time out of the pine box, now that "Nightmare" is already enchanting a second generation of fans. A lot of redevelopment has occurred in Toontown since 1993--particularly the pioneering of an entirely new animation medium, that would be "CG" of course ("Jurassic Park" was also a 1993 release), and the seemingly permanent reign of a certain titan known as Pixar, the little Lucasfilm spin-off which has all but rinsed off those flat cels and gliding backgrounds for good. Where does that leave the technique of stop-motion animation (aka "Claymation", "Puppetoons"), which is now trapped somewhere between 2D's quaint analog artifice and 3D's spacial (and facial) possibilites?

A good story and charming characters, it can be argued, render the choice of medium moot. Here, Burton's taken an obscure Russian folktale, relocated it to Victorian England, and given it his unmistakeable, Ed Gorey-meets-Art Clokey visual stamp in which the ghouls rule and "fright" always makes "right".

Yet another forty-year old virgin, artist-pianist Victor Van Dort (Depp) has consented to an arranged marriage by his middle-class parents to the equally shy Victoria (Watson), the daughter of posturing snobs The Everglots, who are expecting a major cash payout in the form of a dowry . The nervous Victor bumbles their wedding rehearsal and is shamed into leaving until he learns his vows.

In the woods, Victor puts the ring on a branch for practice and unwillingly resurrects a dead woman--conveniently already clad in a wedding dress--who accepts his proposal. Although Victoria is sweet and sincere, Corpse Bride (Carter) is something of a persuasive hotty and Victor wastes no time in following her down into the Land Of The Dead. Down below is a helluva lot more fun than the ash-hued mausoleum that is the Land Of The Living, where Victoria's parents waste no time trying to pawn off their daughter to opportunistic dandy Baron Barkis (Grant). Victor instantly grooves to the skeletal jazz band, his adorable undead dog (a childhood pet), and even the chatty maggot who pops out from the bride’s right eye like a slimy Jiminy Crickett. But ever-so-proper, can he somehow escape this twisted contract and win back his original betrothed? To paraphrase a certain ad campaign: How can you divorce what is already dead?

With its small cast, intimate environments and complete lack of timely pop culture references (save one), "Corpse Bride" may bore those expecting the Robin-Williams-On-Red-Bull riffing of "The Incredibles" or the "Shrek" series. It's "cute" rather than knee-slappingly funny, heavy on the puns--and not much scarier than "Beetlejuice"s waiting room scenes. Danny Elfman's songs acknowledge Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Stephen Sondheim and function as "sung dialogue"--and likely won't be reworked as ringtones any time soon. The stop-motion puppets (designed from Burton's sketches by Carlos Grangel) have faces that are less expressive than their CGI cousins, and thus rely more on pantomime and stylized anatomy for emotion.

"Corpse Bride" could've used a few more songs and "big" moments ("Nightmare" had 10 numbers) but there's a lot to admire here given that this is exactly the movie Burton wanted to make, current pop culture landscape be damned. He could've produced this cheaper and faster in CG and loaded it with stunt voice casting, but didn't. Now some kids today will find this about as hip as Rankin Bass' "Mad Monster Party", but the fact that Victor's piano is emblazoned with a "Harryhausen Ltd." manufacturers plate reveals Burton's desired audience. Let's hope they don't opt to lie at home like a bunch of stiffs come opening weekend...

Robert J. Lewis

TIFF 2005: "KISS KISS, BANG BANG" (Review)

(Special Presentations) USA, 103 minutes
Written and directed by: Shane Black
Produced by: Joel Silver
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Bernsen

The much-heralded New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael titled one of her collections of 70s-era reviews "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang", and she meant it as a perjorative, her alliterative distillation of the rock-bottom allure of commercial cinema that rarely--she opined with her characteristically indignant sniff--aspired to deliver anything more than empty calories to its undemanding audience. Well, former spec script wunderkind Shane Black has appropriated the title for his directorial debut--a wily and winking noir pastiche that delivers exactly the kind of movie it promises to be and, sorry Ms. Kael if you're listening, is smarter than we the-great-unwashed probably deserve.

When inept petty thief Harry Lockhart (Downey Jr.) botches a toy heist on Christmas Eve that costs his partner his life, he manages to escape the cops by hiding out in what turns out to be a Manhattan casting call. His panicked and somewhat bewildered rendition impresses the casting agents and he's invited to L.A. and positioned as the Next Big Thing. To prep for his role, Harry shadows the glib and impeccably groomed private eye/consultant Perry Van Shrike (Kilmer), aka "Gay Perry" for obvious reasons.

Harry's nocturnal "research" with Perry--primarily eavesdropping on shady characters-- inevitably leads them to stumble midway through the body dump of a murdered starlet. Fearing implication in the crime, they botch a hasty cover-up that sinks them even deeper into a cloudy caper involving pulp paperbacks, switched identities, faked suicides, a sinister medical clinic, and a forgotten 80s cable film. And where's the Gumshoe, and the Gun, there's gotta be the Girl: here, she's the adorable Harmony Faith Lane (Monaghan) a thirtysomething, still-aspiring actress who's something of a Lauren Bacall reincarnated as a FHM cover girl.

As convoluted as "Chinatown" (Harmony's family skeleton smacks of Faye Dunaway's tragic third-act confession) and downright confounding as "The Big Sleep" (Hollywood legend has it that Chandler admitted his story made no sense when Howard Hawks was struggling with his adaptation), "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" gets by on pure adrenaline and the combustible chemistry of its cast, whom Black awards some of his wittiest, and gloriously filthy, buddy banter, women and children included. Black further betrays his absence from the biz by sardonically revelling in the tale's inherent absurdity, right down to having Downey's breaking-the-fourth-wall narration acknowledge awkward stagings, lacklustre scene payoffs, and apologize for leaps in disbelief. This is a movie about movies--the literal minded should take heed and save their sheckles for Xmas season Oscar bait.

Post-modernist showboating aside, Black's affection for classic noir fiction is evidenced in the film's onscreen chapters, each named for a Chandler story ("The Lady In The Lake", "Little Sister", among others).

Incredibly, the screenwriter who had broken sales records with "Lethal Weapon", "The Last Boy Scout" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight" was unable to interest studios in the property so Black called upon his old pal Joel Silver to beg for financing. Despite modest funds, DOP Michael Barrett and production designer Aaron Osborne have crafted a dreamy neon-washed playground--owing more than a debt to the palette of Altman's definitive "The Long Goodbye"--punctuated by John Ottman's jazzy score and Saul Bass-influenced animated titles and transitions.

And if that's still not enough to convince you, then ask yourself if you can consciously avoid any film that can lampoon Abraham Lincoln AND "The Warriors" star Michael Beck with equal aplomb...

Robert J. Lewis

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Prelude To A "TIFF"

Welcome to Movieforum's new home for up-to-the-minute coverage of the 3oth annual Toronto International Film Festival. Regular reports (I'll aspire to "daily", but no promises, what with Midnight Madness and all...) will begin Thursday, Sept. 8 via the miracle of e-blogging, starting with the North American premiere of Shane Black's noir pastiche "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang", starring Robert Downey Jr., and Val Kilmer.

Keep visiting for informed and unapologetically prejudiced opinions on more than two dozen planned films including David Cronenberg's "A History Of Violence", Terry Gilliam's "Tideland", Lars von Trier's "Manderlay", Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble", Neil Jordan's "Breakfast On Pluto", Eli Roth's "Hostel", Roman Polanski's "Oliver", Park Chan Wook's "Sympathy For Lady Vengeance", Atom Egoyan's "Where The Truth Lies", Mary Harron's "The Notorious Betty Page", and of course, Sturla Gunnerson's "Beowulf And Grendel".