Day One

Day One at the Toronto Film Festival is a little like the clearing of the throat before an aria. It’s Thursday, a day before the blitz of festivalgoers arrive, and though the press enjoys a full schedule, the first screening for the public doesn’t start until the evening—and for both press and public, the choices are pretty inconsequential. Nevertheless, I dutifully zipped through customs, baggage claim, and currency exchange; took a manic cab ride to the hotel for check-in; picked up my credentials; and arrived just under the wire…for a movie I didn’t care for in the least. Festivals like this are a weird phenomenon: You travel hundreds of miles and rush around frantically day-after-day to catch movies that, in many cases, you wouldn’t scrape yourself off the couch to see otherwise. It might seem irrational, but in a festival of over 300 films, there’s always the threat of some elusive masterpiece that you would have missed if you weren’t taking part in a sleepless, ass-busting 10-day marathon.

Needless to say, The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes is not that masterpiece. It’s the second feature-length film directed by the Quay Brothers, an eccentric duo that made their name on strange, disturbing stop-motion animated shorts, most famously the Peter Gabriel video for “Sledgehammer.” I never saw their first feature, the by-all-accounts interminable Institute Benjamenta, but from the evidence at hand, what may seem intriguing and suggestive at five minutes turns obscure and fussed-over at 100 minutes. What I could piece together of the story sounds intriguing enough: An evil “doctor” abducts a beautiful opera singer and takes her to some faraway lair to be the key player in a special performance. The doctor also hires a famed piano tuner (who, in a typically odd detail, hails from generations of tuners who were immaculately conceived), not to tune pianos, but to calibrate a series of elaborately engineered machines that will drive this performance. Unfortunately, the diabolical purpose of this scheme is never revealed all that clearly, which leaves a lot of pregnant scenes where characters speak in English as a second language. The images are immaculate but stifling, hermetic, and ultimately narcotic: Many of the critics around me were snoozing, and it took some Clockwork Orange-like eye-peeling for me not to join them.

Things didn’t get too much better with L’Enfer (Hell), the second (after Tom Tykwer’s Heaven) in a trilogy conceived by the late Kryzstof Kieslowski before he had an opportunity to execute it. This one is directed by Denis Tanovic, who made a splash a few years ago with his Balkans drama No Man’s Land. A tale of three sisters whose present problems with men are related to a past trauma involving their father, the film proves yet again that nobody can do Kieslowski but Kieslowski; in other hands, those twists of coincidence and fate seem either too cute, or, in this case, too mechanical. Had the movie sustained the Hitchcockian chill of its final scene, it might have been onto something.

After two disappointments right out of the gate—going by Noel’s TIFFstat, I was worried that I’d be seeing 40-50 bad films this year—a pair of comedies raised the bar considerably. If you’re unschooled in late-‘70s Korean politics (as I am, I’ll humbly admit), it might be difficult to fully understand the significance of The President’s Last Bang, but I can see why it caused such a stir in its home country. Imagine if JFK were reconfigured as a Dr. Strangelove-esque political comedy, and you’ll get some idea of the tone of this movie, which gets big laughs from the decadence and corruption that riddled President Park Chung-hee and his inner circle. Like the recently released South Korean gem Memories Of Murder, the film dares to take a grave subject—in Memories, it was the country’s first serial killer—and introduce an often broad, bawdy comedic tone that’s daring for being so inappropriate.
Not much to say about the midnight movie, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, other than it’s a cut above other stand-up concert movies. For one, Silverman is very funny. For two, the film doesn’t open with the standard tack of interviewing all the excited people entering the theater (“Margaret Cho is fa-bul-ous!,” et al.), but with a scripted segment that builds anticipation for the show while getting some laughs in the process. Like Noel, I’m not convinced that Silverman is a particularly “relevant” comedian. She’s edgy and fearless in drawing out racial and ethnic stereotypes or dropping bombs about sexuality, but her observations never really engage with society in a meaningful way. At the Q&A, someone compared her to Lenny Bruce, which I think is right and wrong: She busts taboos just as aggressively, but she’s walking the path that he and others already blazed. But big laughs nonetheless and Silverman’s teasing, off-handed, bad-widdle-girl delivery gets the most out of every joke.

Day Two

With Day One out of the way, the auteur parade began in earnest with Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay, the second after Dogville in a proposed (and now aborted) trilogy about America. With Bryce Dallas Howard replacing Nicole Kidman as Grace, Willem Dafoe replacing James Caan as her father, John Hurt returning as narrator, and many Dogville cast members recast in new roles for extra confusion, the film goes back to the well with diminished results. The action again takes place on a vast sound-stage with chalked-in buildings and landmarks, and again attempts to reveal the hypocrisies of Yankee democracy. Here, Grace comes across a Southern city in which slavery is still practiced a good 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. With daddy’s gangsters along as enforcers, Grace forcibly liberates the slaves and naively attempts to introduce the concept of a free society. This being a Von Trier film, things don’t go terribly well for Grace or the former slaves, who are anything but grateful for her actions on their behalf.

In many ways, Manderlay may be more inflammatory than Dogville: Basically, Von Trier implies that the slave system, while brutal and oppressive and undignifying, may be preferable to the perverse form of “democracy” that replaced it. In his view, the promise of democracy for blacks is a whopping lie that continues to be perpetuated, because the system doesn’t offer any real opportunities for social advancement. Given that this point has just been enforced in New Orleans, where the almost uniformly black and poor population was left to rot in the flood waters, Von Trier’s extreme cynicism would appear to be right on target. And yet it’s clear why he’s stopping at #2 in the trilogy, because Dogville makes many of the same arguments (in that case, how democracy applies to the immigrant experience) in exactly the same stylistic fashion, so the element of surprise is gone.

Not much to say about Neil Jordan’s Breakfast On Pluto, his second Patrick McCabe adaptation after The Butcher Boy, and a much lighter and less substantial effort, though it does delve occasionally into The Troubles. With Cillian Murphy cast as a blessed-out Irish transvestite, the film follows his self-destructive (yet strangely optimistic) quest to find the mother who orphaned him as a baby. Those who aren’t open to the idea of red-breasted robins occasionally commenting on the action in translated chirps are probably ill-suited to withstand the quirkiness that follows, but Jordan handles it deftly and sweetly, and some of the individual episodes—especially one involving Jordan regular Stephen Rea as a melancholy magician who takes Murphy on as his assistant—are really affecting.

After some minor pleasures and disappointments, the festival finally delivered its first great movie with Brokeback Mountain, a beautiful adaptation of Annie Proulx’s great short story about gay cowboys in Wyoming. Turning a short story into a 130-minute movie may seem like an indulgence, but it accomplishes what all adaptations should aim to do: Retain the spirit of the source material while offering a new experience altogether. Director Ang Lee works at a patient, deliberate pace that captures the passing of time in way that Proulx’s story inherently couldn’t: As the years continue to elapse—and both men get tangled up in dutiful marriages with children—the film grows progressively more heartbreaking as their future dims. In that respect, Brokeback Mountain deserves a place next to great movies like The Age Of Innocence, In The Mood For Love, and Far From Heaven, all about passions extinguished by societal codes that can’t accommodate them. Like those movies, the characters rarely articulate how they feel about each other, which those rare moments when they do register like a sock in the gut. This is the movie of the year for me so far.

As if to bring some cruel balance to the universe, Brokeback Mountain was followed by the crushing disappointment of Cameron Crowe’s new movie Elizabethtown, which calls to mind Krusty The Clown’s protestations when the network threatens to makes cuts to his show: “It’s the tightest three hours and 20 minutes in show business!” This is Crowe’s Heaven’s Gate: Given the full resources of a major studio at his disposal, he’s invested himself so completely in the project that he refuses to make the tough decisions that would have made the film better. In short, he’s fallen in love with every frame of his movie, and the effect is incredibly wearying after awhile, especially in a final act that yawns into infinity. All of which isn’t to say that there are great things here, such as an all-night conversation between Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst bottles the excitement of connecting deeply with someone for the first time. But Crowe needed another set of eyes to locate the shapely movie that lurks in this epic unloading of personal baggage.

And speaking of unloading baggage, I apologize for the gratuitous length of this first blog entry. Expect more drive-by criticism in the days ahead.

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