Great directors take great risks, and it’s only natural that at any festival, a few are bound to fall flat on their face. Last year, for example, Claire Denis followed up the sterling trifeca of Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, and Friday Night with L’Intrus, a film so confounding that she took it home for drastic re-edits and it still hasn’t resurfaced in the states. Then Lucas Moodysson, once the gentle humanist of Show Me Love and Together fame, went off the deep end with the extreme miserablism of A Hole In My Heart. But in just two days, four of the nine films I’ve seen are either the worst in their director’s career or somewhere near the bottom, making it perhaps the most disappointing streak in the six years I’ve been going to Toronto. (A critic friend of mine—who, admittedly, got a lot of big tickets out of the way by going to Cannes and Sundance earlier this year—has liked only one of the 20 films he’s seen.)
To get the happy news out of the way first, David Cronenberg isn’t one of those unfortunate fuck-ups. I’m reluctant to write anything at all specific about A History Of Violence, because the film’s biggest surprises—indeed, its only surprises—occur during the first half. I’d recommend that everyone see this film before exposing themselves to trailers or reviews, which can’t help but to give away revelations that are key to the movie’s considerable impact. Cronenberg often likes to take his films down bizarre and psychologically knotty tributaries, but with A History Of Violence, he’s made his most conventional work to date, a thriller that marches directly and purposefully toward a chilling conclusion. In fact, it may be a little too straightforward for its own good: At a certain point, the film just goes exactly where you expect it to go. But it’s the how that makes all the difference here…
And now on to the letdowns, starting with Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, a project charged with the full force of his creative vision, which isn’t entirely a good thing. After the compromised Brothers Grimm, it’s good to see Gilliam this wholly invested in a film, but he doesn’t know when to pull back on the throttle and allow the audience to get its footing. His hero is an imaginative and resourceful little girl who’s left to her own devices when her junkie parents die one after the other, leaving her in a dilapidated home in the middle of nowhere. She represses these and other horrors by escaping into a fantasy world where he closest confidants are the severed Barbie heads that she wags on her fingers like puppets. And she’s by far the most well-adjusted character in the film! Tideland is undoubtedly a work of integrity: As Noel writes, there’s bound to be some people out there who will consider it a masterpiece. (Though I haven’t met any of them yet.) For me and many others, it was relentlessly unpleasant, something to be endured more than appreciated.
Disappointments are more common in the rollercoaster career of Abel Ferrara, whose maverick sensibility has yielded great highs (Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, King Of New York, Body Snatchers) and embarrassing lows (New Rose Hotel, The Blackout, and Dangerous Game, though all have their defenders). A response of sorts to The Passion Of The Christ—or at least a deepening of the religious dialogue—Mary revives the heavy Catholic themes that occasionally surface in Ferrara’s work, but it never comes close to cohering. The film’s premise, about the hubbub surrounding the release of a movie about Mary, has all kinds of potential, but Ferrara keeps too many balls in the air: The star (Juliette Binoche) gets so deeply into the role that she disappears to Jerusalem for a year, the host (Forest Whitaker) of a Charlie Rose-like roundtable show faces a crisis of faith that causes him to renew his own lapsed relationship with God, and the film’s temperamental director (Matthew Modine) gets embroiled in protests and controversy. With his spot-on Ferrara impersonation, Modine kicks things to life whenever he appears on screen, but much of the movie is given over to Whitaker’s character, whose personal journey is handled with a heavy hand.
The day ended with Seven Swords, a martial arts epic from Tsui Hark, who’s proved his meddle in the past with the Once Upon A Time In China and Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain, but loses his way here. The story isn’t terribly complicated: Emperor bans martial arts and offers a cash bounty for the heads of those who practice it. Bad guys use this decree to lop the heads off of villagers indiscriminately. Seven good guys with special swords fight the bad guys. Sounds simple, right? Then why was my head swimming for all two-and-a-half tedious hours of it? Even the action sequences are oddly clipped and unsatisfying, leaving only the handsome production values to admire.
For press and public screenings both, festival programmers normally do an excellent job of anticipating the degree of interest in a given film and scheduling it accordingly, but sometimes they make curious decisions. Michael Haneke’s new movie Hidden was widely considered one of the highlights of Cannes and it has two relatively big stars in Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, but it was screened for press this morning in a theater that could only house 160 people, which left about twice that number (including myself) out in the cold.
Happily, I was able to score a ticket to Monday’s public screening, but the shut-out meant that I had to improvise my first festival slot-filler in The Quiet, a self-serious drama about incest, suburban angst, and other indie-movie favorites. I hated the director Jamie Babbitt’s last film, the self-consciously outrageous camp comedy But I’m A Cheerleader, but only a few lines of quirky high-school dialogue in The Quiet suggest the same sensibility at work. Where Cheerleader was candy-colored and manic, Babbitt’s new film is studied and more than a little awkward. When a dysfunctional family brings their sullen, deaf teenage relative into the household, dark secrets come to light, mainly that daddy (Martin Donovan) is sleeping with his hot daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) while his wife (Edie Falco) is passed out on valium. What follows neither shocks nor disturbs nor surprises.
Missing the early screening of Hidden actually solved my biggest scheduling conflict, allowing me to catch Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times, a trio of novella-length movies that plays like a K-Tel collection of his previous work. Set in three different time periods—the 60s, the 10s, and present-day, respectively—the film couple the same two actors in each segment, but they all have their individual distinctions. Opinions vary widely on which of the three is the most accomplished, but I much preferred the first one, a sweetly nostalgic piece about the relationship between a pool-hall girl and a heartbreaker about to enter the service. Optimism is a rare and precious thing in a Hou movie, and with its great use of pop songs (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Rain And Tears”), gorgeous color cinematography, and unabashed romanticism, the segment bears more than a little resemblance to Wong Kar-wai. The other two are basically more concise (and less affecting) versions of previous Hou films: The second, a silent movie about a concubine and her master, recycles the suffocated beauty of Flowers Of Shanghai to lesser effect while the third echoes the modern-day ennui of Hou’s last feature, Millennium Mambo. Overall, a good sampling of his work, especially for newcomers, but the last two segments find Hou spinning his wheels a bit.
Seems like nobody else cared much for Duelist, the latest from Lee Myung-se, a Korean action maestro whose last feature, the 1999 cop shoot-‘em-up Nowhere To Hide, took an avant-garde approach to the genre that made a deep impression on me. Substance takes a backseat to style, but oh what style! More so than even wire-fu epics like Hero, Lee’s films completely disregard the conventions of action choreography and push the fight scenes to something like abstract art. With altering film speeds, stuttering freeze frames, and striking bursts of color, Nowhere To Hide and Duelist have the graphic intensity of a comic book. Duelist may be silly and over-the-top, but there are sequences—particularly, a sword battle in a moonlit alleyway that plays like an erotically charged ballet—that are miraculous in their image-making. Judging by the tepid critical response, the flood of early walkouts by buyers hoping for the next Crouching Tiger, and Nowhere To Hide’s commercial wipeout, I worry that the film might not find a home in the state. Maybe Tartan Films, which has been championing Korean auteurs like Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Kim Ki-duk (Bad Guy), will take a chance. Otherwise, Asian action nuts will have to look for the import DVD.
After the sugar rush of Duelist, a comedown was inevitable, but I never could have predicted how far the day would crash. With Human Resources and especially Time Out, French director Laurent Cantet proved himself to be an incisive chronicler of the workaday world; his leftist leanings were apparent in both, but they’re smuggled through characters and situations that are subtly articulated. The program description on Cantet’s Vers Le Sud (Heading South) raised some red flags pre-festival, but if anyone could steer the premise of American spinsters and their Haitian boy-toys away from didacticism, he’d be the guy to do it. Sadly, this is the movie we’d feared, a ham-handed allegory about the ruinous effects of cultural imperialism in the Caribbean. Lost in the blather is a wonderfully imperious Charlotte Rampling, who plays the Queen Bee of a beachside resort where middle-aged women treat lithe Haitian studs like a form of rejuvenating skin cream. To make matters worse, the film has the most cringe-inducing explanation of the title since The Upside Of Anger.
Early word on Takeshis’, a hall-of-mirrors lark from the generally reliable Takeshi Kitano (Fireworks, Sonatine), was that it was for Kitano fanboys only: The more you like him, the more you’ll like the movie. I’ve seen and enjoyed Kitanos of every stripe, whether they’re violent, lyrical, sentimental, quirky, or all of the above. But I still found Takeshis’ an indulgent, repetitive, and ultimately unbearable riff on his own fame and persona. Only recommended for Kitano fans who also think F For Fake is Orson Welles’ best film. And that's a pretty narrow audience indeed.
Coming soon: A report on a miraculously good Day Five, in which the festival regains a lot of lost momentum.