“Awwwwwwwwww,” the audience groaned in unison as a festival programmer announced that, no, Hayao Miyazaki had not made it into Toronto for the North American premiere of his latest (and supposedly final) movie. If ever one needed proof of how deeply the famed Japanese animator/director has touched audiences worldwide, it could be found in that exclamation—a collective sigh of genuine disappointment that washed over the whole packed house. Perhaps the fans in attendance also reasoned that, with Miyazaki having recently announced his retirement, this might have been one of their last chances (at least for a while) to see the dream-weaver behind Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away in the flesh. “Awwww,” indeed.
As someone who’s never quite fallen head over heels for a Miyazaki picture—a fact many of my cinephile compatriots blame on a gaping hole where my heart should be—I felt like an agnostic nestled into a congregation of true believers. It didn’t help that The Wind Rises (Grade: B-) is more pleasant than transporting, even as it boasts some of the loveliest animation in Studio Ghibli history. Based on Miyazaki’s manga of the same name, the film is essentially, in its lilting and sometimes whimsical way, a standard-issue biopic. After a soaring fake-out opening—the first of several dream-sequence flights of fancy—The Wind Rises settles into the lightly fictionalized story of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. (These aerodynamic machines are probably best known to Americans as the Japanese aircrafts used during the bombing of Pearl Harbor.) As the story bobs through the years, gently tagging along with Horikoshi while he grows from an aviation-obsessed boy to a successful engineer, Miyazaki delivers some gorgeous imagery—an infamous earthquake that reduces Tokyo to rubble, fighter planes soaring through cloudy skies, and so forth. Even in its quieter moments, the film is a marvel of craftsmanship; its evocation of late evening, lit by the last glimmers of daylight, is especially lovely.
As usual, though, Miyazaki proves more adept at creating (or in this case, re-creating) worlds than populating them with compelling characters. This isn’t a problem when the director is working in the idiom of fantasy, but it proves more detrimental here, as there are no wood creatures or floating castles to distract from the one-note earnestness of the protagonist—a thinly sketched go-getter who romances a sick girl (but never gets too torn up about her worsening condition) and absently frets about how his gift for design might be used for destructive purposes. Here and there, The Wind Rises hints at the horrors that can can come from unchecked ambition, but it never forces its hero—or the audience—to confront them head-on. (Shifting to the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which happened not too long after the Zero was completed, might have created some troubling parallels between Horikoshi and his guilt-wracked contemporary, Oppenheimer.) The film’s a very nice, faintly dull dramatization—and an oddly earthbound closer to Miyazaki’s career. I can’t have been the only one last night who left the theater wishing that, for his alleged swan song, the director had really let his imagination run wild.
From the opposite side of the planet, both geographically and tonally speaking, comes Bad Words (Grade: C), the directorial debut of Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman. There are hints of dickishness in nearly every Bateman performance, even the ones in which he’s essentially playing a nice guy, but never before has the actor gone so full-bore asshole. Casting himself as a grown man who’s used a loophole in the rules to ascend in the ranks of the national spelling bee tournament, Bateman flings heinous insults at the parents who want his head, and wages psychological warfare on his adolescent competitors. The similarity to Bad Santa is more than titular, especially once the boorish hero starts palling around with an irrepressibly wholesome Indian-American kid. But the jokes, while sometimes bracingly mean-spirited, aren’t half as good. As for the mystery motivation behind Bateman’s shame odyssey, it’s supremely mundane—and, for those familiar with Ebert’s Law Of Conservation Of Characters, very predictable.
Another misfire starring its director, Tom At The Farm (Grade: C) is the first real folly from young French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan. (Laurence Anyways, his last movie, remains an underrated success.) At first glance, the scenario seems sturdy: A gay city slicker (Dolan) travels to the Canadian boonies to attend his boyfriend’s funeral, discovering not only that the dead man’s mother doesn’t know who he is, but that she believes her son was dating a woman. How can Dolan give a proper goodbye when doing so would posthumously out his lover? Is it better for this woman to know who her boy really was or would that knowledge just compound her grief? Tom At The Farm briefly grazes these big questions, then takes a turn for the outlandish as the deceased’s psychotic closet-case brother (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) begins to physically bully Dolan, urging him to lie to his mother and then basically taking him hostage at the family farm. The tone veers violently from scene to scene, variously suggesting a fish-out-of-water comedy, a psychodrama, and a Misery-style thriller—none convincing. That the material is pulled from a play, written by Michel Marc Bouchard, makes perfect sense: Only onstage, perhaps, could one accept a version of this story that doesn’t end, very early on, with Dolan’s character getting the hell out of dodge upon first opportunity. It’s admirable to see the writer-director stretching himself with a movie so unlike his previous work. But that’s about the only thing admirable about Tom At The Farm.
And so the improbable highlight of my penultimate day at TIFF was a disposable Elmore Leonard adaptation, Life Of Crime (Grade: B-), which is technically the festival’s closing-night film. The source material, 1978’s The Switch, is not one of Leonard’s strongest capers, and the movie could have used the more accomplished touch of Soderbergh or Tarantino. (Director Daniel Schechter is no great stylist.) Really, the main pleasure here is seeing younger versions of the characters from Jackie Brown. None of the actors are doing imitations, exactly, but that won ’t stop Jackie fans from hearing a little of Samuel L. Jackson’s singsong cadence in Mos Def’s delivery as Ordell or seeing a touch of Bridget Fonda in Isla Fisher’s take on Melanie. Conversely, there’s something sad about the discrepancy between John Hawkes’ mostly good-hearted Louis and the dead-eyed ex-convict Robert De Niro plays in Jackie. (The arc of that character, over a couple decades and novels, is almost tragic.) Considering that they share no creative talent, it’s probably unfair to compare the two movies, but damn if Life Of Crime doesn’t work a little better if you keep its QT-helmed predecessor in the back of your mind. —A.A. Dowd