Movies Of The Day:

A Girl Cut In Two
(dir. Claude Chabrol) and Mad Detective (dir. Johnnie To)

Both Claude Chabrol and Johnnie To have reached the phase of their careers where they're cranking out good-to-great movies every year or two, sometimes with minimal ambition, and sometimes with a little more juice. Because both of them are so good at what they do, it's hard sometimes to distinguish immediately when they've delivered one of those mini-masterpieces, as opposed to just another finely made genre exercise. Chabrol's A Girl Cut In Two is pretty much the latter, but at that, it's nothing to shrug off. Ludivine Sagnier plays the title character, a TV presenter who develops a crush on grizzled celebrity author François Berléand around the same time that arrogant young playboy Benoît Magimel starts sniffing around her. One man treats her like a naïve plaything and offers no future; the other treats her like a queen and can give her a lifetime of security. And as these matters usually run, the ultimate choice really isn't up to her. The men will do what they will do.

A Girl Cut In Two isn't exactly a crackling suspense film, though it does contain some hairpin twists, and it hints at a world of secret deviance dwelling behind elegantly carved doors. It's mainly a take-off-your-coat-and-stay-a-while piece of storytelling, where all the characters and their motivations get revealed in due course, and in the meantime the audience is expected to ponder the deeper meaning of all the dualities the movie keeps running past us. A Girl Cut In Two ends well, with an image of public spectacle that calls back to and sort of redefines a lot of what happened earlier. But none of this is exactly chilling, or revelatory. Its just another good Chabrol film to throw on the pile.

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Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai's co-directed policier Mad Detective has a lot more on its mind, but a certain baseline ludicrousness keeps it from being as effortlessly entertaining as To's best. Lau Ching-wan plays a master sleuth whose working methods require him to reenact crimes from the perspectives of the perpetrator and the victim. After a decade or so of cracking impossible case, Lau has become an unreliable nutcase, booted from the force because he won't stop talking about how he can see the multiple personalities that dwell inside everyone. Then young cop Andy On enlists Lau to help him track down a missing cop, and the two of them enter into a weird cat-and-mouse game complicated by the fact that the veteran, the novice, and their mutual prey all spend a lot of time talking to their inner ghosts.

To and Wai illustrate those ghosts by having separate actors play them, which means at times the screen is filled with 10 or more people, all representing two or three actual characters. Once the viewer figures out what's going on–which takes a scene or two–the gimmick isn't that hard to follow, but it always looks strange to have, say, a 12-year-old boy, a middle-aged woman, an old fat guy and so on, all yelling back and forth and pointing weapons at each other across a tight, shadowy room. (Not to mention the psychology of it all, which seems a little suspect.)

At the same time, Mad Detective is short and lean, and has a point to make about the different reasons why personalities fragment. For Lau, it's a function of trying to solve crimes and effect justice. For On and everybody else, it's all about the petty ways they try to cover their asses and save their jobs, by lying and making excuses and becoming something other than the best version of themselves. So thematically, Mad Detective is richer than A Girl Cut In Two; but on the screen it's less polished and sophisticated. It's just another good To film–the kind that agreeably fills out the back end of a film festival schedule.

(Both: B).

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Dans Le Ville De Sylvie
(dir. José Luis Guerín): About two-thirds of the way through this 84-minute movie, a woman entered the theater and sat next to a friend who'd been saving a seat for her the whole time. As she leaned over, presumably to ask what she missed, I tried to imagine the recap: "There's this good-looking young Spanish guy who sits in his hotel room for a while, then walks down to a café, then has coffee spilled on him, then comes back the next day to sketch girls, then follows one of those girls through the street for a while." And that's pretty much the first 50 minutes of Dans Le Ville De Sylvie. More happens in the final 30 minutes, once we learn that our hero is looking for a woman he met on vacation in this town 6 years ago, and chasing the memory of a moment in time that seems to be gone forever. It's a beautiful sentiment, supported by a couple of great scenes, including one of those early café sketch-fests and a climactic sequence at a bus depot where the image of the woman he's looking for begins to dissolve into the general diversity of womankind. But the movie is deliberate to a fault. Is there anything conveyed in a 20-minute walking scene that couldn't be gotten across in a 5-minute walking scene? Slot Sylvie alongside Silent Light as yet another well-shot, precisely shaded mood piece that I admired in fragments, but that on the whole, I didn't much like. But for what it's worth, many of the same people who've been raving about Silent Light called this their favorite film of the festival. (C+).

Those Three (dir. Naghi Nemati): I've had good luck coming in blind to Iranian films at TIFFs past, and from the program guide's description–three soldiers lost in a stark, snowy countryside–I had hopes that Those Three was going to be my first intrepid discovery of the festival, and that by the end of the day I'd be telling all my friends about this brilliant new Iranian director and his crisply shot, naturalistic portrait of camaraderie and desperation. Then the movie started, and I noticed right away that it's shot on video. Not crisp, film-like HD, but blurry, muddy video, transferred to 35 mm film. In short, to quote those friends I hoped to impress, it "looked like ass." And so, while Those Three may have eventually developed into exactly the kind of naturalistic portrait I'd hoped to see, I'll never know, because after 10 minutes of soldiers–or rather, fuzzy blobs that kind of looked like soldiers–trudging silently through the snow, I bailed. If you're going to make a film slow and dry, you should at least make it look pretty. (W/O).

Notes, Thoughts, Things Overheard…

Today was my last day of the festival–and thus my last day of blogging–but I didn't want to shut the door on TIFF '07 without taking a look at this year's crop of pre-film sponsor reels. Every year we suffer through intended-to-be-clever mini-commercials that tend to lose their minimal charm after two-dozen or so screenings. For the past couple of years, the festival sponsors have done us all a favor and shortened the pieces up, but the audience still groans whenever the telltale music and logos pop up. This year's never-want-to-see-them-again ads were for Cadillac, and featured a nerdy guy pitching unoriginal movie ideas to two bored executives. Of the six versions of the reel, I have to admit that I started rooting for one in particular, in which the pitcher explains that in his movie, "There are two gangs, and when they fight, they dance. They dance-fight!" This line, accompanied by the dude's thrusting arm gestures, always made me smile, I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit. I'll miss that crazy dance-fighting bastard…

This being the last entry, I ought to reach for some kind of festival-in-a-nutshell wrap-up, but I'm going to save some of those thoughts for a later date and instead just recap the 33 movies I saw from start to finish, arranged by grade, and by preference within those grades. Read consecutively, this would be my top-to-bottom TIFF list:

A: No Country For Old Men

A-: Into The Wild; 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days; My Kid Could Paint That; Margot At The Wedding; Persepolis; Atonement; Paranoid Park

B+: The Orphanage; I'm Not There; Before The Devil Knows You're Dead; Lou Reed's Berlin; La Citadelle Asiegée; Joy Division

B: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford; You, The Living; Mad Detective; A Girl Cut In Two; Eastern Promises; Stuck; Dainipponjin; Honeydripper

B-: Lust, Caution; Control; In The Valley Of Elah

C+: Dans Le Ville De Sylvie; Silent Light; George A. Romero's Diary Of The Dead; Across The Universe; Redacted

C: Juno; Death Defying Acts

C-: Cleaner

As I wrote before, none of these grades are final and I plan to see many of these movies again, especially if I'm assigned to review them. But in general, I've found that my tastes have run alongside those of my colleagues, albeit a little more mainstream. I'm all about Into The Wild; they're agog over Silent Light. By this point, we've argued, bullied and gently chided each other so much about all these movies that our opinions have become almost a running joke. That's part of the fun of the festival, bickering in the lobby after a screening and reveling in those rare occasions when something that struck a chord with one of us also hit our friends the exact same way. We fight. We dance. We dance-fight.