Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Toronto Film Festival '07: Day Six

To read Scott's Day Six, click here.

Movies Of The Day:

Across The Universe (dir. Julie Taymor) and I'm Not There (dir. Todd Haynes)

How is it possible for one of the premiere theatrical stylists of our era to make a movie filled with some of the most memorable pop songs ever written, and yet only achieve a few scattered moments of transcendence? After seeing the trailer for Across The Universe months ago, I was prepared for Julie Taymor's hodgepodge of '60s clichés and drippy reinterpretations of Beatles songs. But I was also–going by the 30-second burst of delirious surrealism that ends the trailer–counting on mind-blowing imagery that might mitigate against the well-worn hippie mythos. Alas, while that imagery is the definite high point of Across The Universe, it's parceled out like Advent candy: after extended rounds of prayers and sermonizing.

The main problem is that Taymor rarely figures out how to use The Beatles, except as a source for cutesy character names (Jude, Lucy, Sadie, Jo-Jo, Maxwell, Prudence, et. al.) and on-the-nose dramatizations, like when Prudence locks herself in a closet, and her pals sing, "Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play." Taymor doesn't arrange the music chronologically, which might've been a smart way to register the changing concerns of the Love Generation, nor does she find new insights into what The Beatles might've been singing about–with the exception of a few highs, like a Vietnam/modern art montage set to "Strawberry Fields Forever," and an operatic army induction sequence set to "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." (And even the latter ends with a shot of soldiers straining to carry the statue of liberty…the "she" of the title, I guess.) I give Taymor a lot of credit for trying something this wild and borderline ridiculous–and I predict theater geeks will love it–but to me Across The Universe felt like a project that'd been stewing for a while, and thus came out overcooked. The gist of it is best summed up by Fritz The Cat: "Hey yeah, the '60s. Happy times, heavy times."


By contrast, Todd Haynes' phantasmagorical Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There makes connections between Dylan's career and his milieu that are sometimes confusing, but ever-scintillating. The main thrust of the film is that Dylan has always defined himself by fleeing from himself, and so Haynes presents six versions of Dylan, played by six different actors, all pointedly trying not to be a scrawny, brainy middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota. Some try to be Woody Guthrie, or they escape into religion, or suburban family life, or forgotten Americana. But each keeps eluding interpretation, by design.

I'm Not There kind of eludes interpretation too. The six Dylans inhabit separate vignettes, which Haynes weaves together loosely but intuitively, with no regard whatsoever for "story." Each of the vignettes is also shot in a different style, from quasi-documentary to an extended riff on Sam Peckinpah. In fact, the main failing of I'm Not There is that none of the homages are as entertaining as their source material. I'd rather watch an actual Peckinpah film than watch Richard Gere as "Billy The Kid" try on circus masks and walk around a frontier village while speaking out against a new state highway project. Even for a Dylan fan like me, there's a lot of "huh?" to I'm Not There.

But there's just as much "wow." I was particularly mesmerized by the passages featuring Cate Blanchett as the mid-'60s electric Dylan, visiting London. Haynes shoots Blanchett's scenes like a Fellini movie–8 1/2 in particular–and by stacking the hyper-defensive Dylan of that era on top of the emerging European art cinema and the fashionable ennui of Swinging London, Haynes defines 1966 as the dawn of an age of self-consciousness. It's an astonishing use of quasi-narrative cinema as cultural essay, and Haynes repeats the effort five more times, with varying degrees of success. Frankly, I may be underrating I'm Not There slightly. It's going to take a second viewing to decide if it's a work of genius, or just another on a lengthening list of TIFF07 "noble efforts."

Across The Universe: C+; I'm Not There: B+.

Also Playing:

Death Defying Acts (dir. Gillian Armstrong): Harry Houdini's preoccupation with debunking psychics forms the foundation for this transparently slight period romance, which stars Guy Pearce as Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the nightclub mind-reader who tries to work a con to reveal the magician's mother's last words (and thus win a $10,000 reward). There's a lot of reasonably smart stuff here about showmanship and satisfying a crowd, but Death Defying Acts never resolves into anything surprising or moving. It's diverting, and well-acted (especially by Saoirse Ronan, playing Zeta-Jones' pre-teen daughter), but it's unlikely to linger in anyone's memory, positively or negatively. Note: The film tumbled from a "B-" to the grade below in the final five minutes, around the time of the line, "We taught Houdini how to love." (C).

Honeydripper (dir. John Sayles): About a third of the full house at my afternoon press screening of Sayles' latest bailed before the movie was half-done, and I can certainly understand their disinterest. Honeydripper is slow and simple, following the attempts of Alabama juke-joint proprietor Danny Glover to save his business by booking a hot rock 'n' roll guitar player–in 1950 no less. The action is staged a lot like a play–like an August Wilson play to be exact, albeit less literary–and almost nothing happens in the movie that can't be predicted long before it does. And yet, compared to Sayles' recent sprawling social dramas, Honeydripper's relaxed pace and familiar milieu have a lot of charm. The dialogue may not crackle, but both Glover and Charles Dutton do a lot with some long, winding monologues, and the story builds to a sequence of genuine tension and release, involving the power of good music to solve a lot of problems. (B).

Stuck (dir. Stuart Gordon): It's tempting to overrate this clever, funny little suspenser, because it's so nonchalant and witty about its gimmicky premise. Mena Suvari plays a nursing home attendant who smacks into recently homeless businessman Stephen Rea with her car, drives home with him stuck in her windshield, and then spends the next 24 hours trying to figure out what to do. In all honesty, Stuck is pretty slack in its first 45 minutes, and it doesn't do enough with the idea that both Suvari and Rea are penned in by circumstance. But as soon as Rea begins to wrest free from the windshield, Stuck becomes one of those fun genre pieces about people trying to outthink each other, and it contains a handful of great action gags and hilarious throwaway lines. It also goes out on a high, which makes it seem better than it is. But it's pretty good regardless. (B).

Notes, Thoughts, Things Overheard…

I seem to be living something of a charmed life as far as festival logistics goes. So far, every time that I've reshuffled my schedule because of exhaustion, hunger or the need to "follow the buzz," the screenings I've missed as a result have been either fraught with technical snafus or–according to reports from friends–kind of lousy. This morning I slept in rather than try to catch the 8:45 a.m. screening of Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, and apparently I chose wisely, since a projector breakdown meant the film started almost an hour late. And the lateness delayed the 11:15 a.m. screening of I'm Not There, which I'd already decided to see in the evening. Don't get me wrong: I've seen some movies here haven't liked. But outside of Michael Clayton (which I missed because Persepolis ran late) and Jacques Rivette's The Duchess Of Langeais (which I missed because it screened early on day one), I haven't missed anything that I've really regretted. At the same time, what seems to be missing from the fest this year–for me at least–is a sense of discovery. The great movies I've been seeing have, by and large, been acclaimed already at Sundance, Cannes and Venice. I've got some lesser-known titles scheduled for my last three days, and I'm hoping to find that little movie that really impresses me, the way The Bothersome Man did last year. Fingers crossed….

I've been neglecting the "things overheard" portion of these notes, so here's a good one: Standing in line for Death Defying Acts this afternoon, I heard a man complain about the morning screening of I'm Not There, saying, "I guess you have to know a lot about Dylan Thomas, and I don't, so I was lost." I'll say!.…

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