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The Stars Are Not Wanted Now

God Bless America

Highlights, sans celebrities, of the 36th Toronto International Film Festival

I made no attempt to see the new Pedro Almodóvar at the Toronto International Film Festival. Nor either of the George Clooney films, the one he directed or the one he merely stars in. I didn’t stand in line for David Cronenberg’s movie about Jung and Freud, much as I would like to see it. I never even considered seeing Moneyball, Drive, Killer Elite, Machine Gun Preacher, or 50/50, and I don’t understand why anyone else did.

All of those movies will be in theaters within the next few months. A handful of them already are. I will have lots of opportunities to see them.

I know that it makes financial sense for the festival to get movie stars there. People like movie stars, and are willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money to say they were in proximity to them, even if that only means being one of 500 people in the same room with them. Would you pay $45 to see George Clooney introducing a new film that you can see next month for $10—and a few months after that for $3, and shortly after that on cable?

But people do, lord love ’em, and the dollars generated by all that nonsense fund a festival that brings in lots and lots of movies that I would never otherwise get to see on the big screen, possibly never at all. And even though my press pass allows me free entrance into movies, the cost of sleeping, eating, and getting from place to place in Toronto is not the bargain it once was. I pay my own expenses, and I estimate it cost me $22 for each of the 36 films I saw this year. So you’d better believe I did my best to make those selections count.

Such grubby matters aside, my only complaint with this year’s festival is that I wasn’t able to be there for every single day of it. After a summer in which Hollywood seems to have dropped its estimate of audience intelligence to an all-time low (and you know it will get even lower next summer—it always does), the Toronto festival reminds me not only that there are still plenty of worthy films being made, but that there are plenty of people eager to see them.

The Turin Horse

On my first night there, for example, the tedium of spending half an hour in a long line was tempered by the fact that all these people were waiting to see a new movie by Aki Kaurismäki, the Finnish filmmaker whose work was first presented to North American audiences at Toronto in 1989. I wouldn’t have bet that more than a few thousand people in North American were familiar with his wryly deadpan comedies about working-class losers. (The best known are probably Leningrad Cowboys Go America and The Man Without a Past.) Even though it’s set in France rather than Helsinki, Le Havre is firmly in Kaurismäki’s style, from its lugubrious humor to its garage rock performance (here by French cult figure Little Bob). Not Kaurismäki’s best, but any disappointment was made up for with an appearance by star André Wilms, who regaled us with stories of the legendarily grouchy director at work (“French rock and roll is like English wine”).

For cinematic miserablism, the festival’s champion was easily The Turin Horse, reportedly the last film that Hungarian Bela Tarr (Satantango) will make. Tarr’s lengthy films, comprised of long, carefully composed shots, are not exactly known for their humor, and he introduced this one by pointing out that the weather was sunny and pleasant outside: were we sure we wanted to spend two and one half hours watching a black-and-white film about some ugly, miserable poor people? I did, and I can only describe it as a nearly wordless movie about two people in which nothing happens except that things get worse. (In the unlikely event that it ever plays here, I will spend some time telling you why you should go see it.) At the Q&A afterward, I asked Tarr if it was true that he was retiring from filmmaking and if so why. He pointed to the screen and said, “Did you see this movie?”

After that, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia seemed almost lighthearted. In fact, much of it was surprisingly comical, most unexpected from the Danish provocateur behind Breaking the Waves and Antichrist. Beginning with a wedding going awry and ending with, perhaps, the end of the world, the movie presumably is inspired by von Trier’s own bouts with depression. And if the film’s meanings are obscure (no surprise there), it is a gorgeous piece of cinema to see, scored to Wagner’s achingly beautiful music from Tristran und Isolde and featuring an all-star cast including Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, the Skarsgårds (Stellan and Alexander), Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, and Udo Kier. It should be in theaters confounding audiences by Thanksgiving.

The existential angst of these European filmmakers may be abstract, but not so that of Bobcat Goldthwait, whose God Bless America was a hit of the Midnight Madness series. His protagonist, Frank (Joel Murray) is a middle-aged divorcee who suffers from insomnia and migraines. Trying to numb himself by watching TV only makes life worse. Bombarded by “reality” shows, celebrity competitions and reactionary pundits that glorify bad behavior and parade contempt for the weakest among us, Frank becomes a serial killer on a mission to make the world a less cruel place. Spiraling quickly into an absurd level of violence, the movie is hilarious for its rants against the bottomless fetid pond of mass entertainment, though dramatically it paints itself into a corner. It’s blunt, but a must see for fans of Network, Heathers, and Idiocracy.

Other Midnight Madness offerings demonstrated that there’s not much of anything new in the world of horror movies. The film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road would seem to have been the final word on the post-apocalyptic survival movie, but that didn’t stop the creators of The Day from taking a shot at it. By focusing on atmosphere and action, they still managed to come up with a watchable story reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Lovely Molly, by one half of the team that made The Blair Witch Project, featured lots of shaky hand-held video footage to get into the mind of a young woman facing evil spirits when she and her husband move into her late parents’ house. Comparisons to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion are mostly wishful thinking. And while it wasn’t actually in the Midnight Madness section, the Canadian feature 388 Arletta Avenue takes an interesting slant on the Saw genre by following the increasing desperation of a man as he is tormented by an unknown presence who has hidden video cameras throughout his house.

More next week.

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