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The Bottomless Pit of Movies

"Habemus Papam"

More from the Toronto International Film Festival

Last week in this space I discussed seven films that I saw at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival. That leaves 29 to go. Unless I want to be doing this every week until November, I guess I’m going to have to pick up the pace some. I admit that I tend to pick what I see on the basis of the director. This does put films by new filmmakers at a disadvantage; on the other hand, auteurism has its rewards. Habemus Papam is a comedy by the wonderful Italian satirist Nanni Moretti, onetime subject of a TIFF “Spotlight” retrospective (a festival program I wish they’d bring back). As those of you who read Latin will have guessed from the title, the subject is the announcement by the Vatican’s conference of cardinals of a new Pope. Problem is, the electee (Michel Piccoli) doesn’t want the job, and hits the road before he can be announced to the world. This leaves the Vatican with a sticky problem, forcing it to sequester everyone in the building until he can be found. Because Moretti (who co-stars here as a psychiatrist passing the time by organizing the other cardinals into a volleyball tournament) usually takes Italian politics as a subject, his films often aren’t released in the US, where audiences don’t even understand their own political system; hopefully this one will be an exception.

That Terence Davies and not Todd Haynes got to adapt Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea is cause for celebration, as I much prefer the former’s emotionally rich cinematic recreations of the late 1940s and early 1950s to the latter’s airless depictions. Rachel Weisz is a likely Oscar candidate for her tour de force performance as a woman who leaves her older blueblood husband for a drunken, unemployed ex-fighter pilot.

Probably the festival’s biggest disappointment was the British documentary Sarah Palin, retitled Sarah Palin: You Betcha! for US release. Director Nick Broomfield arguably created in the mid-1980s the helpless doofus persona that Michael Moore used in Roger and Me, and used it to great effect in a series of films culminating in Tracking Down Maggie, which explored Margaret Thatcher’s ties to arms dealing through her son. Here he pursues his usual tactic of trying to get an interview with Palin while talking to people who knew her back in the day in Wasila Alaska. But while he makes convincing points that the woman is anti-intellectual, anti-gay and obsessively vindictive, it’s all preaching to the choir: he uncovers nothing new that rises above the level of gossip, and won’t persuade anyone who doesn’t already abhor her.

I don’t know why it is that Matthew McConaughey makes my skin crawl, but whatever it is that makes him impossible to watch in romantic comedies works to the advantage of Killer Joe, in which he plays a Texas cop who moonlights as a killer for hire. Adapted from a stage play, this black comedy centers on the efforts of a trailer-trash family (Emile Hersch, Thomas Haden Church, and Gina Gershon) to commission a murder in order to collect insurance money. At age 76, director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) proves that he’s not to be outdone in delivering tasteless material, with a few scenes so gruesome that I found them hard to watch. It eventually spins out of control, which is a recommendation to a certain kind of viewer.

Texas justice is examined more rationally by Werner Herzog, whose documentary Into the Abyss was conceived backward: After interview prisoners on Texas’s death row, he found one whose story he wanted to examine in depth. What initially seems like it will be an expose of the injustices of the death penalty surprisingly becomes a sociological portrait of a deeply troubled milieu where apparently average people are guilty of unthinkable crimes. Lacking the bizarre humor of his recent work, it is one of most openly humanistic films.

The questions of guilt and innocence aren’t at play in the French drama Guilty, based on the true story of a man who was arrested in 2001 on a charge of pedophilia. Despite the lack of evidence against him, and the unreliability of his accuser, he spent years in prison awaiting trial while his life fell apart without him. This shocking true story was part of one of the biggest legal scandals in modern French history and features an unforgettable performance by Philippe Torreton, who appears to have pulled a Christian Bale to depict his character’s suffering.

Movies I walked out on that I might have stayed if I didn’t have so many other options: Rampart, starring Woody Harrelson as a dirty LA cop; the British drama Death of a Superhero, about a 14-year-old boy who withdraws from his cancer treatments into drawing comic books; Behold the Lamb, an Irish odd-couple comedy about a punk girl and a middle-aged guy on the road—all of which I felt I’d seen before.

I wish I’d walked out sooner on Elles, a shapeless, pretentious mess starring Juliette Binoche as a Parisian housewife/journalist writing an article on young prostitutes. It was programmed by the festival’s director, Piers Handling, and while he does a tremendous job organizing TIFF, his taste in movies is awfully pedestrian. His notes for the bland French comedy Mon pirecauchemar (My Worst Nightmare), starring Isabelle Huppert as an bourgeois art gallery owner doing battle with the boorish handyman who is renovating her house, contains this amazing sentence: …[T]he revelation of Mon pirecauchemar is Huppert’s willingness to push her character to the limit and beyond.” Can he possibly have never seen The Piano Teacher, Ma Mère, or for that matter Going Places?

Briefly: Barrymore is a film version of Christopher Plummer’s one-man stage performance as John Barrymore, drunkenly recounting his glory days at the end of his life, and it’s every it as appealing as it sounds…How could I not see a new film version of Faust? Wish I could say that I’d understood any of Alexander Sokurov’s dryly absurdist take on the famous story…Think of Me features a strong performance by Lauren Ambrose as an uncentered single mother in Las Vegas, but the script is too arbitrary and depressing to get her work much exposure…Coriolanus, the directorial debut of Ralph Fiennes, is the most in-yer-face adaptation of Shakespeare since Julie Taymor’s Titus…That Samsara is the first feature film to be shown in 4k digital, using a projector installed specially at the TIFF Lightbox for its premiere, is the kind of news that will excite the kind of people I try to avoid at parties. I will admit that the globetrotting film by Ron Fricke, who was the cinematographer of Koyaanisqatsi before branching out on his own with Baraka in 1992, is amazing to look at. Whether any of it means anything I couldn’t begin to guess…Superclásico is a delightful Danish comedy about a grouchy wine dealer following his soon-to-be ex-wife to Buenos Aires, where she’s about to marry a soccer star. If some distributor like Sony Classics doesn’t pick it up, it would be a great entry into the market for a smaller player…As for the other movies I saw, I can barely remember them, so why bother dissing them?

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