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Speed-Dating For Cinephiles

The Invention of Lying

One week and 25 films at the Toronto International Film Festival

I would never presume to render an opinion on a film if I had only seen a random five or 10 minutes of it. Yet that’s the position I’m in trying to write about the 34th Toronto International Film Festival. I saw 25 films, which may sound like a lot over a week (though it’s less than I would have seen without the time spent at interviews and press conferences). But that’s barely 7.5 percent of the 335 films that were shown in Toronto from September 10 through 19.

Comparing this year’s films to the program book for the first year I attended, in 1988, the festival hasn’t changed as much as it sometimes seems. I miss the “Spotlight” section, which until it was abandoned a few years ago used to present a selection of films by an international filmmaker whose work had thus far escaped broad attention. And while Hollywood’s discovery of Toronto could be a useful promotional tool, Hollywood has focused far too much attention on what are usually the festival’s least interesting films—i.e., the ones with market-value stars—and it hasn’t really altered the balance of programming much. The proportion of high profile galas to unheralded movies waiting to be discovered is about the same as it ever was.

What may have changed after the festival’s peak years is its value as a market. The last decade’s glut of independent productions combined with the lousy economy led to a noticeable decrease in films that were picked up for distribution this year. And while it would be interested to see a tally of how many films this year already had American distribution deals by the time they got here, it seems clear that Toronto’s ability to launch new films may be on the decline.

Enter the Void
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Vahalla Rising
The Trotsky
A Serious Man

The number of galas has increased over the years, from one per night in the festivals early years to 21 this year. Added to that are 60 “special presentations,” which are essentially more movies from the same pool. It never fails to astonish me how many people will stand in line at the city’s biggest screening facilities to pay top dollar (in some cases over $20 Canadian) for movies that will be in theaters within a few months and on TV within a year. Is it really worth all the extra time and money to see a movie just because Oprah Winfrey or George Clooney or Megan Fox or Matt Damon or Jennifer Connelly or Ricky Gervais or Natalie Portman or Penelope Cruz will be there to introduce it? For thousands of Toronto moviegoers, the answer is apparently “Yes.”

I only saw a few of the gala films, and was generally unimpressed. MicMacs, from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of the much loved Amelie as well as cult hits Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, was so shrilly whimsical that I could only take about half of it. Mother and Child, starring Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, and Samuel L. Jackson in a story about the perils and pains of adoption, played like a better-than-average Lifetime movie, if you consider that a recommendation.

Much better was The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. As the last film made by the late Heath Ledger, who died before it was finished, the film is guaranteed a certain amount of box office, though it shouldn’t have to depend on that. It features some of the best work ever from director (and former Monty Python animator) Terry Gilliam, who completed this fantasy by getting Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to cleverly complete Ledger’s scenes. Look for it in theaters in December.

Confronted by the enormity of the festival (at any given time, if you have a press pass, there may be several dozen screenings to chose from), I often pick movies by filmmakers whose previous work I’m familiar with. It’s not the best way to choose, making it difficult to discover new filmmakers. And it doesn’t necessarily pay off, either. The very first film I saw this year was Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, which reputedly had viewers puking in the aisles at Cannes. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play a therapist and his wife riding out the aftermath of the death of their young son in a secluded forest cottage. The film has moments of great visual beauty, which will surprise anyone who still thinks of von Trier only as the architect of the naturalistic Dogma movement. But it is also tedious and talky, at least until a final act which contains moments of violence that are going to repel a lot of audiences. (That they will also attract a lot of jaded thrill-seekers is not to the film’s credit.) The finale can be described as a distaff equivalent of the climax of Marco Ferreri’s The Last Woman, for the two or three of you who saw that one.

For cheap thrills, I much more enjoyed Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage in the kind of wacked-out performance I was afraid he was no longer interested in doing. It borrows only the general theme of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, of the moral collapse of a drug- and gambling-addicted cop. Cage doesn’t try to reprise Harvey Keitel’s imitation of a naked, melancholy airplane, but he finds his own ways to go over the top. (When it gets to theaters here this winter, look for two lines: “What are these fucking iguanas doing on my coffee table?” and “Shoot him again—his soul is still dancing.”)

Herzog had another film here, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done?, which didn’t quite live up to its title. It felt heavily inspired by David Lynch, who served as its executive producer.

Back on planet Earth, The Invention of Lying marked the directorial debut of Ricky Gervais, who also co-wrote this romantic comedy set in a world where nobody ever tells a lie. Gervais stars as the first man to figure out that he can benefit from saying things that aren’t true. While it’s generally an inoffensive (and very funny) satire, it will be interesting to see if it gets flack from religious fundamentalists for its depiction of religion as an arbitrary body of comforting lies.

The breakout discovery of the festival for man viewers was The Trotsky, a smart and very funny comedy with a perfectly cast Jay Barushel as a teenager who thinks he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. You don’t have to know much about the real Trotsky to enjoy the movie, which will hopefully get a US distribution deal despite being a Canadian feature. (Why don’t more Canadian films get released in the US? They speak English there, you know. Well, except for Quebec…)

I also very much enjoyed Leaves of Grass, written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson with what looks like the heavy influence of the Coen Brothers. Edward Norton stars as twin brothers, one an Ivy League professor who has tried to leave his Oklahoma roots far behind, the other a drug dealer who tricks his sibling into coming home. It’s funny and smart, and while it wears a familiarity with literature on its sleeve (naming your film after a Walt Whitman poem is not a great way to get audiences into the multiplex), it will hopefully find a wide audience anyway.

The Coens themselves were there for the third year in a row with A Serious Man, an autobiographically inspired movie about Midwestern Jews in the 1960s that is odd even by their standards (and they all but invented odd).

Having disliked the previous work of French provocateur Gasper Noe (Irreversible, I Stand Alone), I sat down for his Enter the Void intending only to watch the first 45 minutes while waiting for another movie to start. Instead, I stayed for all two hours and 45 minutes of this mesmerizingly visualized film, inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in which the spirit of a dead drug dealer wanders the nighttime streets of Tokyo revisiting the failures of his life. The level of unpleasantness is low by Noe’s standards, and the vivid design and constantly floating camera work are so hypnotic that this deserves to play everywhere at midnight screenings. (And when it gets to DVD, expect it to be in the display box of every seller of Blu-Ray players.)

Among the disappointments: Whip It, Drew Barrymore’s debut as a director, isn’t nearly as entertaining as a movie about roller derby ought to be, at least partly due to a miscast Ellen Page…Suck, about a rock band who finds success when its lead singer becomes a vampire, has scenes set in Buffalo, where the popular rock band Secretaries of Stake is led by Moby (and a border guard is played by Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson). But none of it was filmed here, and it’s not as funny as director-star Rob Stefaniuk’s previous Phil the Alien…A sequel to his 1999 film Happiness with an entirely different cast (including Paul Rubens in the Jon Lovitz role), Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime doesn’t really add anything new to its predecessor’s catalogue of black-humored misery…I might well have enjoyed Vahalla Rising, a beautifully photographed story about a Viking slave in Denmark of 1,000 years ago, had director Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher) not shot it in English using actors with accents so thick that they made the film look like lost scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Advice: Dub this into Danish before trying to sell it in the US!

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