Themes & Ruminations - TIFF 2009

A complete wrap up of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.

With Q&A videos!

Antichrist (dir. Lars von Trier)
The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke)
Enter the Void (dir. Gaspar Noe)
The Men Who Stare at Goats (dir. Grant Heslov)

Handjobs and bar mitzvahs aren't really themes but they were all over the first few days of my Toronto International Film Festival experience. After the false-start of Broken Embraces, which I can now say with clear eyes is a bit of a mess, my full day featured the work of three cinematic titans who each managed to squeeze a handjob into their film at some point or another. I'm doubtful a film will ever capture as disturbing a handjob as the bloody one given by Charlotte Gainsbourg to a helpless Willem Dafoe in Lars von Trier's Antichrist; Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon features an eerie, incestuous one; and the psychotropic sensuality never lets up in Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void so it was just a matter of time until we're presented with a handjob in the course of his trippy sex hotel orgy finale.

I don't think I could have asked for a better introduction to TIFF than that day of Noe, Haneke and von Trier. Three world-class films by a trio of boundary pushing directors, arguably in the prime of their careers, being devoured by ravenous, largely appreciative, respectful film fans. While I'd be surprised if The White Ribbon goes on to be considered one of Haneke's best, there was no denying it has its pleasures and mysteries - not the least of which is the spectacle of Haneke adding a touch of tenderness to his humanist streak. And Antichrist and Enter the Void were as beautifully fucked-up as one could hope - Enter the Void deliriously more so. It is a bit of a shame that the acting in Enter the Void couldn't be more consistent but given the nature of the film, the complex how'd-he-do-that shots that no doubt made it difficult to obtain more than a few takes, it's more than excusable and the film is nonetheless a wonder to behold. And despite dips into ridiculousness, Antichrist is that kind of immensely watchable ambiguous anti-entertainment that only the greatest directors can craft.

I'm sure there were better films playing the morning after that I could have chased down that trifecta with, but I really did enjoy The Men Who Stare At Goats. Call it a minor film or a bit of a trifle but the truth is it does have a sharp mind behind it and more than enough rebellious thoughts behind it's steady stream of gags to keep it from floating away. While it never really gels by the end of the film, it has scored enough points on performance and unique vision that I was able to forgive its shortcomings. As the influence of the festival wears off, and ratings and opinions have tended to slide around in hindsight, Goats is one of the films that has held steady. There's no getting around it -- the film is fun.

The Road (dir. John Hillcoat)

It was with The Road when the dominant themes of Forgive and Forget first bubbled to the surface. I'd had some high expectations for this one going in -- despite the fact that I wasn't too hot on John Hillcoat's last film, The Proposition. Maybe since No Country For Old Men, the last Cormac McCarthy adaptation, went so well that I assumed people got the point that by sticking to what's on the page you can end up with what makes the material great in the first place. And for the most part, The Road is faithful. A few bits and pieces are moved around but the film looks and feels remarkably like what you'd pictured when reading the book. If anything, too much is up there on the screen. Charlize Theron plays The Wife (and mother) to Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee's The Man and The Boy and maybe it's because we have Charlize Theron in that role -- or maybe it's because of a fear over releasing a movie with no love story -- that The Wife and her part of the story feels like it gets too much attention. Her purpose in the larger story is clear enough in tiny doses and it has to do with that theme of forgetting in order to move forward. Maybe it's my problem, as lately I have a hard time seeing Theron in a film and not see her performance as a plea for Academy attention.

Dealing with The Wife never felt like it would be one of the more difficult challenges in bringing The Road to the screen but figuring out The Wife goes hand in hand with figuring out the pacing and tone which is where the larger challenges lie. While the story has its thrills and chills, it's still a tremendously bleak one and one that needs a careful touch to keep it from becoming an unwatchable marathon of misery. In much the same way he handled The Proposition, Hillcoat excels at creating a detailed, organic mise-en-scene and filling it with great actors. The apocalypse has never looked as stunning and real as it does in The Road. Unfortunately, much in the same way he handled The Proposition, Hillcoat still has problems with pacing and getting in the way of story for his own artistic inclinations. Most times a post-apocalypse story needs a good injection of substance, but in this case the story is so chock-full of it already that it would be better off just getting out of the way and letting the simple survival story gain some momentum. One way to do that would be to significantly cut The Wife scenes. It turns out they're the one part of the book that works far better on the page. Hillcoat lingers in these flashbacks when he should be hitting the point and getting back to the road -- The Man and The Boy's voyage is a slow one as it is. But I still stand by my initial response to the movie: if you enjoyed the book, I think it'd be difficult to be too disappointed by the film. The world that Hillcoat creates and the performances are just too impressive.

A Serious Man (dir. Coen Bros.)

A pair of impending bar mitzvahs are prominently featured in Monday's A Serious Man and Life During Wartime -- two of my favorites from the festival. The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, if nothing else, is evidence that Joel and Ethan Coen have achieved some sort of elemental understanding with cinema. They've begun to make films that could be mistaken for effortless at this point. It's disconcerting that they've become so confident with this dynamic cinematic language of theirs and it might be a problem if they're movies weren't consistently so damn good. Their movies have these textures and rhythms that are so unique that even when they're outsourced a bit, as with No Country For Old Men, there's no mistaking that this is indeed a Coen Brothers film.

A Serious Man, is an immersion in pure Coensian bliss. The rhythms, the detours, the characters are all classic Coen Brothers and indeed the film does feel like an instant classic -- at least in their cannon. For the first time in a while I found myself unable to stop laughing or grinning like an idiot for the duration and a most of that day. It grabbed me at the first scene and had me the entire time. There are sequences here that match the best work these guys have ever put on the screen. The second rabbi's tale of the Jewish dentist and the gentile is one of those scenes when music, image and story collide and create magic. It's deliriously funny stuff and there's an unusually high number of moments like that in this film. It might be missing a stand-out performance, something that might knock it off the top spot from Miller's Crossing or Barton Fink, but there's no weak link here either. And for all its humor there's a hefty undercurrent of quiet despair. The 60's may be remembered as that time when the energy of a generation created a high and beautiful wave, but as A Serious Man and Mad Men tell it, it was also the time for spiritual bankruptcy and the feeling of being left out to dry for the generation that came before.

Life During Wartime (dir. Todd Solondz)

Life During Wartime, a return to the Happiness characters from Todd Solondz, is a bit harder to come to terms with. I was moved by the film and while I might be a sucker for films featuring fathers seeking redemption, there's a superior mind at work here. Solondz, perhaps better than anyone else making quasi-mainstream movies, is far more fearless than most at digging into the dark corners of what it means to be human. While the film may not have the immediacy of Happiness, that can be a good thing as well. It's more approachable because of it and you can only hope that a large number of people find this film because it deserves to be talked about just as much as Happiness.

The two 13 year olds getting mitzvah-ed in these two films are about as far removed from each other as you can get. Danny, from A Serious Man, is a child of the 60's who's hardly even concerned that his parents are divorcing as long as it doesn't interfere with watching F Troop. Timmy, from Life During Wartime, just found out his "dead" dad was a pedophile and for his bar mitzvah is writing a paper on what it means to forgive and forget. Or maybe just forget, without forgiving? That is certainly the path that Danny's mom did when she began to tell everyone that Timmy's dad died rather than explaining his arrest. Is it even healthy to forgive or forget when someone does the unforgivable? Timmy wonders about the 9/11 terrorists -- if it's the Godly thing to do, should we, can we forgive? If we can't, is forgetting the better option?

Vengence (dir. Johnnie To)

In Johnnie To's Vengeance, this same question is asked in a somewhat convoluted fashion as a vengeful father's memory slowly slips away from him. For him, and perhaps for man in general, vengeance must still run its course even if you can't remember what wrong has been committed. It's that pinch of intellectualism that To drops into his films to make you feel less guilty about waiting for the next elaborately staged, beautifully shot gun fight. Except this time that pinch isn't enough when it's filtered through Johnny Hallyday's dead eyes. To surrounds him with greatness in the form of To regulars Anthony Wong, Lam Ka Tung and Lam Suet, three hitmen who form a bond with Hallyday, but it just reinforces the emptiness of Hallyday's performance. It doesn't help that I found out Hallyday was a replacement for Alain Delon and that the film is an homage of sorts to Le Samourai (Hallyday's character is even named Costello). Oh, the possibilities...

Vengeance has a few inspired set-pieces and, let's not kid ourselves, that's really why you dig into a Johnnie To movie in the first place. The thoughtful themes you (usually) get in previous work like ElectionRunning on Karma and Fulltime Killer are what set him apart but can be also be treated as icing. Without them you still get a film that's better than anything John Woo's been able to produce in over a decade and the particularly pretty moonlight gunfight in the woods, an exciting escape from a black market doctor's tenement apartment and a Katamari-like showdown at a junk yard make the film ultimately worthwhile despite the shaky foundation.

Get Low (dir. Aaron Schneider)

It was around about this time that The Fatigue began to set in. The morning after Vengeance, on the way back to the Ryerson, the superior Bulldog Cafe coffee just wasn't working its usual magic. But I could still make out the sparks that were created as Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Bill Cobb and Sissy Spacek worked their usual magic in Get Low. No one's going to start calling director Aaron Schneider an auteur or anything of the sort. What you get is a sense that Duvall may have found a director that could get out of the way of these actors and simply bring the 1930's Ozarks to life -- which Schneider does with some skill. It's another Toronto film dealing with forgiveness and the people who are looking for it and the people who are questioning their ability or willingness to give it. Robert Duvall gives a wonderful understated performance as a hermit who might be ready to confront his past misdeeds by staging his own funeral and inviting the whole county. Murray and Lucas Black play the funeral directors in desperate need of some of Duvall's hermit money and jump through all his eccentric hoops to make his "funeral party" happen.

It's a nice film. I know that's not what any filmmaker wants to hear, but it is what it is. It looks great and Duvall's scenes with Spacek are moving without resorting to sentimental hokum and Murray skillfully walks the line on being the contemporary guy he can't help being in any film and creating an authentically funny character. The story isn't exactly a head turner but it is comprised of excellent moments and good dialog delivered by some of our best actors. If the film got picked up and distributed sometime in the near future -- the combination of Get Low and his small but memorable roll in The Road, would easily secure Duvall some acting award nominations this year. It's the kind of pleasant film built to showcase an aging actor's chops that comes around often enough. But unlike say, That Evening Sun, it stays away from the Reader's Digest, Hallmark Channel platitudes and simply provides you with an engaging, sad story and fills it with characters you're more than happy to hang out with.

Mother (dir. Joon-ho Bong)

Between Get Low and the next film I had the perfect amount of time to head up Younge Street and finally check out Cafe Volo, an excellent little Canadian beer bar located in a convenient if unfortunate part of town. I won't get into exactly how sick and tired I was of walking through two blocks of sex shops and strip joints multiple times every single day... But as it turned out that sick and tired became quite literal. For one reason or another three beers, some bread and cheese turned into a raging headache and a desire to be anywhere but sitting in the beautiful Elgin watching a movie by one of the best filmmakers working today. It's a shame. What I did manage to see of Joon-ho Bong's Mother, I was impressed by. Not at the time, mind you. At the time I wanted sleep, not another movie, and I probably should have went home and called it quits for the day. But I had Herzog next so I just kept telling myself all I needed was some real food and to hydrate and I'd eventually start feeling better. It wasn't until after Mother, after devouring a slice of pizza bigger than my head, that I was back in fighting shape.

Mother may very well have been the best film I had a ticket to at TIFF. But, perhaps a sign of my novice as a film festival attendee, I got myself into a situation where I felt like my head was in a pressure cooker and my eyes were being drummed upon. I know... amateur. So aside from five or so stand-out scenes I can't say I remember much from Mother -- especially towards the end, which I think is why I was feeling a little less than enthused later that night upon reflection. Days later though, it started to hit me how strong the performances are and how tight Bong's twisty structure is.  The title character, from the very first images and an opening sequence that catches you completely off guard, they've created a character here that sticks with you long after the film is over. Both sympathetic as a mother determined to protect her son and disturbing due to the lengths she'll go to, Mother is a wonderfully complex achievement.

My Son, My Son, What Have You Done (dir. Werner Herzog)

While the second Werner Herzog film of the festival, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? could also be called a complex achievement, it's difficult to say how successful (or wonderful) it is. What was interesting at the time was how it played like a reverse echo to Bong's Mother. Instead of a child in trouble, charged with a killing, and his mother trying to be the hero and savior, we have a troubled son on his way to kill his mother. It's based on a true story Herzog found out about through a friend, about a guy in San Diego who snapped and ran his mother through with a sword. In the film this man is played by Michael Shannon and as the police descend upon his house, Detective Willem Defoe rounds up his friends and fiancée to recount the days leading up to the murder. 

It plays a bit like Herzog's version of an episode of Law & Order (more of the Criminal Intent variety) with its ripped-from-the-headlines story, police procedural bits leading into reveals and the inevitable capture/confession moment. While the story and the path (and detours) it takes still clearly bares the signature of Werner Herzog, I couldn't shake the feeling that perhaps David Lynch's involvement as merely an executive producer on this project had more of an influence that Herzog would admit to. There's an abundance of odd, straight-faced absurdism in the film. Some if it is surely intentional but some of it feels like the unintentional result of weird pacing, stylization and tonal decisions. Herzog decided that a lot of the giggles the audience couldn't hold back during the film must have been due to how uneasy the film made them, but the more likely culprit was simply how the film refuses to allow you to settle into it. Actors seemingly incapable of being boring, such as Willem Defoe, Chloe Sevigny and Udo Kier, are somehow reduced to cardboard stand-ins delivering flat, soulless lines. Grace Zabriskie and Brad Dourif fare much better, they operate on the same plane as Herzog, and it's palpable the energy they manage to bring to the film when they show up.

Initially I responded better to My Son than to Bad Lieutenant because My Son is obviously the more Herzogian of the two -- the film that had no strings attached. That being said, Bad Lieutenant is clearly the more entertaining film and probably the one that will rank higher in the years to come. For all its weirdness, My Son is more frustrating than anything else. Oddly enough, maybe Herzog isn't the one you'd want to go to for trying to get inside the head of a madman. Maybe Herzog's at his best when he just shows the madness being. Or maybe Michael Shannon is a bit too one note here -- like Stephen King's complaint about Jack Nicholson in The Shining, except this time for real. I wish Shannon or the script gave even a smidgen of Nicholson's decent into crazytown because as it is now it's pretty much A-B-Z. This is consistent with Herzog's past subjects, except this time it just doesn't go anywhere. Our mad man isn't blazing any trails here, it simply amounts to a grim domestic drama.

Symbol (dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto)

Perhaps if I had some amphetamines, I would have gone out and see if I could squeeze in a couple more Midnight Madness films. But I'm pretty happy with the one I did see, and I don't think I'd switch it with any of the others int he program even if I could. Hitoshi Matsumoto's Symbol is one of the best examples of a great midnight movie I've seen in a long time. It's trippy, funny, fast paced, generally inexplicable and it goes to show you that with talent and unique vision you can indeed successfully, purposefully create a cult film. While the film is wildly funny and baffling in its imagination, there's nothing about a Japanese man in his pajamas touching cherub penises to change the outcome of a luchador match that says we're dealing with any possible mainstream success. This is most certainly midnight movie material.

Symbol is a big step up from Matsumoto's previous film Big Man Japan, an inventive and intermittently fun film. There may be some connections between the two but Symbol needs no introduction and works perfectly well as a first look into the twisted mind of Matsumoto. In fact, I probably have said too much already about what Symbol is really about. It was a bit of a surprise for me to find out that the amazing trailer for this film isn't some tease to be left unfulfilled, it is exactly what ends up being played out: a man wakes up in room surrounded by cherubs whose penises, when triggered, supply the man with (seemingly useless) tools and objects like a large vase, chopsticks, a rope that vanishes after a few seconds... He discovers that what appears to be a random assortment of objects may not be so random after all and, if used properly, may facilitate his escape. But what's behind it all, who's testing him and what's the deal with the Mexican wrestler? Even if the movie didn't answer these questions, and surprisingly enough it pretty much does, it would still be one of the best TIFF experiences I had.

Bunny and the Bull (dir. Paul King)

I wrapped up the festival with three films that promised to have me heading back to Boston in good spirits. Lighter fare - no dead moms or murderous relatives - films I could enjoy with my girlfriend as we brought our vacation to a close. We're both fans of The Mighty Boosh, a BBC comedy created by and starring Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt that has recently found a home on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup. It's a rather brilliant mash-up of comedy and art -- a surrealistic sit-com about two friends who in each episode end up going from the mundane to the fantastical. It's a little bit like Spacedon fistfuls of shrooms. The episodes have this wonderful handmade quality to them. There will frequently be monsters or aliens (or coconut people) involved and they'll always have this old-school Star Trek aesthetic about them.

Episodes of The Mighty Boosh are directed (not written, mind you) by Paul King and it's clear he's had a hand in developing Boosh's unique arts and crafts look. He's taken this aesthetic to it's extreme in his feature debut Bunny and the Bull, which has been fitfully described as "a road trip to the other side of the apartment". The look of the film is a wonder to behold with the majority of the action taking place in an interactive, panoramic diorama. The walls in a cafe may look like construction paper with penciled-in details, a horse race will unfold in a fascinating animated sequence, a scene inside a snow-globe will come to life... It's all quite captivating visually, unfortunately the story and characters never come to life in quite the same way.

There's a Boosh episode called "The Power of the Crimp" and in it a couple of imposters start a game of oneupmanship with our two heroes. The gag is they look exactly like them, play the same kind of music and are stealing all their moves and getting famous for it. Ironically, the two leads in Bunny and the Bull look distractingly like the Boosh guys, one of them is even from that "Crimp" episode, except they carry none of the charisma that makes Boosh so fascinating. Fielding and Barratt do show up in a few scenes and when they do it's rather jarring how the film goes from sleepy to alive in those moments. The story of a man who's become a recluse, unable to leave his flat, recalling his life altering trip through Europe, sounds good on paper. The objects from his apartment finding their ways into the story make for excellent segues into the flashbacks and vice-versa -- there's undoubtedly loving attention that went into this movie and for that reason I wish I could say I enjoyed it more than I did. For all it's charm, the movie just never gains any momentum. Not a complete waste of time, just a disappointment.

White Stripes Under the Great White Northern Lights
(dir. Emmett Malloy)

The White Stripes have no shortage of charisma, momentum, purpose and power, and neither does the better-than-usual music doc that premiered at TIFF, White Stripes Under the Great White Northern Lights. I sometimes find it difficult to criticize a music documentary because I rarely watch one on a subject that I'm not already familiar with or have an inclination towards. And it's not often that you'll find one done with out, at the very least, pervasive good intentions, which can outshine the limitations of a small budget or questionable filmmaking skills. White Stripes UGWNL exceeds in about every category. Great camera work, cinematic intimacy with its subject, an interesting story to give it purpose and some killer fucking music and performances.

In 2007 the White Stripes, Meg and Jack White, made a commitment to tour Canada and hit every province along the way. Which, to make it conceivable, meant the odd one or two song performances at a local school or on a small boat in the middle of a lake. Director Emmett Malloy captures these performances and Meg and Jack's detours along the way in beautiful form. There are switches in film stock, and black & white to color transitions, that fit in naturally and in effective ways that add considerably to the experience.

I had a big emotional response to this film and it should be noted that it was the only one that moved me to tears during the festival. In all fairness I did have a few beers beforehand, and have a sizable crush on Meg White, but the film makes a strong case for the importance of Meg and Jack's relationship in making the band as great as it is, especially as a live presence. In doing so, it doesn't just become a look at The Jack White Show, a trap a lesser documentary could easily fall in to due in no small part to the fact that Meg White is shy and soft-spoken. It's just as much about Meg's role as it is Jack's, which may seem like an obvious point, but seems kind of profound in the film. Most notably though, there's an unexpected, powerfully intimate musical moment at the end of the film that completely broke me down and really makes this one of the best band/tour documentaries I've ever seen. There's very little pretentious bullshit going on -- just a spectacularly shot document of a moment in the life of a great rock band that happens to reveal, along the way, what makes them tick and what makes them special. It's pretty much a 10 in my book. Do note that I recommend catching this in a theater with a ballsy sound system. If you get the chance, jump to it.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (dir. Terry Gilliam)

It's a shame I don't have much to say about Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. (For anyone reading the entirety of this post, you may disagree.) In some ways I can appreciate a film like Tideland more than a film like The Brother's Grimm, which is Parnassus' closest comparison, because it does invoke a strong response. There are no middling reviews for Tideland whereas for Parnassus, despite all its attempts at outrageousness and a bounty of clever ideas, feels neither good or bad.

What does it say about a film when the most exciting moments come when the actors not originally intended to be in the film appear? I don't envy Terry Gilliam at all. Not only is he one of a chosen few to routinely encounter the kind of troubled productions that make the release of their films a small victory in itself but Gilliam also managed to hit such creative heights so early on that his fans can only hope his new work manages to capture a small flicker of that magic. You can forever count me as one of the Gilliam faithful and even if he never captures the wonder of another Brazil or Munchausen, the man has one of those lifetime passes and it's a good sign that the forces of evil haven't completely prevailed when he's able to find a way to release another film.

But Gilliam was unable to find a way out of his decade long, post Fear & Loathing slump. While his films invariably all hover around the fantastical breaking through the mundane, sometimes the fantastical never rises more than a notch above the mundane. Such has been the case with Brothers Grimm and Tideland, and it continues through Parnassus. In this case it feels like it's all despite the steady hand of Gilliam and considerable goodwill and intentions, making the resulting cinematic shrug all the more disappointing. 

The story has to do with the Devil, er Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), and Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and a wager they'd made over how many souls they can claim. When someone walks through Dr. Parnassus's mirror, they're met with temptations -- sin on one side and virtue on the other. Tied to this wager is Dr. Parnassus' daughter, Valentina (played with questionable skill by Lily Cole). When Dr. Parnassus and his travelling sideshow family runs across an amnesiac by the name of Tony (Heath Ledger), it turns out to be a stroke of luck as his charismatic ways allows for Dr. Parnassus to do some good -- until Tony allows for the mirror-world to get the best of him. 

As it turns out, Ledger died before he could film his mirror-world scenes and so these three sections were each given to three different actors - Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. There's a certain excitement to seeing how these actors pick up on Ledger's mannerisms and even though they're green screen sequences they do have a certain energy to them. It's an energy that the rest of the film struggles to capture and yet nothing comes close to the uplifting feeling that an imaginary dance through Grand Central Station achieved. But it does make for a curious piece of movie-making. Those with a fondness for "Through the Looking Glass" riffs will perhaps have a good time with a considerable cast ruminating on the familiar themes. But I can only hope Gilliam will once again find that gonzo spirit from 10 years ago. 

Even if I was disappointed in how Parnassus turned out, I was happy to have seen it, especially at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was a fun trip even through the rough patches. I would definitely do it again some in the future. Special thanks to Bulldog Cafe and Dark Horse Espresso Bar for keeping the synapses firing. Hat tip to The Black Hoof for one of the better meals I've had in my life as well as Aunties and Uncles and Mitzi's Cafe for two terrific breakfasts. Also, can't forget the Freshwood Grill in Kensington Market for burgers and poutine so good I'm still drolling just thinking about them a month later. And last but not least, C'est What and Volo for the fine local Canadian brews. Maybe we'll see each other again some day.