Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Toronto Film Festival 

i could write an entire post on the messiness of doing the TFF as an out of towner. Maybe another time. For now, here's the recap on the films we saw.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (**** 1/2)
We started off our festival with a bang, literally. KKBB is rollicking good fun. A meta-noir thriller in the tradition of the great Elmore Leonard adaptations Out of Sight and Get Shorty, KKBB stars Robert Downey Jr. as a small time thief forced by chance into a masquerade as a Hollywood actor and Val Kilmer as a gay private eye assigned to teach him the ropes. Naturally, they stumble into a real case.

Played for laughs and suspense all the way through, KKBB manages to send up film noir conventions while delivering a damn good and kooky noir thriller of its own at the same time. No mean feat. Downey is at his best, Kilmer delivers scathingly funny banter all the way through, and newcomer Michelle Monaghan fills in the love interest role without impeding the true professionals.

Don't miss it!

Takeshis' (** 1/2)
Takeshi "Beat" Kitano is the art-house Clint Eastwood of Japan; his films revolving around Dirty Harry-type plots. This film is his Fellini film, where the director has decided to confront his alter ego "Beat" Kitano with a bit-part actor (also named Kitano) who fantasizes about being "Beat" Kitano - both played by Takeshi Kitano. And so Takeshis' follows the lives of both characters: "Beat" himself, and Kitano, a mostly silent cashier at a convenience store.

Takeshis' is a film driven by dream logic and so each character's day dreams are presented throughout the film creating a yielding a continuously unfolding funhouse mirror experience. While non-Kitano fans such K. and me can appreciate the obvious talents of Kitano as an actor and as a filmmaker, this flick is truly only of interest to "Beat"-niks.

Three Times (***)
Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien has quite a reputation in film circles, although he's largely unknown to the average American moviegoer. Three Times shows pretty clearly why both things are true.

Three Times relates the story of two souls striving to connect in three different tiem periods, 1966, the 1911 and 2005. The lovers are played by the same two actors - the gorgeous Shu Qi and Shang Chen - in each vignette. In the 60's, she's a pool hall hostess and he's a young man called up for military service. In the 1900's, she's a courtesan and he's a married political agent fighting for Taiwan's independence from Japan (this story is shot as a silent film with placards to fill in the dialogue). In the present, she's an epileptic singer and he's a photographer. In every time, they struggle with their identity and their culture to make a lasting connection. Only sometimes do they succeed.

Beautifully shot and glacially paced, Three Times is only for those who can derive meaning for themselves. There are many who will feel that each vignette is flawed or unfinished for various reasons. I enjoyed the first two stories a lot, but felt the final one was inconclusive and failed to take advantage of the many opportunities presented by the plot.

To me, Three Times is a simultaneously a great example of what can be great and what what can be unsuccessful in Asian cinema today.

L'annulaire (*** 1/2)
Compulsively peculiar and watchable, this is the story of a young woman who cuts her ring finger bottling lemonade in a factory and finds new employment with a man who "preserves things for people".

Featuring the gorgeous Olga Kurylenko as the protagonist, L'annulaire is beautiful, erotic and far too strange to summarize. There are sexy red shoes that possess, an abandoned school that is now a laboratory, people who might be ghosts, and hot French sex in an antique basement pool.

Based on a novel by Yoko Ogawa and it plays as a fusion of weird Japanese eroticism with a European blend of surrealism that resembles the best of the collaborations of Jeunet and Caro.

Sisters in Law (*** 1/2)
SIL chronicles two remarkable women in Cameroon. One a judge and the other a prosecutor, the film documents their struggle to help, support, give succor to, and ultimately gain some measure of justice for the women and girls in their country who are systematically wronged. Following four heartbreaking cases of two girls and two women, Sisters in Law clearly demonstrates that while all may not be achieved in the battle for equality in the Western world, African countries like Cameroon are in a terrifying state.

There are some minor flaws with the film. It gives its audience no context, for instance, until the very end of the film when one of the women lectures a university class and we come to more fully understand what we have been witnessing. That said, Sisters in Law plunges you into a world about which good citizens of the world need to know a great deal more and that is time well spent.

Neverwas (**)
I'm so natively sympathetic to a film like Neverwas that I feel bad coming clean about its failures. It has a first time writer-director, an excellent cast (Sir Ian McKellen, William Hurt, Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange!) and a story that's tailor made for childhood fantasy geeks like me.

The scion of a famed children's book author who has lost a fatal battle with mental illness returns to the scene of his father's initial dissolution - an institution with kindly, unorthodox techniques. He sets out to help its patients and to uncover his father's hidden history. And to ultimately find the creative wellspring of his father's greatest success, an endlessly popular children's fantasy called "Neverwas".

Unfortunately, director Terry Gilliam and (then) firstime screenwriter Richard LaGravenese staked out this emotional territory long ago. That film was called The Fisher King. And it is far, far superior in so many ways.

Poor Neverwas falls prey to treacle at every single turn, erasing nearly all of its attempts at magic. Scored within a hair of being a DeBeers commercial by the strangely shameless Philip Glass (who knew minimalism could do fake emotion so mercilessly?), each and every actor is in desperate need of someone to warn them against the frequent Movie of the Week emotional sandtraps of a script. This is a text that needs to be played against not with. It's written like a Hallmark card and its only chance of not being laughable might be to try playing it with the gravitas of Pinter.

I wanted so desperately to like it. Unfortunately, Neverwas was so desperately needy for me to like it that it quickly wore out its welcome.

The Heart of the Game (*****)
GO SEE THIS FILM. This is 2005's Murderball!

A gripping doc about a girls' high school basketball team in Seattle and their menschy coach (who will be played by Paul Giammatti someday I guarantee it), The Heart of the Game chronicles how one man makes a tremendous difference in kids' lives by giving them 150% every single day.

A college tax professor made head coach, Bill Rensler brings a CPA's detailed diligence to his focus and care for the kids. And he brings an hysterical competitiveness to the game. Simultaneously creative, hystericla and bloodcurdling, he models his teams on being "a pack of wolves" one year, a "pride of lions" the next and a tropical storm another year. Each time he uses metaphors from nature to teach teamwork, tireless competition and commitment.

I hate sports. I hate silly competition. Go see this movie. I loved it.

We Feed the World (***)
A quiet documentary that packs an extraordinary punch, We Feed the World shows how global food production is making misery globally. Without beating you over the head, this film shows you, step by step, how chickens are raised and slaughtered, how seemingly healthy soybeans are being used to destroy the rainforest, how commercial fishing is raping the ocean and destroying economies, and how Western farming subsidies create starvation worldwide.

It's not a gross or shocking film visually. It's just terrifying. It's like Supersize Me with a supersized intellectual impact - minus any of the entertainment. Ouch.

Lie With Me (**)
Softcore from one of Canada's most esteemed directors. Real male erections, too. If you need a Gen X 9 1/2 Weeks, rent it.

Sketches of Frank Gehry (*****)
A simply womderful time in the cinema, Sidney Pollack's first documentary is a joyful and curious exploration and meditation on creativity. Made with the full participation of architect Frank Gehry (including the participation of his therapist), Sketches combines interviews with Gehry, colleagues, fans, friends and critics alongside engaging discussions between POllack and Gehry about being creative in their respective disciplines. Frankly, I can't wait to see it again. There is much to absorb.

Smell of Paradise (**)
I felt badly for the filmmakers after the Q&A. They have a lot of important knowledge to share with us and it's absent here. A series of interviews made over 10 years with leaders of Islamic jihad around the world, Paradise offers unprecedented access to many men you would never want to meet. Unfortunately, the lack of context for the content of their interviews makes the experience more bewildering than enlightening.

Kinetta (*)
Full of great premises on which it repeatedly fails to deliver, Kinetta occasionally seems to be a story about something that we might interesting. But we'll never know. After we walked out (something I have NEVER done EVER), I had K. read the summary in the festival guide. Her response was, "HOW THE F!(K WAS ANYONE SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND THAT THAT WAS WHAT WAS GOING ON?"

As the film wore on, it became mostly interesting as a socialogical experiment. After a while, people began laughing because while Kinetta is short on dialogue what the few verbal exchanges that take place are inscrutable and laughably bad. Then they began to get up and huff out the door in droves. We joined them.
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