Thursday, August 02, 2007

2007 TIFF—Film Comment Five

Thank God that Darren Hughes is as much a Toronto-obsessive as the rest of us. The site he has specifically created to rudder us through the month before the Toronto International Film Festival ("TIFF")—1st Thursday—is proving to be essential daily one-stop shopping.

So I've secured my press accreditation, my lodging, my airfare, some designer t-shirts, jaguar Mikli shades, and I'm eyeballing a new Mac Pro. Now the rough part: the embarrassment of riches called the festival line-up, which keeps expanding (it seems) day by day.

Clearly, one of the best handles on the Toronto line-up are the Cannes reviews of films that will crossover at Toronto. The July/August issue of Film Comment offers staff favorites from Amy Taubin, Kent Jones, Gavin Smith, Edward E. Crouse and Richard Peña. Unfortunately, none of these are being offered online so I'll try to summarize some of the raves and warnings from the Film Comment Five.

Taubin, Jones and Smith include Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park on their top ten. Taubin claims that one of the "stunning onscreen moments" from the festival is that of "a teenage skateboard kid leaning against the tiled wall of a shower, his hand half-covering his exquisite face (a face that would not have been out of place in Bresson's Lancelot du Lac) as the clatter of the water mixes with a half-dozen layers of music and noise in a muted crescendo of horror." Taubin continues: "Van Sant seems to have unburdened himself of predetermination as a philosophical position and filmmaking method. Like the skaters of the eponymous Paranoid Park, the film is thrilling for its balance of spontaneity and precision." She waxes rapturous on the images captured by cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li. (Film Comment ("FC"), 43:4, pp. 54-55.)

"Van Sant's Paranoid Park," Kent Jones adds, "was all about guilt over the possible commission of a crime gracefully dissolving into the flux of skateboards on concrete." (FC, 43:4, p. 57.) Paranoid Park is part of TIFF's Vanguard program.

Taubin, Jones and Peña hold onto The Flight of the Red Balloon for their top ten. Once again keen to "the quiet radiance in all things" that DP Mark Lee Ping Bing finds for the film, Taubin writes: "The film gathers slowly until, as in Hou's best work, it moves to another level where the ordinary suddenly becomes breathtakingly intense but lighter than air—which could also describe Binoche's performance, perhaps the best of her career." (FC, 43:4, p. 55.) The Flight of the Red Balloon is part of TIFF's Masters program.

Barbet Schroeder's L'Avocat de la Terreur / Terror's Advocate—part of TIFF's Real to Reel—claims its singular place on Taubin's top ten, though she doesn't expand on her choice. Kent Jones, who didn't include it on his list, complains that "Schroeder opens more doors than he has the energy to walk through." (FC, 43:4, p. 59.)

Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra (also in TIFF's Masters program) shows up on the top ten lists for Taubin, Jones and Peña. Noting 80-year-old retired opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya's powerful performance, Taubin suggests that "without Vishnevskaya's grounded, understated presence, the film might have fallen into bathos." (FC, 43:4, p. 56.) Kent Jones adds that in Alexandra "the ethereal aspects of Sokurov's sensibility are internalized, the presentation more earthbound, rooted in material textures, sounds and visions." He describes Vishnevskaya's bulky form "as constantly present within the frame as the head and shoulders of a Dardenne hero." Alexandra, he concludes, "is vibrant at the core." (FC, 43:4, p. 58.)

Although Taubin concedes that Korea's Jeon Do-yeon, the star of Chang-dong's Milyang / Secret Sunshine and the Best Actress winner at Cannes, is a subtle actor with wide emotional range, she warns that it's not Jeon's fault "that the film devolves into a fitful Tennessee Williams-like melodrama." (FC, 43:4, p. 56.) Mileage varies of course and Kent Jones includes Secret Sunshine in his top ten whereas Peña shifts it into his number one spot. Jones describes the film as "ferocious" with "a welcome touch of the sardonic." He calls it "a comedy of social aggression" that is "never less than acutely observed and remains impressively balanced between humor and anguish." (FC, 43:4, p. 58.) Secret Sunshine is included in TIFF's Contemporary World Cinema line-up.

"From the opening images of vast, rolling plains to the final instant of an old man's troubled ruminations, the Coens keep their eye on the ball, and their customary precision acquires a measure of majesty." So Kent Jones assesses No Country For Old Men which he likewise describes as "exemplary" "handsome" and with "just the right measure of troubled, unkempt humanity." (FC, 43:4, pp. 57-58.) Peña likewise adds it to his top ten, Gavin Smith puts it in first place, and TIFF includes it in its Special Presentations.

Also in TIFF's Masters series is Ermanno Olmi's Centochiodi / One Hundred Nails, which Kent Jones adds to his top ten for being "the strangest films at Cannes, as well as one of the most beautiful." He asks: "Is the cinema more important than the natural beauties it captures? One Hundred Nails is, as they say, an 'old man's film,' with no sense of propriety whatsoever, happily if not joyously at odds with itself. Thematically and stylistically speaking, it is an oasis amidst the endless buzzing of an aggressive film culture." (FC, 43:4, p. 59.)

Gavin Smith found Bela Tarr's The Man From London "astoundingly torpid … which, right from its opening shot proved to be an entirely unrewarding 132-minute trudge to nowhere and back." (FC, 43:4, p. 60.) The Man From London is part of TIFF's Masters program.

Julian Schnabel's Le Scaphandre et le papillon / The Diving Bell and the Butterfly made it to Richard Peña's top ten, and though Gavin Smith didn't list it, he did compliment it for being "engrossing, tastefully rendered" and "a solid respectable job." (FC, 43:4, p. 61). Schnabel's latest is included among TIFF's Special Presentations.

Japan's Naomi Kawase's Mogari no mori / The Mourning Forest won the Grand Prize at Cannes; a controversial win since—as Gavin Smith describes it—"At the press screening … journalists and critics deserted in droves, quickly concluding that it was of no consequence." Notwithstanding, Smith acknowledges that "[w]hile hardly a competition standout, this [is an] unassuming, extremely slight, gently handled story." (FC, 43:4, p. 63.) That being said, none of the Film Comment Five added The Mourning Forest to their lists. TIFF includes it in their Contemporary World Cinema series.

Also in TIFF's Contemporary World Cinema program is Fatih Akin's Yaşamın kıyısında / The Edge of Heaven. Again, on no one's list but Smith concedes the film "was a solid and absorbing continuation of Head-On's exploration of German-Turkish cross-cultural contradictions, but it's more cerebral and measured, less visceral and unpredictable than the earlier film, and some found Akin's balancing of two linked and interwoven narratives too schematic—although I can't say it bothered me." (FC, 43:4, p. 63.)

Gavin Smith adds Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's Import Export to his list but warns that it's "Abjection Cinema" though "more than just another trawl through the lower depths." He cautions that "if moronic proles barking orders at dazed and bewildered prostitutes, the rasping breathing of dying babies, and the senile outbursts of nursing home-residents are music to your ears, run to this film and enjoy a good wallow." (FC, 43:4, p. 63.) Queue up at TIFF's Visions program.

Control finds its way to Edward Crouse's top ten list, because the film "is completely enmeshed with its subject." The homework's been done for fans of Joy Division and Crouse praises that the film "never takes the bait to veer into miserabilism." (FC, 43:4, p. 64.) Control is part of TIFF's Vanguard.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Ploy likewise made it to Crouse's top ten list and is part of TIFF's Visions program. Crouse describes the film as "an addled mixture of dreams, jealousy, and eroticism (or lack thereof)." Admitting that the time Pen-ek takes to get places inspired walk-outs at Cannes, Crouse promises "the film's alternating erotic currents could be hypnotic, making the overloaded ending forgivable." (FC, 43:4, p. 65.)

Richard Peña adds Carlos Reygadas' Luz silenciosa / Silent Light to his top ten (as does Gavin Smith), along with Lucia Puenzo's XXY. Silent Light is included in TIFF's Visions program and XXY is in Vanguard. Peña regards Reygadas' latest as "far and away his most accomplished work, a film of great subtlety, invention, and tremendous depth of feeling. This," he stresses, "is the Carlos Reygadas we've been waiting for." (FC, 43:4, p. 66.) As for XXY, winner of the Cannes Critics' Week prize, Peña praises newcomer Inés Efron's "wonderful performance" and summarizes that XXY is a "moving, perceptive film on a highly-charged topic, and an enormously auspicious debut for its director." (FC, 43:4, p. 67.)