Sunday, November 15, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)

This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

All or Nothing (Mike Leigh)
Leigh’s last film Topsy Turvy was an unexpected departure for the master of low-income British angst, and a complete success. The new film, back on familiar territory, inevitably looks like treading water by comparison. It’s loosely structured around three miserable families in a drab London housing complex – they drink or eat too much, or lose themselves in sexual role-playing, or in random anger, or superficial good spirits, or just in all-consuming inertia. Timothy Spall plays a cab driver, trapped in his own misery, avoiding all responsibility. Sensing himself on the verge of disappearing completely, he finally breaks out, resulting in a series of scenes that, if a little over-emphatic, almost rank with Leigh’s best work. That plot strand arrives at a generally happy ending, but Leigh lets the other two stories drop completely; in cinema as in life, he seems to be saying, positive outcomes are largely a matter of chance. Like every Leigh film, All or Nothing is crammed with fine moments that shine a passing spotlight on a secondary character, anchoring the film in the world beyond the frame. But it has a more muted tone than most of his work, making less overt use of comedy, and most viewers will find it less insinuating than something like Secrets and Lies.

Too Young to Die (Park Jin-Pyo)
This Korean film has a simple purpose – to celebrate the love of a man and a woman. This is out of the ordinary only because the couple are in their 70s, and they have a lot of sex. It shouldn’t be a surprise that older people can do it multiple times a week, sometimes a day (the man helpfully marks each session off on his calendar so we can follow along), but if it wasn’t a surprise the film presumably wouldn’t exist. It’s somewhere between documentary and fiction – seeming to have a script, but played by a real life couple who aren’t professional actors. Objectively, it’s a pretty voyeuristic project (the film shows the sex in some detail), but it doesn’t feel that way, mainly because the couple (especially him) are so happy to show themselves off. For the sake of balance, the picture shows a few rough patches, such as a spat about her staying out too late with her friends. But if it was ever in doubt that the movie takes a sentimental view of its subjects, then the incredibly sappy closing song would wipe it away. Almost incidentally, you notice that their living conditions are pretty meagre, and there’s the odd reminder of cultural differences (when he wants to make her a chicken dinner, he buys a live bird and slaughters it in the yard) but these observations come only intermittently, amid the calculated universal appeal.

Auto Focus (Paul Schrader)
Schrader (who made American Gigolo and one of my all-time guilty pleasures, the remake of Cat People) ought to be the ideal director to film the story of Bob Crane, the genial stay of Hogan’s Heroes who became obsessed with sex and pornography as his career declined. Auto Focus tells the story efficiently and intriguingly, but it doesn’t particularly look like a Schrader film; it doesn’t seem interested in plumbing the depths of Crane’s soul, and the echoes of Bresson that used to mark Schrader’s work are just a memory here. In a way, Schrader should be praised for his self-effacement. He certainly captures both the bounce and optimism of Crane’s rise to fame in the 60’s, married to his college sweetheart with no darker secrets than a few racy magazines hidden in the garage, and the tackiness of his decline in the 70’s. But this isn’t a chronicle of the age like Boogie Nights – it’s a rather hermetic story of one sad figure, and in telling it so straight, Schrader risks our indifference. Willem Dafoe is rather one-dimensional as the hedonist who led Crane astray, and Greg Kinnear’s performance in the lead role sums up the picture – wholly convincing as the nice guy, but generally just too convivial and straightforward to be particularly interesting. There are many good moments though – his meltdown on the set of Celebrity Cooks, hosted by Bruno Gerussi, is especially well caught.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce)
Noyce used to make provocative little Australian films, but in recent years he’s been the anonymous general behind such epics as Clear and Present Danger and Silver. This film marks a home-coming: it’s about three half-Aboriginal girls in 1931, sent 1,800 miles from their home to a special school for “half-castes.” The film makes it clear that there were many such “shadow children,” and has a chilling scene where Kenneth Branagh, as the leader of the cleansing program, explains the official philosophy on the matter. The children escape and set off to walk the vast distance home. Most of the film is devoted to their journey and how they evade the state’s efforts to catch up with them – including a veteran tracker played by David Gulpilil, who starred thirty years ago in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. The film is gripping, and evokes suitable anger at what the children endured. But maybe Noyce has become too efficient a storyteller – you feel very little of the passage of time, or the incredible distance they covered, or of their hunger or thirst. This is one of the rare films that’s actually too short – we feel short-changed on the bigger picture of Australia at the time, the visceral experience of the journey, and the story’s potentially mythic underpinnings. The evocation of Walkabout reminds you how that and other movies found real grandeur in the desert.

Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako)
Mauritanian director Sissako’s film is suffused in ambivalence about Africa – he celebrates its beauty and mystery, but constantly returns to images of departure and escape (or more frequently, failed attempts at departure) and thoughts of a different life. The film is loosely structured, and the exact meaning of what we’re watching isn’t always clear – the most recognizable plot strand involves a young boy serving as apprentice to an aging electrician, accompanying him from job to job. Initially the film may seem opaque, but you adjust to its rhythm. It’s crammed with gorgeous images, such as the electrician and the boy hooking up a light bulb to an outlet and then carrying it into the desert for what seems like miles. It’s a dream-like Africa, encompassing desert and city and village and the water’s edge – parameters that hold the characters in place even as their parched spirits tell them to move on. The old man remembers a friend who offered him the chance to leave; finally the friend went without him, never to be seen again. “Maybe that’s what weighs on my heart,” he says: it’s the skill at depicting this weight through images that makes Waiting for Happiness such an eloquent work.

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