Tuesday, December 1, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Five

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)

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

9-11-01 (Amos Gitai, Youssef Chahine, Sean Penn, Mira Nair, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Shohei Imamura, Danis Tanovic, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Samira Makhmalbaf)
Eleven short films by eleven directors from eleven countries, taking vastly different approaches toward the basic mandate of commemorating/commenting on September 11. Under the circumstances, it’s remarkable how subtly balanced it feels as a whole (compare to the other anthology package at this year’s festival, Ten Years Older: the Cello, in which the broad subject of “reflections on time” failed to inspire most of the participants to anything worthwhile). Penn and Lelouch both provide intimate stories of loss taking place in the shadows of the twin towers – Penn’s is especially lyrical and surprising. Tanovic, Gitai, Loach and Chahine contrast September 11 to other atrocities. Chahine’s piece, weaving in fantasy elements and evoking past American atrocities, is a particular reason why the project’s been accused of anti-Americanism; his segment is unfortunately the clumsiest of the bunch. Loach much more cogently contrasts 9-11-01 with 9-11-73, on which the Chilean army (with American backing) rose against the elected Allende government. Inarritu immerses himself in the event itself, generating a shocking aural collage against a mostly black screen. Makhmalbaf and Ouedraogo see the event through the eyes of children in Iran and Burkina Faso respectively – Ouedraogo’s piece, about five boys who think they’ve spotted Osama bin Laden, is especially engaging. Nair’s story of a woman whose missing son was wrongly accused of being a terrorist is one of the less subtle contributions. The movie ends with a typically weird story from Imamura, set in Japan after Hiroshima and apparently relevant to September 11 only in the very general sense that it points out the horror of war. All in all, the film places 9-11 in context without diminishing it; only the most supremely self-righteous could seriously object.

The Eye (the Pang Brothers)
Screening as part of the festival’s Midnight Madness section, this horror chiller almost blows all its energy on a great opening tease in which the film seems to be burning in the projector (“Bummer,” said the woman behind me). A young blind woman receives a cornea transplant, but she now sees not just people from this world, but also from the next. The opening aside, the film is best when establishing the initial creepy mood (Kiyoshi Kurosawa may have been an influence for some of this, but The Eye is a more calculated, straightforward entertainment than his allusive genre work). The more it gets into plot mechanics, the more it loses its initial grip, although it regroups for a good finale. Other strong elements include a sympathetic heroine, a pounding music score, and general technical finesse. I never see more than one or two of the Midnight Madness selections every year, and this is par for the course – better than average genre fare, but not really deserving of the sobriquet “madness,” and not likely to keep a weary festival-goer awake past midnight. Fortunately for me, I saw it at 11 am.

Ken Park (Larry Clark & Ed Lachman)
Larry Clark seems to regard himself as the prophet of some dismal truth about teenage suburban America – they have sex, they take drugs, they’re alienated and screwed-up to the point that they could kill you as easily as look at you. And by the way, the parents are no better. Ken Park (the title refers to a character who shoots himself in the head at the start) doesn’t even have as much plot as Kids or Bully – it’s perhaps the ultimate undiluted Clark experience. Ironic then that he has a co-director here for the first time, but maybe noted cinematographer Lachman mainly contributed to the film looking more proficient than Clark’s previous work. A plot summary would sound like no more than a list of sleazy fantasies. The most interesting aspect of this is in how the adults are deeply unnerved/threatened by/envious of the kids’ sexuality and set out to appropriate it for themselves, thus precipitating the very consequences that they claim to fear. If they left the kids alone, everything would work itself out. The film then does have some thematic merit, and some real sadness. But Clack ups the ante of explicitness with every movie he makes, and it’s awfully hard to get past that surface.

L’homme du train (Patrice Leconte)
A charming anecdote about an aging bank robber who comes to a small town to pull off a job and crosses paths with a retired poetry teacher living a faded bourgeois life (“except for needlework,” he says, “I have all the skills of an early 20th century woman.”) They develop a mutual envy and each starts to move in the other’s direction: the gangster starts wearing slippers, reading poetry and smoking a pipe; the other fantasizes about being a tough guy, and gets a new haircut (“somewhere between ‘just out of jail’ and ‘world class soccer player’”). The amazingly facile Leconte keeps generating these beautifully constructed, nicely shaded curios at the rate of one a year (they include Ridicule and The Widow of St. Pierre). Like Louis Malle, he thinks his way picture by picture, and will never make it into the pantheon of auteurs, but he’s the best there is nowadays at the archetypal well-made foreign film. This one has an effective steely gray texture, lots of good one-liners, and ideal performances from Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday. On the debit side, it’s overly schematic, and sentimental too in the end.

My Mother’s Smile (Marco Bellocchio)
Veteran director Bellocchio disappoints with this turgid melodrama of an artist whose dead mother (murdered by his brother) is under consideration by the Vatican for canonization. A non-believer, he’s appalled at the prospect – far from venerating his mother, he remembers her as a “stupid woman” with an “indifferent, lethal” smile (rather than beatific, as others claim). However, his relatives – regarding the prospect of a saint in the family as a good business proposition and useful spiritual “insurance” – connive and lie to get it done. Meanwhile, he’s separated from his wife, helping bring up his young son, and maybe falling in love with the boy’s religion teacher. The film stars Sergio Castellitto, magnetic star of Va Savoir and Mostly Martha, lacking his usual twinkle here.  The film gets in some good potshots at the saint-making industry, such as the mass production of stupid photographs purporting to depict the mother’s martyrdom, and it’s darkly handsome, but Bellocchio applies a heavy hand from start to finish, and the story never ignites.

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