Saturday, June 15, 2013

2006 Toronto film festival report - part 4

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2006)

This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

Nue Propriete (Joachim Lafosse)

This was a total wild card selection for me – I know nothing of Lafosse’s previous work. Not that the presence of Isabelle Huppert doesn’t provide a major guarantee against wasted time – I’m not sure there’s an actress who chooses material so consistently well (certainly from her own perspective, and usually from ours too). Nue Propriete turns out to be an interesting but minor effort about a divorced woman living with her somewhat aimless early-20’s twin sons, in a boisterous but finely balanced relationship which disintegrates when she thinks of selling the house to get on with her life. The “private property” of the film’s English title is not primarily the disputed dwelling, but rather the unique and unknowable contours of any family, and for much of the way Lafosse depicts this quite engrossingly, with a fine eye for quirky detail, sometimes pushing general notions of appropriateness (the film, carrying the opening dedication “To our boundaries” could be read as a cautionary tale against the perils of discarding familial norms, and thus as being somewhat conservative). The direction of all this is broadly predictable, and Lafosse’s final shot is a lame stab at evoking universality. Still, the film is certainly strong enough to mark him as a director of interest. And, of course, the acting is compelling.

Time (Kim Ki-duk)

Kim’s eclectic career seemed to be buzzing along just fine, and then came a few speed bumps including a stinging critique in Sight and Sound. I read somewhere that he’s threatening not even to release his films in his native South Korea any more. He seems to be one of those directors who keeps cranking out movies, always with pictorial composure and a certain inherent gravity, but with thinning underlying ideas. Time doesn’t help his case very much; I found it quite a letdown. The premise is promising enough – a jealous girlfriend, neurotic about the prospect of her boyfriend getting tired of looking at her, submits to plastic surgery and disappears for six months to recuperate. He tries to get something going with someone else, but it’s all thwarted for one reason or another, and anyway he finds he really loves his missing girlfriend. But then she comes back, and things get very complicated. The movie seems to me best suited for those who’ve been longing for an Asian version of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected – if there’s any serious commentary here on plastic surgery or identity more generally, it’s submerged under narrative logistics. The film’s knowingly artificial ambiance suits its theme, but results in an increasingly academic viewing experience.

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo)

I think it was Paul Mazursky’s Willie & Phil in which one critic discerned the theme of how men do the asking but women do the deciding. Well, I guess it may have been covered elsewhere too. And here it is again in the unexpected setting of a deserted South Korean beach resort. A film director (who’s less refined in person than people imagine from his pictures) drags along a younger friend to the resort to help him work on a script; the other brings his girlfriend, and the director falls for her. Then another woman enters the picture, leading to some increasingly complex relationship geometry (the director sketches this on a napkin, in triangles and trapezoids, at one point) and some increasingly philosophical (although always accessible) musing on how it all breaks down between the sexes. Hong exploits the bleak surroundings without overplaying the symbolism; the film is clearly a comedy, even if the laughs are mostly bunched up in the earlier section. And he has an intriguing sense of personal breaking points. The film probably isn’t ambitious enough to stand among the most memorable that I saw at the festival, but it has the feeling of a director gently hitting the targets he was aiming for.

I didn’t see these next two at the Festival, but in their subsequent commercial releases.

All the King’s Men (Steven Zaillian)

Zaillian’s remake of the 1949 classic (which I must admit I don’t remember at all) wasn’t received with much enthusiasm, and turned into a swift box office failure. It’s a handsome enough package, but the overall approach is often mystifying. There seems to be no point remounting this story of Southern state politics, focusing on a small town populist who rants his way into the governor’s office, if not to position it as contemporary commentary, but it’s hard to extract much relevance from anything here. After the initial build-up, Zaillian hardly even seems interested in the raw texture of politics, instead letting the film bog down in some hackneyed sidelines, and events are often so choppy that I genuinely wondered at one point whether the projectionist had loaded on the reels in the wrong order. Sean Penn is entertaining, but always too technical and conscious of his effects, in the lead role, but the fine surrounding cast (Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet and others) mostly stagnates in either unsuitable or inadequate roles. Inevitably, the resources involved give it a patina of watchability, and there’s the odd galvanizing moment of melodrama, but overall the film feels consistently wrong-headed, even absent.

The Last Kiss (Tony Goldwyn)

Gabriele Muccino’s The Last Kiss was a huge hit in Italy a few years ago. Centering on a man who - freaked out by life crystallizing around him - cheats on the pregnant girlfriend he adores, it weaves in any amount of angst about relationships; it’s not so far removed from soap opera of course, but still highly accomplished (it also struck me, when I saw it, as a milestone in depicting how cell phones have rewritten the fabric of everyday interactions). Tony Goldwyn’s remake, written by Paul Haggis, stays fairly close to the original in most regards, but comes in half an hour shorter, and thus about 25% simpler. It’s certainly smooth and generally engrossing, often articulate and with some raw moments; on the other hand it’s too often sketchy, inconsistent, lunging for emotional climaxes. Zach Braff seems to me a wholly inadequate central figure, unable to invest his character with more than a petulant, sitcom-level restlessness; the movie is otherwise well cast, although most of the actors are allowed only a few signature moments. Like All the King’s Men, although in a very different way, the basic point of the remake never becomes clear – it’s as if a higher power had imposed the project on the filmmakers, and they could never transcend damage minimization mode.

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