Sunday, October 30, 2016

Best of 2003

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2004)

Not a bad year at all, and one that finds an unprecedented degree of overlap between my own best ten list and the mainstream consensus. The year was short on unheralded discoveries, but maybe that just means everyone did a better job than usual of finding the good stuff. Here they are, in no particular order.

25th Hour (Spike Lee)
Lee’s film studies a convicted drug dealer (Edward Norton) on the day before he turns himself in for a lengthy prison sentence, spending time with his oldest friends, the girlfriend he suspects turned him in and – in perhaps the film’s dominant image – the dog he found dying at the side of the road and then saved. It’s a distinctly post-traumatic New York; the film often refers to September 11, and frequently feels as though that event had knocked Lee’s stuffing out of him. But it’s a fascinating aesthetic construction, like all Lee’s films, and sustains a remarkably comprehensive study of attitudes (aided by an excellent cast). The film’s final passage was much criticized, but I thought it was beautifully rendered, dreamily summing up the film’s equilibrium between resignation and escape.

A ma soeur (Catherine Breillat)
Breillat’s controversial film (also known as Fat Girl) finally opened here this year after being banned in Ontario for over a year. More cunning and insinuating than her best known film Romance, it revolves around two teenage sisters (one lithe and attractive, the other not) whose relationship regularly swings between hostility and extreme closeness. The film has several sequences that perfectly fulfil Breillat’s clinical interest in the mechanics of sexual politics, but its major impact comes in the startling finale. The destruction of a family marks, in the crudest sense, the fat girl’s ascension as a woman, but that instantly brings compromise and evasion. It’s a moment brilliantly gripped in ambiguity and contradiction, a microcosm of Breillat’s cinema.

Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki)
Jarecki’s film, my favourite of several heralded documentaries this year, chronicles a family’s tortured history (the father and youngest son were both imprisoned for child sex abuse), using videotapes taken by another family member. The director was incredibly lucky to stumble on this material, and to some extent you might find yourself admiring his work more as assemblage and research than as art. But that would be unfair, for Capturing the Friedmans is extremely subtle and ambiguous, raising issues about truth, fairness, sexuality, social norms, and the nature of cinema, among many others. And it’s one film in which you categorically feel relief for the happy ending (or as happy an ending as the circumstances make possible).

Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)
Whether or not this is a great film (I think it’s at least pretty close), it’s certainly fascinating viewed in the context of Eastwood’s oeuvre. The cold moral certainty of his classic persona is translated here into a complex examination of guilt and innocence, which the film presents as relative rather than absolute states. Sean Penn is memorable as a grieving father whose search for his daughter’s killer coexists uneasily with the police investigation led by his childhood friend; a plot summary would sound schematic, but the film has an intensity and sense of purpose that are at times transcendent.

American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini)
I’m putting this in my top ten even though I think it was a little overrated in some quarters. It’s the chronicle of blue-collar cartoonist Harvey Pekar, who appears as himself in some scenes and is played by Paul Giamatti in others. It has all the allusiveness of something like Adaptation while seeming much more laid back and crafty – the fact that it leaves you feeling slightly underwhelmed is actually a mark of its success in that it elevates normal life without romanticizing it.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow)
No, I don’t really think this is one of the year’s best ten. But as I look back over 2003, it stands out as almost the only blockbuster that wasn’t a severe disappointment. Admittedly I didn’t see most of them, but most of those I did see were either offputtingly pretentious (The Hulk, Matrix Reloaded) or else dumb even by the genre’s normal standards (Charlie’s Angels). This one was concentrated and focused, with straight-down-the-line action, leading to a remarkable ending, and generally avoided the fake digital look that proliferated elsewhere. I might even watch it again, eventually.

Spider (David Cronenberg)
A chronicle of a man who’s released from a mental asylum after many years – we first follow the sparse rituals of his new life, then a memory of his childhood, although we’re never quite sure until the end exactly what we’re watching: the film troublingly foregrounds the process of image creation. It’s more self-effacing than most other Cronenberg films and as such does perfect service to Spider’s inner world, although I rather missed those Cronenbergian extremes (which manifest themselves very subtly here).

9-11-01 (Youssef Chahine, Amos Gitai, Sean Penn, Mira Nair, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Shohei Imamura, Danis Tanovic, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Samira Makhmalbaf)
This somewhat controversial film was finally released here in November after showing at last year’s festival. It’s eleven short films by eleven directors from eleven countries, taking vastly different approaches towards the basic mandate of commemorating/commenting on September 11. Under the circumstances, it’s remarkable how subtly balanced it feels as a whole. Among the highlights: Loach cogently contrasts 9-11-01 with 9-11-73, on which the Chilean army (with American backing) rose against the elected Allende government. All in all, the film places 9-11 in context without diminishing it; only the most supremely self-righteous could seriously object.

21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
The title of Inarritu’s English-language debut refers to the body weight that’s supposedly lost at the moment of death, and the film – intertwining three separate stories that gradually come together – is largely a meditation on how normal life, placed in proximity to death, breaks down. It’s told in a highly fragmented style, switching rapidly (but artfully) between plot lines and points in time. It’s a big film with big gestures, and with acting (by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro) of transformational power that’s central to the film’s fabric. 21 Grams is easy to criticize in various ways, but few films this year matched it for sheer power.

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson hang out together in Tokyo – creating, for a few days, a private world where they share a mysterious, unspoken agreement about the rules. The much-noted opening shot, of Johansson’s behind lounging on the bed in a pair of pink panties, is a symbol of sorts for what follows. It evokes an oblique kind of eroticism, a highly evocative sense of colour and texture and composition, and most significantly, an evasive sense of character and motivation (is Johansson being objectified here, or is the shot in some sense defining the film as hers?) This film too was overrated in some quarters, but has strengths galore.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Even more big movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2004)

Shattered Glass

Stephen Glass was a short-lived hotshot journalist at the inside-Washington New Republic magazine, whose career, uh, shattered when he turned out to be a serial fantasist who partly or entirely fabricated the majority of his articles. In Billy Ray’s film, Hayden Christensen plays Glass as a kind of quasi-Woody Allen character – neurotic and genuflecting and excessively eager to please – who bamboozled the more stolid people around him through something very similar to the power of dreams, the feel-good thematic staple of any number of films. In this sense, Glass’ story seems to say something about the fragility and gullibility of American identity.

On the other hand, it’s basically a story about a bunch of self-absorbed insiders who couldn’t see what was in front of them (the magazine’s vaunted fact-checking procedures failed spectacularly here). In many ways, Shattered Glass seems like a dainty fantasy. Despite my weekly presence in this publication, I have no inside knowledge of how magazines work (I just type it out at home and email it in), but it’s hard to believe that the New Republic was as airless a bubble as it appears here. Glass never seems to leave the office, and yet comes up with one amazing piece of on-the-spot reportage after another. The film’s handwringing about journalistic integrity, the hallowed status of the press etc. seems distinctly overdone (although it’s a bit ambiguous how much director Ray is aware of this, and is deliberately skirting parody). It’s an entertaining, facile film, best taken as a dreamy, abstract fantasy than as a serious exploration of anything.

The Last Samurai

Edward Zwick’s epic is handsome and entertaining, and very conventional. Tom Cruise plays an American soldier in the late 1800s who goes to Japan on a highly paid commission to train the Emperor’s army against samurai rebels; when he gets taken prisoner by the samurai leader, he slowly switches allegiance. The premise, of course, is that Japan’s traditional values (vaguely articulated here as some ethereal combination of fortitude and spirituality) are better embodied by the outcasts than by the corrupt establishment.

The film has been frequently compared to Dances with Wolves, and I also found myself thinking of Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (a film that for me represents an almost unequaled gulf between potential and achievement). This is yet another saga in which any serious engagement with the historical issues is shoved to the side by the travails of a liberal WASP protagonist. If anything, the paradigm is even more insulting here than usual – Cruise swiftly ascends to the very centre of samurai culture, and ultimately stands as the last remaining ambassador for its values. It’s particularly unconvincing since Cruise brings no real shape to the part. In something like Magnolia he’s excellent as the embodiment of a contemporary angst, but the trade-off (compared to the likes of Hanks and Crowe and Costner) is that he doesn’t fit comfortably into alien settings.

The film won best director in the season’s first movie awards (the National Board of Review), which was categorically undeserved – the film’s general superficiality must be laid directly at Zwick’s door. I seem to remember his earlier film on a parallel theme, Glory, was quite a bit more sophisticated than this, but I could certainly be misremembering it. After that film, Zwick created TV’s thirtysomething, traces of which are clearly visible here. For example, in addition to becoming a samurai hero, the resolution of Cruise’s mid-life crisis depends on finding the right woman, after she gets over her own emotional baggage. Gimme a break, as the samurai used to say.

The Missing

The Missing shares many of The Last Samurai’s faults, and unfortunately lacks its modest virtues. Ron Howard’s first film since winning an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind shows clear signs of wanting to grow – it flirts with sex and violence in a way that’s unusual for Howard. I hate to traffic in clich├ęs, but I can’t think here how to avoid it, so here goes – Howard really never has seemed to entirely outgrow his Opie phase. The guy’s just so plain nice, and apparently straightforward. A Beautiful Mind made a complex man simple. His best film, Apollo 13, came when his elevation of decent qualities found its most thrilling medium.

In The Missing, a Western, Cate Blanchett plays a single mother whose oldest girl gets kidnapped by a band of marauding Indians. Her estranged father Tommy Lee Jones, who abandoned the family years ago and “went native,” has returned to seek reconciliation; she initially spurns him, but then enlists his help to track the missing girl. Their journey takes them through numerous varied encounters and settings, all of which, as presented here, feel much the same. The head of the marauders is a shaman who exercises strange powers, opening up a spiritual dimension that sits uneasily with the rest of the film.

The Missing exhibits some attempt to engage with the period’s rough edges and privations, but let me put it this way: Howard’s no Sam Peckinpah. Also, vis a vis the film’s similarities with The Searchers, he’s no John Ford. More distressingly perhaps, as a maker of Westerns he ranks a fair bit behind Kevin Costner, whose Open Range by comparison seems like a model of evocation and visual flair. The thing is – it really seems like Costner wanted to make a Western. The Missing gives off the impression of an academic exercise – part evocation, part revisionism, part genre bending, but all constrained by Howard’s apparently congenital good taste.

One from the Heart

It was great that Francis Coppola’s 1981 film One from the Heart played recently for a week at the Carlton. I wish we had more old movies mingled with the new releases; it’d be kind of like living in France. Shot entirely on sound stages, this evocation of a magical Las Vegas was a huge flop on release, and it’s fair to say Coppola has never been the same since. It’d be pleasing to say then that the film is an undervalued masterpiece, but sadly it’s not so.

It seems intended to function as some kind of Oz-like opening of the inner spirit, with Teri Garr and Frederic Forrest as a bickering blue-collar couple who go their separate ways one night and momentarily lose themselves in the city’s neon whirl, before finding their way back to each other. For a musical, it’s full of unprepossessing characters; it’s frequently garish to look at and the choreography is a bit of a mess. All of this gives it an occasionally endearing quotidian quality, but your benevolence toward it always feels suspect. Still, if the Carlton does more of this kind of revival, I promise to attend at least 75% of the time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

More big movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2003)

Master and Commander

Peter Weir’s films generally evidence a painstaking interest in communities placed under threat, often combined with a sense of the otherworldly. These meld most fruitfully in Fearless, my favourite film of his, about a man who survives a plane crash and then finds his relationship with the world transformed. Psychologically, the film is about denial and delayed reaction; in its impact, it’s almost like The Sixth Sense, studying someone who might literally be a ghost snatching some unsustainable last gasp with the world. At other times it’s a scrupulous examination of the activity that surrounds such an accident. Fearless was a commercial failure, but Weir’s list of successes is estimable: Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and others.

Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, based on Patrick O’Brian’s much-admired series of seafaring novels, continues Weir’s anthropological investigations. Russell Crowe plays Jack Aubrey, captain of a British ship in the early 19th century, far from home in the South Pacific on the trail of a French vessel from Napoleon’s army; Paul Bettany is the ship’s doctor, his closest friend. The plot is basically just a series of encounters with the enemy ship, but the film’s substance is its evocation of life on the ship. It’s not a small achievement to evoke monotony and stasis while avoiding becoming merely monotonous and static, and Weir seems here like almost the ultimate craftsman. His film has immense physical and visual impact, without ever being overbearing in the manner of recent Ridley Scott.

Crowe is the film’s dominant presence, but he doesn’t overwhelm it: the captain is clearly the ship’s leader, but still a functionary of the Empire, subject to institutional constraints. He flogs an insubordinate sailor because the code demands it, without any Bligh-like relish. Events take the ship to the Galapagos Islands, at this pre-Darwinian point largely unexplored and undocumented, where the sense of an unspoiled evolutionary bubble provide a graceful counterpoint to the ship’s contrived but coherent society. This is the main outlet here for Weir’s more ethereal interests. All in all, it’s not surprising that Master and Commander has been a relative disappointment at the box office – for a big-budget epic venture, it’s remarkable intimate.

21 Grams

The title of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s English-language debut refers to the body weight that’s supposedly lost at the moment of death, and the film is to some extent a meditation on how normal life, placed in proximity to death, breaks down. Sean Penn plays a professor whose life is saved by a heart transplant; Benicio del Toro is a career criminal who finds Jesus; Naomi Watts is a wife and mother whose life collapses when her family is killed in a hit-and-run accident. All three suffer considerable anguish, and of course their stories eventually intertwine. The film is told in a highly fragmented style, switching madly between plot lines and points in time. Some critics have suggested that if the stories were told in a linear style, the film would seem like litte more than overwrought melodrama.

Which is neither here nor there – by what weight is profundity ever separated from banality? Around 21 grams at the most I guess. On its central theme, the film isn’t as subtly paradigm-challenging as the aforementioned Fearless. It’s a big film with big gestures, but its biggest idea lies exactly in the manner of its telling. Near the start there’s a beautiful shot of birds taking off, silhouettes against a deep sky, suggesting the film’s trajectory – it circles events like an aerial visitor caught in a gale, first making out strange details that only gradually cohere as it fights to a landing.

It also has big acting, acting of transformational power that’s central to the film’s fabric. The three main performances have a grungy contour we recognize as realism, but in an outsize way that facilitates Inarritu’s quasi-epic ambitions. 21 Grams is easy to criticize in various ways, but few films this year have matched it for sheer power.


Halle Barry hasn’t exactly used her Oscar as a catapult to more challenging material: X2, Die Another Day, and now the horror film Gothika, which is the English language debut of French director Mathieu Kassovitz. Kassovitz is making his own voyage downmarket (but, undoubtedly, up-pay cheque) – from La haine via The Crimson Rivers to Gothika. Berry plays a criminal psychiatrist in a creepy old institution, married to the boss (Charles S Dutton), worrying about the case of a woman who insists she’s continually raped in her cell (Penelope Cruz). One night, driving home in a thunderstorm, she has an accident, and wakes up to find herself on the other side of the bars, locked up after murdering Dutton. The explanation for this belongs not to this world.

Gothika’s main point of interest lies in its vague glimpses of a feminist theme. The way that Berry reevaluates the plausibility of Cruz’s claims after finding herself in a parallel situation seems to be a stand-in for a broader notion of how a legitimately different female reality may be dismissed as mere hysteria. But, of course, the movie is generally a matter of sound and fury. It’s difficult to get caught up in a story where ghostly intervention allows for so much lazy, arbitrary plotting; still, it has enough grim diversity to avoid boredom. Berry is, I would say, stoic. Kassovitz does much the same directing job he did on Crimson Rivers. Everyone involved should have been doing something better, and it’s inconceivable they don’t know it.

Bad Santa

For me, the title of Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa evokes Abel Ferrara’s memorable (especially if you’ve seen the uncut version) Bad Lieutenant, which means I was looking forward to something wildly offensive. Well, not so. Sure, this shambling comedy about a drunken low-life store Santa (whose annual grotto gig always ends up in him and his midget sidekick cleaning out the safe) occasionally raises half an eyebrow – mainly via references to Santa’s sexual practices. But this runs out of juice pretty quickly, and then the film spends way too much time on the fat kid who gradually warms his heart, and thus becomes yet another glossy self-actualization treatise. When I saw it, the crowd initially seemed primed for laughter, but got quiet pretty fast.

A big part of the problem is that Billy Bob Thornton (who, you’ll recall, is a wiry, laconic kind of guy) doesn’t look or behave like any kind of Santa to begin with – the physical mismatch really undercuts the material’s transgressive edge. The movie’s only raison d’etre would have been to go to the very edge of the envelope and then keep going – it probably needed to be debauched beyond reason. Zwigoff (who’s been complaining about studio constraints, but doesn’t seem to have been going that far out to begin with) was much better suited to the more gently surreal explorations of Crumb and Ghost World.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2003)

So that’s it for the film festival articles – hope you enjoyed them. Let’s recap briefly. No matter how hard you work the festival, you can’t see more than fifteen or twenty per cent of what’s on offer, so I doubt whether anyone’s opinion on the event’s overall quality carries much validity. The best you can hope for is to minimize the time spent watching duds, and if you’re really lucky, to hit on a masterpiece or two. By that measuring stick, I had a better than average year. I particularly admired Greenaway’s Tulse Luper Suitcases and Rivette’s Story of Marie and Julien (of course those are both by aging auteurs – Rivette is 77 – so I guess it’s clear what pushes my buttons). Kitano’s Zatoichi was a satisfying people’s choice award winner. The galas, as usual, were mostly bland (Matchstick Men, Out of Time, Code 46); the American independent sector was fairly buoyant (Pieces of April, The Station Agent) and the foreign section a bit undernourished.

The obvious downside of covering the festival at length – no opportunity to write about the other movies that opened in the meantime. Let’s remedy that now, at least for the most obvious omissions.

Kill Bill: Volume One

It would be hard to actively dislike Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film (and first in six years) – like a puppy dog doing tricks, it forces a certain low-grade admiration from you. But the movie is far below the level of his best work – a complete wrong turn (and as such particularly disappointing given the long gestation period). I’ve previously written a mea culpa on Pulp Fiction – initially I was turned off by it, but on a second viewing found it infinitely more scintillating. In that film, Tarantino takes the mechanics of storytelling, blows them open, then sticks them back together with sheer panache as the glue – he makes time and character and normal motivation seem like infinitely malleable qualities. And the movie has a perverse but still touching romanticism, especially in the Travolta/Thurman plot strand. The film’s idealism is oddly touching here, perhaps because it’s so aware of how crazy and malformed their connection actually is.

Jackie Brown was more indifferently received, but it was a worthy attempt to keep moving forward. The sequences with Pam Grier and Robert Forster were mature and touching (Tarantino’s ability to rehabilitate overlooked actors is one of his most remarkable, almost endearing traits). And then the long silence, during which Tarantino acted in other people’s movies and on Broadway, turned up here and there to promote his enthusiasms for cult cinema of one kind or another, parried rumours of various projects, and then entered near-total silence. Which now ends.

Plenty of writers have recounted Kill Bill’s strengths more eloquently than I can – it is indeed an impressive piece of action choreography with a sometimes flamboyant sensibility. Supposedly it’s full of references to genre movies – I only picked up a few of them, if any. The story is wafer thin, and the film seems extremely padded, with numerous digressive scenes that could have been lost with no sacrifice of entertainment or thematic value. Without these scenes though, the film would seem programmatic – its peculiarity is really the main point of interest. Of course, this all implies that we’re willing to cut the director a lot of rope; “self-indulgent” is certainly a term that comes to mind here. The opening credits explicitly announce this as Tarantino’s fourth film, as though we’re all meant to be counting along.

The way the film uses Thurman, relative to Pulp Fiction, sums up the difference – here she’s merely an aesthetic object; not presented for our lust exactly (it’s an oddly sexless movie in general) but certainly not for our understanding either. Maybe volume two will make everything clearer. For now, when I hear volume one described as a film buff’s movie, it makes sense to me only if your idea of a film buff is a geek who, when he’s not in the movie theater, spends most of his time in his bedroom making up scrap books. Albeit, in this case, with particularly impressive design and layout. And the soundtrack’s great too.

Mystic River

Meanwhile, back in the world of adults, Clint Eastwood’s latest film is indeed as wise and compelling as most critics have been saying. It’s impossible to write about Eastwood’s career for long without raising the issue of violence. At his worst, he’s been merely a squinty-eyed cartoon, blowing away sleazebags without any hint of moral hesitation. Even his best work, like Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales, have moments where the relished supremacy of the gun seems to crassly assert itself over the film’s overall quality. Genial as he seems in person, Eastwood’s choice of material inevitably seems to say something about him. Like so many earlier works, Mystic River has elements of vigilantism, moments where the gangland ethos holds the spotlight. But on this occasion Eastwood demonstrates an objectivity he’s never reached before, attaining the scientific glare of a social scientist while making a movie that’s rich in geographical and psychological colour.

Sean Penn (in a performance that, along with his work in 21 Grams, marks him as the year’s preeminent actor) is a Boston storekeeper whose peaceful life crumbles when his daughter is murdered. Tim Robbins, a childhood friend whose own life was irreversibly damaged when he was molested as a kid, falls under suspicion. Kevin Bacon, the third friend, is the investigating cop. The film is about the terrifying unpredictability and randomness of life, but its uniqueness is in how it posits the ability to marshal and direct violence as the key to overcome this human chaos. It’s not triumphal in expressing this theme, but it supports multiple readings: the cross-pollination of intense precision and thematic ambiguity strikes me as highly unusual in this kind of mainstream American film.

The rest

Mystic River lost the top prize at Cannes to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which doesn’t seem quite fair to me. Van Sant’s film is well executed, but ultimately seems built around a relatively straightforward thesis about the banality of evil. Woody Allen’s Anything Else finds him in his best form for at least five years, which after Hollywood Ending counts as a welcome resurgence. The Secret Lives of Dentists is an underrated film that avoids the obvious while simultaneously celebrating it. Sylvia doesn’t do much to expand the biopic format. L’auberge Espagnole is overdone, but generally a joy nevertheless. Runaway Jury is mostly flash. Intolerable Cruelty has good moments, but who ever thought Hollywood would be a fruitful setting for the Coen brothers’ gift for exaggeration? The Human Stain is a silly, disconnected movie – presumably the book was better. And as for Master and Commander and The Last Samurai, more to come…

Monday, October 3, 2016

2003 Toronto film festival report, part eleven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2003)

This is the eleventh of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2003 Toronto film festival.

In the Cut (Jane Campion)
Campion’s best film remains The Piano, and it seems increasingly unlikely that she’ll ever top it – it’s in so many ways unprecedented, as though it spring fully formed from some turbulent half-alien dream. Her subsequent films (Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke and now In the Cut) all contain ideas as interesting as anything in The Piano, but they lack its astonishing visual and thematic coherence, its fierce acting and icy weirdness. In the Cut, which has already opened commercially since its festival screening, is being marketed as a thriller, with the particular attraction of Meg Ryan in a hard-edged role involving several nude scenes (which comes across as a calculated provocation). But it’s not thrilling at all, and Ryan isn’t a particularly compelling presence in the film. It’s best taken as a loosely assembled scrapbook of impressions and ideas about female sexuality (for a near-definitive summary of these, see the October issue of Sight and Sound), with the ostensible plot providing the loosest of governing structures.

Ryan plays a teacher in New York who’s interviewed by a police detective (Mark Ruffalo) about a brutal murder to which she’s a possible witness; they have an affair; other strange men hover in the background along with a strip joint, phallic symbolism and other relentless oddities. There’s a lot of talk about sex, mostly rather earnest and knowingly raunchy. Ryan also collects lines of poetry that strike her (often gleaned from subway ads), and several of the film’s conversations involve the meaning of a particular word; the sense is of grappling for language and meaning, with sexuality as the predominant input. The film is shot in a claustrophobically jittery manner that made my wife physically sick, and possesses a persistent morbidity that left a couple of other women of my acquaintance nervous about walking home afterwards.

Some have compared the film (particularly re Ryan’s character) to the 1971 Klute, which actually seems more astute and subtle about compromised female sexuality than In the Cut does. It’s also somewhat tempting to compare it to Catherine Breillat’s work, such as Romance and Fat Girl – a comparison that further underlines the latter-day Campion’s relative lack of discipline and analytical prowess. Still, the film’s territory is inherently fascinating, and it does teem with stimulation (of all kinds).

The Middle of the World (Vicente Amorim)
This year the festival devoted its national cinema section to Brazil, under the title “Vida de Novo.” In summarizing Brazilian films of the last few years, the program book mentions Central Station and City of God, which I think may be the complete list of Brazilian cinema that I’ve seen over that period. So many resurgent national cinemas, so little time. I was only able to fit in one title this year: Amorim’s debut film (I particularly regretted missing Carandiru, a prison drama by Kiss of the Spider Woman’s Hector Babenco).

Middle of the World conveys a perhaps unavoidable ambivalence about Brazil – on the one hand sweeping beauty and passion and pride; on the other poverty and danger. The former generally carries more weight here though, which is why some might think the film a bit soft (as much Middle of the Road as of the World). A youngish couple and their five children cycle across the country to Rio de Janeiro in search of work, stopping at way stations, sometimes picking up a little money by singing and doing odd jobs, often going hungry. The eldest son is on the verge of going his own way; the father tries to assert his authority and keep his dignity even under these parched circumstances; the mother can hardly bear it, but keeps going.

It's a vivid, fluent film, packing a wealth of mood and incident into its concise 90 minutes. Ultimately, it’s more a travelogue than anything else – the ending is conventional, and the overall impression modest. You don’t feel the hunger and the weariness of their long trip as keenly as you experience the momentary pleasures of spontaneous music, or an encounter with some quirky character they meet along the way. But it’s a pleasant counterbalance to the scathing vision of City of God (not that I’m saying a counterbalance was necessarily required).

Code 46 (Michael Winterbottom)
Winterbottom had two new films at this year’s festival: In this World, a documentary-style examination of Afghan refugees, and Code 46, an enigmatic futuristic semi-thriller. In the last few years he’s also covered war (Welcome to Sarajevo), Westerns (The Claim), social drama (Wonderland), and an archaeology job on early 80s British rock (24 Hour Party People). Most of these played at the festival too. Only Party People feels at all vital, like a film that he made because he just had to. Usually, his eclecticism and speed seem like an end in themselves, as if his career amounted to some kind of contest entry (he’d be a good foe for Lars von Trier in round two of The Five Obstructions). Unfortunately, I don’t know of anyone who’s particularly excited by this, except apparently for festival programmers.

I didn’t see In this World, but Code 46 (which somehow snagged a gala spot) epitomizes what I’m talking about. It’s set in Shanghai, in one of those budget-friendly futuristic environments that looks pretty much like the present day, with a few bits of high-tech gloss and hints of Big Brother. It’s a more homogenized world too, at least in the major cities; traditional culture has largely been pushed into what’s called “outside.” None of this is particularly original or bracing, and the plot resembles a deadened distillation of elements from Minority Report, Gattaca, Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, and others. It stars Tim Robbins as an investigator who can read minds by virtue of an “empathy virus” he’s ingested, and Samantha Morton as the quarry he falls in love with. The overall arc is one of tragic romance, of humanity trying to assert itself against increasing constraints. That reminds me of a lot of movies too.

I might have felt unusually distanced from the movie because I had to watch it from the mezzanine at Roy Thomson Hall – a location I detest. I can’t get wrapped up in an image that seems so far away – it’s like staring into the bottom of a bucket (my preferred spot is right up front in the second or third row, where it’s just you and the looming screen). Code 46’s forensic air probably suffered from this handicap more than a more exuberant movie might have done, so I feel obliged to make this full disclosure. That said, I’m still pretty confident the film doesn’t amount to much. Oh well, maybe next year’s pair of Winterbottom movies will be stronger.