Northen high (and low) lights

Pub date September 23, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

>>Check out Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ TIFF takes here.

FILM FESTIVAL REPORT There weren’t exactly tumbleweeds rolling through Park City, but this January’s Sundance Film Festival did have a becalmed feeling reflecting the economic panic — money, corporate sponsors, and industry personnel weren’t falling from the sky quite so thickly as usual, which naturally made the experience that much more pleasant for those simply there to see movies. There was no such diminished frenzy apparent at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19), even if one of the local papers lamented "parties are smaller and over early." (Cue the Bee Gees’ "Tragedy.")

There’d been more serious lamentation in recent years that TIFF has gone too Hollywood, too average-viewer-unfriendly, its programming now driven by (rather than simply attracting) celebrity and media attention. That’s clearly not true of the program’s bulk. Still, you’ve got to wonder just how the "art" of cinema is being celebrated when one big-noise 2009 premiere was no less (what could be less?) than Jennifer’s Body, which put Diablo Cody’s Oscar in perspective.

Not much more defensible were a slew of hollow costume flicks, from opening night’s kinda-’bout-Darwin Creation to the closing Young Victoria, with Oliver Parker’s latest Wildean crapfest Dorian Gray, Carlos Saura’s frivolous I, Don Giovanni, and Stephen Poliakoff’s silly Glorious 39 among the plush time-killers unveiled like papier-mâché statuary between.

Those are movies likely to underwhelm soon at a theatre near you — though not so soon as the enthusiastically received latest efforts by the Coen brothers, Terry Gilliam, Michael Haneke, Jason Reitman, Michael Moore, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Campion, Pedro Almodóvar, Todd Solondz, and others no doubt already ramping up their Oscar campaigns. Those were easy to put off. But there was a great deal I was very sorry to miss, like Cornieliu Porumboiu’s Romanian Police, Adjective, Raoul Peck’s Haitian Moloch Tropical, and Shirin Neshat’s Tehran period piece Women Without Men, films whose chances of U.S. distribution are variably remote.

Among titles caught, low expectations were more often met with high rewards than vice versa. Das Boot (1981) in a tank, Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner Lebanon proved an effective but unremarkable war-is-hell statement. There was controversy over Tel Aviv’s spotlight in the inaugural "City to City" sidebar. But if government propagandist efforts secured that slot as charged, other Israeli features here, like Danny Lerner’s lurid Kirot, were hardly goodwill ambassadors.

On the other hand, Lars von Trier’s Cannes scandal Antichrist turned out neither brilliantly here nor appallingly there — though one viewer did upchuck at a press screening, and a publicist called mine the first neutral reaction she’d heard of.

Elsewhere, the flowers of evil bloomed in myriad hothouse forms, some rather wilted on arrival. Perhaps most intriguing was a portrait of a movie that will never fully exist: L’Enfer de Henri-Georges Clouzot reconstructs footage from an aborted early ’60s thriller by the French genre master. Experimenting with psychedelic imagery to evoke pathological jealousy, he abandoned ship midway, but the remains still fascinate. Another mental health vacation, Werner Herzog’s improbable Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, won numerous fans. Yet it’s much less fraught with danger than Abel Ferrera’s 1992 original, and for all its gratuitous goofing too often looks/sounds like direct-to-cable product.

Plumbing sillier darknesses were the lamentable latests by George Romero (Survival of the Dead) and Joe Dante (The Hole), not to mention yet more not-different-enough vampire stuff (Suck, Daybreakers), a middling Manson recap (Leslie, My Name is Evil), and one dullish Robert E. Howard adventure (Solomon Kane). Midnight Madness’ one shining light was a nasty little Australian number, The Loved Ones, after which you will never hear Kasey Chambers’ "Not Pretty Enough" without cringing. I mean, even more than previously.

Elsewhere, pleasures were scattered and unpredictable, with some uneven films elevated by performances — Woody Harrelson’s delusional superhero in Defendor, Edward Norton as twins in Leaves of Grass, and just about everybody in Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Major attention went to Drew Barrymore’s directorial bow Whip It, but Samantha Morton’s own, comparatively overlooked debut The Unloved ranks almost up there with the medium’s greatest horrible-childhood portraits. For originality, nothing quite trumped Corey Adams and Alex Craig’s surreal skateboarder fantasia Machotaildrop, even if its charms eventually wore a bit thin. Which was not an issue for French stop-motion animation A Town Called Panic, 75 minutes of perfect silliness that provided a Gallic heaven to complement Clouzot’s hell.