I can’t believe it’s already been a year since I last did this. I made it to Toronto Wedesday night, primed and ready for ten days of pure cinematic Xanadu. I’m going to cram as many movies into ten days as possible and maybe do some interviews here and there as well. There’s a staggering array of material on offer, and I’m thrilled to get started.
What you’re getting here, and for the next week and change, is something between a colleciton of notes and full reviews. Hopefully you’ll share in the thrill of cramming in as many movies per day as possible.
The first thing I really wanted to see today, The Well, wasn’t until 9:45, which meant I had most of an hour free beforehand. So I figured I’d kick things off right, with a taste of a film I knew I’d love.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
[USA; Shane Black]
I’ve never met Shane Black, but I imagine him as the grizzled yet spirited screenwriter, a classic figure. And that certainly comes across in the first few minutes of this funny/serious new Hollywood noir. Line drawn pulp art glides across the screen as a dripping score evokes detective stories of Hollywood past. Then there’s a chainsaw, a botched robbery, and L.A. in all its idiotic, empty glamour. Welcome to noir, done in the new style.
As Harry Lockhart, Robert Downey Jr. quietly smokes as a New York guy accidentally transplanted to Hollywood. He tells this story, and the telling is half a product of his good but not too smart personality, and half that of a screenwriter who’s got plenty to say about the detective genre. Surprisingly, and thanks in no small part to Downey’s delivery, it really seems to work. A host of fringe characters float around, notably Val Kilmer’s Gay Perry. He’s the Jack Vincennes type, a playboy private detective who moonlights as an advisor to genre flicks. There’s some deeper involvement brewing between Harry and Gay Perry, but I’ll have to wait to see what develops just like the rest of you.
Pretty quick it was obvious that Kiss Kiss is what I usually think of as a black book flick — a movie that’s the product of a writer accumulating ideas, lines, and moments for years. Black’s movie plays not only like a love letter to noir and old Hollywood, but to all the ideas he’s never been able to give a home to. In the first forty minutes (all I saw) the lines come quick and fast, and there’s something in nearly every scene that one of your friends will repeat for weeks. It’s a CHUD type of story. It’s also funny as shit. Any movie that takes multiple scenes to set up a My Friend Flika joke is to be commended.
I hated having to walk out of this forty minutes in, but I know there will be eight thousand other chances to see it in the next two months. And if I hadn’t, I would have missed my first scheduled film of the day, which was…
[Sweden; Kristian Petri]
Like Bunuel and Mexico or even Hitchcock and America, it’s impossible to discuss Orson Welles and not talk about Spain. The Well is an attempt to trace the country’s influence on the director, in part to understand Orson Welles, the man, and also to perhaps discover why the famed artist’s remains were interred in a well in a famous bullfighter’s back yard.
The crime of The Well is that despite access to a hitherto unseen stock of private footage, there isn’t a lot of Orson Welles in it. Instead, director Kristian Petri, in a style that recalls Herzog to the letter, creates his own personal travelogue around a map of Welles’ influence. Petri speaks to a handful of fascinating personalities, including prolific exploitation director and Welles right hand man Jess Franco, who has a single lower tooth that could open cans of beans in a cartoon, but the revelations of most are shunted into Petri’s own story of artistic discovery.
At one point, a man who works at a hotel frequented by Welles relates a story about his wife. She had a run-in with the director, and since the man and woman are married, her memory is now his memory, too. The same mindset might be behind Perti’s effort to find traces of Welles hidden within the Spanish landscape, as if by experiencing those places, Welles history might become his own. Artistic envy? Who could blame him, when the end of a cigar smoked by Welles is more interesting than most personalities in film since his death.
I admire the effort, primary because Petri dispenses with so many shopworn techniques of the artistic portrait. I also can’t entirely fault him for using another man’s story to tell his own. At the same time, his story just isn’t as compelling as that of Welles, the iconic auteur and inveterate failure. It might not always be so, but for the time being, a film about the life of Orson Welles deserves to feature him as a lead character.
(Apologies for the incorrect spelling of Bunuel. There’s something about my laptop and CHUD’s posting system that doesn’t get the accent right. But I know it should be there. Really.)
Afterward, I’d planned to take some downtime and get lunch, something I never do at the festival. This year I was determined to break my pattern, by which I typically go without food until the late evening, when I’m delirious and half-incoherent. Not so good. But the plan didn’t work, because no sooner did I leave the theater than someone mentioned the sci-fi flick from Cameroon that was just starting. I had no choice.
[Cameroon/France; Jean-Pierre Bekolo]
Every festival always has a few ‘what the fuck?’ moments, so I’m glad I got the first out of the way early. In some ways, this is indeed a sci-fi flick from Cameroon, set two decades in the future. Not much seems to have changed; Cameroon looks a lot like New Orleans circa September 2005, with deserted buildings, cheap and common death, and dangerous, dark water everywhere. The only addition is lots of colored light, which permeates every scene, like neon set free of any fixture.
But really, the sci-fi thing is pretty low-key. This is really the story of two women and the body of the government minister one is stuck with after a sex session takes a fatal turn. It could almost be a road movie, as the two drive the minister’s expensive car through the city, first attempting to resolve their personal predicament, then gradually realizing that their own solutions might have a broader effect.
There’s a throbbing pulse inside this movie, driven in large part by an insistent, repetitive musical track. It’s political tone and adventurous in construction. Everything is for sale, and as a corrupt and ineffectual government tries to steady itself, an almost mystical caste of women exerts its own influence on the streets.
But it’s also (to my eyes) fairly slipshod, with scenes that drift off or are cut short, almost as if time and energy were at the brink of exhaustion every day. There’s a feeling that the story could go anywhere, but will probably end up nowhere. Since that’s echoed by the lives on screen, maybe Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s film isn’t as unsuccessful as most of us would think.
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes
[UK/Germany/France; The Brothers Quay]
It’s been almost ten years since Institute Benjamenta, the first feature film by famed and influential animators The Brothers Quay. It’s not recommended, per se, but far too many people haven’t seen the outlandish shorts by this pair, which are essential viewing. Films such as Street of Crocodiles, which will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever seen a Tool video. Institute Benjamenta was a film I wanted to love but couldn’t. It was too slow and aimless and un-tethered from structure — willfully obscure as the structure of their short films often was.
So what to make of this new tale? Much like every film by the Quays, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes exists in a totally unique world. It’s almost a fable; a mad inventor whisks away a beautiful singer to power some unknowable dream of madness. An innocent piano tuner, who resembles the singer’s fiancé, is brought to the inventor’s island to repair automatons which will create the almost Lovecraftian performance at the center of that mad dream.
Unlike most of the Quays’ work, characters here are more explicitly stated, and gifted with some recognizable human characteristics. We’re aided by the fact that motivations are clear, even when the mechanism to act upon them is not. There’s a sensuousness lurking in the film’s plentiful shadows, almost an erotic spirit at times. That makes Piano Tuner far easier to watch and absorb than Benjamenta. (Though even that film, and the preceding shorts, featured a delicate, almost inhuman sexuality.)
But the narrative thread is thin and tangled in a machinery of dreams, fantasies and elliptical visions. Even with human actors, the Quays’ visualization is tinged with dirt and a lack of clarity that’s like veils drawn over the frame. Gorgeous little pieces of clockwork animation often intrude, not always to do anything but announce their own presence.
I found myself far more patient this time, however, than I was with Institute Benjamenta. The characters, small as they might be, kept me locked in while the brothers dreamed around me. Many other people didn’t seem to share the sentiment, and I can’t blame them, but I was happy to share their visions, and create some of my own with a little help from the film. I’ll see the film again twice, or maybe six times…then one day I might be able to pin it down, if I haven’t decided that would be the wrong thing to do.
(For those who dig the Brothers and haven’t yet seen it, be sure to track down Peter Greenaway’s brilliant and artily twisted A Zed and Two Naughts, which purports to be based on the filmmakers in several respects.)
[Greece; Yorgos Lanthimos]
My first thoughs as the credits rolled? Fuck Greece. Not very worldly, but there it is.
Do I have to say any more? I suppose I might as well; it’s the only way to redeem the 90 minutes spent with this emotionally barren basket of disappointment. The film concerns three detached and nearly impenetrable people. One seems to be a cop who likes cars and is obsessed with recreating crime scenes. He’s recruited two assistants: a hotel maid who persistently plays the victim, and a photo lab clerk who doubles as videographer.
Each of the trio has a few quirks, and their interactions are almost free of dialogue, except for the intricately detailed instructions of the cop as crimes are acted out. Eventually, as we silently contemplate their anti-social, repetitive actions (aided by a camera eye as distant from the action as the characters from each other) some interaction becomes apparent, and a story almost forms. Scratch ‘story’ — make that ‘impression’. For that’s all that can be left when so much takes place in a contextual vacuum, and when seen through a determinately dispassionate eye.
Some of my irritation is based on the writeup given the film in the festival booklet. (Read it here.) More than half the plot described is, I’ve decided, complete bullshit. I’ve often wondered how much of any given festival entry is provided by a press release. Here the percentage seems to be high. The film I saw is a sketch of the one described.
But the alternative was not seeing anything at all, so it all works out. Tomorrow I wake up bright and early once again to see Manderlay, Lars von Trier’s follow-up to Dogville. I can’t wait; Bryce Dallas Howard stars and I loved Dogville. I try not to have high hopes, but sometimes it can’t be helped. After that might be the Danish trio of Pusher films, and perhaps the Korean The President’s Last Bang, as well as whatever else I can fit in. Check tomorrow for more.
Actually, wait. There’s more now. It’s 2:30 AM and I’ve just walked in from comedy.
Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic
[USA; Liam Lynch]
Even when a comedian has a personality entirely their own, there’s an inviolate method to creating the stand-up film. It includes framing sequences, musical interludes and outtakes, all of course accenting a stage performance. Silverman’s movie has all of these elements, but it all feels like her. Crass, Jewish, funny and willing to talk about her own asshole. Love it? Yeah.
Holocaust, anal sex, pregnant children, songs about the death of old people and the envy of the not entirely busy, not entirely famous. All here.
This is a funny movie, and if you’ve ever wanted to see Sarah Silverman making out with herself in a mirror, you’ll have to see the whole thing to have your dream come true. It’s late and I’m excruciatingly tired, but it was worth it.