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Day Seven| Day Eight | Day Nine

When I
awoke and looked at my schedule this morning, it was almost like I wasn’t even
at a festival. This was the lightest day yet, which was incredibly relaxing.
Somehow I still didn’t manage to get home and finish writing until 2AM, which I
just can’t understand. I think Toronto performs some temporal voodoo.


Beowulf and Grendel
[Canada/UK/Iceland;
Sturla Gunnarsson]

Beowulf & GrendelHow could
I resist? With all the noise around The Lord of the Rings
, this classic story was ripe for
the telling. In fact, it’s being told twice; here and in a film scripted by
Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery. To be honest, I really expected nothing out of
this version, which seemed too straight to carry the weight and impact of the
Beowulf saga. I was wrong.

It’s all
Hrothgar’s fault. While out hunting, the king of the Danes and his men come
across a troll. With little thought, they kill him. But the beast’s son
remains, and has witnessed the deed. Hrothgar fails to strike a second time,
and the vengeful force called Grendel is truly born.

Years
later, Grendel has begun to raid Hrothgar’s hall, with devastating success.
Hearing of the violence, the Geat hero Beowulf (Gerard Butler) assembles a
small force; they travel across the sea to Denmark with the hope of defeating
Grendel. But the troll has no interest in those not of Hrothgar’s line. The
witch Selma warns Beowulf that the situation may be more complex than he knows.
It will take pain and blood for the hero to realize that on his own.

So: a
tale of cyclical vengeance, with more than one side seemingly acting without
provocation, and potential generations suffering woe in the wake. Why would
anyone want to tell the story of Beowulf today? (That’s sarcasm.)

With a
terrific script by Andrew Rai Berzins Beowulf and Grendel
uses an ideal mixture of classic
speech and modern dialogue. Flawlessly performed, the balance is able to draw
an audience into ye olde Denmark, but never make them feel as if the film’s
script is a puzzle to be solved.

I was
thrilled to see Gerard Butler doing some good work. I like the guy a lot and
have been waiting for him to anchor a film that, not to put too fine a point on
it, doesn’t suck. This is it. His Beowulf is complex and thoughtful. Sarah
Polley is his match as Selma, and the entire cast supports them well. As
Grendel, Ingvar Eggert Siggurosson thankfully moves well beyond Tyler mane’s
Sabertooth performance (I don’t know why that’s a touchstone) to display some
genuine pathos and depth.

Thankfully,
the diverse cast doesn’t attempt to conform to a single accent. Polley speaks
in basic North American, Gerard Butler in his thick brogue, and Skarsgard with
that cleaned up tone he uses so well. The mix works, as each actor seems
comfortable with their dialogue. As a tale of complex and modern heroism, Beowulf
and Grendel

delivers.

Ghosts…of the Civil
Dead

[Australia;
John Hillcoat]

Ghosts...of the Civil DeadOne of
the more interesting programs in the festival is Dialogues, where filmmakers
attend a screening of a classic film then stick around for Q&A. Filmmakers
and discussion periods are a festival standard, but rarely for older films, so
the program stands out.

Last year
was Cronenberg’s The Brood
, introduced by occasional Cronenberg actor Don McKellar
as A History of Violence
had just begun. With the fantastic The Proposition on the scene this year, it only
made sense that Nick Cave and John Hillcoat would take part with their first
collaboration Ghosts…of the Civil Dead
. Since I’d never seen it, this
was a sure thing.

It’s a
story familiar to anyone who’s ever seen Oz
, and indeed the power of Ghosts
has almost
certainly been diminished for an audience so inured to onscreen violence. But
this depiction of prisoners pushed to the breaking point is still potent
because of an iconoclastic storytelling style that includes strange asides and
media blurbs. From several perspectives, the film was ahead of its time.

In an
ultra-modern prison facility, trouble is brewing. The general population pods
are filled with violent offenders, while the worst cases are confined to
various degrees of solitary confinement. But new and more violent cases are
being introduced to the system, mixing with the general population, perhaps to
provoke the unthinkable: a full breakdown and revolt.

Hillcoat
and Cave indict the entire prison system, and particularly the machinations
that led to new, even more modern facilities. With a cast of actors that
included ex-cons and ex-cops rehearsed through a variation of the Stanford
Prison Experiment, they obtain a notable realism and memorable effect.

The
post-screening Q&A didn’t get as much info out of Cave as I would have
liked, though he did liken the recording of the soundtrack (by he, Blixa
Bargeld and Mick Harvey) as a ‘barbershop quartet from hell’. Hillcoat was more
political and verbose in his descriptions of research, filming and the lack of
widespread audience for the film. Sadly, Ghosts
isn’t generally available in North
America, but it’s worth seeking out, more for the off-kilter storytelling
approach than for the politicized content.


The Sun
[Russia/Italy/France/Switzerland;
Alexander Sokurov]

The Sun.Think of
this as the Japanese version last year’s Downfall
. Actually, director Sokuroy, who
made the art house sensation Russian Ark, has already tackled Lenin and Hitler
in previous films. This time he addresses the last days of Emperor Hirohito in
a glacially paced film that contains only flashes of insight.

As
American forces converge on Japan, Hirohito (Issey Ogata) is encased in his
opulent palace, complete with extensive underground bunkers and a marine
biology research lab. The ruler spends his days surrounded by protective
servants who shuttle him from one activity to another, seeking to preserve the
image of the Emperor as a living god.

But the
very quality of light in The Sun
suggests that Hirohito’s power is fading rapidly.
Suffused in delicate but oppressive shades of grey, the film is an exposition
of gloom. Ogata’s mouth twitches constantly, silently mouthing monologues, and
a near constant buzzing sound shatters any calm. If Hirohito was once an
incarnation of divinity, that nagging dissonance implies that the celestial
lines of communication have been severed.

Anyone
who read the end of Dave Sim’s Cerebus
epic will be reminded of the
final chapter, where a single issue might have been dedicated to the aardvark’s
inability to take a leak. Hirohito’s problems are less physical, but occur at a
similar pace. I joked that I was happy the film had been shot so soon after the
sets were built, so that when the action got slow I could watch the paint dry.

Even when
American forces arrive and the pace quickens to a slow drip, an audience might
feel like they were being given only the most superficial portrait of this
Quixotic leader. It’s easy enough to understand Hirohito’s final desires to
exist as an intelligent human being rather than divinity incarnate, but The
Sun
refuses
to speculate about how that attitude affected the course of the war, until
those final days.


Wassup Rockers
[USA;
Larry Clark]

Wassup RockersLarry
Clark has finally made a movie I almost fully respect. With Wassup
Rockers
, the
photographer shifts his focus from sexually and physically dangerous teenagers
to a group of Hispanic high school students living in South Central L.A.
Instead of killing bullies or spreading AIDS, they skate and have a
little barrio hardcore band. They take loads of shit from other students for
wearing tight jeans. As they walk in a pack down neighborhood streets, black
kids jeer and shout ‘wassup rockers!’

As the
story goes, Clark met the real-life ‘rockers’ in LA and was impressed by their
presence and attitude. Since he doesn’t make documentary films, a rudimentary
plot was devised, in which a group of seven takes an ill-fated day trip into
Beverly Hills in search of fertile skating grounds. They encounter all the
common American varieties of racism and classism, and in a nod to Clark’s more
lurid films, each contentious encounter is more dangerous than the last.

As always
in Clark’s films, there’s tremendous bias evident in Wassup Rockers
– Clark obviously idolizes his
subjects just as he reviles the cops and entitled rich who wield power in broad
strokes. But the kids are balanced and remarkably normal. That’s ‘normal’ as envisioned by white America, at least. They avoid fights and
drugs, and enjoy pretty typical amounts of drinking and sex. This from the guy
who insisted Kids
was an accurate portrait of teenage life.

The best
bits of Rockers
– and there are many — are touching and funny. I’ve accused Clark of
being dishonest about his intentions in the past and may never accept his
earlier films as anything but self-serving fetishism, but this is a big step
forward. Instead of leering he observes, and much of the film is poignantly
effective.

More than
anything, Rockers
could use a serious trim. At just under two hours, it’s thirty
minutes too long. The kids are vibrant and magnetic, but many conversations
feel as if they run in circles. That’s probably the case in truth, and the film
should definitely represent that, but a little scalpel work would make this the
first Larry Clark film that everyone should see.

And
that’s it for the day. I bailed on the midnight show in favor of actually
eating a decent dinner and getting back on the daily publishing schedule.
Tomorrow is Dear Wendy
, the new film from Thomas Vinterberg, penned by Lars von
Trier, as well as Sammo Hung’s opus SPL
and the new semi-serious Jackie
Chan flick The Myth
. Plus, of course, whatever else I can fit in.

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