Monday, September 11, 2006

Greetings from Toronto No. 1

Posted By on Mon, Sep 11, 2006 at 2:31 PM

OK, first the bad news from the Toronto International Film Festival: I arrived the day after the now-notorious Borat premiere--at which Sacha Baron Cohen arrived in character with women hitched to donkeys; the film broke after 20 minutes and couldn't be fixed; and Cohen, director Larry Charles and unannounced guest Michael Moore tried to placate the crowd with shtick. The screening was shut down and the place nearly rioted. Cohen as Borat nailed the source of the trouble: "I blame the Jews!" The good news is that Borat is the single funniest movie I've seen since...I dunno, Jackass, which it resembles in some ways (including the eruptive reaction it gets out of an audience). Admittedly, something about Cohen's Candid Camera gimmick of dragooning real people into his fictions bugs me: if you treat the rest of the world as assholes, you reap exactly what you expect to sow. But the joke, as often as not, is on the star and his Kazakhstani alter ego, who engages frat boys, former presidential contender Alan Keyes, Pamela Anderson and (most memorably) a Deep South etiquette instructor and her flummoxed dinner guests in an all-out war on propriety. Soon to be legendary: the epic fight scene between Borat and his sweaty, swarthy manager, which prompts the star to wail, "I can still taste your testes in my mustache."

Borat is one of 16 movies I've seen in the past three days--not exactly a record among the iron-assed cinephiles I've encountered in line. Until Borat, the funniest movie I'd seen was For Your Consideration, in which Christopher Guest slightly alters his mock-doc Spinal Tap/Waiting for Guffman format for an attack on Oscar fever, focusing on an indie-film set ("Home for Purim") thrown into uproar by award-season buzz. The Guest ensemble--Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins and Harry Shearer--is top-notch, with Fred Willard turning smarm into an art form as a vacuous entertainment reporter. But the movie's satires of Oscar bait are as broad as a barn door, and as blunt and off-target as its insights into actors' recognition-starved psyches are sharp. It diminishes in memory, but it ends on a sour note of Sunset Boulevard chill that's hard to shake.

This may not come as a surprise, but from several of the films I've seen (including Borat), I'd say the rest of the world is not happy with us. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel spins four seemingly unrelated stories in Mexico, Japan and Tunisia into a tapestry of American indifference and obliviousness to other cultures. Despite fine performances by a large international cast, including Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal and Koji Yakusho, it proves Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga have completely exhausted the gimmicky plot shuffling of their Amores Perros and 21 Grams: an extraordinarily compelling first hour yields a succession of ludicrous, overwrought payoffs in the second, each intended to outdo the other for sheer infliction of misery. In The Host, a nifty Korean shocker featuring the scariest movie monster since Alien, a slithery aquatic mutant created by the U.S. military becomes a symbol of rampaging arrogance. Subtext, shmubtext: the real news is that for the dynamite first hour, director Bong Joon-ho rivals the Spielberg of Jaws for giddy, giggly terror.

Sadly, there's been one huge disappointment: Steven Zaillian's much-lauded movie version of All the King's Men. Strenuously miscast from Sean Penn's wildly gesticulating Willie Stark on down, it's a turgid, choppy adaptation that leaves no evidence of the source novel's greatness: bereft of Robert Penn Warren's flinty poetry, all that's left is Primary Colors with a few whiffs of magnolias and gumbo. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, from Taiwanese great Tsai Ming-liang, is a work commissioned for the "New Crowned Hope" series celebrating the legacy of Mozart: it's one of the director's least engaging films, a recycling of past tropes without his Tati-like spatial humor. But it's still plainly the work of an artist who can make a single long, deep shot teem with life and possibility, from the foreground to the very back of the frame. Werner Herzog's POW drama Rescue Dawn, a fictional version of the story told in his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, isn't the disaster that pre-screening buzz seemed to indicate: it shows signs of production woes (unlike Fitzcarraldo?), but once its haggard American prisoners Christian Bale and Steve Zahn escape into a Vietnam skull-deep in serpentine vines and dangerous waters, the movie's back in familiar Herzog territory: a landscape without pity, mercy or any other human attribute.

You'll be hearing more about a pair of fascinating docs. In Lake of Fire, made over a period of 16 years, American History X director Tony Kaye examines the abortion debate from all sides and gives comfort to none: the tiny, easily identifiable human remains of aborted children are shown in close-up, as are the bodies of abortion doctors murdered by anti-abortion terrorists. Alongside the expected lunacy of extremists like Randall Terry and convicted killer Paul Hill, Kaye includes moderate pro-life voices such as Nat Hentoff, whose all-or-nothing arguments for the sanctity of human life are far more persuasive. The movie is gripping as history, as philosophy and as debate: the challenges it offers to every position should be undertaken by as wide an audience as possible.

Even more incendiary is Amy Berg's Deliver Us from Evil, which finds a monstrous subject in Father Oliver O'Grady, a defrocked priest who talks with astonishing, even gleeful candor about the innumerable children he raped and molested throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Less artful than Kaye's film, and frankly exploitative--O'Grady is more than happy to play Hannibal Lecter for Berg's camera, especially whenever he just happens to walk past a playground--the movie nonetheless provokes a kind of rapt horror: the screening audience reacted with audible gasps, not just at O'Grady but at the church higher-ups who enabled his serial theft of trust and innocence. It opens in October; Kaye's film as yet has no distributor.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise so far is Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, a grim fairytale from the director of Hellboy that returns to the Spanish Civil War setting of his macabre The Devil's Backbone. Filled with extravagant, often shocking imagery that seems beamed straight out of a child's subconscious--faeries, goat demons, a hideous creature with eyeballs in his clawed palms--it's a major step forward for a director whose material has rarely matched the level of his gifts. And Stranger Than Fiction is a slight, sweet comic fantasy reminiscent of Groundhog Day that gives Will Ferrell his first real romantic lead: he's charming as an IRS agent who learns his fate is literally in someone else's hands, until he falls for a bewitching baker (an adorable Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Still to come: Little Children, the Dixie Chicks and Paul Verhoeven's latest. I'll check in later this week.

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