By Shannon Gee
January 2, 2005 - 1:57 PM PST
In September 2004, writer and producer Shannon Gee sent three dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival to GreenCine Daily.
Hockey's World Cup aside (the final game between Finland and temporary home team Canada happens Tuesday), it's steady as she goes at this altogether pleasant and enjoyable festival. Many would say that this year?s opening film, Being Julia, starring Annette Bening as a beloved stage actress who copes with aging and her unchallenging stage roles by having an affair with a much younger man, is just that; pleasant and enjoyable, but no matter - opening night films are for all and Annette and Warren looked their Hollywood royalty best walking down the red carpet at the kick off gala screening.
There are plenty of big Hollywood-type releases here, but as anyone who has gone to this festival knows, that's just the tip of the iceberg. The hot tickets for press so far are as varied as one could imagine. Right off the bat, the first screening of Paul Cox's Human Touch filled up quickly, prompting the first of the add-on screenings. There was a "mob scene" to get into Lukas Moodysson's (Show Me Love, Lilya 4-ever) latest, A Hole in My Heart... and then a "mob scene" to get out. Seems that not everyone could stomach this tough take on how far a group of holed up amoral amateur pornographers will go. That didn't keep others from wanting to see it, and another screening was added.
Two theaters were jammed packed Friday night for the highly anticipated hit out of Cannes, House of Flying Daggers. Indeed, the soap opera/martial arts genre never looked or sounded better between Zhang Yimou's picture composition and saturated color palettes, actors Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro's bone structures, and the Dolby Digital sounds of drums, bamboo spikes, and flying daggers (call Zhang's screen direction of extras and weapons "arsenal orchestrations") thumping and thwacking about. And yes, they had to add another screening of this one too.
Added screenings aren't the only measure of hot films. The applause that may or may not happen at the end of a press and industry screening is also a meter on how buzz-worthy a film is coming out of this fest. Canadian favorite Don McKellar's Childstar, David O. Russell's I ♥ Huckabees, and the aforementioned Being Julia all got a smattering of applause as the credits rolled, but sometimes silence can also be a good indicator of a hit or miss.
On the hit side, Kore-eda Hirokazu's Nobody Knows, the story of four young brothers and sisters who are abandoned in a Tokyo apartment by their flighty mother, left the crowd stunned and devastated with its heartbreaking story, measured pace and pitch perfect performances by the four child actors.
It wasn't all silence at the end of Mark Wexler's biographical/autobiographical documentary Tell Them Who You Are, his film about his father, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and their complicated relationship. Instead, by the end of the last reel, all that could be heard was the semi-stifled sound of sniffling. Not only is it a compelling portrait of one of the great cinematographers of our time, but it is also a terrific look at how children struggle to live in the shadows of their famous fathers.
You see enough movies at a massive film festival like Toronto, certain patterns or themes begin to emerge. One colleague is beginning to see a vomiting motif, while I declare my theme to be "Children in Peril."
It begins with David Gordon Green's Southern noir Undertow. Something of a departure from his usual narratives but certainly no different in its cinematography (he partners up again with Tim Orr), Undertow is the story of two boys on the run from their psychotic uncle (Josh Lucas, channeling Matthew McConaughey and Robert Mitchum at once) through the backwoods of the Carolinas.
Next up is Clean, the latest from Oliver Assayas. The part of Emily Wong, the drug-addicted former rock and roller protagonist/anti-hero was written especially for ex-wife and occasional muse Maggie Cheung. Emily finds herself suddenly widowed when her musician husband OD's after they quarrel. Nick Nolte plays the husband's father, who has been raising Emily's son for nearly all of his young life. After spending six months in jail, Emily decides to go "clean," to restart her life and to get her son back - but she may go to any length to do so. Assayas is in full Late August, Early September mode here, presenting internal heartfelt drama and one of the most fully realized woman characters at the fest. And you can be sure that, since this is Assayas, there is at least one scene on a scooter.
I've already mentioned the Kore-eda Hirokazu film Nobody Knows, in which four children are abandoned by their mother in a Tokyo apartment, and Childstar, Don McKellar's satire about bratty, spoiled child actors and runaway production. Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé heads off in the opposite direction. Here, Senegalese villagers parent too much (rather than none at all) and too archaically by upholding the tradition of female circumcision. One woman in this small African village grants a moolaadé (protection) to four girls who escape the ceremony. She herself refused to let her now-teenaged daughter be mutilated and the tension begins to mount within her household and the village. Hardly graphic but entirely affecting and inspirational, Moolaadé is well worth seeking out, and has one of the best endings of any film I've seen all year.
Keane, on the other hand, has an ending that comes way too late. Lodge Kerrigan's latest is about a near-schizoid man (Band of Brothers' excellent Damian Lewis) whose daughter was abducted from Port Authority six months prior to where the film picks up. He then meets a single mom and her little girl (who happens to be the same age as his missing daughter) with whom he imagines he could start anew. Reminiscent of the Belgian film Le Fils in subject matter and shooting style (a missing child, a handheld camera claustrophobically following the protagonist's head), Kerrigan gets us into Keane's mind by sticking with him too long and almost too painfully. That's not to say that all players involved, especially Lewis, don't do a terrific job of immersing themselves in this world. It's just that there might be one too many scenes of Keane spiraling down his own doomed drain.
Lastly, Danny Boyle's Millions played to a packed press and industry screening, and while the children here are technically in peril, the film is more about the meaning of money and charity through the eyes of a very special little boy. Damian (an utterly charming Alex Etel) and his family have just moved to a new housing development. Damian's a tad weird - the heroes of his classmates might be Manchester UK footballers, but he prefers religious saints. He's out playing in a field near the train tracks when a bag containing 300,000 pounds falls seemingly out of the sky. He decides to give the money away to poor people, and so, begins his odyssey, donating money, arguing with his finance savvy brother (he thinks they should buy property) and encountering the menacing bank robber who is the real source of the cash. Boyle has always been a vibrant and energized visualist and his style is extremely well-suited for a story about children. Watch out, Tim Burton.
There are definitely many challenges when attending a film festival, albeit they are mostly joyous ones. When you are watching so many films back to back the mechanics of filmmaking - the performances, the script, the cinematography, the narrative, the sound design, the score, the set design, the costuming - really start to stand out. You try to find the things that make each film stand on its own rather than dissolve into a giant mix of movie mush.
When faced with big studio releases (or films with ambitions to be a big studio release) like Head in the Clouds, Ray, and Being Julia, you become hyper-aware of the high production value and the shortcomings that gloss covers up. Indeed, Charlize Theron dazzles in her 1930s cocktail gowns as Gilda Besse, a wild and carefree debutante who lives in Paris through World War II - a rich girl with her "head in the clouds." Unfortunately, she is given lines like, "You have a nice willy and I hope to dream about it" and corkers like, "When we were making love you felt it!" thrown at her. Same goes for Ray, Taylor Hackford's Ray Charles biopic. Jamie Foxx does a good job in the intimidating role, but it's too bad the film's run time is a reel and a half too long and the supporting actors, namely the ones in the flashback scenes of Ray Charles's childhood in rural Florida, are directed to shoot fire from their eyes and shout their lines.
The main thing Ray has got going for it is its music (it opens with "What I Say" and the sequence in which the song is written and performed is gangbusters) and a couple of other films have some notable scores. Oliver Assayas's Clean does take place in a world where the musician Tricky is the last resort to help the main character get her son back, a feat which verges on the impossible, but it's got performances by Tricky and Metric and songs written by Mazzy Star and performed by Maggie Cheung (one colleague describes her voice as Marianne Faithfull-like.) The John Kerry documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry closes with R.E.M.'s new song, "Around the Sun." Sally Potter, also an accomplished musician and lyricist as well as a film director, did some of the original music for her film Yes with long-time collaborator Fred Frith.
Yes, Potter's response to the 9/11 attacks by way of a love story between an Irish-American scientist and an exiled Lebanese surgeon, is also one of those films at the Toronto fest to challenge audiences with its structure. The dialogue is entirely in iambic pentameter. Other films less standard in structure have included the 24-meets-Belly gangster thriller Haven (the film, shot like a music video, jumps back and forth in time between a triad of character stories) and the claustrophobically shot, perhaps Le Fils-inspired Keane.
Todd Solondz's Palindromes, which is probably the most daring film structurally out of all that I've seen at the festival (and the most troubling). The story, which circles around the unsolvable umbrella issues of teen pregnancy, pro-life, pro-choice and religion, has its main protagonist Aviva played by six different actresses in any given scene. It's not an uninteresting device but, for me, it made it even harder to connect to the plight of Aviva. I've gotten in many an argument with fellow critics about Solondz's bleak worldview in his films, from Welcome to the Dollhouse to Storytelling, but I think Palindromes did me in. This one is pretty harsh.
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A year of children in peril.
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A film critic for the Seattle Times, Shannon Gee has also worked as a producer on several documentaries, most recently Smothered and the mini-series The Meaning of Food.
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