Thursday, October 01, 2015

Seen in September 

Impossibly stylish… at least in the ads.

September in Toronto is about the Toronto International Film Festival and half of what I saw were festival films. More than that, they really were the kind of films you could only see at a festival: a musical using verbatim transcripts as the lyrics, a Japanese sci-fi film, a Brazilian rodeo and a documentary about two filmmakers talking to each other. It wasn't exactly multi-plex fare, which was the point. Now, like a book by Truffaut about Hitchcock, read what I saw…

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Generally I’d be happy enough to see Guy Ritchie walk through the paces of just making the same film he always makes. Unfortunately, that Guy Ritchie stayed home and this film had none of the energy, humour or pace you’d expect. Mind you, I always found the original 60s series a little dull and could never remember which one of the spying duo was supposed to be the Russian one. If you recall the setup is the C.I.A. and K.G.B. are collaborating at the height of the cold war to fight enemies that endanger everyone. The really odd thing about this film was the absolute dryness of the thing. You’d think European pixie Alicia Vikander could bring a little oh la la sexuality to the affair, but you’d be wrong. The two leads, Henry Cavil as Napolean Solo (uh, made up name anyone?) and Armie Hammer (uh … what's with all the made up names?) as Illya Kuryakin (the Russian one) seemed a lot more interested in each other than anything else. For awhile I thought Ritchie was playing up this as some kind of new genre of gay spy camp, but I guess I was wrong. I’ve seen more chemistry between oil and water than these three - which was a shame because it looked like it would be a lot of fun. Elizabeth Debicki brings some heat to the thing but she simply isn't seen enough (note to self: seek out films with Elizabeth Debicki).

The End of the Tour
Jason Segel plays Infinite Jest novelist David Foster Wallace on a book tour that is generally seen as his coming out party while Jesse Eisenberg plays a Rolling Stone journalist and novelist David Lipsky who has convinced his editor that writing about a book tour would be a good idea. Based on the book Lipsky wrote following Wallace’s death, the film shows two men cautiously assessing each other while exploring themes of ambition, literature, Americana and love. The failing for me was that Segel seems too much of a goof to be thoughtful and Eisenberg too nebbish to be a “dude journalist”. While the film is mostly these two young turks spending a few days together, I never really felt the excitement of two minds coming together or what Wallace was like or even what their friendship was like. Perhaps like Wallace’s untimely death, this film felt incomplete and failed to capture that brief moment of everyone discovering one writer’s immense talent and his fears about what that discovery would mean.

London Road
In 2006, one Ipswich street reeled in the aftermath of the murder of five young prostitutes by a killer living as their neighbour. This film captures how the residents of London Road reacted to the crimes and how it affected their lives. Curiously, all the dialogue is the result of extensive interviews with the residents, transcribed verbatim, set to music and sung by the cast. Think of a sort of British Stephen Sondheim production of a Frontline documentary. It shouldn’t really work but somehow you remain engaged until the end. It also reminded me of when in church we would sometimes sing Psalm readings in that uniquely tuneless Anglican way.

The Whispering Star. Quietly poetic, or maybe poetically quiet.

The Whispering Star
A woman (who is actually an android) travels the Universe in a bungalow shaped spaceship delivering packages that contain fragments and mementos of people’s lives. It’s about memory. It’s about place. It’s Japanese. Filmed in black and white (with one moment of colour), in and around the abandoned area near the Fukushima power plant (which helps to give the entire thing an eery context) this film is poetically quiet and a challenge to wakefulness.

Neon Bull. Image via

Neon Bull
Set in a Brazilian rodeo this movie gives us insight into the impoverished dreamers that work within it. These people are as poor as the dirt they work in, but that doesn’t stop them from dreaming or from living full (sometimes very sexual) lives. A cowboy who wants only to create burlesque costumes, a truck driver who is also a burlesque dancer, her daughter who dreams of having a horse; they are all living their lives they only way they can. At one point the mother pities her daughter for her equine fantasies saying how sad it is she’ll never own a horse, to which the cow hand admonishes her by saying, you don’t know that – anything can happen, because of course, he hopes his own dreams can come true. This is a truly modern film in that there is no conclusion or epiphanies or narrative arcs and happy endings. There are just people who keep on keeping on.

Hitchcock/Truffaut. Image via

A documentary that tells the story of one of the most influential books about film and filmmaking, Hitchcock Truffaut. The book by François Truffaut was a transcription of a week long interview the young French director had with the then veteran British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock in 1962. Present day interviews with directorial luminaries such Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Wes Anderson illustrate the influence and importance of the book and how it changed the perception of Hitchcock as being an entertaining director to a true auteur filling his popular films with his own vernacular and fetishes.

Total Recall (2012)
A sexier, more violent, more technically convincing update of the 1990 Schwarzenegger flick (based on the Philip K. Dick story) that turns out to be just as stupid. I mean, there was still a three-breasted prostitute, the effects were much better, the ladies were much scarier and prettier and in truth, Colin Farrell is a much better actor than Arnie but in the end, it all wrapped up as cleanly as an episode of Law and Order which seems contrary to the conceit of the concept. Wasn’t it supposed to end with us being unsure what was real and what wasn’t? Wasn’t there some kind of mind altering twist on memory and identity? No? Maybe I’m thinking of a different unsatisfying sci-fi thriller.

A Royal Affair
In Ex Machina, I fell for the coquettish act of Alicia Vikander’s android, and I was hoping for a similar transformation when she played the teenage royal married off to an insane Danish prince. But alas, it was not to be. The film is based on the events around the 18th century Danish court of King Christian VII where the young queen Caroline falls in love and has an affair with her husband’s idealistic physician, Johann Struensee. Struensee befriends the king and becomes his closest ally and confidante eventually convincing the king to allow him to reign as regent (a fact necessitated by the King’s mental state). Struensee, as an avid believer of the Enlightenment and writers such as Voltaire, uses his position at court to enact progressive and humane legislation which greatly upsets the Danish nobility. When the affair between Struensee and the queen becomes evident, he is arrested and executed and Caroline banished to live apart from her children and family where she subsequently died of smallpox, still in her twenties. I’m not sure if I was distracted or tired but this well reviewed film was as dull as watching 18th century bloomers dry… I mean maybe someone would be turned on by that, it just wasn’t for me.

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