These were my grades and a sentence or two on the films I saw at Toronto:
50 Ways of Saying Fabulous (Stewart Main, New Zealand, 2) — And this movie was not one of them — bad kid acting, absurd plotting (the one adult on the scenes flees a shooting), aggravatingly syrupy score. Just awful in every way, but thankfully will only kill two hours of your life if you hang around the local Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Film Festival, where they indiscriminately eat up anything in the “young boy discovers he’s gay” genre.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, USA, 8) — Postmodernism didn’t kill comedy after all. You actually can parody something that was already intended as tongue-in-cheek to begin with, as this film proves beyond any doubt. Imagine a break-through-the-4th-wall version of LAST BOY SCOUT. I’ll have to see it again (durn it) because the audience was laughing so hard that they actually drowned out some of the jokes. Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer are both having enormous fun, and it just spills off the screen.
Takeshis’ (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 6) — One for the fanboys. Reaction seems to correlate perfectly (at least among those I’ve talked to) with the pre-existing level of Takeshi fanboyism — the more the person liked/was familiar with his other films, the more he liked it, the less, less. Hence my slightly positive grade. Funniest when it takes a SERIAL MOM turn and the nerdy “regular” Takeshi starts killing people who’ve committed minor ordinary-life offenses against him. But please Takeshi … leave out the dance numbers. It sucked in ZATOICHI too.
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 2) — Lots of interesting ideas, particularly about the changing status of women over the time covered by the three stories starring the same two actors. But they just lie flat on the screen in another languid vaporous snoozfest from Hou. A post-film conversation I had with Jeremy Heilman about the film was far more invigorating and well-thought out than the film itself, and that’s just not how it should be (I think even Jeremy, who I respect, would agree with that)
The Devil & Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig, USA, 8) — aka The Devil and Daniel R. Crumb. It didn’t hurt that I found Johnston’s music entirely without merit or even the simplest craft — the lyrics are painfully oversincere in that bad confessional poetry sense and any resemblance between the poetic meter of the words and the music’s melody or pace is entirely coincidental. But the film shows how necessary it was for Johnston to have an audience for his own mental health, and for this particular audience to have him (think Renee Zellweger’s song “Roxie Hart” from CHICAGO about the star and the audience). The Romantic Genius template also gets a working over and from some unlikely sources. Like David Treadwell, Johnston went FAR beyond “a little eccentric” — he was just plain nuts. And believe it or not, such people are not easy to live with.
Tideland (Terry Gilliam, Britain, 3) — My sensibility simply doesn’t match Gilliam’s and this film was a singularly unpleasant experience — like watching colon surgery, with Gilliam helpfully providing fish-eye lenses, canted angles and acting turned up to 11 to make seem it even louder than it needs to be. Just … ick.
Wavelengths avant-garde program 1 (various) — The best film here, and one of the best in the fest, was Peter Tscherkassky’s percussive “Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine” which turns images from a Sergio Leone western into an abstract horror film. I also liked the two “city symphony” films, “Douro, Faina Fluvial” a late-period silent by Manoel de Oliveira (who’s still working) of Oporto, and site specific ROMA 04, which used focus changes to produce a hyper-real quality to helicopter footage of Rome. The other stuff wasn’t for me.
Mrs. Henderson Presents (Stephen Frears, Britain, 6) — I’d like to think there’s more to it than hearing Judi Dench say “fiddler’s fuck” (and the very next line suggests there is), and it doesn’t work when it tries to get serious, but this is one of those brilliantly acted pieces of naughty British fluff that I’m a sucker for. Dench’s closing speech in favor of statuesque nudity in the midst of a British music-hall revue is pure hokum and drivel, but she makes it work, both because of what she does and who she is. Those for whom Bob Hoskins full-frontal nudity is your idea of Nirvana (and you know who you are) should camp out right now for this once-in-lifetime (gawd, do I ever hope) opportunity.
L’Enfer (Danis Tanovic, France, 4) — Way too elliptical, fragmented and coy for something that turns out to be so pat and neat — basically CAPTURING LES FRIEDMANS, only told in the form of two of my least-favorite narrative structures — the Gradually Expanding Flashback and the Everybody Has A Tic That Needs Explaining. The last scene, the first to have all four principal actresses onscreen, is brilliantly done, but I then began wanting to film to actually start now.
Capote (Bennett Miller, USA, 4) — Phillip Seymour Hoffman is in Cate-Blanchett-as-Hepburn Full Oscar-Beg mode, and the film has practically nothing else to offer. Only Catherine Keener as Harper Lee (another Reality Principle role for Miss Keener) makes an impression, and there’s even less suspense here than in most biopics/historical true crime stories. But Hoffman’s performance as one of the most easily parodied post-McLuhan public figures is so brilliant because it never descends into parody — he actually makes Capote a believable person. Watch for PSH in March.
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, USA, 9) — Word of mouth was already high, and then producer James Schamus introduced the film and offered his apologies that Ang Lee was not there, but he had to be in Venice “to pick up the Golden Lion” for best film at probably the world’s second-most-prestigious juried festival. When the lights went down, my expectations were higher than a Grateful Dead audience. Wow, man. Was this film ever so awesome, man. More TK. And plenty of Oscar nods too, I’d suspect.
Corpse Bride (Tim Burton, USA, 7) — Basically it’s about necrophilia, but hey … so’s VERTIGO. Burton makes this collection of sick jokes mostly involving death and decay so light and breezy (helped along by a couple of strong musical numbers), and ultimately romantic and noble, that you almost forget what it is you’re watching
A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, Canada, 8) — Contender for Best of the Fest before William Hurt showed up and threw this delicate, precisely-observed balancing act into a minstrel show. It’s a kind of modern-day film noir, about secrets from out of the past and whether they’re really real and who Viggo Mortensen may or may not be. If you walk out of the film just as Viggo Mortensen … trying to be vague … finishes an all-night drive and walks into a bar … if you do that, you’ll think you walked out of one of the year’s best films. Only you’d also miss the spine-tingling coda scene, where there’s a universe of dread in a meat loaf.
Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe, USA, 1) — Although I genuinely and truly disliked this film, it might only have been slammed with maybe a 3 on the level of objective badness. But ELIZABETHTOWN pushes some of my most-tender buttons with its self-indulgence, its rambling structure, its piling on of endings, its extensive use of pop standards to propel (or actually provide) the emotion of a scene. Plus any movie that has Susan Sarandon do a stand-up routine in tap shoes at a wake (and bring down the house!!!) deserves as much scorn as I can pour on it.
Manderlay (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 9) — I can see not liking this, the latest stylized allegory by this generation’s greatest director. But I can’t see splitting the ticket with DOGVILLE though (in either direction) — they’re the same movie in every stylistic way, and the targets are equally well (or badly) dissected. The targets are more than American racism and slavery per se — there’s a much more profound critique of the (philosophical) liberal conception of freedom going on here. I hereby promise to rip a new one on the first liberal critic who claims this film is some profound critique of the Iraq Occupation (it can easily be seen that way, but it’s an utterly illiberal critique). Bryce Dallas Howard was initially a bit “off”to me — as Grace, she’s more intelligent, forthright and less submissive than the Grace of DOGVILLE (or the typical Von Trier heroine), but after 20 minutes, I got into the different character — it’s Grace as The Social Gospel rather than Grace as The Suffering Servant
Mary (Abel Ferrara, USA, 4) — What a mess. There’s a great film in amongst these ideas, this footage, these characters and maybe even this plot (about the effects a little-seen-within-MARY Jesus film has on its actors, director). But Abel Ferrara has not made it, shamelessly padding out the 80 minutes — by including lots of expository shots of people travelling in cars and by turning over the film to religious scholars for several minutes at a time to give their monologues.
Revolver (Guy Ritchie, Britain, 3) — FIGHT CLUB meets LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD with an operatic High Mass score and lots of I CHING-like maxims, both in the title cards and in the dialogue. It’s incomprehensible and jumbled as all hell. If that sounds like your idea of a good movie, have at it.
Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1945, presented by Isabella Rossellini, 10) — This canonized neorealist masterpiece needs no words from me by this point. But what surprised me on this repeat viewing was how much comedy and pure soapy melodrama this film has. Don Pietro, the partisan priest, is a figure of fun for much of the film’s length, and the Gestapo Lesbian Mata Hari is a hoot as well. But the film’s famous death scene sent chills all through my body, as it probably always will. And didn’t Rossellini get the memo that the Church backed the Nazis because the anti-Semite Pius XII was Hitler’s pope (well … what does he know that Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and John Cromwell don’t.)
My Dad is 100 Years Old (Guy Maddin/Isabella Rossellini, Canada, 9) — Isabella as Selznick, Fellini, Hitchcock, Chaplin, her mother Ingrid Bergman. This short is at one and the same time both intensely personal on writer Rossellini’s part (she asks her mother The Ultimate Questions about her father — did he destroy your career; why did you divorce) and on director Maddin’s part (it’s in his familiar retro black-and-white-with-pyrotechnics style), and the two come together in the personification of Roberto Rossellini, who would be 100 next year, as an enormous round belly. The woman sitting behind me told her companions she thought that disrespectful, and I chuckled some more.
Vers Le Sud (Laurent Cantet, France, 5) — I wanted to like this film more than I did since Cantet made my favorite film of recent years in TIME OUT, but this one was just unfocused and dormant. The subject matter (three women on holiday in Haiti looking for sex from the local men) is interesting, and Charlotte Rampling doesn’t know how not to be luminous onscreen. But between three women, back stories on all three, attempts at characterizing the Haitian locals — it might have just been a better idea to focus on just one of the women, as Cantet’s last two films both focused on a single protagonist.
Into Great Silence (Philip Groening, Germany, 5) — I wanted to like this film more than I did since if anyone would like a 3-hour documentary about Carthusian monks, with no voiceover, no backstories, very little interview footage, and almost no words — you’d think it would be me. But this was unfocused and unstructured (the very opposite of a cloistered monastery). Not until about the last hour did I really get any sense of overall structure — why we were seeing what we were seeing in this order. The editing was pretty ragged all throughout — unexplained short shots, cuts coming too soon in the content curve. Might have been better to just follow one guy or maybe try to meticulously reconstruct a single day rather than just show this and that, with no sense of flow. I can rationalize all of it on thematic grounds, but finally not as tightly disciplined as it needed.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, USA, 3) — Mexicans are the angelic salt of the earth. The Border Patrol is fascist jackboots. Rinse and repeat every five minutes for two excruciating hours.
Stoned (Stephen Woolley, Britain, 5) — Perfectly serviceable Brian Jones biopic, focusing mostly on his last days, with some flashbacks (showing by example that Gus Van Sant made the right choice). But enormous hole created by lack of Rolling Stones material (owing to legal copyright issues), essential to any sense of why this man should matter more than any other fucked-up 60s junkie.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 8) — I like this more than most other TIFFers because it didn’t bother me that it never really got back to being actually about the novel (sorta like how Sterne’s narrator never got around to actually telling his life story)
Gabrielle (Patrice Chereau, France, 3) — Too talky about soulcraft that’s never dramatized, with a ridiculously LOUD score and other dubious directorial choices, and felt more like a Strindberg play than a Conrad story. (But at least the footman and Miss Julie actually do something.) I disengaged very quickly and this kind of psychological case study is not the sort of movie that can win you back in midstream (a post-film discussion with Josh Rothkopf blunted some of my hatred, frankly). Chereau is now on an 0-2 count with me.
The District (Aron Gauder, Hungary, 6) — You have to at least once in your life see a movie with Hungarian gangsta hip-hop, Fauvist-style cutout animation and a nuke-wielding Osama bin Laden in a Budapest Falafel restaurant’s basement. Now I can die happy.
Walk the Line (James Mangold, USA, 7) — Reese is luminously quick-witted (get your [long overdue] Oscar dress ready, girl), Joaquin is as good as he can be. Mangold is a hack, but this is too good a story to ruin.
The Willow Tree (Majid Majidi, Iran, 4) — Had trouble staying awake frankly, but it wasn’t tough to mentally fill in what I was missing. And the ham-fisted score made sure I couldn’t miss every Deeply Truthful Emotional Epiphany.
You Bet Your Life (Antonin Svoboda, Austria, 7) — Intriguing idea that mostly pays off — making all life decisions based on dice rolls. Two lengthy casino set pieces are standout and a “should we break up or not” scene actually had me caring how it came out. Ending is ferpect once you figure out what’s going on.
Cache (Michael Haneke, France, 9) — TK. All the hype wasn’t hype.
Iron Island (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran, 7) — A poor man’s MIRACLE IN MILAN — a comic fable about the dispossessed founding a utopia apart from the world (in this case aboard an old oil tanker). But that’s still pretty durn good — often sharp and funny with the best moment coming from the captain overhearing the teacher’s lessons.
15 Sept (aka Best Festival Day ever … at least that’s what I was saying at 8pm)
The Duelist (Lee Myung-se, South Korea, 8) — Oh. My. God. Was heading for 9 or 10 territory for its first hour, but then decided to get romantic and plotty.
The Wild, Wild Rose (Wong Tin-lam, Hong Kong, 1960, 8) — Oh. My. God. Grace Cheng is The Diva from Hell. A little too long and heavily plotty, following Carmen pretty closely, in the third act for a musical. But Grace Cheng is The Diva from Heaven.
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, USA, 9) — Oh. My. God. From no expectations or much foreknowledge to the festival’s best so far. Where has this guy been?
L’Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 9) — Oh. My. God. From the festival best’s so far to the festival’s best so far 2.0, enormous expectations and some foreknowledge notwithstanding. Where were these guys prior to LA PROMESSE.
Dear Wendy (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 2) — Oh. My. God. What a tedious piece of trying-to-be-smart-but-really-is-stupid crap. They needed to have paid a cinematographer too.
The Great Yokai War (Takashi Miike, Japan, 3) — Oh. My. God. What a tedious piece of trying-to-be-outrageous-but-really-is-lame crap. They did pay the makeup man and art director quite well.
Everlasting Regret (Stanley Kwan, Hong Kong, 3)
The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron, USA, 6)
The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 7)
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Nick Park, Britain, 8)
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, South Korea, 7)
Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, USA, 9)
THE CONSTANT GARDENER (Fernando Meirelles, Britain/Kenya, 2005, 4)
“I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses ‘art’ films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood ‘product,’ finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and liberalism.”
— Pauline Kael, “Fantasies of the Art-House Audience,” anthologized in 1965’s “I Lost It at the Movies”
When I went to see “The Constant Gardener” last weekend, the line ran around a whole block of Connecticut Avenue in Washington’s Upper Northwest, just southeast of Chevy Chase, i.e., a pretty wealthy neighborhood. The line was so long, I wasn’t sure at first that I’d get a good seat. But afterward, I couldn’t help but wonder how the people, who seemed to lap it up, made the money that let (most of) them live in such a tony town. Did they realize what they were seeing? There’s a line at the end that explicitly says the West’s wealth, theirs, is built on the blood (or “regrettable deaths”) of Africans. I suspect they did — the film is too crude not to “get” — but by focusing on white liberal “activists” as heroes and portraying political radicalism as sanctifying and justifying even beyond death, “The Constant Gardener” assuaged and denounced them at the same time. It convicted them of sin while showing the way to redemption — there is precedent for this being a fairly popular religious message, I believe.
But though I do detest “The Constant Gardener,” it isn’t a terrible movie — just a dishonest tongue-lashing-cum-tongue-bath. But stylistically, it’s a marvel — a feast for the eye and ear. If you can just ignore what’s happening and what we’re being told about it. The film begins with a sinister death in Kenya — of Tessa (Rachel Weisz), the wife of British diplomat-functionary Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), and her African driver. Because there are no accidents or coincidence in the conspiratorial universe of John Le Carre (the film is based on one of his novels), it’s all got to have something to do with her “activism” against drug companies in Africa.
Weisz is playing a more realistic and thus more annoying version of the art student she played in 2003’s “The Shape of Things.” In the first of a series of flashbacks that unspool while Fiennes is trying to Find Out Everything, the pair meet at a speech in which Justin, a British diplomat-functionary, cannot come up with a coherent sentence in defense of the Iraq War from a room-emptying harangue from Tessa. Justin is neither angry nor humiliated nor gloating, instead feeling sympathy for the noble but alone Tessa (“a prophet is not without honor … etc.”) and by sundown neither is wearing a stitch of clothing. Whaaaa … if making political enemies of liberal women was a route to the bedroom, I’d have been the Stud of All Time in college.
Director Fernando Meirelles’s constantly prowling camera hurtles through the action, shaking with anticipation, as if dancing along with the propulsive score eager to see what it’ll find next. It’s intimate, voyeuristic, brazen and involving. Mereilles and his cinematographer Cesar Charlone (they teamed on both “Gardener” and the great 2003 Brazilian film “City of God”) have it in them to be a perfect director-lensman complement — Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro come first to mind. Charlone’s African landscapes are painted in multi-hued swirls, recalling a kind of post-impressionist style, only with a washed-out color base and the lighting often blown-out into a fade-to-white look. Multiple film stocks are used to great advantage in distinguishing different levels of reality. The movie’s dominant dusty orange/clay palette — particularly in the Kenyan and Sudanese locales — recalls the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in City of God.
The opening scenes are deliberately unclear, both in terms of what is going on and what it means — though it’s filled in and recoded later, in Mereilles’ usual tension-inducing way, through repeating the image in a different context, and with more knowledge on our part. Flocks of black birds and white birds appear as memento mori at several key points in the film. You also get such “City of God” devices as sudden bursts of unexpected violence (a scene in a Berlin hotel room) and tracks away from a doomed, fleeing person as seen from a faster mode of transportation that enables the saved character to move on.
All this is superb as itself, but that “fleeing but left behind” shot is the very tipoff to what’s wrong with “The Constant Gardener.” In “City of God,” that shot sets up the operatic death of Shaggy, one of the first act’s three principal characters. But “City of God” had an amazing script, by Braulio Mantovani (uninvolved in “The Constant Gardener”), that convincingly created both a whole world that seemed to teem off the edges of the frame, and a world where everything fit into everything else with ruthless logic. But here in “Gardener,” the person fleeing is unknown to us — a 5-year-old girl with no convincing Being to us other than a universal signifier of suffering. The film teems all right, but with ciphers, signifiers and stick figures. Heavy-handedness and one-dimensionality are acceptable for a single character, but not for every single daggum thing in the movie. “The Constant Gardener,” you see, is A Very Important Message Movie — Drug Companies Are Evil, I think — and everything gets subordinated to The Message until the film just becomes shrill propaganda. Is there worse damnation for a movie like this than being praised by the New York Times because it “may even trouble your conscience”?
To take just one example: “Gardener” stacks the moral deck so overwhelmingly in favor of Tessa — stealing from the ending of Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” in one moment, and a hundred devotional pictures of Our Lady of Perpetual Ecosocialism in nearly every other — that she ceases to be a character and becomes one more Universal Signifier. And like other Immaculately Conceived Heroines, she can have no flaws. Even when she tricks a man into letting her see a letter with a promise to give it back and have sex with him (a completely unbelievable deal from his end, by the way) — “Gardener” makes a point of redeeming her later through a Sara-like diary in which she says how much she hated having to lie and had no intention of cheating on her husband by following through on the deal. And her distance was just to protect Justin. And now he learns it all by reading her papers. Compare Fiennes’ reading of Sarah’s diary in “The End of the Affair” for a sense of how one-note “Constant Gardener” is.
The overall effect is like listening to Cicero deliver a Michael Moore speech. It’s not that “The Constant Gardener” traffics in ideas with which I disagree — it’s more that the film offers no space for a viewer to stand outside its crackpot conspiracy theories and anti-capitalist bedwetting. Even the love story is defined and shaped by leftist politics — its overall trajectory, after all, is the reshaping of a pro-Iraq-war functionary in the image of a hectoring anti-globalism activist. A story of political radicalization; the romantic equivalent of “growing in office”; an “uncaring” man turning into a “caring” woman (to use the movie’s terms of discussion) — the line “we can help one” is helpfully stated twice, but two characters, in two contexts. The reversal of the sexes actually helps hide how cliche “Gardener” is in romantic terms — it’s basically about the workaholic person who keeps his garden-tending spouse at a distance through devotion to the work that is consuming him until She Learns To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.
As it goes on, “Gardener” degenerates into a blizzard of the usual self-contradictory anti-capitalism adolescent whines. We get the caught-on-the-fly activist complaint that “we must buy your branded drugs at 5, 10, 20 times the price,” without anyone thinking to ask “20 times what” and wondering whether and why “the price” thus constructed as the “normal” base is actually that. We get a complaint that Western nations ship drugs to Africa to assuage our consciences (so we shouldn’t then?) and that they’re useless in an environment where there is no security or potable water (then why complain about their high cost or lack of access). The tests are for a drug to combat the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis, which has the potential to be a pandemic (one would think this would be a good thing), but all Le Carre’s script can see is “blockbuster profits” and the corruption of the testing process to determine side effects.
But most fatally for “Gardener,” the script by the increasingly eccentric Le Carre can see only James Bond-like villainy or conspiratorial corruption. As Goldfinger and Oddjob, Bill Nighy and Gerard McSorley are so clearly under orders to give such tiresomely one-note performances (McSorley is pure Snidely O’Whiplash) that if they weren’t being paid, you’d feel embarrassed for them. Governments are dismissed because “the drug companies seem to control them,” because there could never be any other reason liberals might not get what they know is right, right? But in the real world there are competing goods and value judgements, which Le Carre can’t see for his anger. The term “corporate murder” is blithely thrown about, but Le Carre tells us that there’ll never be any proof because they’re so shady and careful. Paging Karl Popper. Paging Karl Popper. And bring along your falsifiability test. He can’t even write a decent defense of the Iraq War at the start of the film. It is the ultimate form of self-righteousness: to refuse to acknowledge that people who disagree with you — about in this case, drug patent and testing — might have reasons, even ones you find ultimately unpersuasive. One scene of snarling villainy ends on the ultimate low blow, a pan from a well-manicured golf course to a teeming slum right immediately up against it. I think this was meant to ironically contrast the rich and the poor, but I’m really not sure. The dialog is as if Le Carre (and isn’t it relevant that I’m referring to “Le Carre” throughout, not his characters) had cut-and-pasted his back issues of The Nation: “They’re a drug company, c’mon. No drug company does something for nothing”; “the real axis of evil”; rich people talking about the sauces and cooking style of sole; and the misandrist rantings of Pete Postlethwaite at the end “the drug companies are the new arms dealers” (insert Victor eye-rolling here).
It’s not that any one thing in “Gardener” is particularly bad as such, but the incessant, one-note quality makes everything feel overdetermined and, finally, exhausting. In its own more-refined-looking way, “The Constant Gardener” is as one-dimensional as an Adam Sandler movie, and just as indulgent of its audience’s predigested worldviews — Hooray, peace activism! Boo, corporate profits!
But does it ever look good.
First published at The Fact Is