Toronto – capsules – Day 6
THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY [Wedding Daze] (Michael Ian Black, USA, 2)
Crass Stupidity, Part I. I understand that the guidebook for a film festival needs to make every film sound appetizing, so I know better than to blame the Toronto Festival’s writers if a movie turns out to be bad. But there still is an implicit moral contract of a certain amount of truth-in-advertising. I knew this was a commercial comedy going in. I was not prepared for how utterly crass and juvenile THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY was — pace these explicit words of Noah Cowan: “Black’s timing and rhythm is unerringly precise. He takes a sophisticated, adult approach to situations that might otherwise yield cheap laughs.” THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a yarmulke-wearing character who designs such toys as “Jew-nicorns” (get it) and “Jew-la hoops” in the shape of the Star of David (get it … “Jew-la” … rhymes with “hula”). THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a scene in which a father talks to his newly-engaged son about marriage and what he needs to know about the facts of life. But now Dad can pass down to Son his favorite cock ring, for when he needs extra endurance (it did not help that the son is played by Jason Biggs, who starred in a great but identical-in-premise scene in AMERICAN PIE opposite “father” Eugene Levy). THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a scene in which a newly-engaged couple on a bus put their ears up against a woman’s bulging belly. This is the exchange close as I can recall: “I feel it kicking … I can hear a heartbeat … When is the baby due? … I’m not pregnant.” Yes, that’s the sophisticated, adult approach that doesn’t go far cheap laughs. Now, my complaint is not that I did not laugh and I found THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY unbearably crass and nihilistic (though I did … and I could rant all day about this film’s worldview and understanding of love). What I find funny is not Cowan’s or TIFF’s responsibility. Nor is it my point that I never enjoy cheap laughs and/or the turning off of adult sophistication — I still rather like PORKY’S, 25 years later. But there is noway, nohow, no two opinions on whether PLEASURE’s approach to humor is “cheap” or “sophisticated,” and thus the festival’s description is a lie. Noway otherwise. Nohow.
COEURS [Private Fears in Public Places] (Alain Resnais, France, 9)
This film may be profitting by the dogs surrounding it, but I rather doubt it. Even the people who don’t embrace COEURS as full-on-great like I do — like “Lee Walker,” Michael Sicinski (pan down to the 14th) and Theo acknowledge that Resnais’ direction and Eric Gauthier’s cinematography are nothing short of flawless and there is much to like in this movie, even if they don’t think it quite comes together, as I do. It’s a very English film, with a strong resemblance to BRIEF ENCOUNTER — covering a lot of the same emotional ground, within the same reserved emotional register and a similar “life goes on as we endure unhappily” ending. Stylewise, COEURS is simply an unimpeachable treat — loading up on the unnaturally dazzling and color-saturated images, but with light schemes like the fluorescent light tubes at bars, the glass-with-Macs look at an office, etc., which give that dazzling look a reality.
As for content, I’m not ready to make the “Alain Resnais has found religion” speech (though I have some notes for a rough draft), but there’s no doubt that mortality casts its shadow over everything in this film by this 84-year-old Master. COUERS is filled with snow … all the fades between scenes are of fades to falling snow rather than the usual black (with IS used to great contrasting effect to mark the divisions among acts). It’s an image of winter, a memento mori, and an annual reminder that everything in this world ends, and not always on the terms we’d like. There is a scene between Charlotte and Lionel (brilliantly played by Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi) in which the two discuss religion and Hell, which suddenly blinks from a familiar interior set to a snow-bound one. Charlotte is a rare figure in contemporary movies — a conventionally religious woman, a Catholic, who is never made a mockery of or the object of satire therein. She has a past, which is used to some comic effect, but … trying to vague … her sin doesn’t work as planned and it’s clearly shown as a one-off. But in this gentle snowbound exchange on the existence of Hell, she plainly has the upper hand as COEURS presents it. It’s a lovely scene but the one where I welled up the most was one in which Lionel described to Charlotte why he’s taking care of this comic tyrant of an old father. It’s unostentatious, dutiful and quietly moving in a way that middle-class middlebrow tragedy. Charlotte says at another point that “God blesses us with trials,” and neither COUERS nor the Toronto audience took it as a laugh line.
I obviously did not find NOT ON THE LIPS to be off-puttingly stylized to the point of aggravation or alienation. But some did, and you can rest easy on that front (you might not like COEURS obviously, but *that* should not be a problem). There’s no mugging, no fourth-wall breaking, no rhyming couplets or songs, though there’s some very stylized lighting and Resnais keeps the seven principal characters within about a half-dozen settings, and within what-I-take-to-be Alan Ayckbourne’s structure. And I see I’ve written a lot about this film without mentioning the brilliant performance by Lambert Wilson, who goes from depressed to jaunty without changing a thing or overdoing it; the way the film does a Hong Song-soo by recapitulating romantic relationships (admittedly among an ensemble) from one act to the next; or the way the three videotapes Charlotte loans to Thierry (Andre Dussolier — another brilliant performance) change both in meaning and in content, for her, for him and his girlfriend. There’s just that much to love.
OUTSOURCED (John Jeffcoat, USA, 2)
Crass Stupidity, Part II. Despite its title, this movie just uses the phenomenon of shipping service jobs abroad as an excuse to get The Innocent Abroad for a culture-clash romantic comedy, of a very rote pedigree. But Jeffcoat is not Mark Twain, though. We get the driver assuring the American arriving in India, to train his call-service office’s replacements, that “our town is very clean.” Cut to man peeing against the wall. Ho ho ho. The hero’s name is “Todd,” but the Indians call him “Mr. Toad” (there’s a lot more in this vein. Apu on THE SIMPSONS speaks better English than most of these Indians, thankyouvirrymuch). We get jokes about having to rent the Kama Sutra Suite at the hotel, misunderstandings over what hand to use to eat versus to wipe your ass (I saw another movie with that same joke earlier today), and attempts to explain the differences between rubbers, erasers and condoms. Yuk yuk yuk. And it wouldn’t be a movie about India without a failed attempt to get beef or The Innocent Abroad wondering why there is a cow wandering about someplace incongruous. If any of this description sounds funny to you, by all means rush out and see OUTSOURCED. There is one scene that works, in which the romantic leads, Josh Hamilton (not a bad match for Ron Livingston in OFFICE SPACE) and Ayesha Dharker (best remembered by me for the great Tamil film THE TERRORIST) are on a ferry trip. They recite each’s stereotypes of the other in the other’s accents. Dharker’s American English is near-perfect and Hamilton’s Indian English is at least broad enough and self-aware to be funny. They’re an attractive couple, and the scene works because it crackles with wit and spontaneity rather than 100 bad standup routines.
STILL LIFE (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 3)
I capped off a wildly uneven day with this film, which was hastily-added for two days after its surprising win at Venice, where it took the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion. STILL LIFE has a scene where a rotating fan starts to move from right to left, but the fan blades don’t start to turn for a couple of seconds. Those couple of seconds sum up this snoozefest — lots of panning, but feeling nothing because the engine is dead. Some friends were convinced there were some video/color-correction issues. But obviously the film had arresting images of the effects of China’s plan to dam up the Yangtze River, flooding large areas in the resulting artificial lakes. Thus requiring a lot of demolition workers, the milieu through which the principal “character” moves in a quest to find his lost family from long ago (METAPHOR ALERT!!!!). And I enjoyed some of the images of buildings being demolished, and Jia’s framing of one demolition through the ripped hole in another building’s wall. Plus the sheer wtf-ness of a building suddenly blasting off into space. In other words, Jia has made a movie that would be really interesting if it weren’t boring as ass. To quote Mike D’Angelo apropos another film: “there are no human beings in [this] movie” (actually, there is one: the young man who tries to act like Chow Yun-fat. He disappears from the movie in its only moment of emotional heft). Everyone else mopes through this movie like a brain-damaged zombie on Ritalin. Double-dose. It’s as if Jia thinks that landscapes can create character. They cannot. And after a while, his attempts to substitute landscapes for things like incisive dialogue and psychology — both absent from these depressive undead/lumps of dead air — gets irritating. Impressive though it was, the dialogue when the central couple finally meet and discuss a divorce is so thumpingly banal that the (admittedly interesting in concept) way that the background changes as the camera tracks/pans around them didn’t impress me. It just aggravated me. At least, it was better than the top-prize winner at Cannes. But not as good as Berlin (TC).
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