Toronto capsules — Day 6
THE WARRIOR AND THE WOLF (Tian Zhuang-zhuang, China, 5)
Let me blunt and say that Tian has never been much of a storyteller, even when he’s got incredibly dramatic material. Now let me be honest and admit that as a result I tend to admire his films more than I really love any of them — I much prefer Zhang Yimou’s TO LIVE to Tian’s similar THE BLUE KITE (I have not seen HORSE THIEF though). Here is an effort at a period wuxia film that starts with two Chinese Empire commanders in the Western nomadic regions that reminds one of Wong’s ASHES OF TIME in having jumbled-about chronology that mostly just confuses. Between that, the several title cards that bridge major narrative developments and a fairly complete lack of emotional involvement in the characters — this film is doing well even to get a 5/Variety-mixed from me.
As I said about VALHALLA RISING, if you accept these limitations and acknowledge that THE WARRIOR & THE WOLF does not have much in the way of story values despite having the form of a narrative, then you’re freer to enjoy what the film is — a gorgeous-looking, episodic mythopoetic tone poem (test comparison: what do you think of FELLINI SATYRICON?). The cinematography is awe-inspiring in a negative denial kind of way. Nominally a color film, much of WARRIOR, especially the battle scenes, looks like black-and-white shot through a blue-silver filter, making the warriors appear like shadow puppets. Practically the first color to pop off the screen is an orange fireball. So thoroughly has Tian drained primary colors from his palette that the blood flows onto the parched Gobi Desert floor already a kind of black-brown. I also liked how Tian handled the animal part of the story. Speaking vaguely to avoid second-act spoilers … he gets involved with someone in a manner that invokes an ancient curse that both will becomes wolves. I have it written in my notes “the only place this now has to go is to make them both wolves.” And that’s exactly what Tian does, producing easily the film’s most-memorable image — an enormous sandstorm personified as a gang of wolves burying the Emperor’s army … really. It’d be destined for all-time fame if the fanboys could sit through the rest of this admittedly often-tedious film. It’s that fawesome.
THE INFORMANT! (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 8)
OK … I’m awake now. After days of slogging through some bad films and fairly esoteric films that are sometimes worthy or even great but nevertheless more nutritious than fun … thank you, Steven Soderbergh for showing “here’s how it’s done” to the art-damaged crowd. There are better films at this festival, but I’m confident in saying there’s none that’s this purely entertaining. It’s also a return to form and pattern for Soderbergh — following up this spring’s quite good but arty and somewhat-offputting THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE with a straight-up funny comedy caper like this. This has been the pattern of Soderbergh’s career — whirlwind productivity alternating between arty films (experiments with digital video, tributes to Tarkovsky, etc.) and crowd-pleasing commercial films (the OCEAN movies and Clooney vehicles), sometimes in the same year. In 2009, he did it again, and both films are strong.
THE INFORMANT! bears a superficial resemblance to such corporate-espionage crusader films as THE INSIDER and THE FIRM and is a kissing cousin to Soderbergh’s own ERIN BROCKOVICH (from hexavalent chromium to ADM price-fixing), Only Soderbergh takes the risk, as the trailer shows, of making the film mostly as a comedy, having Matt Damon play the whistleblower as kinda stupid and foolish, comparing himself to characters in corporate-espionage movies, and doing things like looking to see whether he can spot the hidden camera thatthe FBI has planted at a meeting that’s about to begin. And if you know the real-life story he’s telling, there’s more than stupidity and narcissism to sully the hero. Damon is a perfect choice not only because who he generally is ensures instant audience identification before the rug pulling can begin (Soderbergh clearly learned from Hitchcock about the importance of casting a good-looking, charming star in this sort of film) — but he’s also got a boyishness that makes the mustache here a funny affectation and a hint that all’s not well upstairs and he’s got puppy-dog, eager-to-please mannerisms that make credible his belief in his objectively-wack schemes (among other things, he thinks that bringing down the top people at ADM will let him inherit the throne by default).
Soderbergh also directs the film, how does one say it … like a mofo, deliberately tarting the film up beyond reason, with ironic score choices like jazzy 70s TV-cop-show riffs, portentous and thus funnily-pretentious title cards (my favorite: “Tokyo” written in English characters but in the Japanese vertical layout). He also takes the risk of giving Damon a lot of voiceover, but it really works and isn’t a crutch because there’s almost no exposition in it — it’s all a stream of consciousness self-commentary that goes off in bizarre directions (like convincing himself that the TV networks have to rig the World Series to get the ratings, “and I’m not paranoid — that’s just what The Man has made you think”) or just goofball things that only a well-educated dolt could say (“why would anyone call someone Regina — it’s the capital of Saskatchewan”). I doubt Soderbergh’s personal politics are conservative, but THE INFORMANT! takes the anti-business cliches of the corporate thriller, follows them for a while, but in much greater detail undermines the hero as, among other things a criminal greedhead (“we have eight cars and three have never been used,” Damon’s wife says, in a hardship-pleading way, no less) and an inveterate liar. And here’s the part that really should please Starboard types — Damon justifies it all to himself throughout, the the bitter end and even after, by calling himself “the good guy” and comparing himself to Tom Cruise in THE FIRM — a brave truthteller being crushed by The Man. You will not see a movie this year that takes the piss out of Hollywood’s self-righteous anti-business discourse than this one. And few that are more plainly enjoyable.
THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL, NEW ORLEANS (Werner Herzog, USA, 8)
When introducing the movie, Herzog said he needed to goose Nicolas Cage’s performance up a bit, or “as we say in German, he had to turn the pig loose.” To produce all the ham that’s in Cage’s performance, he probably had to turn three or four pigs loose. It’s so hammy, the movie can’t be shown in Israel. It’s so over-the-top that they’re not gonna bother with the pole vault at the next Olympics — the IOC just mailed Cage the gold. Spinal Tap hasn’t invented an amplifier with numbers that go high enough … I’m running out of jokes here, but what else can I do. Cage’s performance as a corrupt drug-snorting cop trying to solve a massacre in post-Katrina New Orleans is so deliriously over-the-top that it simply defies overt description. Consider the phrase “your boy ‘g’.” That is nothing on the computer screen, but Cage gets laughs with it every time. Trust me.
And Cage’s performance IS the movie — if you go with it, THE BAD LIEUTENANT is one of the funniest, most purely entertaining effed-up movies you’ll ever see. If not or if it were in 99.99999 percent of movies ever made, it may be the worst performance ever. But this is a movie where Cage cuts off a nursing-home patient’s oxygen machine while he’s high on crack to get her nurse to spill some info, and he leaves by telling the old woman, “think of your grandkids, you’re sucking up their inheritance. People like you make me sick — you’re the fucking reason this country is going down the drain.” This is a movie where Cage has a lucky crack pipe. This is a movie where Cage says “whatever I take is prescription, except for heroin.” This is a movie where Cage emerges from behind a door — using his electric shaver. If Cage shows even the slightest restraint, the movie falls apart on its absurd and thin storyline and lack of interesting supporting characters.
But Herzog has the right absurdly over-the-top and unbelievable story — at the end, everything just works itself out as if by magic, a magic so overt (about four characters walk up to Cage’s desk one right after the other to announce that plot threads have been suddenly tied up) that you can be confident that you’re living with the movie not at it. The movie had everybody at the Ryerson audience howling with laughter, and Dan Owen told me that he looked several times at Herzog, who has gotten more restrained performances from Klaus Kinski, sitting in his seat during the screening. According to Dan, who had a perfect sightline, Herzog had a big grin on his face through the whole thing, rather than going “vie ist everybody laffing … stop laffing … I am zuh aussor, I outrank you.” At one point, Cage says “shoot him, his soul’s still dancing,” and Herzog thoughtfully provided us with someone breakdancing next to the body. Oh, this movie is deliberate, and Cage’s performance is deliberate — no doubt about it. Indeed, breaking into helpless giggles several times while writing this capsule and reviewing my notes, I’m thinking I may have underrated it.
TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE (Cristian Mungiu / Ioana Uricaru / Hanno Hofer / Razvan Marculescu / Constantin Popescu; Romania) average: 6.6
Directors not specifically matched to the shorts: “The Legend of the Official Visit” — 8; “The Legend of the Party Photographer” — 7; “The Legend of the Chicken Drivers” — 4; “The Legend of the Greedy Policeman” — 6; “The Legend of the Air Sellers” — 8
It isn’t easy to write cleanly about an omnibus film. And even harder when none of the films are identified by their directors in the credits (or anywhere else) and when the film is being shown digitally, the order of its five shorts jumbled randomly. I’ve have identified the titles of the five and the order in which I saw them — Your Mileage Will Vary. I think this order works though and I’d recommend the distributors use that one because the weakest is in the middle and the strongest two came first and last. Noel and Mike, even though they liked the film less than I, were in general agreement about which pieces were the best and weakest.
The films are all set during the Communist Ceaucescu-era and tell stories that apparently were popular black-humor urban legends in Romania at the time. The “what we did then” premise and the comic tone would give the films a nostalgic feel if the stories weren’t so pitch-black (they went over like gangbusters with the large Romanian contingent at the theater). All also have closing title cards that (except for #3 — “Chicken Drivers”) try to one-up or give a “capper” to the story — “it is also a legend that —.” If you’ve seen some of the Polish and Czech films of the 60s — early Polanski, early Forman, Menzel — this is very much in that vein. Again the third one aside, they’re also very well done — sharp and funny throughout, not just the setup to a “Twilight Zone” recoding punchline, though the biggest laugh in the movie is the punchline to #1 (“Official Visit”) which also works as a metaphor for Communism itself and how it survived — speaking vaguely: everyone was on board.
Only the fifth (“Air Sellers”) really makes much of an effort for thematic heft and/or heart beyond the black humor though, making explicit cinematic reference to BONNIE AND CLYDE and how this couple at the center, who also fell in love during their time as criminal scammers and first bonded over a stolen car, were engaging in the only form of rebellious theft open to them in 80s Romania rather than 30s Texas. The scam itself is so absurd and thus funny that you can hardly believe they’re getting away with it. And like Bonnie and Clyde at the end … well … again, something like that, adjusted into 80s Romanian. Even the other films are not simply kicking a 20-year-old dead dog, as someone (I forget who) has suggested. Both at least #1 and #2 (“The Party Photographer”) are about petty officialdom and arbitrary orders and the length to which subordinates go to obey them and to adapt to them — something that exists in all corporate entities (admittedly, some more than others, government more than most, and “actually existing socialism” most of all). For personal reasons, #2 also appealed to me because it’s set at a newspaper and has the line “stop the presses!” actually an obsolete phrase.
Easily the least successful is #3 for several reasons — it’s the least funny and most earnest (among other things it has the only sincere title card about the hardships of Communist Romania), it has the least-venal protagonist (ironically Vlad Ivanov, the ruthless abortionist from 4 MONTHS, who most definitely should not stare into space or be photographed from behind in a hangdog pose), and it’s the only one whose end aims for happy rather than mordant.