With the 34th Annual Toronto International Film Festival winding down, it strikes me as a good time to clear my head and unload a little post-fest commentary (despite still having a few more movies to see). The general consensus on TIFF ’09 seems a resounding meh. A bunch of disappointments by major filmmakers—both Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Claire Denis’ White Material seem slip-ups for autuers of near-limitless talent, Trier’s Antichrist is at best a perverse joke, while Egoyan’s Chloe is downright laughable—were balanced by better-than-average outings by commercial directors such as Jason Reitman (Up In The Air seems to smell like Oscar bait more than any other film in the fest) and the Coen Brothers. I never got a chance to see Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, but by all informed accounts, it may have been the fest’s best film.
Here’s a few more (that I did see) that are worth mentioning.
Mother (South Korea, Bong Joon-ho): I’ve been a fan of Bong’s ever since 2006’s The Host, and have come to enjoy his 2003 police thriller Memories of Murder even more. Mother has more in common with this latter film in its depiction of the bungling, lackadaisical South Korean police force. Star Kim Hye-ja is excellent as the doting mother to a semi-retarded son who she believes is wrongfully accused of murder. Again, Bong proves himself by no means an economical filmmaker (like all of his films, Mother could stand to be trimmed by 20 minutes), but given the budgets his films receive, you can’t blame this extremely talented young director for wanting to shoot so much stock. Especially when you couldn’t trick him into framing a boring shot.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, USA): I totally miscalculated Herzog’s two TIFF outings. I initially expected the David Lynch-produced My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? to be Herzog’s attempt to cover his ass against the backlash that would follow on the heels of this (sort-of-but-not-really) remake of an Abel Ferrara film starring terminal hack Nicolas Cage. Other way around. Herzog and Cage’s Bad Lieutenant is a frenzied, freewheelin’ stab at the police procedural (a genre whose conventions Herzog has no apparent interest in). Cage is as good as he’s ever been as the manic, drug-abusing N’yawlins cop who gets hooked on opiates (prescription or not) following a back injury suffered in Katrina. Moreover, unlike crap like Benjamin Button, this is actually a great post-Katrina film, with a ramshackle New Orleans being precisely the sort of seething jungle environment you'd expect of a Herzog film.
The Road (John Hillcoat, USA): For anyone who liked Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitizer-winning book (or any fan of Hillcoat’s), the burden of expectation that precedes this film is fated to crush its critical reception. But this is a solid adaptation, one which drives home the resonant relationship between father (the always entrancing Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) ambling around in a post-apocalyptic America. The soundtrack by Nick Cave and Bad Seeds bandmate Warren Ellis is a bit heavy on the schmaltz and tinkling piano, and the script beefs up McCarthy’s typically stilted dialogue, but nonetheless, The Road stays fairly true to its source material. (Though for my money, the Coens’ No Country For Old Men remains the truest cinematic realization of a McCarthy text.)
Defendor (Peter Stebblings, Canada): I’m probably alone on this, but this movie charmed the pants off of me. Woody Harrelson playing a slow-witted vigilante in a Robocop version of Hamilton? Sign me up. It’s a bit by the numbers, but enough inventive gags and an incredible performance by CanCon usual suspect Elias Koteas as a crooked cop made this a pretty enjoyable watch for me. Certainly miles better than another vigilante piece, the repulsive Michael Caine vehicle Harry Brown.
Vengeance (Johnny To, China/France): To again proves himself a formidable force in the cinema of Hong Kon gun-fu bullet ballets with this, his first English-language film. Starring French pop culture icon Johnny Hallyday as an amnesiac chef hunting down the hitmen who took out his daughter and family, Vengeance (though at times derivative of stuff like Memento and The Alzheimer Case) is ingenious in its deployment of inventive action set-pieces.
George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero, Canada): Okay, so George Romero (recently nationalized, making him likely the most famous working Canadian filmmaker) made two of the best horror films ever. But 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and 1978’s Dawn of the Dead are beginning to look more like flukes with each new movie Romero cranks out. While not as stupid as 2007’s Diary of the Dead, Romero’s latest undead outing centres around a secret island off the coast of Delaware where two rival Irish gangs (divided over zombie rights) are fighting a turf war. (Host Colin Geddes actually had to audacity to posit this film as a Middle-East allegory, though it might as well be about the differences between Coke guys and Pepsi guys...bring on the term papers!) Some bits are redeemable as camp (a character spots a boat and says “There’s a boat,” a zombie a rides a horse), but for the most part, Survival is as hopelessly stiff as its many lumbering corpses.
Youth in Revolt (Miguel Arteta, USA): Michael Cera hems and haws his way through another too cute teen comedy that thinks it’s smart because its protagonists know who Yasujiro Ozu and Jean-Paul Belmondo are. Though I guess global cinema now has a scene of M. Emmet Walsh smearing mashed potatoes on his face while tripping out on mushrooms. Finally!
Antichrist (Lars Trier, Denmark/France): Hostel for the bourgeois ethicist set. Dumb.