TORONTO ‘09: Friday (9/11)

Leave it to Roger Ebert to better express my own complicated feelings with regards to the dilemma of trying to produce thoughtful, productive, lasting, and not-completely-cringe-worthy reviews while still spinning around inside the blender of a film festival. He’s right. Writing about films during festivals is more than just a challenge. It can actually be quite unfair to filmmakers, as it doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to deliver a definitive take on a film just hours after having seen it—especially when that film has been sandwiched between three or four others in a ten-hour (or less) time span.

This corresponds directly to Glenn Kenny’s recently posed question over at The Auters as to that murky line between usefully personal versus uselessly personal festival reporting (i.e., “John Anderson just punched Jeff “The Dude” Dowd in the face!” vs. “OMG, the water pressure in my hotel room’s shower is amazing!”). My conclusion? As with the films that we watch, I believe that it all depends on the voice that is typing those words. Having said that, I will add that I personally don’t care if your taxi’s AC isn’t working and “I’m Too Sexy” is playing on the radio.

Okay, now back to the task at hand. Today—Friday, September 11th, 2009—was an exceptional one. So exceptional, in fact, that I’ve begun to refer to it as “Master Class Friday” (and I didn’t even see the new Claire Denis!). While I realize that at HTN our bread and butter is American narrative cinema produced for under one million dollars, I have to say, it sure felt good to sit back, relax, and watch some celluloidlicious films that defiantly landed outside that rigid categorical box.

The day couldn’t have begun better, as I decided to check out the new Coen Brothers, A Serious Man. This movie is more Jewish than Woody Allen, Philip Roth, the language of Hebrew, and Israel combined. Yet for anyone who was raised with religion in their household but found that religion to be more confusing than comforting (mine was good ol’ Catholicism), it will feel painfully familiar. Although A Serious Man is microscopically specific in its depiction of a Jewish family living in the Midwestern suburbs in 1967, it nonetheless strikes a deeply universal chord. As filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen are peerless; unlike just about every other aging, I-produce-a-new-movie-every-year type of director, they actually continue to improve with age. Their frisky vision still feels fresh every time around and has yet to devolve into self-parody. Perhaps that’s because they are always looking for new stories to tell. This time around, they’ve tapped directly into their past to tackle two genres at once: the midlife crisis comedy and the religious quest drama. Because of that, A Serious Man isn’t like any other midlife crisis movie you’ve ever seen. It is hilarious and bizarre, and it concludes with a punchline of a climax that will make you smirk before wondering if the wrath of God is whispering down your own neck at that very moment.

Next up was Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet—aka, One Of My Most Anticipated Films Of The Year. Audiard is one of the few directors who I am confident won’t ever disappoint me, and A Prophet only reinforced that assertion. All I can say to those of you who saw A Prophet at Cannes and reported back with a shruggish “meh,” you need a soap-in-a-sock kiss to the forehead. Midway through Audiard’s masterful, hyper-charged chronicle of one young man’s rise from scared young prisoner to budding crime lord, I started daydreaming about what would have happened had Audiard been hired to direct an episode (or several) of The Wire. This movie makes Michael Mann’s Public Enemies look like mid-grade mumblecore. But A Prophet isn’t just a prison drama/crime film thrill ride. It’s a provocative statement on France’s long-running, ingrained racist behavior towards to its Arab population. It’s also one of 2009’s most unequivocally great works of cinematic virtuosity.

I realized a few days ago that I might be missing the only NYFF screening of The White Ribbon, but after getting out of A Prophet, I didn’t feel like rushing to the AMC and possibly missing the opening few minutes. So I decided to stick with my good buddies Tom (Hall) and Holly (Herrick) and catch the new Nicolas Winding Refn at 3:15.

Walking out of Valhalla Rising, it struck me: Nicolas Winding Refn, Lars von Trier, and Gaspar Noe really need to get it over with and start their own European fight club. While I knew full well what I was getting into with this thing, Refn still managed to outdo himself. Which is to say that he almost went too bloody far. While Refn’s Nordic death march started with a genuine bang—and by “bang” I mean a huge title card reading “NICOLAS WINDING REFN PRESENTS”—by the time the third act came around and Refn started resorting almost exclusively to super-slow-motion, its toes started toeing the Parodyland line (I’ve heard that if you play Valhalla Rising on 45rpm, it’s actually only eleven minutes long). Midway through the film, I started jotting down a list of my own alternate titles, which included Severed Bronson, Lord of the Nords, Legends of the Fjord, and my own personal favorite: Heart (Pulled Out of Chest) Of Darkness. To be honest, I still think Melissa Auf der Mar and Tony Stone’s Out of Our Minds is a more genuinely butt-kicking experience, though Refn is an undeniable talent and I expect a distribution announcement within the next few days.

After returning to our regular-speed existence, I popped into IFC’s dinner for Fish Tank before heading back to the Varsity for my fourth and final film of the day.

I think it’s important to be able to acknowledge when festival fatigue plays a role in one’s appreciation (or lack thereof) of a film. In the case of Mia Hansen-Love’s Father of My Children, my appreciation was unexpectedly full. But here’s the thing. I know it’s only my second day in Toronto, but I’m already suffering from sleep deprivation. Add to that a very big beer and a glass of wine before the 7:30 start time, and that was a recipe for disaster. Of course, when the film took a shockingly dramatic narrative turn around the midway point, I found my eyelids getting heavy. After that turn, the film’s rhythm appeared to change. Or was my own personal rhythm changing? After conferring with the trusted Tom Hall as the credits rolled, I realized that I hadn’t, in fact, missed anything. And while I admired Hansen-Love’s decision to let her film begin to breathe differently, I was so in love with the film’s first half that the second half threw me off balance. I look forward to revisiting this film in conjunction with its official theatrical release. Suffice to say, it’s a lovely companion piece to Summer Hours and it is certain to charm many hearts. It charmed mine.

Saturday’s plan is to talk to Andrea Arnold and get to the bottom of her incredible hip-hop selections in Fish Tank, transcribe that mofo and get it posted, and gear up for tonight’s world premiere of Trash Humpers. The Trashville humpers should be arriving this afternoon. Bolt the doors to your retirement homes, Toronto.

On-screen quote of the day: “I like porn set in castles.” (A Prophet)

— Michael Tully

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