I am at the stage where the sleep debt and poor eating habits are quickly catching up on me, and I still have nine films left (I think.) I'll have to keep these short for now, because I'm low on time and energy. Friday and Saturday are going to be utterly packed. Therefore, grades and reviews might take longer than expected to appear, but I promise to write about every single film to some degree. I kind of want to save The Fountain and The Namesake for full length write-ups, so stay tuned.
I want to give Tsai Ming-liang the benefit of the doubt here, especially since his last two efforts (that also screened in Toronto during the '03 and '05 seasons) knocked me silly. In fact, I regret not placing his masterpiece The Wayward Cloud very high on my top ten list last year, as the film has still no release date for Canada or the U.S. But his latest, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Taiwan, France, Austria), is a challenging sit, mostly because it feels as though Tsai has distilled all of his familiar themes about alienation and disconnectedness into this experiment that fails to take them in any new direction. That would be fine, I suppose, since Tsai usually has something up his sleeve to punctuate the deafening silence, but this approach can only work for so long. The result was akin to sorting through two hours of Tsai's "greatest hits", but with a fraction of the originality or suspense. This time, Tsai moves the action to his native country of Malaysia, where he focuses his gaze on two threads of interest. The first plot involves a dazed wanderer (Tsai favourite Kang-Shen Lee) who finds himself in the care of a Bengali worker, who nurses the confused man back to health on a soiled mattress. On the flipside of the coin, there is a young woman Chyi who works at the whim of her abusive employer and tends to a comatose man (also played by Lee.) The film then unravels at a crawling pace, showing how each character ultimately resolves his or her hunger for human contact. At the same time, Tsai slyly - without words - takes note of Kuala Lumpur, its suffocating enviroment, and the varied individuals that populate its narrow streets and cramped building spaces (especially the foreign labourers who keep the city running.) Again, there is much potential here, but it still stagnates early on. Not since Terry Gilliam's Tideland have I seen so many walk-outs in one screening. C-
Based on the novel by David Nicholls (who also wrote the screenplay), Tom Vaughan's Starter for Ten (U.K.) is a witty and appealing little comedy starring James McAvoy (who appears in no less than three festival entries this year - all of which I've seen) as an enthusiastic first-year college student with great ambitions indeed. The year is 1985, and McAvoy's Brian has moved to Bristol University from a small working-class town. Determined to cram his head full of various trivia, he hopes to compete on a television game show called "University Challenge" along with his fellow team members. He prizes knowledge above all else, insisting that he must make the effort to do the best he can. However, his life becomes complicated when he falls in love with the alluring Alice (who may or may not have a thing for him), while his family and friends back home are worried that he has transformed into a snobbish "wanker" (or worse, gay.) Trying to find his place in this confusing conflict (as well as sort out his love life), Brian begins to lose sight of what made him pursue this education in the first place. Set in Margaret Thatcher's England, Starter for Ten has a lot more going for it than the game show subplot or the unrequited love track; along the way, it grapples with the ambivalence that characterizes one's early twenties. It may sound similar to Terry Zwigoff's Art School Confidential released earlier this year, but this one embodies a less cynical perspective. The last ten minutes or so are largely unconvincing, mostly because the film then resorts to articulate the "lessons learned" on part of the hero. However, this still is a worthwhile look for those who find themselves in the same boat as James, or wish to look back at a time of insecurity in their own lives. B-
On a whim, I decided to throw a film I knew nothing about into my schedule for Wednesday evening; I had the time and ticket to spare. Pavel Giroud's The Silly Age (Cuba) was a real find, and I am pleased that I forced myself to give this one a chance. It's probably my second-favourite film of the festival so far, following Volver. The title refers to a Cuban expression describing the time period in a child's life when his or her behaviour changes dramatically (usually for the worse.) Playing like a cross between Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education and Jean-Marc Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y., it is a sweetly told coming-of-age story about a ten-year-old boy who comes to terms with family, sex and death during the late 1950's. Giroud convincingly presents the world as seen through the eyes of a young boy trying to make sense of a cold and unwelcoming environment (Bergman's Fanny and Alexander is clearly another influence here.) Over the course of the film, Samuel (played by the mature and talented Iván Carreira) falls in love with a movie star, learns how to kiss girls, feuds with his man-crazy mother, and wins over his bitter grandmother (who initally wants nothing to do with him.) All this takes place amidst the backdrop of the Castro's revolution, which some characters vehemently oppose (while others feel quite indifferent.) Giroud does not exactly re-invent the wheel here, but The Silly Age still manages to sustain itself through some particularly charming moments and performances. Anyone who recalls their early formative years before the 'teens will find much to enjoy here. It's darkly funny, but also devastating and soulful when it wants to be. This is Giroud's first feature film, and he shows an incredible eye for composition and blocking - hopefully he has a follow-up in the works as I write this. I already consider myself a fan. B+
Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland (U.K.) will definitely be talked about in the coming months as a potential awards magnet, seeing as it features exceptional performances by both James McAvoy and Forest Whitaker. Based on the semi-true book of the same name by Giles Foden (and adapted for the screen by Jeremy Brock), the film tells the story of a young and enthusiastic Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (McAvoy) who travels to Uganda to make a difference. Upon his arrival, he befriends an aid worker (Gillian Anderson: blink and you'll miss her) and her husband, both of whom work in the local villages to help first-hand the victims of famine and disease. However, Garrigan's life changes drastically when he crosses paths with Uganda's newest president (brought to power in a recent military coup) - the larger-than-life Idi Amin (Whitaker). The leader is so won over by the quality of Garrigan's work and his fine personality that he signs on the lad to serve as his personal physician. Initially, Garrigan settles quite nicely into a privileged lifestyle (with plenty of perks at his disposal.) But when whispers describing Amin's ruthless silencing methods of his critics reach the doctor, he finds extracting himself from the dictator's circle is more difficult than he could have imagined. Amin had begun his regime with promises of freedom and equality, but his ideals simply melt away with the perverse discovery of unyielding and questionable authority. Macdonald cranks up the tension progressively through the film, and when the situation turns truly horrifying, the impact is considerable. The film makes a strong statement about Amin's barbarity (especially driven home during the film's gruesome finale), but there are some twists and last-minute shockers that seem too convenient to be totally acceptable (indeed, the story is based on a composite of characters and stories.) James McAvoy is superb as the conflicted doctor, bringing true humanity to a man who wants to believe the best of this stand-in father figure, even if all the evidence points in the other direction. Meanwhile, Forest Whitaker is an easy lock for his first Academy Award nomination: it is a performance that thankfully makes no attempt at precise impersonation. Rather, Whitaker plays the man as a spoiled, impatient child who becomes a frightful force when things do not go his way. He can be tender and loving at one moment, abusively violent the next. The portrayal starts off a little cartoony and threatens to veer into caricature, but by the end, Whitaker demonstrates that he thoroughly understands Amin as a truly sick man who has become permanently drunk on his own sense of power. B-
For a good two-thirds of its running time, Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering borders on absolute genius. Free from the restraints of adapting from yet another source, Minghella is free to let his imagination run loose. And indeed, this film looks or sounds nothing like he has done in the last ten years. Juggling many threads and amazingly managing to do justice to all of them, Minghella's screenplay is a fascinating problem play about the intersection of class, culture and family in modern-day England. Jude Law is Will, who runs a architecture firm with his business partner Sandy (a winsome but underused Martin Freeman, also in Confetti at the festival); they have been hired to give King's Cross - an area of the city associated with crime and urban squalor - an up to date facelift. Along with his work duties, Will faces some problems in his personal life: he lives with his girlfriend of ten years (Liv, played by an excellent Robin Wright-Penn) and her autistic daughter Bea from a previous marriage, and lately things have not been so good. Bea refuses to eat or sleep, and Liv feels that Will is not giving the matter its required attention and concern. Things take a turn for the worse when the studio at King's Cross is broken into, thousands of dollars worth of equipment gone in seconds. As Will becomes determined to track down the criminals behind the robbery, he becomes drawn into the life of a beautiful refugee from Bosnia (a committed Juliette Binoche.) Add to this a supporting cast of colourful characters (including a running cameo by Vera Fargima as a street worker), Minghella works against the odds to deliver a tightly-wound and crisply-worded drama. His screenplay adds layer on top of layer of complexity to the characters, always upping the stakes and exploring unfamiliar turns. It is a shame then that he seems so determined to resolve every single dilemma with such detailed precision by the end of the film. Every single major thread and small subplot is given its own perfect closure, which would be fine if these convenient solutions did not seem so forced. By the end, it leaves enough of a sour taste to dock the film several points. But this is worth seeing for some superb writing and several great performances (Law once again shines under Minghella's gaze.) The film is also pleasing to look at: it features some of the finest cinematography I've seen on display this year (by the wonderful Benoît Delhomme, who also shot The Merchant of Venice and The Proposition.) The images are relayed with a sharpness, realism and urgency without resorting to jumpy handheld shots and grainy murkiness. B-
And very quickly, Zhang Ke Jia's Dong (Hong Kong, China) has been called a companion piece to his Still Life (which just won the Golden Lion at Venice a couple of days ago and was added to the Toronto list almost immediately thereafter.) Playing like an intimate confessional, the documentary feature follows painter Liu Xiao-Dong on his journey through the Three Gorges Dam in Fenjie, China, as well as his time spent in Bangkok. Along the way, Zhang Ke focuses on the landscape of these locations, as well as the increasingly-modernized populations living there (carrying cell phones, mp3 players and the latest technology available today.) The camera records Dong at work directing his models and dabbing thick, clumpy paint onto his large blank canvases. The man dicusses his philosophy and reveals the difficulty he faces in being an artist who is always wondering where the criterion of success lies. At other times, Zhang Ke moves about in the streets and dwellings of the cities, capturing the images of people connecting, celebrating, eating and dancing. It is a slice of everyday life. Unfortunately, despite the gorgeous imagery and breathtaking locales, the film offers little in the way of narration or context except for Dong's own ramblings (which grow irritating very quickly.) The result is a pretty but considerable bore that captures none of the scope, commentary or perception of Zhang Ke's own The World, which drove home the experiences of directionless youth trying to approximate a Western ideal in a superficial amusement park featuring the man-made wonders of the earth. C