“Check it out, I’m at the abyss.”

09/18/2009 5:31 PM |

This is the first of Nicolas Rapold’s reports from the Toronro International Film Festival.

Amidst the high-profile premieres and potential finds at Toronto, it might seem inadvisable to start by discussing Hong Sang-soo’s Like You Know It All. For one thing, the main character is an early-career filmmaker who serves on a film festival jury—a riskily insular move from a director accused of retreading the same terrain. Yet Hong’s latest, thornily entertaining depiction of mortification and presumptiveness among men, women, and mentors remains a high point of new or almost-new festival selections. Slacking on his festival duties, the filmmaker drinks with an old friend, an experience that unnervingly ends with morning-after fury because of a blackout transgression that’s never fully explained. Soon stirred into the mix is a respected older painter (and lothario) and his wife—and it’s off to the races. Hong’s devotion to the messy machinations of attraction and romance, and to a semi-detached half-recollected feel, retains its appeal (and, doled out film to film, suggests that he should maybe just have his own serial).

But perhaps the next topic should be Werner Herzog’s reworking of Bad Lieutenant, starring Nicolas Cage.

It’s subtitled “Port of Call: New Orleans,” and Cage’s drugged-out-cop routine is not menacing so much as half-baked burlesque: hunched like Nixon, Cage appends nutty pauses to his line delivery, and hallucinates iguanas, which Herzog shoots in close-up with their own music. Herzogian boundary-pushing could theoretically jive well with this character, but by the end, the often funny, flaky film feels like a party gone on too long. Though Cage doesn’t evoke his gonzo early days of Vampire’s Kiss, whether this is a flirtation with Christopher Walken self-recognition is hard to say. Between this and Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog and Cage each stand at the abyss, wearing sandwich boards reading “Check it out, I’m at the abyss.”

With that festival write-up flourish out of the way, onward to a couple of moody Scandinavian pieces. Jesper Ganslandt’s The Ape engages in the gambit of a naive protagonist who’s forgotten some awful prologue to what we’re watching—in a sense, making a plot out of the detective-like behavior induced by art-house non-exposition. In this case, a driving instructor who may have killed or injured his loved ones is driven by fear and confusion to cover up his acts and go through the motions of daily routine. The result at least fulfills the title’s whiff of helpless half-sentient instinct, somehow enhanced by the cadaverous character’s mindless bustle and automaton-like ear-mounted cellphone.

But there are limits to such an inbuilt strategy-as there are, more surprisingly, for Viking movies. With Valhalla Rising, Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, the Pusher trilogy) gives us Mads Mikkelsen as a mute fighting slave who escapes, goes on an interminable boat ride with other barbarians (including a Christian zealot), and then kills some more on mystical foreign shores populated by strange tribes. Ironically, the American makers of the Viking-happy Severed Ways got here first (this year, at least) when they also tapped into pre-modern eternal-present trippiness. But while that film proudly drew on black-metal subculture, Refn seems caught between layering New World-inspired otherworldliness with doom, and immobilizing the film with book-of-ages illustrative visuals (bust-like close-ups, overcurated spectacular face-offs). It’s unyielding, which is medieval in its way, but Refn fails to build on his foundations.

Check back next week for more from Toronto.