Toronto: Curiosities and Leftovers

09/22/2009 9:09 AM |

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This is Nicolas Rapold’s third and final report on this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

At a Q&A for I Am Love, Tilda Swinton said she and director Luca Guadagnino had discussed a project for years that would be like opera and cinema. Boosted and buffeted by surging selections from composer John Adams, the visually sumptuous result is a coolly passionate melodrama that recalls Douglas Sirk’s insistence on the term’s etymological tie to music. Swinton, whom Guadagnino once filmed in conversation for a doc series, plays the Russian-born wife of an Italian industrial magnate facing a generational shift in power. Set against the comfort and privilege of this dynastic family, amidst many monumental Visconti-inspired shots, the film follows this elegant matriarch’s coup-de-foudre affair with a chef, with whom her son has an infatuated friendship. The film may not be for all tastes, but succumbing leads one to experience an ending with a devastating release.

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Another surprise, of a less desirable sort, came with Johnnie To’s Vengeance. This airless To entry stars the plastically preserved French rock’n’roller Johnny Hallyday as the father of a Macau woman (Sylvie Testud) who’s murdered along with her husband and children in a door-to-door hit. He hires a familiar team of hit men (Anthony Wong, Lam Ka-tung, Lam Suet), who reliably trigger a few panoptic shootout sequences (including a junkyard showdown that borrows from Macbeth). But it’s slow going, without real tension, and Hallyday’s creeping attempt at cool is a distraction. To does probe the ways a grudge can get shared and redistributed, but this is the first time in recent memory that his gangster milieu feels like a series of poses, lacking a lean drive and worked-out narrative world. With the To-affiliate Accident getting terrific notices but essentially sold out, this was the wrong Milkyway production to catch.

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After Amelie and A Very Long Engagement, pre-Gondry Rube Goldberg hobbyist Jean-Pierre Jeunet decided that the next item on the agenda should be a lark about arms dealing: Micmacs. In what might be a children’s movie if it weren’t for a few perverse moments, French comic Dany Boon plays an ex-video store clerk who undertakes an elaborate campaign of revenge against two gun-and-explosives magnates after getting hit by a stray bullet and losing his father to a mine. He’s taken in by a ragtag band of junkyard salvagers (trash humpers, if you will), who successfully make an excuse for Jeunet’s production designers to build something from anything. By turns loopy, droll, and cloying humor bowties each in an interminable series of missions and miniature creations that should be more diverting than they are.

More diverting than it should be, the material in Agora sounds equally improbable: the fall of the ancient library of Alexandria, starring Egyptophile Rachel Weisz as the scholar Hypatia. Alejandro Amenabar embraces the scale and clichés of the classical epic, setting sectarian unrest alongside Hypatia’s infatuated suitors and her very vocal problems with Ptolemy’s astronomical models. But despite a loonily promising early moment when she dissuades a suitor in class by presenting a cloth stained with “the blood of my cycle,” you also find yourself keeping a running mental transcript of outrageous lines and tally of unbalanced dramatic shifts. It’s still striking to see the historically tragic devastation of ancient Greek manuscripts rendered on screen, as well as the complex Christian-Jewish conflicts, but the intrigues run in ever-decreasing circles, with Amenabar cutting frequently to outer space to signify the cosmic spheriness of it all. Finally, and I know this hurts, but Leaves of Grass, starring Edward Norton as a classics professor and marijuana farmer who are identical twins, had the superior classical references.