(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2007)
This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2007 Toronto Film Festival.
The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)
Akin’s fiery Head-On, about the marriage and love affair (in that order) between two Turkish immigrants in Germany, was one of my favourite films of a few years ago. The new film is not as striking, with an intricate but conventional criss-crossing plot structure and a less hectic pace. A Turkish immigrant in Germany (to date Akin’s filmic universe has remained very close to his personal one) courts a whore and then accidentally kills her; his son, a professor of German, goes to Istanbul to find the woman’s daughter, who’s a political activist, and impulsively decides to relocate there. Meanwhile, the young activist is in Germany, searching for her mother, until she gets deported back home, and the strands pull together (while never quite getting tied up). Akin is great at evoking the flavour of Turkish culture, and this is a fairly rich creation overall, apparently skeptical about the overall prospects for Turkey’s integration into Europe (mordantly summed up by echoing images of coffins being transported between the two countries – the film was completed though before the religious controversies around the recent elections) while nevertheless seeming almost sentimental about the possibility for reconciliation on the personal level. But the overall artistic direction isn’t as striking as the incidental devices. The cast includes the indelible Hanna Schygulla, from so many Fassbinder movies of the 70’s and 80’s, although I have to confess I failed to recognize her for at least twenty minutes.
L’Age des tenebres (Denys Arcand)
Notwithstanding patriotic pride at a Canadian Oscar winner, I can’t say that Arcand’s movies have ever impressed me much. I found The Barbarian Invasions something of a self-important mess, and the famous “adult” dialogue mostly grated on me; he never provides much in the way of interesting style either. An unsurprising follow-up, the new film is about a middle-aged civil servant who’s suffocating beneath a dull job, loveless marriage, indifferent kids, mammoth mortgage, and all the rest of it. He fantasizes constantly about sex and celebrity and power, with Diane Kruger playing the main recurring lust object. The movie is less sprawling than Barbares, more invested in the misery of a single sad sack Everyman, and the script is largely a scrap book of op-ed headlines, along with some unremarkable satire (mainly of the foolish Government of Quebec bureaucracy) and those mostly leaden fantasy scenes, and it doesn’t really end so much as just run out of ideas. And this does definitely not rank high in the pantheon of great films about women. Even so, I actually liked it a bit more than Arcand’s last few films, if only for the perverse reason that defeatism and limited achievement are more tonally matched to the material than his usual flimsy bravado. And the last few scenes do have a faintly touching pastoral quality.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Wayne Wang)
The festival strangely categorized Wang, whose last film was Queen Latifah’s Last Holiday, along with Rivette and Rohmer in this year’s “Masters” category. Maybe it was an over-reaction to Wang’s relatively rare feat of having two new films on display. I caught one of them, about an aging man visiting his daughter in the US for the first time. She’s been there a dozen years, is now divorced and assimilated – in particular to using English as the only medium to fluently express her emotions – and since the two never had much of a relationship to begin with, it’s a largely desolate visit…until a confrontation about both past and present pulls them into at least incrementally better mutual understanding. It’s a modest film for sure, following familiar themes of thwarted communication across cultural and generational chasms – even though it’s only 83 minutes long, it feels repetitive at times. Still, I did find it somewhat touching, although it’s possible I’m a sucker for this subject of language as a wedge, which has some relevance to my own background. It’s hardly the work of a master – it actually feels more like that of a tentative new filmmaker, which I guess may have been exactly Wang’s intention. If this is indeed the start of a new path, it looks more promising than the old one had become.
And here are two festival films I caught up with in their current commercial release
The Brave One (Neil Jordan)
This is the one with Jodie Foster as a New York radio commentator whose fiancée is brutally murdered; frustrated with the ineffectual police investigation, and newly aware of the city’s scary underbelly, she buys an illegal gun and becomes a vigilante. The film has provoked quite a debate, turning on whether it’s an artful comment on vigilantism and on the Death Wish genre, or merely a tarted-up specimen of same with a gender twist. I’m of the latter opinion – this is merely Charles Bronson land with better literary references. If it had any real investigative intent, or a desire to do more than pander to its audience, it would construct a less comprehensive identification with Foster’s character (in the circumstances her performance is too good). It would offer fewer glib one-liners, fewer scumbags virtually tripping over themselves to get blown away, a less comfortable pacing and stylistic approach, and – above all perhaps – an ending that didn’t let everyone involved (not least of all the audience) off the hook so completely. And it wouldn’t have a quasi-romance between villain and cop (Terrence Howard, also too good for the movie) that’s conceived entirely in movie terms. The title (brave!) is just about as manipulative and inappropriate as everything else in the movie.
Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
This is a fairly logical follow-up to Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, again taking a story of institutionalized brutality erupting into normal lives. The setting this time is London, one of the world’s great thriving melting pots of course, and one in which at least some of the current boom may represent the wages of sin. Naomi Watts plays a nurse who’s drawn into the orbit of the Russian mob while looking for the family of an orphaned baby; Viggo Mortensen (once again excellent) is an ultra-contained chauffeur and clean-up man whose motives are more complex than they seem. If nothing else, Cronenberg seems now like one of the most accomplished of genre directors; every aspect of the film – style, pacing, visceral impact, not least of course in an already notorious bathhouse fight sequence – is quite superb. He’s also masterly at weaving in some black humour without being gauche about it. The subculture depicted could easily seem caricatured or melodramatic – gangster-type swaggering has consumed more screen hours than car chases – but Cronenberg makes it persuasive as an anthropological study. The deft ending is satisfying in narrative terms while leaving a distinct despair about the two solitudes of our real and shadow societies. The only caveat is simply the broad similarity to the previous film – Cronenberg is working at such a high level now that you’re hungry to see what he might bring to a wider range of material.