It’s never a good sign when your mind begins to wander during a screening. Today I lost focus repeatedly during the 9:45 a.m. screening of Mary Harron’s The Moth Diaries, chosen because (a) I’m a fan of much of her previous work, including I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho and (b) since I found I couldn’t fall asleep last night, having miscalculated the quantity and timing of the last cup of coffee, a 9:45 a.m. start time seemed saner than 8:45 a.m. for Mausam, a 2-hour-and-forty-minute Bollywood film. (Sentimental aside: I first saw Bollywood films courtesy of TIFF. Thank you, TIFF!)
The Moth Diaries, a lesbian-vampire-in-a-girl’s-school tale in an age when vampires are having a major moment on screens big and small (Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries), failed to deliver in atmosphere and thrills.
The few shocking shots weren’t shocking enough, and the ones designed to be magical and beautiful didn’t really deliver, either. Very little seemed to be at stake. (No pun intended). I did enjoy some black-and-white flashbacks that evoked the Victorian era, and vampires Lily Cole had the right look, though not quite the acting chops needed.
I found myself thinking of other vampire movies, and other boarding-school movies, and the like. I kept on watching, but with less and less attention.
Afterwards I allowed myself to be talked into going to see Himuzu, from Japanese director Sion Sono. After losing focus during the first film of the day, I needed something compelling, and I realized during the first reel that I wasn’t connecting with Himuzu, either. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami had occurred during the film’s production, and Sono had added shots of the devastation into his story of disaffected adolescents.
I fled for the relativity safety of a much shorter French film, Twiggy, in which a beautiful but feckless young French girl (new ones appear like clockwork every year) discovers she’s six months pregnant although she’s not showing. (Cynically I thought that this enabled her to continue wearing short skirts and snug shorts throughout most of the movie.) Too late to secure an abortion, she decides to give the baby up for adoption. The shortest labor ever is induced (possibly even shorter than the event that got her pregnant.) She says goodbye to the baby. The end.
My mind wanders again to movies that managed to cram worlds and emotions into brief time spans, such as Stella Dallas, Employee’s Entrance, and Frisco Jenny, some of which involve giving up babies. Twiggy (odd title; perhaps its reason for being came up in the first ten minutes of the film that I missed) seems both long and thin at 82 minutes.
I sample half-an-hour of the 77-minute documentary Girl Model, badly filmed on some digital format or other. I leave without learning the eventual fate of a 13-year-old lanky Siberian girl adrift in Tokyo, the trophy a rather unpleasantly mesmerizing model finder who searches out pre-pubescent-looking beauties for the Japanese market, despite rather loathing the business. Said model booker (once a model herself) is showing us around her underfurnished Connecticut glass house, whose only personal touch is two anatomically accurate baby dolls, a house she apparently finds creepy to live in, especially at night, when people can look in but she can’t look out. People who live in glass houses! I exit as she says “I had a third doll, but I dissected it.” This one I could finish watching on video. Or not.
#5 of the day (in whole or in part), luckily, is Killer Joe, directed by William Friedkin and based on a play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the play and script for Bug, Friedkin’s last big-screen effort in 2006). The movie, shot by Caleb Deschanel, looks wonderful on the big screen and moves like a runaway train, beautifully cut by Darrin Navarro. The cast is starry and terrific: Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, the still delectable Matthew McConaughey as the title character, one very bad cop, and someone who at first I think is Chloe Moretz but turns out to be Juno Temple, previously unknown to me and the daughter of British director Julien Temple (and 8 years older than Moretz). It suits me right down to the ground. During one especially shocking scene involving fellatio simulated on a KFC chicken leg, I think “You gotta love actors.” I cannot imagine performing that scene eight times a week onstage (or even however many takes and angles that were required on the set). Lovely to see that, at 76, Friedkin can direct comedy and action and deliver thrills.
I think it might be amusing to stick around in the same big room and see Woody Harrelson as another kind of bad cop in Rampart, because (a) I thought he was terrific in director Oren Moveman’s previous film, The Messenger (so did the Academy – he was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar) and (b) I’m homesick for Los Angeles, where I no longer live. I can almost taste the Tommy’s chili burgers in the opening scene – we’d often stop there on the way home from seeing a play or an opera at the Music Center downtown. But I feel a little cheap, seeing two big Hollywood movies in a row (even though I haven’t yet heard who, if anyone, has picked Rampart for distribution – although it should play for at least a week before the end of this year to qualify for the Oscars).
So I leave to see Chicken with Plums, billed as the second installment of a trilogy (after the animated Persepolis) from Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud. It’s super-kitschy, from its frankly fake sets and highly-colored magical realism, to its constantly-moving camera, sliding across the circular story set in 50s Tehran (with multiple flashbacks and flashforwards). Luckily I like kitsch, especially well-designed kitsch, but still I find at moments that it verges on, well, cutesy. Isabella Rossellini (looking more beautiful in age makeup on her deathbed here than she did in Guy Maddin’s Keyhole, which did her no favors), Maria de Medeiros and Chiara Mastrioanni are no slouches in the pretty department, but they’re out-beautied by the amazing Golshifteh Farahani, who has a face the camera loves.
Change of mood: Dark Horse, from dark-horse director Todd Solondz, which makes me laugh from its great opening shot of a wild Jewish wedding to its, well, dark ending. We Jews have a saying: “It could always be worse.” And in Dark Horse, it is, although worlds lighter than Solondz’ occasional themes of rape, pedophilia, murder, child molestation, and abortion. I loved his casting of Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow as Jewish parents. The title character was played by a pitch-perfect and new-to-me actor named Jordan Gelber (although a fast flick through IMDb reveals I might have glimpsed him in Damages, Nurse Jackie, Boardwalk Empire, and The Good Wife. And to think that once, a long time ago, I didn’t watch any TV).
I feel so perky after enjoying this movie that I cheerfully accompany Haden Guest, Harvard Film Archive director and old friend from the Los Angeles days, a couple of blocks away in the rain to a hastily-chosen Indian restaurant on Queen Street, Trimurti, where we enjoy very good goat curry, cauliflower and potatoes aka aloo gobi, and garlic naan.
Thus fortified, we return to catch a 10:15 showing of People Mountain People Sea, hastily added to the Toronto lineup after it won the Silver Lion for Best Direction at the recently-concluded Venice Film Festival. (When the Venice awards are announced as Toronto unspools, many festival goers’ schedules are hastily rearranged to check out the winners. I’d already seen Michael Fassbender’s star turn in Shame at Telluride, but have so far resisted the blandishments of Alexander Sokurov’s Golden Lion-winning Faust, Emanuele Crialese’s Special Jury Prize-awarded Terraferma, and Deanie Yip’s Best Actress turn in A Simple Life. There’s always tomorrow).
People Mountain People Sea offers a vast and impressive landscape in its rather shocking and compelling opening scenes, but my lack of sleep catches up with me and what I see thereafter is seen in flashes, powerful images illuminated by lightning as I struggle to stay awake, only intermittently successfully. I glimpse murder, policemen, a rape that seems to be of a wife or girlfriend, and scenes of working on craggy peaks and in mines that remind me of photographs of Sebastiao Salgado – big praise in my book. The movie ends literally with a bang.
I’m amused, because afterwards five or six of us hang out in the lobby and try to piece together the plot. Even people who were bolt upright through its 92 minutes have missed things.
When I get home, I look up reviews online. I’m amused again when I read this line in Justin Chang’s Variety piece: “Cai Shangjun’s slow-moving second feature employs a certain narrative vagueness [italics mine]…”
That’s one of the things I come to film festivals for: a certain narrative vagueness. I hope to remain awake and alert during tomorrow’s narratives, vague or otherwise.