Toronto 2007 | Defenses

By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall September 12, 2007 at 10:23AM

Toronto 2007 | Defenses
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A string of terrific films has me buzzing and, despite my lack of a proper meal in the past few days, my energy has been really good. Let me get to the films before I run out of time...

Munyurangabo by Lee Issac Chung

To this point in the festival, my favorite of the entire week has been Munyurangabo, which more than lives up to the weighty expectations I had for it. The director Lee Issac Chung has done something absolutely remarkable, creating a moving, powerful film about the Rwandan genocide that combines hope and reconciliation with a visual and narrative style that wouldn't be out of place in George Washington; It's an African film that doesn't feel like an "African film", a hybrid of styles (American independent film aesthetic and an African storytelling sensibility) that against all odds works magically. The film itself, shot in eleven days using improvised dialogue by non-professional actors pulled from the streets and villages of Rwanda, tells the story of two friends, Munyurangabo, (Rutagengwa Jeff), a Tutsi on a mission to avenge his father's murder and Sangwa (Dorunkundiye Eric), a Hutu whose own absence from his family conflicts with his promise to help Munyurangabo complete his bloody mission. The two young men leave the mean streets of Kigali on a journey to find the killer, but before too long, they take a detour at Sagnwa's parents house, where the family reunites and the tensions surrounding Sangwa's absence (and his skirting of his familial obligations) leads to an extended passage about family life, labor and the importance of a father's guiding hand in the life of his son. Sangwa's need to curry his father's favor echoes Munyurangabo's own loss, and after a betrayal, Munyurangabo leaves Sangwa behind to go finish his quest alone.

And here, the movie absolutely soars with poetry and humanity; Taking a break from his long walk to buy a meal, Munyurangabo encounters a poet (Uwayo Bamporiki Edouard) who, noticing the boy's machete in his backpack, takes the opportunity to deliver a poem about the liberation of Rwanda that is so immediate and so achingly beautiful (the film is the first to be made in the Kinyarwanda language), it had me in tears. Chung's decision to focus solely on the poet's face as he recites his verses creates an hypnotic experience. The film's final moments, when Munyurangabo tries to reconcile his decisions and actions with his own past and that of his nation, are heartbreaking and transcendent. I haven't seen much at the festival that I have loved, but Munyurangabo is an absolutely flawless movie. I will do everything I can to help this movie find its way in this country and it is one of the best and most unique American independent films I have ever seen.

Angel by François Ozon

Before I begin with my defense of what is one of the most misunderstood movies of the year, I wanted to quote one of the reviews of François Ozon's Angel. I love doing this... Let's look, shall we?...

"...Stripped of any irony, let alone wit, the movie ends up as empty and flowery as the literature (and person) it should be satirizing. Worse, the dialogue sounds like an English translation of a French edition and the performances, by a largely talented cast, seem curiously out of synch throughout. (Same problem affected Ozon's mixed-dialogue Swimming Pool, though to a lesser degree.) Delivery is closer to the simplistic, declamatory style of a kidpic or a British pantomime, topped by a lead perf from up-and-comer Romola Garai that would be more at home on the London legit stage of the period. At no point does Garai make the fame-struck, self-absorbed Angel likable or even sympathetic."-- Derek Elley, Variety

Having seen the movie, all I can say is "Eh?!?" It is one thing to not like a movie, but another thing not to acknowledge the formal strategy that the movie is employing. People don't seem to get this movie at all. Angel is the film that someone should have shown to Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan a few years ago, before things turned ugly; The story of an absolutely tasteless wretch of a provincial teenager named Angel Deverell (a very over-the-top performance by a terrific Romola Garai) whose solipsism allows her to create drivel-laden novels which sell like wildfire in turn of the century England, Angel is a movie that is as of our cultural moment as any of the myriad of finger-wagging films about Iraq playing here. The film is a pastiche of every melodramatic style imaginable, from the trash of Victorian era theater and literature through mid-century "women's cinema" to early twenty-first century celebrity meltdowns while Ozon's lush visualizations and cribbing of everything from Douglas Sirk to Merchant Ivory create a hilarious piss-take on the melodramatic form. It is one thing to not find the joke funny, but quite another to not have the sense of humor to recognize a joke is being told, and all of the negativity surrounding Angel seems to support the idea that some people simply didn't get what Ozon was up to here.

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Feeding the Hand That Bites: François Ozon's Angel

The story is such a mechanical, traditional melodrama that it seems disposable and barely worth a mention, but again, that is the point; A young woman who writes trashy novels and whose self-opinion is beyond comprehension, Angel hits the big time and marries Esmé (Michael Fassbender), a painter of absolutely no talent, a K-Fed of the Victorian art world if you will, and then employs Nora (Lucy Russell), Esmé's lovesick (for Angel, naturally) lesbian charlatan of a sister, to be her personal assistant. This is the world of celebrity writ large, a world of hacks, hangers-on and the cruelly vainglorious who wouldn't know art if it stood naked in front of them. In his best moments, Ozon gets the attitude of our times perfectly right, as in the moment of Angel's furious hostility when England joins WWI and one of her in-laws suggests turning her enormous estate into a veteran's hospital ("I will not open my home to war mongers and criminals!!!!" she shrieks); Unable to see past the ridiculousness of her own petty, self-serving concerns, Angel echoes the selfish complacency and reversion to fantasy that has shaped popular culture over the centuries. As withering a condemnation of mediocrity as it is an hilarious send-up of our most popular concerns, Angel is terrific fun and it fits squarely within Ozon's works, sharing much with films like Sitcom, Water Drops On Burning Rocks and, most closely, Criminal Lovers as a fantasia about the absurdity that ensues when the wrong people discover a will to power. I hope people get a chance to see this one and make up their own minds, because I think it's a camp classic waiting to happen.

Mister Lonely by Harmony Korine

Standing alongside Angel as perhaps that film's more thoughtful cousin, Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely is by far the filmmaker's most imaginative movie yet featuring a story that feels more traditional than anything he has ever directed. This is a good thing; The tale of a band of misfit celebrity impersonators who form a community "where everybody's famous", Mister Lonely is both a celebration of private dreams and a tragicomic representation of the pathos that ensues when those dreams come true. Mister Lonely also feels like Korine's most personal film, perhaps an expression of his own feelings about the modicum of celebrity he has himself achieved and, as I mentioned in my preview of the film, his own sense of being an outsider in world full of fraudulent values.

The story itself is very simple; A Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) on the streets of Paris and she convinces him to join her on an island where a group of celebrity impersonators have formed a self-sustaining community; Abe Lincoln, The Pope, Buckwheat, The Three Stooges, Madonna, Charlie Chaplin and Queen Elizabeth all live there (among others) and in between days spent raising diseased livestock, the group works together to build their own theater and put on "the greatest show on earth." Of course, things are not as simple as they seem; Michael loves Marilyn, but Marilyn loves Chaplin, while Buckwheat loves sexy ladies and sexy chickens. When things go wrong, and they invariably do, tragedy ensues and Michael leaves both the community and his impersonation behind to become another anonymous face in the crowd. In between, Korine gives his characters a few lines that hint at his purpose, including a lovely monologue for Michael that expresses his feeling of not understanding the world, of being an outsider to the joke at which the world laughs. It is some of Korine's best writing and it, along with a speech by "The Pope" that blesses the impersonators for being the people whose identity rings the most true, seems to eloquently underline his point; In our culture, where we dream of being someone else to the point that we barely forge an identity for ourselves, impersonation of the dream seems more true to life than not having the courage to take a single step toward the inauthentic inner-worlds we create for ourselves. The impersonators may not be themselves, but they're alive.

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Who Are You?: Samantha Morton as Marilyn in Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely

And then there is Werner Herzog; Playing a mad priest who takes a battalion of flying nuns on an airborne food delivery mission, he is absolutely hysterical and holds together a subplot that seems to have no narrative relationship to Michael and Marilyn's tale. The point of each story is, however, completely relevant to the other; While the impersonators live out their fantasies of being someone else, the miraculous nuns of the Herzog brigade subjugate their own incredible gifts to God, only to be dashed upon the rocks on their way to sainthood. Instead of understanding their ability to fall from the sky and survive, the nuns give thanks and praise to God, the same God who doesn't save them when their plane crashes into the sea. There is magic in the world, Korine seems to be arguing, but don't be fooled; We're all responsible for making it happen and appreciating it for what it is. I don't understand why Korine's work has been misunderstood by so many people, but his maturing concerns about the way in which we delude and alienate ourselves from our dreams and desires takes another evolutionary step forward with Mister Lonely. Prep your Tivos; the film has been picked up by IFC First Take and will be hitting TVs (and presumably the IFC Center) soon.

I am planning on spending some serious time in the festival's Tape Library in the coming days, working on seeing some of the things I have missed. Running off now... More when I can....