Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Marty Fairbairn

Toronto Report

 


 

 

Toronto International Film Festival

10-19 September 1998

 

 

Film Review: _Without Limits_

Director: Robert Towne

Sc: Robert Towne, Kenny Moore

Cast: Billy Crudup, Donald Sutherland

 

_Without Limits_ is a standard sports biopic about the short life of American long distance track star Steve 'Pre' Prefontaine, a self-absorbed megalomaniac who obsessively runs every race flat out believing that anything else is 'chicken-___'. 'Pre' is bothered by the fact that a mediocre effort could win a race and a maximum effort might lose one. Spotted by scouts at a high school track meet, Prefontaine has offers in hand from many of the best universities in the country but wants to go to Oregon State to be coached by his hero, Bill Bowerman, a legendary track coach responsible for turning out a gaggle of track stars during the 1960's. Bowerman tells his athletes, 'Running is essentially an absurd pastime. But if you can find meaning in this absurd pastime, maybe you can also find some meaning in that other absurd pastime, life.' But Pre is not interested in running to win. He is a 'front-runner', one who would rather lose than play the strategic game of falling back/surging forward that all runners have to play in order to win. In an interesting historical aside, the film reminds us that it was Bowerman whose home-made, light-weight rubber track shoes, pressed with his wife's waffle iron, began Nike's long and enormously profitable domination of the running shoe market.

 

In Robert Towne's hands, the story becomes one of the wages of sin, in this case hubris. But what can possibly constitute hubris in the 'in-your-face', 'just do it!' Nike 90s? The problem here is that, not unlike Prefontaine testing the limits of the human heart, the film tries to transcend the limits of its genre, but fails. Apart from introducing some simplistic psychological motivation in the form of childhood terrors, the film leaves the mystery of Pre's character completely intact. What justifies doing a movie about this guy's life if not the attempt to answer some basic questions about human nature? Donald Sutherland and Billy Crudup make a valiant effort but the script makes this not much more than a lengthy Olympic promo.

 

 

Film Review: _Seul contra tous_ (_I Stand Alone_)

d: Gaspar Noe

sc: Gaspar Noe

ph: Dominique Colin

music: Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Gaspar Noe

cast: Philippe Nahon, Blandine Lenoir, Frankyie Pain, Martine Audrain

 

_Seul contra tous_ is a shattering cinematic experience, emotionally draining, vile, disgusting, and genuinely terrifying -- but it is unquestionably art. It is a sequel to Noe's earlier _Carne_, which picks up the story of a butcher who spends several years in prison for stabbing a man he thought raped his mute and semi-retarded teenaged daughter. As the film opens, the butcher is released from prison, marries a shrew, gets her pregnant, and goes to live with her mother in a drab, claustrophobic apartment in the north of France. The entire film is narrated by the interior monologue of this hateful, bitter, sadistic bigot. He wants to get the money from his wife to open another butcher shop, but she won't give it to him, so he tries to get work wherever he can, but no one will hire him. Finally, he gets a job as a security guard at an old-age home. But when he walks home a young, attractive nurse after a bad day on the job, his wife accuses him of infidelity. The rage inside him boils over and he viciously attacks his wife, no doubt causing a miscarriage, and flees into the night with a pistol stolen from his mother-in-law. He hitches a ride back to Paris where he gets a cheap room and looks around his old neighbourhood for a job. He tries to borrow money from some of his old friends but they want nothing to do with him. He applies for a job at a slaughterhouse where he used to order meat for his shop but he's put off by the manager. He continually fantasizes about getting 'justice' from all those who have 'victimized' him, most recently the slaughterhouse manager. When he gets his daughter out of the mental hospital where she is staying on a day pass, he takes her to his room and the tension builds excruciatingly as he fantasizes about sexually abusing her, then shooting her in the neck, then turning the gun on himself. By this time, most are saying, 'Go ahead!' However, the really frightening thing about this 'butcher' is that there is a grain of truth in some of his rants, for example, in what he says about the ultimate loneliness of us all, or about the essential tenuousness of love. Comparison with Martin Scorsese's _Taxi Driver_ (1974) is perhaps inevitable. Noe acknowledges some similarities but denies any (conscious) imitation, only noticing on this screening that the mirror sequence in _Seul contra tous_ echoes the famous 'Are you talkin' to me?' sequence from Scorsese's film.

 

This is art that is designed to disturb and it succeeds brilliantly. Noe's terrors are not safe, Hollywood terrors; they are as real as those headlines that, once read, we shrug off with a certain edgy urgency. Unlikely to get anything but art-house distribution because of some sexually explicit footage of a porno movie, _Seul contra tous_ nevertheless deserves a (painful) look as an uncompromising portrait of a sick soul whose attitudes -- and, yes, even behaviour -- are not as far away from us as we generally, if nervously, assume.

 

 

 

Film Review: _L. A. Without a Map_

Director: Mika Kaurismki

Sc: Richard Rayner, Mika Kaurismki, based on the novel, _Los Angeles Without a Map_ by Richard Rayner

Cast: David Tennant, Vinessa Shaw, Julie Delpy, Vincent Gallo, James Le Gros, Cameron Bancroft, Saskia Reeves and Johnny Depp.

 

Carried along by the sheer buoyancy of its two central performances, _L. A. Without a Map_ aims at modest excellence and hits it square on. This is a refreshing 'little film', a breath of fresh air amid the smog-shrouded screens of an all-too-often 'serious' (read pretentious) film festival. David Tennant is Richard, a small town undertaker in Scotland whose life is a bit too predictable. Engaged to a local girl and feeling trapped, Richard meets aspiring young American actress Barbara (Vinessa Shaw) one morning at the graveyard, and, amid the headstones, it's love at first sight. She returns to Los Angeles, but not before giving Richard the name of restaurant where she works. Unable to get her out of his mind, he pursues her to L. A. showing up unannounced at the restaurant. But all is not well in paradise: Barbara is involved with Peterson, an obnoxious director who keeps promising Barbara stardom with anything but the best of intentions. Richard gets an awful apartment with a quintessentially Californian 'dude', Vincent Gallo in a wonderfully comic turn, and complications ensue as Richard tries to fit in to this stranger-than-fiction landscape.

 

_L. A. Without a Map_ generates great humour while maintaining respect and compassion for its central characters. Vinessa Shaw is just right as the overly ambitious starlet and David Tennant is terrific as a Scottish undertaker all at sea in a bizarre culture, even by American standards. Full of unexpected twists and turns, Kaurismki has taken a familiar stranger-in-a-strange-land premise and crafted something original. Director Kaurismki is likely to be as alien to air-kiss Hollywood as his main character, but with any luck he'll stay longer.

 

 

 

Film Review: _Dancing at Lughnasa_

d: Pat O'Connor

sc: Frank McGuinness, based on an original stage play by Brian Friel

ph: Kenneth MacMillan

music: Bill Whelan

cast: Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Catherine McCormack, Kathy Burke, Brid Brennan, Sophie Thompson

 

A lyrical, beautifully-photographed film with lovingly-sketched characters, _Dancing at Lughnasa_ is a slice of rural Irish life that tells the story of the five Mundy sisters, struggling to make ends meet in the village of Ballybog, Ireland in 1936. Eldest sister and acknowledged matriarch Kate (Streep) is a self-described 'righteous bitch' whose strength keeps this fractured family from falling apart at the seems; Christine (Catherine McCormack), the unwed mother of eight-year-old Michael, longs for her lover's return; Rose (Sophie Thompson), a slightly slow, simple soul, wants to marry Danny, but Danny is already married; chain-smoking, down-to-earth Maggie (Kathy Burke): 'giv'em yer arse and say its parsley' loves to dance and reminisce about long-lost loves; Aggie (Brid Brennan) takes care of Rose and is the only one who stands up to Kate. Christine's lover, Michael's father Jerry Evans, does return after eighteen months away, but only to announce he's off to Spain to fight Franco. Uncle Jack (Michael Gambon), a Catholic priest, returns from missionary work in Africa minus a few beads; the natives it seems have converted him to Paganism.

 

Told from the point of view of eight-year-old Michael, the story follows the family as the local villagers are preparing for their annual forest rites to the Pagan deity Lugh: 'After that summer, the family was changed forever.' Kate, the family's main source of income, is fired from her teaching job. Worse, a woolen factory is opening soon, rendering the sisters' glove-knitting work redundant. Jerry Evans returns, but is soon to leave again, Father Jack is too crazy to say mass in the local parish, and the family's money troubles stretch their love for each other to the breaking point.

 

Based on the triple Tony-Award winning play by renowned playwright Brian Friel, _Dancing at Lughnasa_ is an intimate portrait of family conflict and love, the key to whose success is its five central performances, particularly those of Streep and Burke, performances that crackle with life and genuineness. We feel the depth of their sadness as well as the heights of their joy. We forget Streep's usual amazing job with her accent as she shows us Kate's vulnerability, lying just under her rock-hard, 'responsible' veneer. Sir Michael Gambon's Uncle Jack is by turns silly, pathetic and sympathetic, managing to suggest a sense of dignity under all his craziness. And fine cinematography and set design work to create a palpable sense of place. This is an actor's film with depth. Sensitively directed by Pat O'Connor (_Circle of Friends_ [1995] and _Inventing the Abbots_ [1996]), _Dancing at Lughnasa_ warms the heart and enlivens the soul.

 

 

 

Film Review: _Central Station_

Director: Walter Salles

Sc: Joao Emanuel Carneiro, Marcos Bernstein

ph: Walter Carvalho

Cast: Fernanda Montenegro, Marilia Pera, Vinicius de Oliveira, Soia Lira, Othon Bastos

 

_Central Station_ is where everyone comes to go somewhere else. But it is also where lives take different directions, where perhaps unexpectedly one charts a whole new course. Brazil's premiere actress, Fernanda Montenegro, is the cynical, world-weary Dora, an unemployed ex-school teacher reduced to writing letters for the illiterate poor at the central train station in Rio de Janeiro; letters she claims to send on to their equally illiterate relatives in the countryside. Mostly, though, the letters wind up stashed in a drawer in her apartment; after all, it's a waste to mail letters that these people cannot read anyway. One such letter is dictated by a woman and her nine-year-old son, Josue, asking his father if they can go visit him. But when the mother is killed by a bus in front of central station, the boy is left to fend for himself. The station can be a pretty rough place: a boy is caught stealing a walkman and summarily executed by security guards. Dora sees Josue sleeping in hallways and remembers that there is a service which pays good money for children to be illegally adopted by foreign parents. She takes Josue there, sells him and buys a colour TV. But when she discovers that the organization is actually a front for human organ traders, she risks life and limb rescuing him. Now on the run, she decides to take him by bus across country to find his father . . .

 

Religious references recur throughout suggesting that this is a story of lost -- and regained -- faith. Dora has lost her faith in humanity, choosing instead to get anything she can from life by deception and guile. But through helping Josue, she finds the courage to risk again. Fernanda Montenegro, with restraint and dignity, quietly and convincingly shows us the reawakening of this cynical old woman's heart, while first-time actor -- and former airport shoe-shine boy -- Marilia Pera delivers a surprisingly mature, affecting portrayal of orphaned Josue, hardened by circumstances but still full of hope. Forever changed, Dora will never return to Rio. It is no place for an open heart. Few films rate the adjective 'important', but this one does. Like the post-war Italian Neo-Realist cinema of directors such as Vittorio de Sica, Walter Salles's films are concerned with social issues, but also with human hearts. One senses that Salles's real goal is to reawaken the slumbering soul of a jaded and world-weary Brazil.

 

 

 

Film Review: _Antz_

d: Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson

sc: Todd Alcott, Chris & Paul Weitz

pr. des: John Bell

music: John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams

cast: Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Sylvester Stallone, Anne Bancroft, Danny Glover, Christopher Walken, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Jennifer Lopez, John Mahoney, Grant Shaud, Paul Mazursky

 

_Antz_ is an ingenious, hysterically-funny computer-generated comedy whose strength lies in its original use of animation rather than in its somewhat predictable narrative. _Antz_ is the story of Z-4195 (Woody Allen), a little cog in the giant, ant-colony wheel who asks basic questions about his existence. Z, a thinking man's insect, ponders the insignificant role he plays in the grand scheme of things: he is a lowly digger, one ant in an infinite sea of ants, whose role leaves him little room for individuality. Everybody seems to do everything in exactly the same way. One night at a local bar, Z meets Bala (Sharon Stone), the beautiful but spoiled Princess and is instantly smitten. But their short romance is ended abruptly when a brawl breaks out. In any event, Bala is engaged through a family commitment to megalomaniac General Mandible (Gene Hackman) who, along with his deliciously-psychotic hench-ant Cutter (Christopher Walken) is hatching a nefarious scheme to win the Princess and rule the colony unimpeded. Through a strange twist of fate, Z is turned into a war hero during a battle with the termites and his radical thoughts begin to spread throughout the colony. No longer safe with his fellow ants, Z is forced to flee, with Princess in tow, to seek out 'insectopia', a mythical land of plenty where ants need no longer fear starvation.

 

Full of inspired, Allenesque one-liners and clever star self-parody, _Antz_ swings wildly from set-piece to set-piece never losing its grip on its sly purposes. Egalitarianism, the sanctity of the individual, freedom of thought, and rule by the masses are here both parodied and raised to the level of universal myth: 'we'll build a new colony . . . but this time because we want to!' _Antz_ makes use of its stars' screen personae to refer to and, indeed, make light of cultural myths such as the ultimate victory of the masses over those who would dominate them, the inviolability of a single individual, the importance of the celebration of difference, the inevitability of the defeat of fascism and the certainty of the triumph of creativity over sameness, all quintessentially American themes. But _Antz_ is postmodern film full of Kitsch -- an art form that displays while simultaneously making fun of a variety of styles -- that, while holding up these cultural myths to ridicule, nevertheless is nostalgic for their simplistic power to assuage our existential angst. That these myths can be ridiculed in this way while being held on to attests not to our moving beyond them but rather to their continuing influence over us. But in the end none of this matters: _Antz_ is too much fun to worry about it.

 

 

 

Film Review: _A Simple Plan_

d: Sam Raimi

sc: Scott B. Smith, from his novel

music: Danny Elfman

cast: Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Gary Cole

 

The biggest disappointment of this year's film festival is surely Sam Raimi's black comedy _A Simple Plan_. Raimi is justly famous for horror comedy (see _Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn_) but this effort makes one think that Cohen brothers' material is best left in the hands of the Cohen brothers. Upstanding citizen Hank (Paxton), his slightly dim-witted brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob's beer-swilling buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe) discover a downed aeroplane in the bush outside their small Midwestern town that, aside from a dead pilot, contains $4.4 million in cash. Concluding, rightly, that this is drug money, the three decide to keep it, but things go horribly wrong when the near-discovery of their misdeed results in a murder. As their plan unravels, the body count rises, testing the brothers' loyalty to each other as well as to friends and family.

 

Raimi makes good use of the horror genre's iconography of evil -- for example, the seeming omnipresence of black crows hovering over the proceedings -- but this intriguing glimpse of what could have been a genuinely original mix of horror and realism is never adequately pursued. Instead, Raimi chooses a Cohen-esque approach that attempts to blend black comedy and realism. Slipping and sliding between comedy and tragedy, _A Simple Plan_ can find no crag to grip and winds up being neither. Comparisons with _Fargo_ are both inevitable and justifiable.

 

From the plan-going-awry premise to the quirky characters to the structure of betrayal, mistrust and paranoia, _A Simple Plan_ trods a well-worn path but awkwardly and tentatively. If a filmmaker of the stature of Sam Raimi cannot negotiate the delicate balance between black comedy and realism so central to the Cohen brothers' success, this can only be because that balance is nearly impossible to strike. Perhaps the characters are too well drawn to allow for the detachment necessary for us to find humour in their grim fate. Instead, we feel the full weight of their tragic circumstances as events relentlessly close in on them. Worse, their brutal behaviour is never fully motivated.

 

Raimi's attempt to extend himself beyond his acknowledged area of expertise (the fantasy/horror genre) is both courageous and promising, but this time less than completely successful. Genre-bending is a main-stay of Raimi's work going back to _The Evil Dead_ and _Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn_, but it's clear from this effort that it's not enough to bend the genre's expectations; you have to celebrate their excesses as well as sending up their limitations.

 

 

Guelph, Ontario, Canada

 

***

 

Marty Fairbairn, 'Toronto Report',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 32, October 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n32fairbairn>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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