Sunday, November 8, 2009

2009 Toronto International Film Festival - Update Four

Love, and Other Impossible Pursuits  ***1/2
Cracks ***
Road, Movie  ***

September eighteenth 2009. I saw three very different movies today, ‘Love and Other Impossible Pursuits’, ‘Cracks’ and ‘Road, Movie’ at TIFF. 

In ‘Love And Other Impossible Pursuits’, the director Don Roos does what Pedro Almodovar did several years ago with ‘All About My Mother’. Known for his brazen, envelope-pushing movies (‘The Opposite of Sex’, ‘Happy Endings’), this is Roos’ grown up movie. To be fair, his underrated 2000 movie ‘Bounce’, starring Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow was a fairly serious film, and this one is a return to that tone.

Publicity still for 'Love And Other Impossible Pursuits' from TIFF 2009

‘Love And Other Impossible Pursuits’, (based on the novel of the same name by Ayelet Waldman) is what you might be forced into categorizing as a romantic comedy, but it has a deep underlying sadness. Natalie Portman plays Emilia, a twenty-something woman in New York City trying to find stability in her life. She is married to the man who used to be her boss and his life is still occupied in large parts by his son (Charlie Tahan) and wife (Lisa Kudrow) from a former marriage. The movie begins soon after Portman’s own infant daughter has recently died. She seems to have adapted, but she has not. This may lead you to believe that the film is a look at grief associated with the death of the very young. However Portman’s character defies the sympathetic stereotype; she certainly does not make life for anyone around her easy. She is quickly bruised, needy in her demands from her husband, hostile to the attempts from well-meaning family members and friends to empathize with her loss, and uses her grief as an excuse to lash out at those closest to her. She finds herself having to spend increasingly more time with her precocious teenage step-son and their relationship is fraught from the start. The majority of the movie is about Emilia coming to terms with her situation, not always in the expected ways.

As an actor, Natalie Portman, has always had that mix of poise and intelligence about her. And she acts her heart out here. But ultimately the role seems a little wrong for her, because it requires a certain amount of darkness about it and Portman can’t help but glow (not in a physical sense, but by way of her sensibility) even when she is miserable. And the role also calls for, in my mind, someone a bit older. But these are petty quibbles in a movie that otherwise hits most of the right notes. There is fine work here also from Charlie Tahan, the young actor who plays her step-son. Lisa Kudrow (a fixture in most Don Roos movies) however walks away with the film; she has few scenes, but she owns them. She plays a shrill shrew of a woman, maddening in her nastiness and ability to singe with words, and Kudrow does not once succumb to the temptation to make her nice or likeable. But somehow, through the meanness of her character, the humanity peaks through. This is what good actors can do; she deserves recognition for this role.

I harbor disdain for films that are specifically aimed to tug at the heartstrings; the slightest whiff that this is what the film is up to and it usually turns me off. But I will admit that this film moved me. Also, well cast ‘romantic comedies’ made by well known directors are always playing a losing battle for me. This is one of the hardest genres to make a movie in and my expectations for mainstream romantic comedies are very high and they almost always disappoint. This one did not. It is sincere, and well made, and well acted. It is definitely worth seeking out when it has a wide release.

‘Cracks’ made by first-time director Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley) appears to have been more than a little influenced by “Picnic on Hanging Rock”, that great Peter Weir film of epic tension and foreboding (and also, resolute refusal to provide answers at the end). It has the same sense of impending horror in the midst of the mundane. It also has a similar setting.

Publicity still for 'Cracks' from TIFF 2009

Eva Green (‘Casino Royale’, ‘The Dreamers’) plays a teacher, Miss G., in a prestigious all-girls British Boarding School in the forties. She is a free-spirit and unconventional in her methods of instruction. Young, beautiful, and confident, she is adored by the girls who look up to her as a role-model. Some are stronger drawn to her than others. Miss G. makes no qualms about playing favorites with some students who she believes worthy of extra attention, and this inevitably has resulted in a delicate political structure amongst the girls. The arrival of a new girl from Spain disrupts this shaky balance of power. The new girl, Fiama, rumored to be a member of royalty, carries about herself with even greater confidence than Miss G., and refuses to bow to either the other girls or her teacher. Her seeming arrogance eventually reveals as being simply a manifestation of her knowing more (and being athletically better) than the other girls. Fiama starts making it evident to the other girls that their adored teacher is perhaps not who they have thought to be all along. And may be not worthy of their adulation. Pretty soon a tug-of-war for power erupts, between Fiama, Miss G., and the other girls (led by the previous leader of the pack, Diana).

This is where the movie goes suddenly very dark, delicious even (at least initially), in the hard-boiled tightness of its well-laid plot. It becomes evident then that the movie had all along intended to descend to sinister places. Like ‘Picnic on Hanging Rock’, this film began with a tone of foreboding and approaching maelstrom, but when it got there, I was still unprepared for it. And therein lies its success. I will say no more.

I do want to comment on one aspect of the movie that surprised me. There is a part late in the movie about a transgression that Miss G commits that is surprisingly, not implied, but visibly depicted. And the movie gets away with it, I suspect, because the teacher happens to be a woman. If the setting had been changed to a boy’s school and the teacher played by a man, this would have caused outrage. I had a similar issue with “The Reader” last year, which depicts a very sexual relationship between a school boy and a much older woman. Switch the genders (young school girl and man old enough to be her father) and the movie would have been a hotbed of political fury. Switch the gender in ‘Cracks’ and the movie would possibly not have been made. There is something about the way that sexuality is depicted in “Cracks” that made it unsettling for me. But perhaps that was the intent all along, to make the viewer uncomfortable and therefore somewhat complicit in the dark places it gets to. Consider me spooked.

I had purchased my ticket for “Road, Movie” not realizing that the screening was the North American premiere for the film. I enjoyed the premiere rituals prior to the screening (introduction of the movie by the director and bringing out of cast and production team to the stage) for that air of electricity and caged nervousness that they carried.

Premiere of "Road, Movie" at TIFF 2009. From left, Cameron Bailey (TIFF Co-Director), Dev Benegal (Director of movie), Satish Kaushik (Actor), Tannishtha Chatterjee (Lead Actress), Abhay Deol (Lead Actor) and Susan Landau (Producer).

Directed by Dev Benegal, [son of the legendary Indian film director, Shyam Benegal], whose two previous movies ‘Eyes Wide Open’ and ‘English August’ are unseen by me, this movie surprised me by its maturity, and its determinedly indie sensibility. Heck, the second half of the movie even goes for outright surrealism in one or two places.  For Indian cinema this is quite the road not taken.

The protagonist is a young man in contemporary India who wants no part of his father’s hair-oil business (you read that correct). He gets conned into delivering a large consignment across the country. His mode of transportation is a beat-up truck that has seen better years. And so our hero sets out across the arid landscape of northwestern India (Rajasthan) characterized by harsh deserts and nomadic locals. As indicated by the title of the movie, on the way, he meets the expected motley cast of characters who accompany him through the expected misadventures. This includes a young kid looking for adventure (Mohammed Faisal Usmani), an avuncular mechanic (Satish Kaushik) who may also become his roadside/spiritiual advisor, and a nomadic woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) with whom he shares an unexpected connection. I will grant that all of these characters are well developed; they all carry a well-lived authenticity about them, an unscrubbed hard-earned rootedness to their characters. There is thankfully no concession to any fast-talking, glib, side-kick characters.

The road trip is made in the kind of truck that used to serve as a mobile movie theatre across rural towns in the near past, the sort which had an antiquated movie projector in its back and a make-shift cloth screen that enabled pit stops from village to village to show movies and generate some income along the way. This neat conceit allows for some of the best scenes in the movie. It also lets the filmmakers indulge in a bit of nostalgia about the power of movies, and to show yet again, people universally falling under the spell of moving images. And how so many in India are making do with so little.

In the latter portion of the movie, there are some scenes filmed in a seeming mirage in the middle of the desert, where the world suddenly comes to life. The teeming of people living there, the music, the food, the reckless abandon with which some characters consummate their lingering attraction - all appear to be an exercise in surrealism. Did this occur really or is it all imagined; I suspect you are not meant to know one way or another. Also, while Tannishtha Chatterjee does very convincing work here as a wandering tribal woman, her character appears out of nowhere and (perhaps intentionally) is oddly without context. Abhay Deol, the lead, is that rarity in Indian cinema, a lead actor who does not feel the need to behave like one. His understated, ego-less, but not passive role serves the movie remarkably well.

I had some complaints. Some scenes veer dangerously off tone from the rest of the movie. There is a bit about bandits who go loony that are from another farcical film. There is some commentary thrown in about the corporatization of water and the abuse that comes from its terrible need in a dry land that does not fit with the rest of the movie. Also, the movie could have used some judicious editing; there are too many long pan shots of the truck moving solitary through desolate landscapes. The endless, sandy, dry landscape began to grate on me a bit after a while. I wonder if this movie will play well in India, particularly in the multiplexes. But I hope it does because it has moments of great humor as well as heart. 

Publicity still for 'Road, Movie' from TIFF 2009

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