The sheer size of the Toronto International Film Festival can be intimidating for the first-time attendee, but its combination of international masters, Oscar hopefuls and midnight hoots immediately put this cinephile at ease. For somebody weaned on the comparatively mellower San Francisco screenings, Toronto is a lesson in speed—blink and you’ve missed every available screening for the new Coen brothers movie. As much of a bitch getting into certain events can be, it nevertheless showcases heartening respect and passion for a wide diversity of cinematic art. (It’s been a while since I saw a near-scuffle to get tickets to a Mika Kaurismäki film.) Overloaded with choices, I start things off, naturally, with a cartoon.
The Sky Crawlers: The aerial showdowns are often ravishing in their vertigo abstractions, but Mamoru Oshii’s new anime is far more concerned with the existential dogfights within the characters’ psyches. Using an intriguingly washed-out palette to adapt Hiroshi Mori’s novel, the film offers a strangely retro setting (quasi-futuristic planes treated like WWII bombers) with a dash of fatalistic fantasy (the flyboys are really lost boys, baby-faced brooders who literally refuse to enter adulthood since, as the hero ponders, “Do people who might die tomorrow have the right to grow up?”). Oshii’s painterly compositions, use of off-screen sound and attention to the concentrated meaning of a gesture are all in ample display; so are his philosophical ruminations (“Been reading Camus?” someone is asked), but except for a few windy speeches toward the end, they are thankfully submerged under a clipped terseness that feels downright Hawksian. However, fears of the picture being overcome with Western tropes (like Steamboy or Howl’s Moving Castle) are dispelled as soon as Oshii’s trademark, oddly grave pet beagle waddles on screen.
Linha de Passe: Walter Salles reteams with Daniela Thomas for another view of Brazil as a sprawling favela. At its center is a dilapidated family simplistically meant to stand in for São Paulo’s struggling masses, from the battered, unwed, pregnant mother (Sandra Corveloni won Best Actress at Cannes, illustrating this year’s jury predilection for dourness) to the four sons variously looking for father figures and ways to escape. Salles and Thomas tritely conflate evangelism, soccer and crime as hollow alternatives for the characters, who end up reduced to static sacrificial lambs just so the filmmakers can state, restate and underline their suffering-poor points. The casting of the twentysomething Vinicius de Oliveira (Central Station’s street urchin) as a soccer player clinging desperately to major-league dreams has an effective feeling of ongoing injustice, yet the film’s force dissipates in the face of sledgehammer metaphors (a clogged sink!) and leaden class critique (one drug-fueled bourgeois revelry is right out of Reefer Madness). The model is Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, but the filmmakers’ hectoring turns struggle into muddle.
35 Shots of Rum: While Linha de Passe’s facile determinism keeps its characters locked in their rigid roles like trams following the rails, people in Claire Denis’s latest impressionistic beauty (which, in a tip of the hat to Yasujirô Ozu’s household dramas, does feature trains) move in a series of flowing movements and gestures that, aided by Agnes Godard’s predictably remarkable cinematography, come and go like thoughts in a poet’s mind. The familial drama—a father’s love collides with his daughter’s need for independence—suggests Late Autumn, yet would Ozu have ever included a sudden fantasy involving a black steed galloping its way through the train lines? Fluid, incisive and quietly devastating.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.