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Toronto International Film Festival 2009: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, White Material, & Survival of the Dead

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Toronto International Film Festival 2009: <em>My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done</em>, <em>White Material</em>, & <em>Survival of the Dead</em>

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done: The other half of the Werner Herzog Nutty Procedural Double Feature, this David Lynch-produced thriller offers far more controlled absurdism than Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, but is easily the lesser work. One of the supporting actors playing straight man to Cage’s cyclonic clowning in Lieutenant, Michael Shannon takes center stage here as a San Diego momma’s boy who returns “different” from a trip to Peru and takes an unhealthy interest in playing the matricidal protagonist in a production of The Oresteia. The setting is a hostage negotiation between Shannon and police officer Willem Dafoe, with Chloë Sevigny, Brad Dourif, Grace Zabriskie, Udo Kier, and other kooks duly dropping by. Smooshing near-parodic versions of tropes by both Herzog (maddening jungles, incongruous animals) and Lynch (promiscuous coffee-drinking, tuxedoed dwarves), it’s strenuously deadpan where the other film was organically hysterical. It works most intriguingly as a curious meeting between simpatico but ultimately incompatible artists, not unlike Dali doing his own version of Millet’s Angelus.

White Material: Based on the reactions of many of my Toronto colleagues, it seems that Claire Denis has reached the point of artistry and expectations at which a merely excellent film could be seen as something of a disappointment. Indeed, next to the best of her extraordinarily vivid previous works, this story of French colonials and civil war violence in an unnamed African country is an uncharacteristically open-and-shut case for the auteur. Still, the beauties are numerous. Isabelle Huppert plays the owner of a coffee plantation struggling to keep both business and family together in the midst of gun-toting rebels and insurrection-squashing militias. There is a plot (Denis is a splendid storyteller), but her question, as usual, is not “Where are we going?” but “What are we seeing?” From the first image of a car’s headlights revealing a dirt road full of wild dogs to the blissful view of Huppert riding her bicycle, this is sinewy, elliptical, ethereal filmmaking. If this is lesser Denis, that’s still miles above just about everyone else out there.

Survival of the Dead: Are George A. Romero’s late-career ghoul operas fatigued retreads of his seminal undead movies, or eccentrically satirical twists on the horror subgenre he virtually created? When a zombified heroine gallops across the screen on horseback and barely any of the characters bats an eye, it’s damn near impossible to tell the difference. Kicking off “six days after the dead began to walk,” the latest Dead chapter picks up on a strand from the previous one, following the rogue soldiers who had previously crossed paths with the vlogging youngsters in Diary of the Dead as they head into the Hatfield-McCoy territory of dueling patriarchs and cowboy bellicosity. There are trenchant bits (like the landowner’s “dead-head” wife kept chained in the kitchen) amid the erupting viscera, but for the most part Romero settles for pleasing fans who cheer every drip of gore but couldn’t care less about political subtext.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10—19.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.