Miral: In an early passage, the owner of a Jerusalem home for orphans is asked if she’s ever been married. “No. But I have 2,000 daughters.” The line is right out of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and, accordingly, Julian Schnabel’s multi-generational sprawler seldom ventures beyond that level of old-studio, spell-it-out earnestness. Chronicling the Palestinian cause from 1947 to 1994 as a mosaic of female solidarity and sorrow, it follows a thread started by Hiam Abbass’s compassionate matriarch and picked up by Yasmine Al Massri’s damaged odalisque and Ruba Blal’s nurse-turned-bomb-planter. Regrettably, the main torch bearer is an increasingly politicized schoolgirl who, as played by Frieda Pinto, creates a vacuum at the center of the screen. Scarcely known for the searching intellectual rigor this story cries for, Schnabel here also stumbles as a mercurial imagesmith, applying his usual stylistic flourishes (canted camera angles, solarized hues, Tom Waits dirges) to the narrative like smeary paint on glass. Paving the road to hell (or is it the Academy Awards?) with good intentions, it’s a middlebrow stew of distracting star cameos, stilted speechifying, and, in a particularly unwise move that bluntly calls attention to its deficiencies as a political-humanistic tract, references to The Battle of Algiers.
The Trip: After witnessing him try his hand at serial-killer romances, digicam hardcore erotica, and adaptations of unfilmable novels, one wouldn’t be surprised to see Michael Winterbottom remaking Roger Corman’s 1967 take on psychedelic freakouts. But no, of course, this Trip is not one with Peter Fonda and a tablet of LSD, but with the director’s Tristram Shandy odd couple, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing “themselves” as bickering ad-libbers transversing England’s Lake District on a culinary holiday. In between servings of roasted pigeon, sautéed artichokes, and soufflé, the two compare bedroom sizes and career achievements, ponder seemingly inevitable midlife crises, and essentially give the pleasing impression of an informal gig being stretched this way and that like a piece of elastic between chums. Seemingly edited out of a mountain of footage for a BBC show and spending roughly a third of its running time on dueling vocal impressions of Michael Caine, this wispy but funny and strangely affecting picture helps air out the stink from Winterbottom’s previous The Killer Inside Me and, in its wry pricking of supercilious egos, suggests a more self-aware version of Sideways.
Boxing Gym: Reversing Darren Aronofsky’s recent shift from the wrestling arena to the ballet stage, the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman follows last year’s La Danse with this brisk, lightweight, unexpectedly genial look at Lord’s Boxing Gym, a spot for wannabe pugilists in Austin, Texas. Whether stationed at the edge of the ring or between punching bags, the observational camera takes in all the contenders passing through—men and women, adults and children, beginners and professional. It’s a place of aggression controlled and channeled, though, unlike the military assembly line of Wiseman’s 1971 Basic Training, the people sparring on the ropes aren’t bodies being turned into fighting machines, but merry amateurs, doting parents, and scrappy vets. Rather than a fixation on the violence of the sport, there’s a serene appreciation of muscle, sinew, and movement: “It’s about the art,” somebody says. A more detailed look at the personal drives of the aspiring fighters would have made for more piercing reportage, though it’s hard to fault Wiseman’s optimistic contemplation of the almost familial atmosphere of democratic athleticism on the screen.
Amigo: Whatever his faults as a filmmaker, John Sayles has always showcased a keen interest in people’s faces, voices, and relationships to their cultures and environments. All of these elements are shockingly absent in this cardboard historical account of the Philippine-American War, a chunk of Yankee-go-home proselytizing that’s easily his most inert film. Following the 1900 occupation of a small village in the Philippines by U.S. forces and the ensuing resistance, it misses the insidious way religion can become a colonial tool, displays zero feeling for the visual potential of the jungle (despite location shooting, most of it seems to take place in a sandbox), and treats characters as nothing more than Manichean mouthpieces. Worse, Sayles turns the worthy subject into such a bloodless launching pad for relevant references to American imperialism that, long before Chris Cooper turns up to growl, “We’re here to win their hearts and minds, for chrissake,” one longs for the subtlety and insight of, say, Lions for Lambs.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9—19.