127 Hours: Danny Boyle’s dramatization of the real-life ordeal of outdoorsman Aron Ralston boasts the kind of conceptual riskiness that a director has the cachet to tackle only after, say, delivering a crowd-pleasing Best Picture Oscar-winner. Unfortunately, it also has Slumdog Millionaire’s brand of exploitative uplift, in which cinematic jazziness is mercilessly employed to sugarcoat portraits of human misery. In the beginning, as he settles in for a weekend of thrills in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, Ralston (James Franco) is a roguish whirligig, light as air, high on his own breezy confidence. When he falls into a rocky crevice and gets his arm pinned under a boulder, there’s the feeling that he’s experiencing stillness and, subsequently, helplessness for the first time. The five days he spends there, alone but for dwindling supplies, a small digital camera, and a blunt knife, are envisioned by Boyle as a visceral smear of panic, excretions, mirages, and epiphanies. Far more than the filmmaker’s hectic, ultimately tension-dispersing visual and aural gimmickry, the picture’s best special effect remains Franco’s performance, which catches the horror and sublimity of a jock humbled while trapped at the bottom of the earth, becoming spiritually whole even as he literally loses parts of himself.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame: Decades after reinvigorating Hong Kong’s martial-arts market, Tsui Hark has lost none of his flair for genre spectacle in this elaborate, breathlessly paced wuxia whodunit. Something of a political fairy tale (as in Tsui’s earlier films, it could easily open with “Once upon a time in China…”), the story is set in 687 A.D. as the emperor’s widow (Carina Lau) is about to become the country’s first female ruler. With her coronation and the construction of a towering Buddha statue in her honor drawing near, court officials begin to inexplicably and horribly burst into flames. Divine intervention or seditious conspiracy? Detective Dee (Andy Lau) is recruited to find out, with a beautiful warrior (Li Bingbing) by his side and hordes of kung fu foes before him. Sammo Hung’s choreography, with fight scenes shot as cartwheeling flurries of gold, blue, and crimson, is just one of the pleasures in a film that also includes shapeshifting heroines, talking stags, a toppling colossus, cheesy digital compositions, and wacky exchanges (“What’s a Phantom Bazaar?” “It’s a spooky pandemonium!”). Ripping fun in ways Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes could only dream of.
Tabloid: Hey, hey, Errol Morris wants to play. Following grave portraits of Holocaust deniers, war architects, and Abu Ghraib scapegoats, the noted documentarian finds a subject that allows his eccentric humor to run wild, and then some. Sitting before his Interrotron is Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen from North Carolina just about leaking with so-outlandish-they-just-have-to-be-true yarns, and ready to tell them with a lack of self-awareness that would make even the most dedicated reality-TV attention whore flinch. In love with a doughy Mormon missionary, she traveled to England in 1977, kidnapped him at gunpoint, locked him in a countryside cottage and attempted to deprogram him with days of sex. A media sensation as a result (the affair became known as the “Case of the Manacled Mormon”), McKinney ditched jail with suitcases filled with tabloid clippings and headed out to smooch Keith Moon beneath disco lights. And that’s before her past as an S&M model and future as a puppy-cloner come into play. Splicing in animated clips, contradictory testimonies, and wise-guy screen titles to compound the woman’s deranged zaniness, Morris is nevertheless compassionate toward her barely in-control obsessiveness. A lark, maybe, but a truly disturbing work.
Guest: Hitting the film-festival circuit for a year with In the City of Sylvia, José Luis Guerín wanders the streets to catch glances of human bustle in a variety of locations. In Venice, actresses joke in preparation for a premiere while Chantal Akerman feistily argues that there is no difference between documentary and fiction. A Colombian plaza is filled with baby-faced soldiers who, after escorting a politician, turn their attention to smoking and flirting. New York is a glass of wine with Jonas Mekas, and an overcast skyline scored to the opening from Portrait of Jennie. There are stopovers in Havana, São Paulo, Seoul, and Jerusalem, among others, and glimpses of protesters, street performers, proselytizers, and impromptu poets, all worthy of a movie of their own. The trouble with Guerín’s evocative two-hour diary is that, attempting to convey a feeling of life continuously swarming away from the confines of festivals, it reveals a dearth of concern for specific subjects that turns the faces and places into an amorphous mass. Touching without exploring, it still showcases enough of Guerín’s warm touch to make one wish more visiting filmmakers would stray from their hotel rooms, camera in hand.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9—19.