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Toronto Film Festival '07: Day Four

To read Noel's Day Four, click here.

Movie Of The Day:

Atonement (dir. Joe Wright): I was left curiously unmoved by this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel. And yet I wonder if that can reasonably be called a shortcoming, since the question of whether or not it moved me personally isn’t a fair denial of the film’s rich themes and impeccable execution. A sweeping historical drama in the English Patient/Cold Mountain mode—no small coincidence that Anthony Minghella, the director of those two films, makes a cameo appearance—Atonement offers up the stock romantic majesty of lovers kept apart by war and treachery, yet it ultimately plays more to the head than the heart. From the beginning, the film deceptively draws you into Merchant-Ivory country, making you believe that its mismatched pairing—Keira Knightley as a gorgeous, well-heeled young woman and James McAvoy as the son of a housemaid—will provide grist for the sort of frilly period romance that Britain coughs up on a regular basis. Then it pulls the rug away and becomes another kind of movie, one that deals with uglier human impulses like jealousy, self-interest, and lies that are possibly unforgivable. 

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Without giving too much of the plot away, the film’s catalyst is a fanciful 13-year-old (later played as an adult by a superb Romola Garai) whose overactive imagination and childish obsessions lead to a spectacular error in judgment that reverberates for long afterwards. Five years later, when Britain gets drawn into WWII, Knightley and McAvoy are serving the cause as nurse and soldier while the girl, also a nurse, tries to atone for her wrongdoing. Telling the story through fluid achronology, the film continually builds to a crucial and decisive action before doubling back to reveal the context for it; and while there’s a clear reason for everything that happens (and great compassion extended to all involved), explaining the past doesn’t change it and planning for the future doesn’t alter fate’s design. I was hugely impressed by Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice a few years ago, which was much livelier and more tactile than other costume dramas of its ilk, and Atonement justifies my love. It’s beautifully orchestrated in every detail—those silky tracking shots in P&P have become a Wright trademark—and something to admire, whether it’s affecting or not. (B+)

Also Playing:

Encounters At The End Of The World (dir. Werner Herzog): Sending Herzog off to meet the eccentric scientists and castaways that populate Antarctica during permanent daylight sounds like an ideal situation for cinema’s foremost chronicler of man’s confrontations with nature. But this documentary, produced for the Discovery Channel, finds Herzog at his least committed—still curious and irascible as ever, but not as engaged as he was for superior films like Grizzly Man and Little Dieter Needs To Fly. The film plays a little like an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s travelogue show No Reservations, except with scientists instead of cooks, and I don’t really mean that as a slight. It’s just minor, with a handful of wonderful moments, like a survival camp where people simulate snow-blindness by walking around with buckets on their heads. Or another in which Herzog takes a dig at anthropomorphic penguin movies by following one “insane” penguin that strays from the pack and waddles off into snowy oblivion. Let’s see Morgan Freeman try to narrate that! (B)

The Savages (dir. Tamara Jenkins): Jenkins’ long-awaited (by me, anyway) follow-up to Slums Of Beverly Hills is this mature, well-observed, and often very funny comedy-drama about grown-up siblings who have to figure out what to do with their elderly, demented father. The reliably superb Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman make an excellent pair—she as a wannabe playwright stuck in a relationship with an older (and married) man, he as a slobby academic whose life is similarly out of order. As in Beverly Hills, Jenkins defines her characters well and has a knack for observational humor, but here the tone is more muted and sad, and she refuses to tack smiley-faces onto a tough, possibly lose-lose situation. In other movies, when grown children take care of their estranged parents, it’s usually a recipe for sentimental reconciliation, but the father here isn’t any warmer than the one who abandoned the siblings when they were younger. Most children are eventually faced with the problem of what to do with their parents when they’re old and infirm, but few films grapple with it and fewer with this kind of honesty. Welcome back, Tamara. Now please don’t take nine years between movies again. (B+)

M (dir. Lee Myung-se): A couple of years ago, I defended Lee’s widely derided period action film Duelist as a superior exercise in style. While not nearly as strong as Lee’s breakthrough effort Nowhere To Hide—the only one of his films, to my knowledge, that has received distribution in the U.S. (through Sony Classics, no less)—I mostly forgave its confused plotting and indifferent characterization for Lee’s spectacular image-making. At his best, there’s really no filmmaker quite like him: His action sequences are so brightly colored and hyperkinetic that they’re like beautiful pieces of abstract art. Had I read the program description for Lee’s latest film M, I might have been clued into just how dreadful it would turnout to be, because it plays to all his weaknesses and none of his strengths. Here he tries to get inside the mind of a writer and the results are utterly stupefying. The only reason I made it through an hour before finally fleeing (along with over half the press in attendance) is that I didn’t want to climb over the woman seated next to me. When she bailed, so did I. (W/O)

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George A. Romero’s Diary Of The Dead (dir. George Romero): After making the underrated (and underseen) Land Of The Dead for Universal, Romero hits the reset button on the “Dead” movies, at least in the sense that he’s gone back to the ultra low-budget, DIY spirit of the first entry. Of course, you can never really go home again and Romero struggles to find original ways to rework the zombie-movie template while squeezing in up-to-the-minute political commentary. The result is an engaging shamble: On the one hand, Romero clumsily incorporates the Blair Witch-style conceit of film-school kids shooting their misadventures through a video camera. On the other, he has a smart take on the current YouTube/vlogging movement, which offers the benefit of unvarnished footage before it’s filtered and distorted by corporate media yet also encourages a fatal sort of narcissism that doesn’t serve society very well. It’s often very funny—sometimes intentional (a bit involving the crew’s run-in with a deaf Amish man brought the house down), sometimes not—but it’s campier than the “Dead” movies have been in the past and the ham-handed voiceover narration makes the political subtext text. A very mixed bag for me, though opinions from my colleagues are all over the map. (B-)

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