2006 TIFF Update #2: "First Fruits"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Friday, September 8, 2006

Typically, the first couple of days of a film festival are very much a hit-and-miss kind of thing. At this time, there's no buzz, and many of the big guns are being held for their Saturday and Sunday unveilings. Typically, the earliest movies to be shown at a film festival like Toronto are those that are headed for a theater near you very soon. There are times when one can question the immediacy of festival commentary - after all, most of those reading this article won't be able to see the titles under discussion for months. That's not the case with today's selections. Two of these are opening (at least in some markets) next weekend, and the other one isn't far behind.

Toronto, like Cannes, is in love with Almodovar. His full name is Pedro Almodovar, but no one bothers with the first name, least of all Pedro. His movies trumpet "A Film by Almodovar" with pride. One of the first BIG films to show at this year's Toronto Film Festival is Almodovar's latest, Volver. Although not on par with the Spanish director's best movies (which include Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Live Flesh, All About My Mother, and Talk to Her), Volver represents a return to form after the disappointment that was Bad Education. This feature, which could be considered a ghost story, combines drama and absurdist comedy in the genre-bending manner that Almodovar is known for. Although Volver has a tendency to stray too far down tangential paths, it is ultimately satisfying.

One could argue that Volver is a good soap opera. Indeed, its lurid secrets and surprise revelations grip us in much the same way as a sudsy TV series. We can't wait to see how certain things are going to turn out. This is a little unusual for Almodovar, but he proves to be a master of this approach. Along the way, there's plenty of off-center comedy. The director has matured over the years. His productions have become less garish, but he has lost little of his flair for the absurd.

The film opens with a scene in a graveyard - appropriate for a ghost story. Women are shown cleaning off headstones that are being covered by dust from a relentless windstorm. Here we meet Raimunda (Penelope Cruz); her sister, Sole (Lola Duenas); and her teenage daughter,Paula (Yohana Cobo). They are caring for the graves of Raimunda and Sole's mother and father, who died together four years ago in a fire. Also among the tombstones is Agustina (Blanca Portillo), who is cleaning off the future site where she intends to be buried. She is an old neighbor of the sisters and they have a shared past.

From this point, the plot spins off in numerous directions. There's an attempted rape and a murder, and Raimunda must figure out what to do with the body. There's a death in the family that further complicates matters. Raimunda finds her true calling in life in operating a restaurant, but is doing so illegally. Then there's the surprise appearance of Raimunda and Sole's mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), who makes her return from the dead in the trunk of Sole's car.

The main storyline of Volver is engaging, but the film's seemingly random tangents will interfere with some viewers' enjoyment of the movie as a whole. Volver is a little too long; while "character building" sequences such as Raimunda's feeding of 30 people working on a film provide additional definition for the protagonist, they interrupt the flow of the primary plot. The overall effect is not unpleasant, but this is not the tightest script Almodovar has directed. In recent years, the director has made a new film every two to three years, and the movies almost always play several major festivals before receiving a general release. Volver is worth expending a valuable film festival slot or a trip to the local multiplex. If you can't make it to Toronto, check it out in a theater near you when it opens in the next few weeks. (Starting September 15 in limited markets.)

I recommend The Last Kiss, but not without a misgiving or two. This movie is essentially a celebration of yuppie angst. It's about people in their late 20s who have issues with commitment and monogamy, who have lost their way and are trying to find themselves. Essentially, it's about middle age crises for people who are only a little more than half-way to middle age. The protagonist is obnoxiously self-centered, yet we are supposed to sympathize with him and (at least based on the ending) forgive him for some of the crass things he does. Nevertheless, I liked The Last Kiss because, no matter how self-absorbed some of the characters are, they are three-dimensional. People will identify with them. Not all of the stories presented here have tidy endings. And there's some wonderful dialogue to go along with the exceptional performances. This is one of those movies where you're willing to overlook the flaws in order to appreciate what's worth lauding.

The Last Kiss opens with an announcement: Michael (Zach Braff) and his live-in girlfriend of three years, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett), are going to have a baby. Marriage, however, is still not in the cards. Michael is terrified - he's not ready to commit to a long-term relationship with Jenna, and now he has the guillotine of fatherhood hanging over his neck. He feels trapped. Enter Kim (Rachel Bilson), a college junior he meets at a wedding. She's sweet, young, pretty, and completely into Michael. He knows where the road leads, but he follows it anyway. Jenna finds out, as is always the case in movies like this, and her reaction is predictable. Meanwhile, Jenna's parents are going through their own crisis. Anna (Blythe Danner), fed up by the apparent indifference of her husband, Stephen (Tom Wilkinson), confesses an affair and moves out. At the same time, Michael's friends, Chris (Casey Affleck) and Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen), are going through relationship problems of their own.

Although the tone lacks the levity of Trust the Man, there are narrative and thematic similarities. The absence of overt jokiness allows us to approach the circumstances of the characters in The Last Kiss with a greater degree of seriousness. On a grand scale, their problems may be shallow but to these individuals, they are earth-shattering. The film's goal is to present Michael as a weak, rootless man who must grow and learn a few hard lessons. In the end, however, The Last Kiss takes the easy way out, which makes it harder to feel for Michael. Has he suffered enough for all the pain he has caused?

It seems that for every miss, there's an equal - if not stronger - hit. Paul Haggis' dialogue is virtually without clunkers, and it is delivered with the appropriate weight by a solid cast. Braff's limp performance is countered by Barrett's emotionally riveting one (although he's in more scenes than she is). The situations are interesting because the characters are real. Tony' Goldwyn's direction is sure-handed and the eclectic soundtrack will get many movie-goers surfing I-Tunes. For its core demographic, The Last Kiss has something to say, although it's fair to question how profound its words of wisdom are. Like Volver, this opens next week. Unlike Volver, it will be pretty easy to find.

Today's final movie opens later in September, and it's anyone's guess how many theaters it will open in or how far it will expand.

Renaissance is the latest in a growing range of screen titles with a graphic novel sensibility. Coming in the wake of Sin City, Renaissance treads through similar territory, but with a striking difference: director Christian Volckman uses rotoscoped animation to render the characters, giving the film an even more effective "comic book" feel than Roberto Rodriguez achieved. Filmed in stark black-and-white with a limited number of grays (and two sequences featuring colors), Renaissance often appears like a lithograph come to life. The film's look is impressive; it's the most successful rotoscoping effort to date (far surpassing Richard Linklater's duo of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly), and causes every frame to drip atmosphere.

The story transpires in 2054 Paris, where no one is immune from the prying eyes of high-tech surveillance. The neo-fascist government ensures that no action goes unseen and no conversation goes unheard. Furturistic skyscrapers have transformed Paris' cityscape, but the Eiffel Tower is still the most recognizable landmark. Exerting more power over the city than its elected leaders is cosmetics company Avalon, whose chief officer, Paul Dellenbach (voice of Jonathan Pryce), sits in a glass office overlooking his domain. When one of Avalon's most promising researchers, Ilona (Romola Garai), is kidnapped, police captain Karas (Daniel Craig), is called in to investigate. Karas' specialty is rescue, and he usually gets the job done, albeit in an unconventional and often reckless fashion. His search leads him first to Ilona's immediate boss, Doctor Jonas Muller (Ian Holm), a scientist with something to hide; then to Illona's beautiful older sister, Bislane (Catherine McCormack), who becomes romantically involved with Karas; then to an underworld gangster, Farfella (Kevork Mialikyan), who has long-standing ties to the policeman. With each new clue, Karas pieces together a puzzle that leads in a direction where he does not want to travel.

Had Renaissance been made in color and as a live action spectacle, it would be the kind of big-budget endeavor that could invigorate a summer movie season. However, because it's French (although in English), animated, and black-and-white, it becomes more of a niche treat than a mainstream effort. Like Luc Besson, Volckman doesn't shy away from pop and Hollywood influences. While many of today's adult animated motion pictures are heavily influenced by Japanese anime, Renaissance draws more inspiration from American film noir and American graphic novels (think Frank Miller). Volckman synthesizes rather than copies, and this results in a unique look and feel that is almost hypnotic. However, although style may be what draws us in, the compelling nature of the plot and our interest in the characters and their situations keeps us involved until the final credits roll. It might be hyperbole to call Renaissance unique, but it is very different from most films that open in theaters, and it's worth going a few extra miles to seek out, especially if this is a genre that holds appeal.

Tomorrow - a few more of the early-festival entries, then it's into this year's real meat.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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