2006 TIFF Update #4: "The Good Stuff"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Sunday, September 10, 2006

Having gotten through the first couple of days of the festival, viewers now enter the heart of the frontloaded first weekend schedule. Only a dozen movies into this year's roster, I can affirm that it's already better than last year. While I have been disappointed by a couple of movies (most notably Shortbus, about which I wrote yesterday), my overall impression of this year's group of titles has been postive. Outside, it may be gray and dreary, but inside things have been anything but that.

Babel represents director Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu's conclusion to a stylistic and thematic trilogy begun in Amores Perros and continued in 21 Grams. Of the three, Babel is arguably the most powerful and the most accessible. As with 21 Grams, this movie is constructed as a puzzle, with different pieces transpiring during different times and in different places over a five-day span. However, this one is less complicated to put together. (Think of it as the difference between assembling a 250-piece jigsaw and a 50-piece one.) The temporaral discontinuities are not extreme, and there is clear background evidence of how each sequence relates to those around it. This allows story to take precedence over structure.

It's a compelling tale, one that delineates how small mistakes and lapses in judgment can have tragic consequences. It also illustrates how poorly we communicate in an ever shrinking world. In addition to those umbrella themes, the movie also has "smaller" messages for its individual segments. There are four of these. The first involves two children in a mountain village in Morocco. Their father has bought a gun to use to shoot predators hunting his sheep. One son, testing the range of the rife, fires a round at a tourist bus. The second segment features Americans Susan (Cate Blanchett) and Richard (Brad Pitt), who are on vacation in Morocco. She is shot and badly injured by the bullet fired by the boys, and her fight for life turns into an international incident with terrorist overtones. The third segment focuses on Susan and Richard's two children (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble), who are under the care of an illegal immigrant, Amelia (Adriana Barraza). When their parents can't make it home on time, she and her nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) are forced to bring the children across the border into Mexico so she can attend her son's wedding. When the border patrol becomes suspicious of them on their return journey,there are dire consequences. Finally, in faraway Japan, deaf-mute teenager Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is trying to cope in a world that offers little in the way of affection. Her mother committed suicide and her father is a cold, distant figure. In an attempt to capture a little emotional warmth, she engages in a series of increasingly risky sexual escapades. How this storyline connects with the others is left for the second half of the movie to reveal, although I can say it's nothing shocking or sensationalistic.

One of the great strengths of Babel is Inarritu's ability to cope with issues of global importance while still presenting vivid characters whose individual problems are no less vital and compelling. There are no villains here. Crimes are committed, but none are intentional. Small errors snowball to have unintended and unimaginable consequences. One man's decision to buy a gun to protect his flock leads to two small white children being stranded alone in the Southern California desert. This is only one of many strands that is woven into Babel's web.

Perhaps the most poignant and personal story is that of Chieko. By occasionally showing her perspective (with an eerily silent soundtrack) and juxtaposing it with the strobe lights and thumping dance music of Tokyo's night scene, Inarritu builds her segments into something deeply affecting. As good as all the performers are - and they include the likes of Brad Pitt, Cate Blachett, and Gael Garcia Bernal - young Rinko Kikuchi steals the spotlight. Her work is heartbreaking and haunting. As much as we feel for all the other characters in Babel, Chieko is the one we want to cry for.

Babel is a masterwork from a director whose each effort re-inforces his international reputation. As mature and potent a piece of cinema as 21 Grams is, Babel elevates Inarritu's work to a new level. This is cathartic, thought-provoking, emotionally solid movie-making. It's the kind of movie we hope to see whenever we sit down in a theater to view a drama. Whether viewed amidst a flood of pictures in the middle of a film festival or on its own in a local multiplex, Babel stands out from the crowd. Its complex (yet not mystifying) storytelling, forceful character development, and superb cinematography make this a candidate for one of 2006's best offerings.

Stranger than Fiction does a lot of things exceedingly well, and almost none poorly. It takes a great premise and runs with it, neither wasting opportunities nor going off on tangents. It features strong work from both the main and supporting actors, and manages seamlessly to incorporate both humor and poignance. I was expecting Stranger than Fiction to be funny; I had not anticipated it to be as touching as it is. Director Marc Forster and screenwriter Zach Helm reveal great affection for their characters, and this is apparent in every frame of the finished picture.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a member of the anonymous masses - an IRS agent whose daily routine is dominated by numbers, not words or human interaction. For him, every day is like every other; for twelve years, he has lived a life of solitude. Then comes a mysterious Wednesday when Harold begins to hear a voice. Although he doesn't realize it at the time, this is not the voice of god or fate, but of author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and she's narrating Harold's experiences. At first, he thinks his toothbrush or tie is talking to him, but then he figures out what's going on: he's the main character in someone else's book. Kay's voice is an annoyance until she mentions that, little does he know, his death is around the corner. This forces Harold to seek help. A psychiatrist (Linda Hunt) thinks he needs to be medicated. A literary professor (Dustin Hoffman) gives him different advice. Although not believing Harold's tale, he advises the tax man to figure out whether he's in a comedy or a tragedy. Initial signs point to the latter.

Meanwhile, Harold's job takes him to a bakery to audit Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the baker. She explains to him why she didn't pay her taxes, showers him with insults, then does everything possible to make his job tough. Harold responds by staring at her breasts, stumbling over his words, and generally making an ass out of himself. Meanwhile, the voice keeps making obervations Harold is uncomfortable with. Eventually, Ana takes pity of Harold and bakes him some cookies. In the words of one of cinema's immortal characters, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Now, Harold has something to live for, which means it's imperative for him to locate the omnipotent force that is directing his actions.

This isn't Will Ferrell's first attempt at straight acting. He was okay in Melinda and Melinda and not so great in Winter Passing, but he's very good here, developing a likable character and never going over-the-top. He's funny when the script wants him to be, and heroic or tragic when that's called for. His chemistry with Maggie Gyllenhaal is palpable. Speaking of Gyllenhaal, who glows, this is another wonderful perfromance in a line of them. If she doesn't get nominated for something early next year, it will be a travesty. She has elevated everything from World Trade Center to Trust the Man to this movie, not to mention her powerhouse lead portrayal in Sherrybaby. Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson are fine in supporting roles. Queen Latifa is wasted as Kay's assistant. One wonders if the bulk of her work ended up on the cutting room floor, because it's hard to believe she would otherwise accept such a thankless role.

Once upon a time, Hollywood films used the slogan "You laugh and you'll cry" to get people into theaters. That's literally true of Stranger than Fiction. Forster, who has moved outside of the mainstream with Monsters Ball and Stay, comes back into the fold here, but that shouldn't be seen as a negative. This movie has the star power and potential for widespread appeal, but it's more intelligent than what we usually get from the studios. Nothing in Stranger than Fiction is cookie-cutter or formula driven. It's predictable in short spans, but not in an overall sense. The visuals are playful (Ferrell's numbers obsessions are colorfully illustrated on the screen with a series of overlays) but the emotional impact is not. Stranger than Fiction is a wonderful cinematic experience - not as serious as Babel, but welcome nonetheless. I'm glad the schedule didn't force me to lose one to pick the other.

Moving back to the serious side of things, let's take a trip half-way around the world - the kind of thing one can do with relative ease at film festivals. Haunting and disturbing, Time is the kind of motion picture that gets under your skin and doesn't let go. It lingers long after the final credits have rolled and, in the case of a film festival where back-to-back screenings are the norm, after the closing credits of the next movie have rolled. A meditation on identity and how our physical appearance relates to who we are, Time is the product of the fertile creative mind of South Korean director Kim Ki-duk. Like Kim's previously seen international efforts (Spring Summer Fall Winter...and Spring, 3-Iron), this one takes a seemingly straightforward storyline and twists it to devastating effect during the final act. The result is a production of great intellectual and emotional power. If you don't leave the film questioning yourself and the world around you, you may have missed the point.

The plastic surgery craze has gripped the world for decades, but it has changed in recent years from a procedure for the rich and vain to something that crosses all socio-economic barriers. With Time, Kim postulates the next step in cosmetic surgery: what if it was possible, with a few cuts of a knife and pounds of a mallet, to completely reconfigure someone's face with no scarring or side effects? You could enter a clinic looking like one individual and six months later (the recovery period) appear to be someone else. Imagine the number of celebrity clones out there... But this possibility raises philosphical questions. When a person changes his face, is he the same person? Does such a radical alteration to one's physiology result in a psychological shift? How will others react? Will they be able to accept the "new" person as an extension of the "old" one? This is the territory in which Time resides.

Seh-hee (Park Ji-yun) is an attractive young woman who has been involved with her boyfriend, Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo), for two years. Her love for her beau carries with it an obsessive, jealous quality: she is frightened that he no longer finds her interesting and must fantasize about other women during sex to become aroused. To rectify this situation, she chooses a radical solution: facial reconstruction. She disappears without a goodbye, leaving Ji-woo in a depressed and lonely state. Six months later, she reappears as See-hee (Sung Hyun-ah), a waitress at a coffee shop frequented by Ji-woo. They begin a friendship which develops into something more, but See-hee does not tell Ji-woo who she is. She is in part afraid and in part desirous that he will come to love her as she is, not as she was. However, Ji-woo cannot commit to See-hee because he still carries a torch for Seh-hee. This causes See-hee to become jealous of her past self.

Time contains many of Kim's signature touches. There are some memorable visuals, the most creepy of which are the scenes in which See-hee wears a paper mask of Seh-hee's face. Roiling emotions are hidden beneath the placidly smiling exterior. There are also a number of scenes set amidst the statues of a beachside sculpture park that is almost entirely covered by water each high tide. (The one lingering image: a finger pointing skyward while the rest of the hand is submerged.) The film's episodic structure is similar to both Spring Summer and 3-Iron. There's also a recursive element to the ending that is not intended to be taken literally, but instead implies the repeated nature of these themes. The acting is strong, especially from the female leads - we never doubt they represent the same person, even though they look different. Ha Jung-woo, meanwhile, must convey both sympathy and selfishness as a man who is not always fair with his partners but who cannot understand why his true love left him without a word.

At it's core, Time is about love as well as identity. Love was a key theme in Spring Summer and 3-Iron. Kim does not judge the emotion, but lays out its positives and negatives. The film presents a balanced view of all aspects of the story by giving us access to both of the main characters' mindsets (except during the final act, when it follows only one on an increasingly desperate search). With Time, Kim has fashioned his most complete and masterful motion picture to date. For those who appreciate movies that touch the heart and provoke brain activity (as well as requiring reading skills - this is subtitled), this is not to be missed.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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