TIFF #10: All the Rest

September 19, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

Before every showing in Toronto, an anti-piracy message is displayed for about 10 seconds. The language is fairly familiar - a reminder that viewers are about to see a copyrighted work and any unauthorized duplication will result in ejection from the screening and possible prosecution - the usual stuff. At press/industry screenings, this message was met with no reaction, so I was surprised at the chorus of boos that greeted the announcement at public showings. To be sure, not everyone in the theater booed - in fact, those voicing their opinion were in the minority - but they were loud. As best I could tell, most of them were college-age. The battle lines have been established. This is another example of how a growing percentage of the population regards current copyright laws as outdated and treats them with disdain. The solution is not to punish those who commit infractions but to change the laws so they work for the digital age. Otherwise, expect the anti-anti-piracy chorus to be louder every year.

Here's a quick rundown of some of the other movies I saw this year in Toronto that I haven't thus far written about:

Gordon Gekko lives! But then we all know that - Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas are currently putting together the sequel to Wall Street, due for a 2010 release. However, Douglas gives us a preview of what Gekko might look like in Solitary Man, a character study from Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the writers of Oceans 13 and The Girlfriend Experience. Steven Soderbergh's fingerprints are all over this one, so it should come as no surprise that he's listed as a producer.

Douglas plays Ben, the once proud owner of a car dealership empire who has fallen on hard times. When an investigation uncovered illegal practices in his business, Ben came down hard. Now, he's trying to rebuild his reputation to make another run at the big time, but his libido keeps getting in the way. Ben is one of those men who must proposition seemingly every woman he encounters and the repercussions of having sex with his girlfriend's teenage daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots), put him in a bad position. Soon, the number of people willing to stand up for him has dwindled to an alarmingly small club: his adult daughter (Jenna Fischer), his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon), an old friend (Danny DeVito), and a young geek (Jesse Eisenberg). But there is a reason for Ben's aberrant behavior - one he has been hiding from everyone.

Solitary Man develops in a non-sentimental manner, the narrative chronicling Ben's downward spiral. The film, however, is not maudlin. Ben may be a sad case but he retains a few shreds of self-respect and does what needs to be done to keep his head above water, if just barely (including working at a diner). There's also a fair amount of humor in the screenplay, although much of it is subtle and a little warped. The portrait of Ben the Douglas paints is that of a once-great man who has fallen on hard times as a result of his unquenchable appetites but, even in his twilight, he can't quite believe he won't make it to the top again. Solitary Man gives Douglas a chance to act, not merely posture or show off for the camera. It's some of the finest, least forced work he has done in years.

Solitary Man is on the bubble as far as obtaining a distributor, although one assumes the participation of top talent like Douglas, DeVito, Sarandon, and Soderbergh will result in someone picking up the movie. It's hard to believe this will go straight to video without a theatrical run. There's considerably more question about the latest effort from visionary Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose Air Doll will likely, at best, attract the interest of a small, specialty distributor. Solitary Man may be a little off the beaten path, but Air Doll sets out to blaze its own trail.

Air Doll is the third film I have seen in the past four years about a sex doll (following the low-budget horror movie Love Object and the considerably more sophisticated Lars and the Real Girl), and it's easily the most sublime of the three. I have heard it compared to Splash (although Mannequin might be more appropriate), but such a comparison does Air Doll a great disservice. This is not a conventional movie in any sense - it's about the fleeting nature of life, and what a fragile and ephemeral thing "existence" is. Can anyone say that about Splash?

Obviously, Air Doll is an allegory. The narrative is thin and doesn't stand up to any sort of scrutiny. You have to buy into the premise and go with the flow. It's a fantasy and all the laws of logic have been set aside. The plot is simple enough: a sex doll comes to life one day through some unexplained magic. She roams the street and, like a newborn, sees the world through the eyes of an innocent. Thereafter, she spends her days working at a video store (where she falls in love with a co-worker) and her nights returning to her "home," where she continues to provide the expected services for her owner (who doesn't realize she has come to life) until he buys another doll and puts her away.

Although Kore-eda never shies from depicting the true function of the air doll (she is, after all, a sex toy and to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous), he keeps the film well above a sleaze threshold. Air Doll is an ethereal movie, focusing on the childlike wonder with which the doll approaches the world and her attempts to discover what it means to be alive and what her purpose is now that her body in animated. Her naïveté is highlighted during the movie's closing moments when she makes a critical mistake and recognizes that an unavoidable element of living is dying.

Mention must be made of the performance of Doona Bae, who plays the air doll. The way in which she captures the tentative awkwardness of the newly "born" woman is fascinating and (of all things) recalls Pinocchio. Bae's mannerisms allow us to accept her as an animated version of the doll. It's easy for a portrayal like this to be overlooked, but It's one of the most evocative samples of acting I have seen during this festival, and it goes a long way toward making the movie work. Kore-eda has received some criticism for selecting this material (which is based on a graphic novel) as his follow-up to the sublime Still Walking (review coming soon), but one can see how its themes would have intrigued him, and the way in which they are developed recalls his earlier work.

French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet brought his latest, Micmacs, with him to Toronto, and it recalls the movies he made with Marc Caro in the early '90s: Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. As was true of those efforts, this one is almost entirely plot-driven, with little opportunity for significant character development beyond what is necessary for the narrative to work. The story unfolds a little like a giant Rube Goldberg machine, twisting and turning, going in strange directions, and taking unexpected detours, but always getting closer to the end goal. It's visually stimulating and a lot of fun to watch, but it lacks the emotional investment that Jeunet brought to his best and most internationally known production, Amelie.

The story focuses on Bazil (Dany Boon), a video store clerk and all around movie lover who is one day hit in the head by a stray bullet. This leaves the doctors with a dilemma: take the bullet out and risk turning him into a vegetable or leave it in and allow the possibility that he could drop dead at any time. They opt for the latter. Once released from the hospital, the now-homeless Bazil falls in with a group of society's outcasts and begins working with them "rehabilitating" scrap metal. He also begins to pursue a course of revenge against the rival arms manufacturers responsible for making the mine that killed his father and the bullet lodged in his skull. His convoluted plot requires the participation of his new friends.

Micmacs is an inventive romp punctuated by the kind of quirkiness Jeunet has brought to all his films. The story is as colorful as the characters and, although the development of the plot is not linear, there's a sense of unflagging energy that impels proceedings forward. Of course there's a happy ending, but would you really expect anything else from a fractured fairy tale like this?

Finally, I want to make a few brief comments about Guo Xialu's She, A Chinese, one of the best obscure movies I saw this year in Toronto. Although its primary funding comes from the United Kingdom, this small film is unlikely to achieve a U.S. distributor - the market for intimate, foreign language films with unknown actors is not strong. However, it should make its way around the country over the next few months on the film festival circuit and, because the production company is based in England, there's every reason to believe an English-subtitled version will eventually be available on DVD.

She, A Chinese tells the story of Mei (Huang Lu), a woman born in a rural village in China. For most of her life, she has never been more than five miles from home. Then, seeking adventure, she moves to the nearest city. There, she ends up working in a hair salon that is a front for prostitution and falls in love with a gangster. In the wake of his death, she takes his money and purchases a plane ticket to the U.K. After spending some time in London as an illegal immigrant, she marries an elderly widower. When the marriage doesn't turn out the way either of them anticipated, she moves on. The film ends on an ambiguous note but one senses that, given everything Mei has survived, she will overcome her latest troubles as well.

Initially, I had not planned to see She, a Chinese, but I was near the theater where it was screening around the time the showing started, so I decided to watch the beginning to see if it would hold my interest. 98 minutes later, I was still there, enraptured by nothing more complex than the powerfully acted, entirely believable tale of a survivor. There's nothing flashy or innovative about this movie. It's a simple character story - and one of the two or three most satisfying motion pictures I saw during my 8 days in Toronto.

Tomorrow, I'll wrap up my festival coverage with a few thoughts about where this year's festival went wrong and how things may change for 2010.

The trailers for Air Doll (in Japanese, but you'll get the idea) and Micmacs (in French):