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TORONTO ’07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Dylan, Who, Lou Reed Music Fims Rock, “Margot” Is Bittersweet, Lumet

TORONTO '07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Dylan, Who, Lou Reed Music Fims Rock, "Margot" Is Bittersweet, Lumet

Rock flicks, crime thrillers, domestic melodramas, political statements and cult auteurs–the panoply of genres and styles at Toronto is an evergreen achievement befitting one of the very best international festivals. But this year’s edition delivered an especially heady cross-pollination that made certain themes and ideas reverberate more than they would by themselves.

Take music: a trio of films with completely different approaches to Bob Dylan, The Who and Lou Reed were rhapsodic viewing in tandem. Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” easily one of the best and most ambitious films of the year, fragments the many chapters of the folk-rock troubadour’s life and reshuffles the cards to form a fascinating meditation on identity and personal responsibility, transforming the pop prophet’s intimidating, cryptic life into a deeply empathetic and surprisingly accessible journey.

If Dylan’s legacy is endless transformation, then Paul Crowder and Murray Lerner‘s enjoyably straightforward chronicle of The Who maps out that lesson with aplomb. “Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who” features a wealth of archival footage and snappy interviews with the surviving bandmates and shows how a bunch of working-class lads can inspire each other to transcend enduring rock anthems and create the high pantheon category of rock opera.

And Julian Schnabel‘s supple visual instincts perfectly preserve Lou Reed’s own rock-opera concept album in “Lou Reed’s Berlin,” a deeply satisfying record of his live performances at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, 33 years after the album’s failed initial release. All three films tease out elegiac moments of pain, loss and endurance, and dazzle in their own wildly disparate ways.

A scene from Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream.” Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the festival’s biggest surprises was watching two old masters like Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet both tackle stories of brothers who push each other into devastatingly criminal behavior. Allen’s lament, the dry-eyed tragedy “Cassandra’s Dream,” is a deft companion to his perfect-murder rumination “Match Point“–this time casting Ewan MacGregor and Colin Ferrell as a pair of desperate strivers who force themselves into murder. And Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” pits an overbearing, caustic Philip Seymour Hoffman against his weak-willed brother Ethan Hawke in a robbery gone awry that ends up tearing their family apart. Despite unexpected pacing and awkward plot twists, Lumet’s movie works so well because of his emphasis on domestic drama in the midst of pulp content; and expert acting from a nimble cast combine to make a forceful, haunting thriller.

The family portraits continue in Noah Baumbach‘s “Margot at the Wedding” and Alan Ball‘s “Nothing Is Private.” The far superior film is the wincingly funny “Margot,” a wistful, bittersweet look at two sisters–one uptight and cruel, the other loose but insecure–trapped by deeply dysfunctional emotions toward each other. Ball’s faulty but daring “Nothing Is Private,” based on Alicia Erian‘s novel, tackles the sexual awakening of a 13-year-old Lebanese-American girl during the 1991 Gulf War. Too schematic and somewhat emotionally contrived, “Private” nonetheless captures the terror and excitement of budding sensuality with an alarming honesty.

Moving from the naturalistic to the self-consciously hyper-real, Brian De Palma‘s “Redacted” and George A. Romero‘s “Diary of the Dead” both use a faux documentary style to lend immediacy and authenticity to their stories. Written and directed by De Plama, Redacted suffers from overliteral writing and ham-fisted acting in its re-enactment of a true-life incident in which U.S. soldiers raped and killed a teenage Iraqi girl. But his conceptual mix of website pages and uploaded video content make for deceptively bold narrative strategy.

A scene from Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding.” Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Romero’s self-financed reinvention of the modern zombie genre he created is far more committed to the camcorder aesthetic, which weaves its fantasmagoric premise far more tightly–and more disturbingly–into the fabric of everyday life. Dark, disturbing, satiric, funny, and deceptively political, “Diary of the Dead” is a wicked return to form for Romero.

Other cult auteurs didn’t fare as well, but still delivered satisfactions of their own. Tsai Ming-liang protege Lee Kang-sheng continues his transition from actor to director with sophomore effort “Help Me Eros,” a simplistic story of romantic alienation amid sexual decadence that nonetheless shows an arresting use of images and situations, from a zaftig woman’s kinky soak in a bathtub of snakes to a series of luxury logos projected onto a grunting menage a trois.

Takashi Miike‘s Sukiyaki Western Django playfully transposes Italy’s Spaghetti Western aesthetic onto Japanese tribal mores, bringing along American cliches spoken in phonetic English and a bizarre Quentin Tarantino cameo partly delivered under heavy old-age makeup. Stuart Gordon‘s silly satire “Stuck” shoves Stephen Rea through the car windshield of a corn-rowed Mena Suvari, who then stupidly tries to acquit herself of the carnage with one idiotic misstep after another (although the zany ending is absolutely inspired). And Lars Von Trier even pops up as the screenwriter of Jacob Thuesen‘s Erik Nietzsche–The Early Years, a lightweight revisionist caricature of Von Trier’s own experiences going to film school. The lesson: successful directors require a touch of sadism.

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