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TORONTO ’08 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Intimate Moments with Denis, Kore-eda and Kim; and Linklater Channels

TORONTO '08 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Intimate Moments with Denis, Kore-eda and Kim; and Linklater Channels

Not only can few Toronto attendees pronounce the name of this year’s opening night film “Passchendaele,” a Canadian WWI epic, but few among us have actually seen it. So much for a rousing start. Rather than major big-budget works (although the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading,” by most accounts, is an adequate romp), it’s the festival’s quieter, more intimate films that demand the most attention.

On the first official day of screenings, for example, Claire Denis‘ latest “35 Rhums” (“35 Shots”), fresh from Venice, drew a packed press screening in the mid-afternoon. When Denis, the French maverick of “Chocolat” and “Beau Travail” fame, delivers the buzz picture of the moment, it gives heart to the endurance of art-house cinema, which, of late, has taken a beating in the industry press.

Set in a housing project outside of Paris, “35 Rhums” focuses on the close relationship between a father Lionel (Alex Descas) and his young adult daughter Jo (Mati Diop), and the two neighbors (played by Nicole Dogoe and the always watchable Gregoire Colin) who long to breach the close-knit intimacy of parent and child.

When the film works, it flows effortlessly, whether in the contemplative images of train transport (Lionel works as a subway operator) or subtly revealing the turmoil of and between these four characters – as in a virtuoso scene mid-way through the film that unfolds without a word of dialogue. But when it doesn’t, scenes can feel clumsy or just plain strange. Certainly, “35 Rhums” is a step back from the narrative opacity of “The Intruder,” though Denis still manages to elide plenty. But in its humanly drawn characters and lovingly sketched relationships, the film is a warm, sophisticated addition to the Denis oeuvre.

Similarly full of lived, intimate movements and largely more successful, “Still Walking” – the new film from Hirokazu Kore-eda (“After Life,” “Nobody Knows“) – must be the festival’s most accomplished international premiere thus far. Up until the last few minutes, “Still Walking” – a sort of Ozu-ian “Yokohama Story” about the return of two grown-up children and their families to their elderly parent’s house for a 24-hour visit — shows Kore-eda in top form.

The film elegantly captures the tensions between its affectionate cast of characters, which include a stern bitterly retired grandfather who rejects his middle-son, the seemingly sweet grandmother whose cruel streak provides the film some of its most potent moments and the upbeat daughter (played by girly-voiced Japanese wonder YOU) who wants to make things right. Kore-eda breathes life into nearly every shot with a master’s specificity: bringing power to silent spaces and employing the daughter’s two young children — who run in and out of the frame and can be constantly heard on the soundtrack — as an incessant reminder of the sweet familial chaos that always exists just outside of view.

Kore-eda’s script is as solid as his shots: There are tossed-off lines that reveal multitudes, a near pitch-perfect balance of the sober and the lightweight, the cynical and the hopeful, and skillfully handled parallel stories about deaths in the families. The film only falters at its ending: If Kore-eda had only concluded the film with the kind of precision that he brings to his compositions and dialogue, “Still Walking” would be a masterpiece about mortality, and the complex process of dealing with its overwhelming impact.

A scene from So Yong Kim’s “Treeless Mountain.” Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

In this same vein of minimalist family drama, Korean American director So Yong Kim‘s superbly realized second feature “Treeless Mountain” taps into the ongoing heartbreak and malleability of early youth. Applying the same patient, naturalistic aesthetic as in her previous “In Between Days,” Kim focuses her camera, at child’s eve-level, on six-year-old Jin, and her younger sister, Bin. When their mother decides to leave the girls with their Great Aunt to seek out their delinquent father, the young sisters learn some tough life lessons.

But you can’t exactly call “Treeless Mountain” a coming-of-age film, because the girls are barely of age–it’s closer to the 1996 French film “Ponette” in observing the sometimes simple, sometimes sophisticated ways that little tots deal with adult situations.

From grim Seoul apartment projects to rundown suburban alleyways to a poor rural farm, the girls’ journey follows a trajectory of economic desolation: The film’s title, I suspect, comes from a big dirt pile that the girls play upon and is also the last place they see their mother before she climbs onto a bus and never looks back. Extreme close-ups of wriggling grasshoppers being burnt to a crisp doesn’t suggest a happy fate for these two delicate little souls who long for their mother. But “Treeless Mountain” is not downbeat; on the contrary, the film ends on a beautifully retrained note of resilience.

While the family in Kelly Reichardt‘s “Wendy and Lucy” — which was lost in the shuffle of Cannes — consists only of a young woman (Michelle Williams) and her dog, the film feels at home in this discussion of streamlined low-budget stories about family and responsibility that resonate through character rather than plot. Like Reichardt’s “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy” is also a poetic portrait of the Pacific Northwest.

The plaintive story of a lost young woman who loses her last remaining possession, her beloved pooch Lucy, the film paints a vivid, mournful picture of those on society’s edge. There’s also a critical statement about the unforgiving nature of the law and American culture – in images of closed-up shops and caged-up dogs and talk of joblessness – that gives the film an increased weight. But the film is really about Williams, another troubled mother, who imbues a sense of desperation and frustration in nearly ever scene. “Wendy and Lucy” hits a couple of overt notes along the way, but most of all, Reichardt keeps the movie simple. It’s almost as if Reichardt needn’t relate any big tragedy, because for Wendy, her sad fate is all but predetermined.

A scene from Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles.” Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

On the entirely opposite end of the spectrum, in both form and mood, the first Friday of the festival hosted the world premiere of Richard Linklater‘s “Me and Orson Welles.” If the aforementioned films convey their stories through the patient minutiae of the everyday, “Me and Orson Welles” paints a portrait of New York 1937 in broad strokes, brilliant flourishes and a boyish, buoyant outlook. Though the film has had a rough past with distributors – a long promo reel shown in Cannes lacked oomph, apparently – the final version went over swimmingly with Toronto audiences, who seemed to laugh at all the right moments (I even heard an audible gasp from someone taken in by a moment of Linklaterian/Wellesian stagecraft).

Hermetic and idealized, perhaps to a fault, the film presents a fictitious encounter between a young aspiring actor Richard (the too-good-looking Zac Efron) and the outsized upcoming theater maverick Welles (newcomer Christian McKay). After plenty of meet-cutes and dashing introductions, the film becomes a standard backstage comic drama as Welles tries to put on his first major show, a modern-dress version of “Julius Caesar” at the Mercury Theater. Many things go wrong, there’s a little romance between Efron and Claire Daines (as an ambitious theater manager), Welles tests everyone’ limits and the young Richard comes of age, all of it relayed in a winning patter.

Perhaps more than anything in the film, McKay’s portrayal of Welles works: He embodies the look, the voice, the cadences and expressions, but it’s more than mimicry, it’s also beyond human, mythic even. This also aptly describes Linklater’s entire project – a fully acknowledged idealization of the entire Welles legend and a romantic ode to youthful ambition and the power of creative expression.

How Linklater can be so relentlessly upbeat in today’s tumultuous times is hard to fathom–but compared to these other tales of abandonment and familial stresses, admittedly, he provides a welcome respite.

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