To read Scott's Day Four, click here.
Movies Of The Day: Redacted (dir. Brian DePalma) and George A. Romero's Diary Of The Dead (dir. George Romero):
I got to celebrate my 37th birthday by sleeping in an extra 90 minutes, then having a leisurely breakfast and seeing a couple of chance-taking movies by two directors firmly lodged in my pantheon of personal favorites. Both Brian DePalma and George Romero shot their latest projects in HD, on the cheap, and both movies confront contemporary political problems via low-to-the-ground genre storytelling and structural innovation. But neither, alas, is all that good.
The tricky thing about Redacted is that a lot of what's wrong with it is, I'm convinced, intentional. DePalma has always been a filmmaker who uses the unreal to get closer to the real, by creating situations that are so movie-ish as to be borderline absurd, even though they still evoke genuine feelings of terror, panic, pathos and ironic dumbfoundedness. In Redacted, DePalma remakes his own Casualties Of War practically scene for scene, using yet another troupe of multi-ethnic actors who've been coached to behave as though they're in the corniest imaginable WWII film. The twist is that Redacted is set in present-day Iraq, and in the DIY video age, where everything is being blogged, cablecast, or recorded on security cameras. The movie cuts between a dozen or so "sources" for its story of the rape and murder of an Iraqi teenager by two U.S. soldiers, including one soldier's "video diary," YouTube clips, cable news reports, and a mock-documentary by a pretentious French filmmaker.
The problem is that the cameras are all recording essentially the same thing: an overly amped-up group of soldiers who behave like an exaggerated version of every anti-war advocate's nightmares. If only DePalma had presented a different view of the soldiers from some of the other cameras–a view more natural and less heightened–then the elements of parody that are nearly always present in his work might've been clearer. Because intentional or not, Redacted's clunky dialogue and one-note characters are painful to watch, and don't really cut through to a deeper understanding of the situation in Iraq. Depth and realism aren't really DePalma's stock in trade, of course. He prefers the operatic, the grandiose. But Redacted feels the lack of one or two of his bravura suspense sequences. If ever a war could use some movie-movie tricks to help audiences feel the terror, it's this one. I respect what DePalma's trying to do, but as much as it hurts to say, I just don't think it works.
The Romero is a lot more entertaining than the DePalma, but it still feels a lot like an opportunity missed…by a filmmaker who doesn't get that many opportunities these days. Revisiting the zombie milieu for the fifth time–or sixth, if The Crazies counts–Romero focuses on a group of film students who are shooting a horror movie in the woods when the first reports start coming in about the dead walking the earth and eating the living. The project's director immediately grabs a camera and starts filming the apocalypse, and Diary Of The Dead mostly consists of his first person point-of-view shots, supplemented by the same kind of security cam footage and video blogging that Redacted uses. Also like Redacted, Diary Of The Dead makes no pretense to naturalism. The no-name actors in Romero's cast look and sound like no-name actors, and the film they shoot looks more like something made for the big screen (or at least for cable TV) than a truly raw, caught-on-the-fly documentary.
Diary Of The Dead contains a handful of good zombie gags–the best involving a mute Amish man, who sounds like a zombie but isn't–and some of Romero's trademark social commentary in the form of scattershot references to the flooding of New Orleans, the furor over illegal immigrants, and a YouTube culture in which everybody is too busy filming their own lives to care about anyone else's. There's even a poignant shot towards the end, in which the two characters who've most chided their director for filming everything both pick up their own cameras, having become zombies of a kind. But Romero undercuts that scene–and the rest of the film, really–with running narration that keeps stating and restating the theme, effectively dulling its impact, and marring what otherwise might've been a ripping good time. (Both: C+).
In The Valley Of Elah (dir. Paul Haggis): I still haven't seen Crash, but near as I can tell, Paul Haggis' directorial follow-up In The Valley Of Elah is much less overwrought. It's basically a procedural mystery with minor pretensions of social importance, following retired MP Tommy Lee Jones as he teams up with police detective Charlize Theron to find out what happened to his son, who came back from a tour of duty in Iraq and promptly disappeared. The mystery isn't bad, though only its contemporary spin sets it apart from a slew of similar movies and novels; and the performances are fine, though compared to his more inventive work in No Country For Old Men, Jones seems to be a little on autopilot here. My main problem with Elah is the same problem I have with the films Haggis has written for Clint Eastwood: they feel too "writerly." Even when an unusual, almost graceful moment happens–as they do with relative frequency–I can almost picture Haggis smiling to himself in front of his laptop. In The Valley Of Elah is a solid piece of work, but it lacks a certain rough-and-tumble spirit, or organic flow. It's locked on the page. (B-)
Atonement (dir. Joe Wright): It's surprising to me that four of my five favorite movies at TIFF so far have been literary adaptations, given that good books so rarely translate into good movies. But No Country For Old Men, Persepolis, Into The Wild and now Atonement all translate their source material in ways that retain what made them special in the first place, while adding something uniquely cinematic. I confess that I haven't read Atonement, but I've read a few Ian McEwan novels, and director Joe Wright (along with screenwriter Christopher Hampton) really nails McEwan's fascination with misinterpreted gestures, moments that go wrong, and how the mood of a room affects everyone in it. There are lot of long stretches with no dialogue in Atonement, and I could almost hear McEwan's descriptions in my head. I have some quibbles with the movie, primarily related to its lack of transcendent emotion, a couple of badly acted hyper-dramatic scenes between stars James McAvoy and Keira Knightley (playing lovers separated by World War II and the aftermath of a disastrous family dinner), and an imbalanced structure that gives too much time to the war and not enough to that deliciously charged garden party. But I was held rapt throughout by the percussive soundtrack and Wright's daring attempts to suggest interior states without falling back on dialogue or narration. This movie may be too offbeat to woo the middlebrow crowd it's pitched to, but it struck me as a bold new direction in sophisticated Britfilm, building on the work of Michael Powell and David Lean. Not quite a masterpiece, but audaciously singular. (A-).
Notes, Thoughts, Things Overheard…
I hope everybody understands that all of the reviews that Scott and I have been writing–along with their grades–are first impressions, and therefore tentative. A festival isn't an ideal place to render final judgment on any film, since we have to see so many in such a small amount of time (along with staying up to 2 and 3 and even 4 AM to write about them every night, before getting up again the next morning at 8). Before I write a real review of any of these films, I'll try to see them again; and a lot of them I'll try to watch again regardless, once Academy Awards screener season begins, in roughly a month. Consider what we've been doing more of a report from the field–the wire service version, with the magazine version still to come.