Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Toronto Part IV: The New vs. The Knew

Prior to walking into Harsh Times last night, about all I knew about it was that it's written and directed by David Ayer, who wrote Training Day, and that it stars Christian Bale as a guy hanging out with his buddy in Los Angeles. Training Day's overwrought, but it has some sharp dialogue and keen insights into L.A. street life and macho codes; so I was hoping Harsh Times would at the least offer more of the same, in a small-scaled, jittery indie package. Then, before the movie started, a programmer walked on-stage and introduced the film with such long, effusive praise that I thought I'd really stumbled onto something special and unexpected.

Last night was the world premiere of Harsh Times. It hadn't screened for an audience before, and even a lot of the cast hadn't seen it. This was about as close to a "rasa" theatrical experience as a media-savvy guy like myself can expect to have in this day and age. But as I've blogged here before, I often don't trust my opinions when I'm the only one talking. I'm not entirely comfortable with "fresh." Some critics refuse to read other reviews before they see a movie, or even before they write their own. I seek out spoiler-free info about movies before I see them, and read everything I can afterward. I like to have something to push against.

I have no idea how critics and audiences are going to react to Harsh Times. It may be hailed as a gritty little genre piece with something important to say about the inherently corrupt nature of male bonding. Or it may be dismissed as a lurid, forced, pulp pretender, with dialogue cribbed from dime paperbacks and rap CDs. I think it's a little of both. The movie starts badly, with a lot of tough guy posing, but then it becomes about tough guy posing, and then the posing stops and the toughness becomes real, and genuinely frightening. And then the whole thing falls apart at the end, as Ayer falls into the trap of thinking excessive violence equals profound meaning. Maybe he should've vacated the director's chair, and given the script over to someone who could've coaxed more naturalism out of Bale and Freddy Rodriguez's chummy, can-you-top-this friendship. Ayer's not incompetent by any means. He keeps the movie moving along, and finds some comedy in the escalating madness. But just some. This kind of story—two guys blow off work and go drinking and tomcatting, day after day—should really be milked for laughs, right up to the point that the friendly roughhousing turns serious.

That said, Harsh Times does go to some unusual places, and it's hard to predict, at least until it becomes easy to predict. But don't mind me. At this point I'm just one lone voice.

By and large it's been easy to get a solid read on the buzz at this year's festival, because there hasn't been much fluctuation. The movies drawing lukewarm or outright poisonous responses early on (Tideland, Seven Swords, etc.) haven't smoked out many defenders as the week's worn on and second and third screenings have taken place; and not many people are dissenting on the clear successes of the fest to date, like A History Of Violence and Brokeback Mountain. I'm the only person I know who liked Elizabethtown, but otherwise, it seems like the advance word can be trusted on most movies. Subsequently, I've been nixing screenings left and right, and hastily adding replacements.

This morning that meant scrounging last-minute tickets to the Korean romance Sa-Kwa and Guy Ritchie's latest lad/gangster opus Revolver. The former is a plain, often touching story of a new love that rises from the ashes of an old love, and how a happy-go-lucky woman rushes into settling down. It's more about subtle acting and little life moments than stunning visuals, but the situation is relatable and the portrait of Korean family life is revealing. As for the Ritchie, I knew nothing about it going in, except that it's the director's return to the world of organized crime, with a story heavily influenced by wife Madonna's kabala obsession. I didn't note anything specifically kabala-y in Revolver, but there's a lot of stuff about chess, and game-playing, and how to outwit opponents by pretending to lose. (Maybe that's kabala … I don't know.) Initially, the typically twisty Ritchie plot—about an ex-con exacting revenge on the man who made him a con—seems more assured and mature than the slop splashed around in Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. But the movie quickly disappears into its own pretensions, with lots of repetition of the lose-to-win theme and little comprehensible storytelling. Ritchie's new direction looks to be even more of a dead end than his old one.

One of the most highly praised films this year—one that I already had a ticket to, thank goodness—is Michael Haneke's Caché. Once again, the early reviews couldn't be more right. The less said about this tale of French middle-class dread the better, but suffice to say that probably only Haneke could construct a film in such a way that a long, static shot of a home exterior becomes fraught with nail-biting tension. I laughed, I jumped, I stewed over the closing scene. Maybe the best film of the fest so far (running close with The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu and A History Of Violence).

The only movie left to round out this rivaling-Elizabethtown-in-its-excessive-length missive is Bee Season, the adaptation of the pop-lit novel, directed by Suture/Deep End directing team David Siegel and Scott McGehee. I've not particularly enjoyed either of their previous features, but I thought, given the source material (which I haven't read) that this one might have a chance. No chance. The movie has all the ingredients of a great film: a soilid cast (including Richard Gere as the kabala-obsessed father of a spelling bee champion … more kabala!), a rich story, and some cool inside-the-mind-of-a-speller special effects. But as always with Siegel and McGehee, the presentation is practically bloodless, and the gradual unraveling of this academic family never seems more than theoretical.

At some point I should talk about some peripheral TIFFstuffs, like the annoying pre-movie reels, and the love-hate relationship I have with the big stars who attend, and how some movies here can be paired by the kinds of auteurs who made them (most notably Tideland and Corpse Bride, by directors who sensibilities seem alike on the surface but diverge in ways that should be discussed). But I've been too busy watching movies.

Coming up: Wassup Rockers and Bangkok Loco tonight. (And maybe Dave Chapelle's Block Party if I can get in.) Bubble and Mary tomorrow morning. Posting mid-afternoon.