Thursday, September 13, 2007

Toronto International Film Festival Journal - Part Seven

CLEANER (Renny Harlin, 2007)

A few years ago there was an incredible segment on NPR's "This American Life" about a cleaner of crime scenes. Shortly thereafter, Pruitt Taylor Vince played a character that felt indebted to this NPR piece on "C.S.I." ("Swap Meet"). The bringing together of science and death was perfect for the CBS show. I wasn't so sure if such a character could survive a Renny Harlin film.

Pity poor Renny Harlin. It still feels that he's trying to recover from CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995). His last few films have been lucky to even snag a U.S. theatrical release (MINDHUNTERS wasn't one of these), much less a festival screening. So, that must mean that Harlin is back on top, right? Yes and no.

That CLEANER is playing a film festival is a vote of confidence in the Finnish filmmaker. Yet, CLEANER is a strange choice for a festival program. It's very much a straight-forward thriller along the lines of KISS THE GIRLS or U.S. MARSHALLS. The presence of Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and Luis Guzman certainly does well to give the film some credibility and solid performances (though Eva Mendes feels completely out of her league). The script by Matthew Aldrich is a solid, albeit fairly predictable, effort and Harlin does a capable workman's job bringing it to life. I won't object to seeing this one again on cable.

FOREVER NEVER ANYWHERE / IMMER NIE AM MEER (Antonin Svoboda, 2007, Austria)
STUCK (Stuart Gordon, 2007)

Cue the R. Kelly and make up some spoken word lyrics to the new song, "Stuck in a car." Worlds apart in tonality and geography, these films both feature men trapped in a car. In the case of Manfred, Bernard, and Rafael, the three Austrian men have an auto accident that takes them well away from the road in an impenetrable vehicle once owned by Kurt Waldheim.

Feeling a bit like Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT or any number of sitcom "elevator episodes" (especially "The Bus" episode of M*A*S*H), things get intense for the diverse group in their claustrophobic setting when their potential savoir—a pre-pubescent lad with a bent for science—turns out to be a sadist who treats the men like lab rats.

It's difficult to decide who's worse—a boy who happens upon three injured men in a vehicular prison who refuses to lead anyone to their rescue or a selfish twentysomething who hits a man crossing the street and won't get him any help, despite him being wedged in her windshield.

Ripped from the headlines (and already fodder for "C.S.I." in the episode "Anatomy of a Lye"), the tale of Stuart Gordon's STUCK is based on the curious case of Chante Jawan Mallard, a woman who kept an injured man as a hood ornament for days after he smashed through her front car window. Starring Stephen Rea as Tom Bardo, a down on his luck corporate cog, his day just keeps getting increasingly worse until it concludes in a collision with Brandi Boski (Mena Suvari), an ambitious nursing home worker who just can't miss a Saturday of work (even if there's a man exsanguinating in her garage).

There are some racial themes that require further study in STUCK. Mallard is an African American woman and the outcry over her abuse of a white male (Gregory Biggs) was deafening in some circles as if it were more morally reprehensible. In Gordon's version, Suvari, a Caucasian, wears a Black hairstyle and her closest friend and boyfriend are African American. Likewise, another fascinating aspect of Gordon's film is that the "we're all in this together" selflessness of a post-9/11 world seems to be truly a thing of the past. STUCK exemplifies the "do anything you can do to get ahead or stay out of trouble" mentality that seems to stem from the stealing of the White House and the Patriot Act respectively.

The remarkable thing about both FOREVER NEVER ANYWHERE and STUCK is that they manage to spin a relatively simple concept into compelling tales that keep an audience entertained for close to 90 minutes.

REDACTED (Brian DePalma, 2007)

Who knew that Brian DePalma and George A. Romero would both reach into the same bag of cinematic tricks in 2007? Like DIARY OF THE DEAD, DePalma's latest is presented as video journals, security footage (with crisp audio!), web clips, et cetera. It's all stitched together to portray life for a group of U.S. soldiers in Samara, Iraq. At the core of the film is a fictionalized recounting of the murder of an Iraqi family and the rape of their fifteen year old daughter.

An exercise in style over substance – where substance deserved more respect than to be so over stylized – REDACTED felt like an episode of "America's Most Wanted" style cornball re-enactments. The film was like making an after school special on the Mai Lai massacre with a handful of C-List actors, a camcorder, and a script banged out the night before.

The toughest bit of the film to swallow is the dénouement. At the outset we're informed that everything in the film is fictional. The tacked-on finale is comprised of oppressively swelling musical accompaniment over a montage of horrific images of Iraqi civilian casualties. This finale feels like a last ditch effort to give REDACTED the weight and social importance that the rest of the film had been lacking. Even when the subtitle says "actual photographs," is that to be believed or does the initial admonition of the film being fiction still hold true? I know that I'm to believe that these are real (and they probably are) but their inclusion is so out of place and so blatant in DePalma's attempt to tear at the audience's heart strings the he suddenly loses all credibility with such an exploitative tactic.

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