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September 10, 2007

“In the Valley of Elah” (*****)
Directed by Paul Haggis

Paul Haggis’s latest is a troubling American masterpiece and destined to be one of the most discussed and debated films of the year, not to mention a likely Oscar candidate. Haggis has been the golden boy of Hollywood these past few years, writing “Million Dollar Baby” for Clint Eastwood, directing and writing “Crash,” which won him Oscars for best picture and best screenplay, and contributing to the story of “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

This time he puts forth a searing indictment of the American involvement in Iraq, but more importantly, it’s a lacerating study of the manner in which the military turns young men into fighting machines and yet does not train them to turn that off once they return home. Is there really any preparation for the horrors one will see during war? I don’t think so. In this film the soldiers seem so young going off to boldly defend the country in a war many believe to be predicated on a lie.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a brilliant performance, the finest of his career, as a retired military man investigating his son’s disappearance after the boy returns home from Iraq. Within a day he learns his son has been brutally murdered on American soil and resolves himself to find the answers behind the killing. With the help of Emily (Charlize Theron), a sympathetic detective, he slowly pieces together the events that led to the killing, though the answers will startle them, leaving them in absolute horror at what has transpired.

Jones has never before dominated a film with such raw power; no-nonsense, taciturn and often harsh, he is a force of nature who is going to find out what happened whether or not he has the help of the military or the local police. If I have any quibble with the film it would be that Susan Sarandon is wasted in the role of Hank’s (Jones) wife, left with just a few scenes. However that is a very small beef with a film so full of power and anger.

The valley of Elah is where David slew Goliath, and is of course metaphorical here in two ways. The first and most obvious is the little man going up against the military machine, while the second and more complicated is the manner in which the impact of war forever kills young men, taking away an innocence that is gone forever. Only a few are able to rise above it, the Jones character being one of them. Stunning and heartbreaking, the final images of the film make an extraordinary impact and political statement. Hopefully this is one President Bush sees.


“Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (**)
Directed by Shekhar Kapur

“Elizabeth: The Golden Age” may just be the most disappointing film of the festival, despite a luminous performance from the great Cate Blanchett who will undoubtedly earn an Academy Award nomination for her work. The film has many narrative problems and logistic issues, beginning with the fact it takes place twenty seven years into her reign which puts her in her fifties, and yet Blanchett does not look a day over 35. Added to that is the awkward timing of the film’s release, still very close to the HBO masterwork Elizabeth I with a marvelous performance from Helen Mirren as the Queen.

What hurts the film the most is the fact that this fiery ruler is reduced to a simpering lady all but begging for a kiss from a man she had banished previously for falling in love with Bess (Abbie Cornish), one of her ladies. These issues aside, Blanchett is superb as a Queen facing the greatest challenges of her life. Spain wants very much to see her killed and replaced by the Catholic Queen, Mary of Scotland (Samantha Morton), imprisoned by Elizabeth. When an attempt is made on the life of Elizabeth and it proves Mary is behind it, she has no choice but to execute her cousin, though she is devastated by the act.

Once the head of the treacherous Mary has rolled off her body, Spain launches a massive naval attack on England which threatens to bring the country down. Elizabeth resolves to fight back, not wanting her country to fall when she is on the throne.

There are some fine supporting performances in the film, best of all Abbie Cornish as love-struck Bess, and Samantha Morton as the Queen of Scotland who is stunned when her treachery is discovered. Clive Owen, a brilliant actor, does not have much to do except look roguish and dashing in his costumes, but the man handles the role of a hero very well.

This film lost considerable ground here at TIFF. But count on at the very least a nomination for the great Cate.


“Across the Universe” (****)
Directed by Julie Taymor

A magical mystery tour springs from the fertile and wild imagination of Julie Taymor, who last gave us the Oscar winning “Frida” in 2002 and before that the expressionistic “Titus” in 1999, with Anthony Hopkins raging as the mad king. On Broadway Taymor is best known for the superb production of “The Lion King,” which won countless awards and made her the toast of the great white way, though she has been turning more and more to film these last five years.

“Across the Universe” is without a doubt her finest achievement and greatest risk. Using the music of the Beatles as her inspiration, the film is about two star-crossed lovers, Jude and Lucy (I kid you not) and their adventures with the sixties as a backdrop and the specter of Vietnam looming large. Once again Taymor uses puppetry merged with live action to drive her narrative and it works beautifully, though one must be willing to take a leap of faith with the film.

Evan Rachel Wood is outstanding as Lucy, bringing a clear-eyed grace to the screen that few young actors have. Sean Penn was heard griping about the young talent in Hollywood, but with actors like Wood I think we are alright. The film is demanding in its depiction of a cultural revolution, but ultimately a love story at its heart and full of hope. You will leave the theatre floating on air.


“Margot at the Wedding” (****)
Directed by Noah Baumbach

Spending ninety minutes with the characters in Noah Baumbach’s latest effort is like spending time with people you know you could never like, and that you quite frankly despise. They are mean, treacherous to one another and believe without a shadow of a doubt that the universe revolves around them and their needs.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) is returning to her childhood home with her son for her sister Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black). Upon laying eyes on Malcolm, Margot knows at once that Pauline is making a huge mistake because the man is clearly beneath her. There is nasty history between the sisters as they have not spoken in years, the result of Margot’s insistence of speaking her mind all the time and writing about everything that happens in the family. They are the sort of people who tell one another that what they are being told is confidential, but within minutes are confiding that secret in someone else. When they lash out, they do so viciously, finding the other’s weak spot and honing in on that.

Kidman is superbly venomous as the messed up Margot, struggling with her own marriage and petty insecurities. Leigh is as always a revelation; perhaps the Academy will finally honor her with a long-deserved nomination. However, stealing the film, and I cannot quite believe I am saying this, is Jack Black as Malcolm, the hopelessly screwed up fiancé of Pauline, who despite all of his issues – and there are many – truly loves her. Is love enough to hold them together?

Can any of these people honestly forgive one another and embrace each as family? After all that is what family does, right? Nicely directed and written by Noah Baumbach, fast becoming this generation’s Woody Allen.

“King of California” (BOMB!)
Directed by Mike Cahill

Touted high here as containing one of Michael Douglas’s finest performances, I felt embarrassed for the actor part way through this mess, wondering what exactly he thought he was accomplishing on the screen.

Portraying a father being released from a mental hospital after two years, he returns home to his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), a resourceful 17 year old who has quit school to work, bought a car off ebay (even though she has no license) and grown up very quickly in Dad’s absence. When he comes home, she finds very quickly that he has not really changed, and his latest scheme is buried treasure under the local Costco store.

Douglas seems to think that wild-eyed looks and frantic motion passes for madness on screen, and the use of that same high-pitched, eerie music from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” tells me that perhaps he actually thought this was his McMurphy. Not even close, my friend…a terrible performance and a dreadful movie. Poor Evan Rachel Wood, how could she have known what she was getting herself into?


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