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TORONTO: Anton Sirius on FLYING DAGGERS, MACHINIST, FINAL CUT, SPIDER FOREST, Jewison & Leguizamo

Hey folks, Harry here with Anton's latest fantastic report on this his third day of the 2004 Toronto International Film Fest. I'm dying to see HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and THE MACHINIST... though it looks like perhaps I can wait on the other titles. Sadly. Here ya go...

Man, it's been crazy crazy non-stop. Interviews keep piling up -- Selma Blair, Lukas Moodysson and Johnnie To is done (and good Lord is Selma a sweetie), John Leguizamo and Mark Wexler are booked, Fugit and Thomas might be on deck, and my white whale for this year, Stephen Chow, is still swimming around out there somewhere.

Fest buzz film: Tell Them Who You Are, big-time. Norman Jewison supposedly wept openly at the industry screening. Ebert's already handed it an Oscar nom.

More later. As that guy from Rocky Horror once said, "Sleep. Now."

* * * * *

The House of Flying Daggers (2004, directed by Zhang Yimou)

Zhang Yimou's follow-up to Hero, House of Flying Daggers is a spectacle much like its predecessor, yet more intimate and romantic. Essentially an epic love triangle, the movie stars Zhang Ziyi as...

No, wait. What's the word that means an order of magnitude greater than 'stars'?

Look, I can't pretend to be objective about Ziyi, the fragile luminous goddess. Her place in my pantheon was assured the first time I saw her on screen, just as it was with Audrey and Grace and Anjelina, due to her unbeatable combo of talent and beauty. But great as the direction and cinematography are, great as Takeshi Kaneshiro (from Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express and Fallen Angels) and Andy Lau are, great as the story itself is... she is this film. I don't think House would work anywhere near as well with someone else playing Mei. I mean, of course two of the greatest warriors of the age would betray everything they hold dear just for a chance to fight for her heart - it's Zhang Ziyi. Of course the landscape is so beautiful it makes your eyeballs ache - it's reflected in her eyes. Of course the fight scenes leave you gasping and on the edge of your seat - she might get hurt! That 15th guy might get a blow in while she's kicking the asses of the other fourteen!

Ahem.

What I'm trying to say is that House of Flying Daggers is a very good film elevated to something more if, like me and everyone with a modicum of taste, you are completely head over heels for Zhang Ziyi.

In a just, sane world, Clean will get released in North America in the same Hollywood year as House of Flying Daggers, so Ziyi can go toe-to-toe with Maggie for Best Actress. But not to validate their achievement, mind you. To let America in on what they're missing. (Just don't ask me to pick between them if that does come to pass, though.)

* * * * *

The Machinist (2004, directed by Brad Anderson)

The latest from Session 9 director Anderson, the Machinist is a modest but stylish riff on guilt and a serious case of the crazies. Christian Bale plays Trevor Reznik (what, was Blixa Barger taken? Character names really shouldn't make references this obvious) who works a blue-collar industrial job in a factory and hasn't slept for a year. The insomnia has taken its toll; Trevor is an emaciated wreck, whose only real human contact comes from a waitress working the graveyard shift at the airport lunch counter, and a prostitute. Things start getting weird, not to mention potentially lethal at the factory, leaving Trevor to wonder if someone is gaslighting him, or if something more sinister is going on.

The Machinist is pretty good as these things go. Anderson's direction is slick, the film looks appropriately drab and grimy with a color palette of two (gray and dark gray), the supporting cast including Michael Ironside and Jennifer Jason Leigh is rock-solid, and (earning bonus points from me) there're some nice nods to Carnival of Souls in the score. Where the film stumbles is in the plotting. Too many clues get divulged too early, leaving the audience way ahead of Trevor is figuring out what's going on.

It's Bale's performance that gives the film its kick though. If the Machinist gets a wideish release, Bale should replace DeNiro's Raging Bull turn as the reference of choice for insanely dedicated physical transformations. Gone is the physique he built up for Reign of Fire; in its place is a shambling husk of a man ripped from some concentration camp survivor's nightmares. His actual acting is pretty good too, but really all he needs to do to communicate how little rope he's got left to cling to is take off his shirt. It alone is a sight scarier than anything in Creep.

The Machinist probably won't change anyone's life, unless it's to immediately donate all your wealth to fighting famine in the Third World, but it's worth checking out.

* * * * *

Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate (2004, directed by Michael Epstein)

Michael Cimino's doomed epic gets the Hearts of Darkness treatment here, and while Final Cut is nowhere near as good as Hearts (of course) it's still a solid, at times fascinating look at the end of a couple of Hollywood eras.

Following the release of the Deer Hunter Cimino was the new Sun God in town, duly annointed as such by no less than the industry's artistic priesthood, United Artists, the studio founded to be a haven for the talent by Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and Griffin. Cimino's next project was every bit worthy of UA's blessing too; he wanted to make nothing less than the greatest Western ever. What he got instead was more like Shakespeare, only played out behind the cameras instead of front of it.

Heaven's Gate has two main problems. The first was the studio. UA was not what it was, having undergone a shakeup that left it essentially leaderless and rudderless. The second problem was with Cimino himself. Assured by all of Hollywood that he was a genius and given a blank check by UA to be their standard-bearer, Cimino decided the film could just be great, it had to be perfect, in every detail and every frame of footage. (The soliloquy pretty much writes itself, doesn't it?)

Final Cut doesn't do much more than skim the surface of the story behind Heaven's Gate, but with that kind of material it doesn't need depth to be entertaining. Interviews with former UA execs, actors from the film like Jeff Bridges and Kris Kristofferson, crew and journalists piece together the deadly momentum of the schedule and budget-breaking shoot, the politics and the increasingly bad press. And despite its relative even-handedness, what Final Cut makes clear is who is ultimately to blame for the film's legendary failure at the box office.

Cimino.

Now I will always, always take the talent's side in any battle between art and commerce. But that isn't what happened. By the time Heaven's Gate was released the publicity surrounding its production practically guaranteed a critical savaging. The movie got a one week run in New York around Christmas at which point Cimino, citing the rushed editing job, asked that it be pulled so he could recut it.

And he listened to the critics when he did, chopping out an hour or so. Cimino, to be blunt, lost his nerve.

His confidence failed him, and he betrayed his vision.

Certainly he's never been the same since (Desperate Hours???). UA died as an independant entity following the disaster, getting bought up by MGM for its catalogue (which, given what MGM has suffered through since, might start developing a rep for being cursed). Even Hollywood was never the same, as the reign of the accountant began.

As for Heaven's Gate itself? Was it crap, or just ill-fated? Well, the French like it, for what that's worth. But the marketplace has already spoken. And if there's one lesson to be taken away from Final Cut, it's this:

In Hollywood, the marketplace is always right.

* * * * *

Spider Forest (2004, directed by Song Il-gon)

Y'know, for a movie called Spider Forest, there weren't that many spiders in it. Not that I was expecting some low-budget South Korean Arachnophobia knock-off but dammit, when you're making a film about hauntings and murders and things that go bump in the head shouldn't you be looking for any excuse at all to throw the creepy little buggers in when you can? I'm just sayin'...

Anyway, this one's nothing special, nothing you haven't seen dozens of times before, although there are some nifty dodges tossed into the middle of the story. Heck, even if you haven't seen it before, you'll probably be able to tell where it's going well in advance, but that's not a problem with the movie so much as the evolution of the genre. The Twist is so ingrained into the thriller that, really, it ceases to be a twist at all (are you listening M. Night?) If you know the ride you're on is a Moebius strip, then only a straight line will be unexpected.

Not that Spider Forest is bad. Competent is the word, I think. There's the requisite grue, slightly more than the requisite sex (shocking for this festival year, I know.) Bona fide scares, as opposed to mere creeps, are a bit lacking but again that could be the tension-sucking non-twist at work. In the end Spider Forest, sadly and not a little bit ironically, simply isn't memorable.

Anton Sirius

Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 13, 2004, 4:50 a.m. CST

    Final Cut sounds the most interesting

    by Bart of Darkness

    The whole "Heaven's Gate" saga is fascinating in itself.

  • Sept. 13, 2004, 5:24 a.m. CST

    Anyone read the Final Cut book?

    by jaydeluxe

    Suppose the doc is based on this book. It's really very good by the way. Written by Steven Bach an exec inside UA. You should check it out. I'd say it'd be a nice bookend to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Though I read it years before that one came out. It's been out of print for a while but I'm sure with the movie on the way....

  • Sept. 13, 2004, 5:34 a.m. CST

    Amen and hallelujah to the Zhang Ziyi worship!

    by gigaloff

    She almost takes you out of the movie, which is a problem since she's been in some of my all time faves. I have the same problem with Asia Argento as well, but since she's mostly in mediocre stuff she's a more welcome distraction.

  • Sept. 14, 2004, 1:39 p.m. CST

    I wanna see Spider forest...

    by Gluecifer

    simply because Ilgon Song's last movie, Flower island, was absolutely wonderful. Don't give a shit about the review...

  • Sept. 14, 2004, 4:34 p.m. CST

    but if you are riding on a Moebius strip, then a straight line

    by eraser_x

    will take you in a double loop. What you'd actually need is a Euclidean line to take you off the strip.

  • Sept. 14, 2004, 10:28 p.m. CST

    The thing about the Zhang thing...

    by MrCere

    We still don't know a damned thing about the film. Personal taste and viewpoints are welcome but couldn't you just tell us SOMETHING more? Damn.