A Walk Among the Tombstones
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TORONTO, Ont. -- It’s not often you see films that are perfect. I have just seen two of them here at the Toronto Film Festival, and two others that are extraordinary, and a documentary that is spellbinding. Do I love everything? Not at all. I just happened to have an ecstatic period of moviegoing, that’s all, and that’s enough.
There is no ranking perfection, so I will discuss the perfect films in alphabetical order. The first is “No Country for Old Men,” by the Coen brothers, and the second is “Rendition” by Gavin Hood. The Coens are among our national treasures. Gavin Hood, at 44, was the South African director of “Tsotsi,” the masterpiece which won the Oscar for best foreign film of 2005.
Now what do I mean when I say a film is perfect? I described Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” as perfect, that’s what I mean. A perfect film is serious or funny or anything in between, but in its way it owns wisdom about life, and we learn something from it. Our attention is fully engaged by it. If we are movie critics, our notebooks rest forgotten in our hands. It is cast so well that the roles fit the actors like a second skin. It has dialogue that functions to accomplish what is needed, and nothing more; it can be poetry, prose, argument or bull----t, but we believe the characters would say it. There is not an extra or a wrong shot. The compositions make everything clear but not obvious, and they work on an emotional level even if we’re not aware of it. And when it’s over we know we’ve seen one hell of a film.
“No Country for Old Men,” inspired by the Cormac McCarthy novel, follows a million dollars around Texas. That’s the MacGuffin. What it does more importantly is give us a character (Josh Brolin) who finds the money, a character (Javier Bardem) who is a homicidal madman who kills with compressed oxygen, a sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) who tries to protect the first from the second, a private fixer (Woody Harrelson) who is hired to find the money, and the various wives (especially Kelly MacDonald), women, employers, victims, motel clerks, corpses and deputies in their lives.
The movie opens October 6, so I will save a proper review until then. Let me just say, however, that Tommy Lee Jones continues to baffle me by concealing so much range behind what seems to be so little, and that Javier Bardem’s Anton Chiguth is a character on the level of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, with a precision of dialog and an insistence on the strict logic of words that is bone-chilling and sometimes oddly funny.
Now to ”Rendition.” I owe director Gavin Hood an apology for writing, in a Toronto festival preview, that it is a “CIA thriller.” It involves the CIA and among other things it is a thriller, but it is no more a “CIA thriller” than Macbeth is a swashbuckler. It is a movie about the theory and practice of two things: Torture, and personal responsibility. And it is wise about what is right, and what is wrong. The original and tightly coiled screenplay, by Kelley Sane, should get one of several nominations the movie deserves.
The story involves the arrest of an Egyptian-American scientist (Omar Metwally) who is “disappeared” from a flight from Cape Town to Washington. His very pregnant wife (Reese Witherspoon) simply doesn’t believe “he was never on the plane,” and enlists a former lover (Peter Sarsgaard), now an aide to a senator (Alan Arkin), to investigate through back channels. This runs him up against the head of the CIA (Meryl Streep) who is terrifyingly professional.
Meanwhile, in an unnamed north African country, the new American attaché (Jake Gyllenhaal) is told that the scientist has been brought there to take advantage of its expert torturers, an interesting use of outsourcing. And we meet the country’s chief of security, his daughter, her forbidden boyfriend, and others, as several story strands are relentlessly gathered into a conclusion that makes perfect sense and causes us to rethink everything, and no, that doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means.
The movie opens Oct. 19, and will get its proper review then, but let me say that the United States has in recent years been implicated in torture official and unofficial, but that “Rendition” views the subject in a much deeper and more complex way than you would expect.
The two “extraordinary” films are David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” for which I have already predicted an Oscar nomination for Viggo Mortensen’s Russian gangster in London; in opens this Friday, when my full review will appear. And Andrew Dominik's “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” stars Brad Pitt as the outlaw, Casey Affleck as the coward, and James Carville in a supporting presence suggesting he should quit the day job. It opens Sep. 21, when my full review, etc.
The documentary is Amir Bar-Lev’s “My Kid Could Paint That,” about a 4-year-old girl named Marla Olmstead you may remember from the news. She became famous as a prodigy who created abstract paintings that sold for thousands of dollars, and indeed stand comparison with adult professional work. It opens Oct. 5. There is a lot to be said about this film, which inspires great speculation.
Don’t get me started. Let me just close by saying that I have seen so many good movie up here I can hardly stand it, and the festival runs for another week.
Ebert will sign his book “Awake in the Dark” from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday at Theater Books of Toronto, 11 St. Thomas.
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