Editor's Note: We can't all make it to the Toronto International Film Festival (which is too bad, since it's where some of the best films of the next year will be shown). But CT has the next best thing: daily updates during the Festival from our critic Ken Morefield. Stay tuned for the next week for capsule reviews and reflections on some of the world's most important movies.
Ladder to Damascus, directed by Mohamad Malas
Kill Your Darlings, directed by John Krokidas
Walesa. Man of Hope, directed by Andrzej Wajda
Jodorowsky's Dune, directed by Frank Pavich
I was a bit of a cinematic Agrippa on Wednesday, saying to a series of films, "almost thou persuadest me." But not quite.
Traveling to TIFF each year usually means I am not in the United States on the anniversary of 9/11. I am happy to have the global perspective that the festival provides while still being among a community of artists and people who lament the tragic loss of human life in any form.
So given recent political events, it seemed fitting to screen Ladder to Damascus, a film from the man the TIFF catalog calls "Syrian cinema's first auteur." The film begins with a camera confessional, as the protagonist laments living in a country that "demands everything" of him yet gives nothing. It's a major achievement that the film was made at all, and that achievement alone engenders tremendous respect. As the film unfolds, it becomes yet another tale of a boy infatuated with a girl played out against a historical backdrop that most want to be foregrounded. Malas can't really be blamed for how difficult it is to frame the backdrop of Syria for under-informed Western viewers, but the film ends up (by necessity perhaps) doing a lot more telling than showing.
There is always a certain danger in a straight male talking about gay-themed films: no matter how careful you are, a lack of enthusiasm will, in some rooms, be chalked up as understated homophobia. But the reasons I didn't much care for Kill Your Darlings—a portrait of the early days of the Beat generation, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg and Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs—had nothing to do with it being about gay men. (In particular, Harry Potter alum Radcliffe making waves by doing an explicit gay sex scene.)
The truth is, Darlings isn't really about much else. I've never been a huge fan of the Beat writers, but who could have imagined they were so dreadfully, pretentiously sophomoric in their quest to remake the world? There's something that feels just a little too hindsighted about the films representation of Lucien Carr's murder of David Kammerer, in which Burroughs and Radcliffe become embroiled. Maybe it is true that Kammerer was the all-in lover with emotional abandon and Carr the cowardly, self-hating manipulator who cried "sexual panic" and "honor killing" to save his skin. Given the fact that Carr was only fourteen when he met Kammerer, that the latter was over a decade older, and that the film glosses over Carr's attempted suicide at age eighteen, even a Wikipedia summary of the biography hints at more ambiguity and complexity than the film's sexual orientation side-taking allows.
Walesa. Man of Hope is a very different biopic than Darlings, but it, too, lacks thematic complexity. Robert Wieckiewicz's performance as the former Polish president is crazy-good, but the film's interview frame feels tired, without much rhyme or reason to when it cuts from present to past other than needing to break up a repetitive structure.