John’s TIFF Diary: Day Four

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Talented actress/director Sarah Polley disappoints with second film "Take This Waltz"

Sunday was a day of disappointments at the festival.  I mean serious letdowns, folks: one from a promising young lady experiencing a sophomore slump, the other a former world-class director who gave us something downright juvenile.

Take This Waltz (**) is the second feature from gifted actress/director/writer Sarah Polley and though she swears it is not autobiographical, she went through a divorce last year, has remarried and is three months pregnant with her first child.

After the masterpiece that was Away from Her (2007), Polley turns her camera on a much younger married couple this time, though no less troubled.  Where Away from Her gave us a palpable insight into the love that Grant (Gordon Pinsent) had for Fiona (Julie Christie), not once through Take This Waltz did I ever get a sense of that depth of love and devotion.

Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) tell each other that they love one another all the time, and play silly games that married couples supposedly play, but the entire marriage seems built on nothing more than these “games.”  These two live together but are in different worlds: he lives in his kitchen writing his cookbooks, she adrift in her own world of unhappiness and fantasies about the man she recently met who happens to live right across the street.

Impossibly handsome, an artist and a good listener, Daniel (Luke Kirby) and Margot have an immediate attraction to one another.  He tells her very bluntly that it will be up to her to act on their feelings because she is the one that is married.  Margot struggles with the feelings she has for Daniel, pushing her husband away at one point and pulling him close the next.  In fairness, when she needs him he does not return the affection, which seems to be their problem…they are simply not there for each other.

They goof around and have fun from time to time but beyond that they seem to have little in common.  Margot knows she is going to hurt Lou and believes she cannot help it.  To her, the attraction is something deep and primal and when it happens there is little anyone can do to stop it.  Any guy who has ever been Lou in real life will feel for him, and come to understand that it’s really no one’s fault…the heart wants what the heart wants.

Polley guides very strong performances from her actors; though the marriage is something I never believed or was emotionally invested in.  The entire thing seems to be built on these games, parties and people while they have no time with one another.  Even the sex is uninteresting, as they just look at one other, take off their clothes and go at it.  Great foreplay, right?  If the marriage has come to that then it is already over.  Why waste time on screen trying to make them appear precious and perfect for each other when they clearly are not?

Williams is very good in a role that does not cast her in the most likable light.  She pushes her husband away once too often and deceives him with Daniel, for even though nothing sexual happens, she wants it to, and it is going to happen at some point.  It is a deception I personally could never forgive.  The longing and desperation in Williams’ eyes is very real, and I understand the pain of her character, but why not just be honest to tell him everything?  Why humiliate him?

Seth Rogen, "Take This Waltz"

Seth Rogen does some of the most dramatic work of his career and the best of it comes in the film’s final scenes.  There is real pain as he realizes everything he thought he believed in was a lie.  Equally surprising was comedienne Sarah Silverman as Lou’s sister, a recovering alcoholic who realizes what is going on with Daniel and Margot perhaps before they even do.  There is a brave and telling moment Polley shot in a public shower at the local pool, which involves full-frontal nudity from the ladies in the cast.  We see Williams and Silverman showering but we also see the older ladies, in their sixties, naked and showering near them.  They actually become mirror images of the younger women as they listen in to the issues and offer the advice that new becomes old.  Indeed.

I desperately wanted to love this film, as I not only am rooting for Sarah Polley to be a successful filmmaker, but Lou’s situation was one that I experienced once.  No, we were not married…but we were headed in that direction and my lady won a cruise with her company and off she went into the tropics.  I was thrilled for her, but when I picked her up at the airport one week later I knew something was very wrong.  My suspicions were later confirmed, as she had met a guy on the ship and in two days they had fallen in love.  We were done.  She was going back to him and that was that.  Angry?  Sure.  Hurt?  You bet.  But more was my absolute trust of women going forward until I met Sherri, the absolute love of my life, who taught me that trust was essential in any relationship and she in for the long haul.  While I’m sure Polley understands that, she didn’t convey it very effectively here.

But that was only a minor disappointment compared to the next film on my schedule.  Twixt (*) was a crushing experience for me because I adore the early work of Francis Ford Coppola.  If there is a living legend of cinema in America it is him.  His four films in the 70’s are among the very best of the decade and perhaps of all time.  The Godfather: Part II (1974) is not only my personal favorite film of his but also my favorite of all time, followed by The Godfather (1972) and a little further down the list Apocalypse Now (1979) and then The Conversation (1974)…masterpieces all.  More than once I have heard that Coppola somehow lost his gifts as a director in the jungles of the Philippines while making his war epic.  Though he has made a few good films since like Rumble Fish (1983) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), the bad and the very weak far outweighs the good.

In recent years, Coppola no longer has major studios to finance his films as his winery has made him untold millions and erased whatever money issues he once had.  He can finance his own films as well as the films of his daughter with the incredible advantage of never needing to grovel to a studio for funds.

That’s all well and dandy, because had he brought the screenplay for Twixt to a major or even minor studio, he would have been laughed of their offices.  For me, seeing this film was like seeing the work of a film student still struggling to get cheesy and overbaked aesthetics out of their system, not a world-class director!  It’s a mess of a movie, not as bad as Jack (1996) but not far off the mark, either.

Francis Ford Coppola and "Twixt" proves to be a huge misfire.

 

Third-rate horror author Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) has arrived in a small town for a book signing.  If Sheriff Bobby LaGrange (the great Bruce Dern) is to be believed, there is a serial killer still roaming the streets of the town.  Hall thinks this would make a great story.  Visited by the ghost of a dead girl, she tells the writer what happened, and is next visited by Edgar Allan Poe (Ben Chaplin) who brings more details to the mix…sounding curiously like his work.

Coppola never makes up his mind if the place is haunted by ghosts or vampires, and after some woozily photographed dream sequences, we are no further ahead in figuring out the plot.

Some pretty good actors are terribly wasted here, including the great Bruce Dern as the nutty sheriff who knows more than he should about the killings.  I love Dern; his work in the 70’s was seminal screen acting, from being the saving grace of The Great Gatsby (1974), to his insane terrorist in Black Sunday (1977) through to his haunted Vietnam vet in Coming Home (1978).  Dern has lately been seen on HBO’s Big Love and I loved that Coppola was willing to give the man a role.  I just wish the role had been better.  Val Kilmer looks confused most of the time, perhaps wondering what his agent got him into or where the Coppola of years gone by had become.  The wonderful Elle Fanning is just wasted in a weak moment that goes nowhere.

Twixt is, in short, a disaster that isn’t even bad in a fun way.  Do yourself a favor and skip this one to preserve the memory of when Coppola was a master.