Getting Into a Tiff

Hey, ho--let's go! The "Mexican Ramones" of Larry Clark's 'Wassup Rockers'

Toronto, Ontario--

The vibe among the press corps at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year was ever so slightly underwhelmed, which might seem like the height of ingratitude given the 250-plus features on view, the oodles of celebrities and high-wattage auteurs. This most congenial and relaxed of major festivals even got its very own quasi-bidding war, with Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics both claiming to have purchased the distribution rights to the Big Tobacco satire Thank You for Smoking. (Fox Searchlight carried the day, for a cool $7 million.) The flat affect among the scribblers probably had much to do with the low batting average among the name directors with premieres, including Laurent Cantet's wan Vers le sud (with Charlotte Rampling on queen-bitch autopilot as a sex tourist in '70s Haiti) and Neil Jordan's desultory Breakfast on Pluto (starring Cillian Murphy as a transgender Candide). Takeshi Kitano's glib greatest-hits compilation Takeshis' amounted to the actor-director giggling into his own reflection while shooting everyone in sight, and Danis Tanovic, Oscar winner for No Man's Land, made a puzzling foray into baroque French melodrama with L'Enfer (Hell), which sifts through the wreckage of a primal family catastrophe.

Speaking of hell, John Hillcoat's convincingly infernal The Proposition, scripted by murder balladeer Nick Cave, won a significant fan base for its vicious Western classicism; though the net effect is akin to The Outback Chainsaw Massacre, the movie demands esteem for its uncompromising vision of Victorian Australia as a scorched-earth nesting ground for insects and sociopaths. Just as unpretty, Terry Gilliam's second film to premiere this year, the exhausting Tideland, drops a modern Alice in a trash-palace Wonderland, where her fecund fantasy world provides a necessary escape hatch from the mounting squalor and horror of her waking life; sadly, this isn't the comeback that Gilliam's fans have so eagerly awaited.

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe memorably recorded Gilliam's filmmaking travails in Lost in La Mancha, and here unveiled their first fiction feature, the mostly serious mockumentary Brothers of the Head, adapted from the Brian Aldiss novel about conjoined siblings-turned-sex-symbol rock stars. Painfully attuned to the with-or-without-you claustrophobia of profound intimacy, the film is borne aloft by its firestarting soundtrack--an exhilarating, note-perfect melding of mod, glam, and punk--and by the insolent beauty and astonishing stage magnetism of Luke and Harry Treadaway as the tragic glimmer twins.

Brothers of the Head provided an off-road alternative to the seasonal onslaught of biopics (ranging from the accomplished Capote to the endearing cheesefest Walk the Line, with Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash). So did Guy Maddin's 16-minute "My Dad Is 100 Years Old," a centenary tribute to Roberto Rossellini written by his daughter, Isabella, who also plays all the roles--including David O. Selznick, Federico Fellini, and a flying Charlie Chaplin--and provides the voice of her father, who's depicted as a large talking belly. Shot in storm-cloud black-and-white, "My Dad" is at once sweet, cerebral, funny, mournful (for both Dad and cinema itself), and a little chilling--not least when Isabella-as-Isabella comes face to face with Isabella-as-Ingrid Bergman's image on a vast screen ("Mama!"), which in turn rouses the angry feline ghost of "La Lupa" herself, Anna Magnani. Another biographical film of sorts, Michael Winterbottom's hilarious career peak Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story tackles Laurence Sterne's famously unadaptable The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Winterbottom turns a novel about writing a novel into, naturally, a movie about making a movie, while stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon offer a joint master class in droll ping-pong banter amid the meta-narrative acrobatics.

High-intensity filmgoing always produces odd recurrences, and TIFF attendees were treated to versions of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" by both Coogan and Shirley Henderson in A Cock and Bull Story and by Zooey Deschanel in Winter Passing, though surely the indelible musical moment in Adam Rapp's serviceable family-dysfunction drama was Will Ferrell's riveting dive-bar rendition of the Eagles' "I Can't Tell You Why." An enchanting interlude of Philippe Garrel's Les amants réguliers (Regular Lovers) likewise deploys a potentially Proustian pop artifact in a group-dance scene scored to the Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow." Garrel's leisurely, bittersweet revisitation of May '68 and its discontents, which won him the directing prize at Venice, is itself something of a pensive answer-song to Bertolucci's silly sexfest The Dreamers, especially in casting one of that film's stars--Garrel's look-alike son Louis--in the lead role.

The unofficial theme song of TIFF '05 was indisputably "Linda, Linda" by the Japanese '80s punk band the Blue Hearts: You could overhear people humming the title tune for days after the press screening of Nobuhiro Yamashita's rousing and hugely loveable Linda Linda Linda, wherein an all-girl cover band charges down the bumpy road to their high school talent contest fronted by the lanky, huge-eyed Son (Bae Doona), a Korean exchange student whose uninhibited cool-dork charisma could give the Treadaway twins pause. Ambling amiably toward a finale as legitimately inspirational as The School of Rock's, Linda Linda Linda also makes the best incessant use of a diabolically catchy tune since Wong Kar-wai put "California Dreamin'" on a loop for Chungking Express.

One of Son's bandmates dreams that the Ramones come to see them play; the Latino skateboard enthusiasts of Larry Clark's Wassup Rockers also receive a punk seal of approval when they stumble onto a ritzy pool party and a scenester coos, "They're like the Mexican Ramones!" Clark's tight-knit ensemble of South Central teens rollick through Beverly Hills in pursuit of horny girls and the choicest urban skating arenas, falling afoul of the police, territorial rich kids, and an armed and dangerous Clint Eastwood look-alike. Wassup Rockers captures all the tenderness and cockeyed humor of Clark's sorely unappreciated Ken Park, but it's mostly wiped clean of the director's usual shock tactics and sundry bodily fluids; the movie's goofball humanism is crystallized when one of the kids grabs a racist cop's sandwich and issues a grave threat: "Let us go or I'm gonna eat your lunch."

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