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Toronto, Day 2: Franco And Faulkner, Love, And A Steely Patricia Clarkson

Kylen Davis, James Franco and Loretta Devine in Franco's <em>The Sound And The Fury</em>.
Kylen Davis, James Franco and Loretta Devine in Franco's <em>The Sound And The Fury</em>.

The idea of a James Franco-directed adaptation of William Faulkner's The Sound And The Fury sounds like the setup for a bit on Funny Or Die, or maybe for the thing you'd have someone mention offhand in our satire about Hollywood. Franco does so many different things that he's almost killed any specific image he could possibly have, but you can say this for him: he tries things.

Trying to adapt The Sound And The Fury is an act of audacity across a variety of dimensions: the book's challenging structure, its literary status, its vulnerability to the muttered suggestion that here, Mr. Pineapple Express has – must have – bitten off more than he can chew. And in casting himself as Benjy, the severely disabled brother whose jumbled thoughts make up both the book's and the film's first sections, he has put himself in yet another bind. This is the kind of performance that wins awards, but also the kind that is often criticized as unpleasantly award-grubbing: Benjy communicates only in moans and in jangled thoughts delivered in a whispered voiceover, Franco outfits himself with prominent bad teeth, he drools, he keens.

Particularly in this first section, the one where Benjy is central, the film is trying to proceed by feel, with a sense of Benjy's out of order, often confused thinking. As it moves on to the sections centered on Benjy's brothers Quentin (Jacob Loeb) and Jason (Scott Haze), it becomes more linear, but still ultimately struggles with how much to explain and how much to suggest about the complicated dynamics between the boys and their sister Caddy (Ahna O'Reilly).

One of the struggles of the film is the treatment of the black people who work for the family. There's not a lot to the character of Dilsey (Loretta Devine) as she's portrayed here, and an abrupt visit to a black church near the end of the film with her and young Luster feels weirdly exploitative and out of place, because the work hasn't been done to place Benjy's relationships with Dilsey and Luster in any kind of context, so it just seems like a tacked-on portrait of black churches as ecstatic religious carnivals. Obviously, some of the issues of race in The Sound And The Fury come right out of the source material, but it does feel a bit like Franco punted on those issues, along with some of the bizarre gender dynamics surrounding Caddy's "purity."

Franco here feels a little bit like a very high-profile film student. The film certainly isn't lazy: it shows the influences of other things (particularly Terrence Malick), but there are some interesting choices. And that would be a perfectly fine verdict for someone who was still learning: trying things is good, having ideas is good, not everything works by any means, but that's how you get better.

It just doesn't feel quite fully cooked. Watching it, you feel a restless mind a little more than a firm hand.

Chen Daoming and Gong Li in <em>Coming Home</em>.
Chen Daoming and Gong Li in <em>Coming Home</em>.

A very firm hand, however, is felt in Zhang Yimou's Coming Home, a deft drama about a family torn up during China's Cultural Revolution and left to try years later to reassemble itself. Father Lu (Chen Daoming) is released from prison after many years away and returns to his wife Yu (the stunning Gong Li) and daughter Dandan (Huiwen Zhang), but all is not well. In a development reminiscent of classic melodrama, Yu, who's both aged and been traumatized during their separation, does not and cannot recognize him, and has begun to forget other things as well. (This is referred to in the film as a form of amnesia; it certainly looks like early dementia.)

There is a rhythm to Lu's efforts to reintroduce himself to his wife. He tries different things at different times, on different days – he desperately wants her love, and he knows she loves him. In fact, she speaks of him to him, of how much she's awaiting her husband's return home, and of how urgent it is that she be there to meet him. And Gong Li's acting challenge here is enormous: for most of the film, Yu believes things the audience knows not to be true, and her state of mind – watching her face for flickers of thoughts – creates the central tension.

It's a lovely and patient exploration of exactly what love is supposed to be like and look like: what does it mean to be with someone? What is the experience of knowing you are loved but being unable to receive it? Coming Home has one of the most profound and committed final shots I've seen in a very long time, in which it sets out its philosophy of love and marriage as completely as any cinematic clinch ever has.

Ruba Nadda's October Gale is what I would call a "fortress thriller," which goes something like this: you are isolated in a home or another place, your access to any help falls away one piece at a time, and when you are truly on your own, the danger arrives and you must fight.

In this case, Patricia Clarkson plays a recently widowed doctor who retreats to her family's cottage on an island in the Georgian Bay for some time alone with her grief. She's 45 minutes from the marina by boat, and on her trip to town, her boat has engine trouble and goes in for repairs. She makes her way back home, where she's got only a little boat with an outboard motor tied up at her dock. That night, a terrible storm approaches. Her cell phone reception goes out. And she soon finds a man named Will (Scott Speedman) who has washed up on shore after being shot.

Once she's put him back together, in the light of day when they are still trapped by the storm and still without contact with the outside world, it occurs to her that ... you know, this guy was shot, and apparently got away, and came to her house. That may not bode well. And indeed it does not, because she will before the film is over receive the worst possible news: a menacing figure played by Tim Roth is coming for this young man, and while she has a rifle, she doesn't have all that many bullets. And Tim Roth might require a lot of bullets.

There's a great and juicy pleasure in the methodical removal of options in a film like this: the boat goes, the storm comes, the phone dies. You know what you're getting. Plausibility is utterly irrelevant; it's a corker of a campfire story that, for once, has a woman in her fifties as its hero. I don't know that I'd say October Gale is achieving any particular level of cinematic greatness, and the ending seems rushed, but it's a solid delivery of a popular narrative that's been tweaked enough to be interesting and executed well enough to be a treat.

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