Letter from Toronto: Coppola's Twixt Is Stubborn Old-Coot Filmmaking; Stillman's Damsels Hardly Dazzles

Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt is kind of stupid and kind of amazing, a horror movie-fairytale hybrid with an inscrutable plot, some gorgeous images and two brief sections shot in 3-D. This isn't the great film Coppola's devotees have been waiting for him to make. But it's infused with more of Coppola's spirit, as we know it, than Youth Without Youth and Tetro, both of which were sluggish and self-serious. Twixt is a bit of a mess, but it's also joyful and wicked, with a great, roly-poly sense of humor about itself. In its imaginative WTF-ness, it reminds me of Bob Dylan's gloriously whacked-out Masked and Anonymous, just the sort of thing you'd expect a crackpot genius left to his own devices to make.

Val Kilmer plays washed-up horror novelist Hall Baltimore, who, when he arrives in the small town of Swan Valley to hawk his new book, discovers that the local bookstore is actually a corner's worth of shelves in the hardware store. Local sheriff Bobby La Grange (an extra-grizzly Bruce Dern) drops by to say "hi" and to ask Hall how it feels to be "the bargain-basement Stephen King." But he also, it turns out, may have an idea for Hall's next book: Down at the morgue, he's got the body of a young woman with a stake through her heart. Plus, this is a town where strange and horrible things have been known to happen. You know this because there's a clock tower with seven faces, each one showing a different time. Plus, Tom Waits steps in occasionally to narrate the thing.

And there are ghosts here for sure, which Hall encounters in his sleep: Edgar Allen Poe (a perfectly cast Ben Chaplin) knocks around giving writing tips; husband-and-wife motel managers harbor weird secrets under their floorboards (and she treats us to a rousingly creepy rendition of "Big Rock Candy Mountain," a bit of goth-Americana that would have been right at home in Masked and Anonymous); and, most notably, an adolescent ghost shimmers through the landscape in a white dress, her eyes rimmed in red, braces flashing on her possible vampire teeth. Her name is Virginia (she's played by a luminous Elle Fanning) and she could be one of the potential victims of a local child murderer; or she could be Poe's long-lost cousin/wife; or she could be a stand-in for Hall's own daughter, whom he lost in a boating accident (a detail that's hard to parse in this otherwise purely fanciful film, given that Coppola lost his own son in a boating accident).

You're probably wondering how all this comes together. The answer is, it kind of doesn't. And the real-life sections of the movie are something of a drag, a bit too much of Bruce Dern shaking his wattles for my taste. But the dream sequences -- if they actually are dreams, that is -- are gorgeous to look at, rendered in satiny black-and-white with spots of significant color (blood red, lemon yellow) painted in. And Coppola's method of signaling the audience when it's time to put on the glasses is both silly and brilliant in its straightforwardness.

Twixt is a mess, plotwise, but it's hardly torture to watch. And Coppola -- who, it's worth remembering, got his start with schlock king Roger Corman -- seems to be having a good time instead of just trying to impress us with his artiste schtick. How can we deny him? Twixt isn't the return of the great master, but it's a fine example of stubborn old-coot filmmaking. Coppola does what he wants, how he wants. He sells no wine before its time -- only when he's good and ready.

damsels_distress_tiff300.jpgAnother old-timer of sorts returns to Toronto this year: Whit Stillman, who hasn't made a film since The Last Days of Disco in 1998, is now back with Damsels in Distress, an arch and vacant little comedy that follows a clique of young college women through their ho-hum romantic travails.

The characters, and the movie itself, seem lost in time, which may be part of the point: Greta Gerwig, as the somewhat unstable leader of the girls' clique, favors full skirts and ballet slippers, like a '50s debutante. Stillman's camera seems to appreciate Gerwig's preternaturally honest, questioning face. But he doesn't know what to do with her gangly-graceful physical and comic timing -- too often she just seems stilted and awkward. Analeigh Tipton (recently seen in Crazy, Stupid, Love.) fares a little better -- she's the most appealing of the bunch. But the movie is confused and wayward, featuring slapdash musical numbers for no good reason other than to try to inject a shot of much-needed romantic charm. The vaccine doesn't take.

Read more of Stephanie Zacharek's 2011 Toronto International Film Festival coverage here.



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