Sunday, September 18, 2011

TIFF - Day 11

Some quick hits, written on the airport shuttle, to finish up the fest:

Twixt (Francis Ford Coppola)

Equal parts idiotic and idiosyncratic, one wonders how this Twin Peaks knockoff could possibly be a personal film for Coppola until one recalls that the dude made Dementia 13. This is very stupid stuff, graced with a visual style that is roughly akin to an outdated computer game. As a mystery, it’s fairly sloppy, essentially content to let the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe show up and explain the whole thing. Perhaps in having the protagonist exercise his personal demons through the resolution of this mystery, Coppola’s making some sort of statement about auteurs who produce termite art, but really that is a tenuous thing to hold a goofy ass movie like this on. Scattered moments of fun here and there (e.g. Elle Fanning’s teen vampire with braces), but really nothing that would merit any attention at all were it from a less famous director.

Rating: 39/100

The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr)

Fairly amazing, though it might help that Sjostrom’s The Wind is one of my all-time favorite films. Tarr distills his already spare style down even further, producing minute variations on already spare elements (potato cooking, wagon dragging, trips to the well). Cumulatively, they create a powerful statement on a state of life that seems to be wavering between resignation and perseverance. The sequence shots here are rather incredible (talk about a movie that makes you contend with its space!), and the horse wins my TIFF award for Best Actor (Sorry, Mr. Shannon).

Rating: 87/100

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh)

Almost more powerful for being so undercooked, this formally accomplished drama charts the various levels of exploitation that a young, disaffected girl exposes herself to. Leigh’s singlemindedness keeps a firm POV from emerging on this material, and that elusiveness helps to draw us in and endure the various tortures inflicted upon our young heroine. Though there seems to be no doubt that Emily Browning did precisely what was asked of her, there’s probably some missed potential here in offering a fuller portrait of this girl. I am not sure that platitudes were the answer, but more understanding of attitudes would be appreciated. This may be an “art film” first and a “good film” second, but I found its surfaces seductive enough.

Rating: 66/100

TIFF - Day 10

Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)

This is definitely guilty of playing like “Shakespeare for Dummies” at times since Fiennes is trying as hard as humanly possible to make sure we can follow the plot here. News reports, captions, protest signs, and big bold titles are used to make characters’ relationships blindingly clear. Numerous action scenes are included, with violent gunfights and bloody knife brawls frequently staged. It’s as if the film has been conceived out of a prevailing fear that we might lose interest otherwise. The original play is about war, to be sure, but something about the shift to contemporary trappings makes some of this stuff seem a tad desperate. Nonetheless, most of the drama works very well. A long scene in which public sentiment is swayed toward and then away from Fiennes’ Coriolanus is genuinely stirring. Brian Cox’s attempts to find ethics in politics make for good drama. The highlight, without a doubt, is Vanessa Redgrave’s performance. As a mother who has groomed her son to be a noble soldier, she is an indomitable presence, and her closing monologue is a Shakespearean screen turn for the ages. Gerard Butler, predictably, is a deficit, but he’s mostly asked to serve as a punching bag.

Rating: 60/100

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding (Bruce Beresford)

This is a dopey generation gap comedy, in which three generations of women come to better appreciate one another as they spend a week or so in a hippie grandma’s Woodstock abode. The title is an apt description for what lies within this rather routine film. Beresford could make something like this in his sleep, and apparently does here. There are charms to be had (Fonda is initially engaging, until it becomes apparent she has no character to play, Elizabeth Olsen also has been given next to no character, but genuinely inhabits her role) Women, I think are the target audience here (there are several male butts on display, but no female nudity), which is fine, but it seems curious that the most inspired segment comes at the hands of the leading male character. Near the end of the film, a teen who is an aspiring documentary filmmaker debuts his first work. Suddenly the narrative elements of this very conventional work are reconfigured into Love in Woodstock, an experimental (if somewhat crude) film within the film that probably sheds more light on the rhythms and conflicts in these relationships than all of the script’s clichéd dialogue combined.

Rating: 42/100

Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)

Filled with gorgeous moments and wryly observed condemnations about those of us who pretend to be happy, this is a strong, second-tier von Trier effort. The much-discussed opening, in which planets seem to kiss and the world ends beautifully, sets a breathlessly romantic tone that is immediately given a challenge by the bulk of the film’s depressed handheld camerawork. While I am somewhat underwhelmed by the depth of ideas here (Woody Allen has played the same take on depression for laughs with arguably greater profundity… not that Lars isn’t after a few laughs here…), there is still a great deal to admire. The performances, not just from Cannes prize-winner Dunst, but from the entire ensemble, are excellent. The juxtaposition of intimacy and scale becomes bewildering in itself. Throughout, the attempt to achieve normalcy seems desperate, driving home the film’s thesis. The ending, which sees the image utterly wiped away, is perfect.

Rating: 76/100

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)

An adaptation of Rattigan’s play, I suppose, but Davies more than makes it his own. We can tell we’re in his territory when, before the credits even give way to image, we’ve already experienced a ticking clock, a persistent rainstorm, and the promise of a suicide. This is a real “movie movie”, in which kitsch lacquered in nostalgia somehow becomes almost overwhelmingly heartfelt. There are several sequences here that left me breathless. By chopping up Rattigan’s text, the film enhances the potency of what remains. These three pathetic characters are equally tragic, all cursed by a present tinged with too much nostalgia. The frankly carnal nature of the central drama keeps things from ever feeling too staid. Probably underrating this.

Rating: 79/100

Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia)

Albert Nobbs is “such a kind little man,” except that he’s a woman in disguise in this curio of a film. Glenn Close plays the titular character in an intensely interior manner that seems somewhat at odds with the superficial tone of the film at large. Any iota of intelligence that’s here can be found in her performance, but even still, it’s not really a film that’s aiming for intelligence. Take genders out of the equation here, and you’re left with a simple plot, worthy of a silent melodrama. There’s a strange resistance here to presenting Nobbs as a proto-feminist, which should probably be viewed as an asset. Strangely, though, Nobbs’ quest for money and survival becomes her defining characteristic, which would probably be more compelling if she were not so completely “soft in the head.” A strange film, anchored by a strange performance that’s so tightly contained that it scarcely counts as a double role.

Rating: 50/100

Kill List (Ben Wheatley)

Essentially a British variation on the Tarantino-scripted From Dusk Till Dawn, with little of the verve that made that something of a classic. A large part of the problem here is that Wheatley’s improvisations cannot possibly compare to Tarantino’s meticulously crafted speeches. What we end up with is a film that is one-third kitchen-sink drama, one-third hitman saga, and one-third a brush with the occult. These three segments flow into one another less than holistically (indeed, a late-breaking flashback montage tries to cobble it all together), making the final act’s left-field twist seem rather dumb. The only thing that sustains the trajectory is a slowly building sense of non-specific dread. Conceptually clever, and not terrible by any means, but not well-executed.

Rating: 49/100

Saturday, September 17, 2011

TIFF - Day 9

Outside Satan (Bruno Dumont)

Dumont exerts his mastery on an open-ended narrative here, gradually turning narrative withholding into spiritual mystery. Though familiar territory for the director, he’s as good as anyone as working in this post-Bressonian mode. The light application of miracles inserted into a few hours of mundane human drama makes for a powerful, almost metaphysical, viewing experience. This is an achingly physical film, filled with repetitive, labored trudges across the French marshes, yet its meanings all seem to lie just outside of our earthly realm. Call it the anti-Ordet, if you will, but this is a deeply uncanny and unsettling film. It’s as if Dumont is retelling a myth about good and evil with no clear idea where the lines between the two lie.

Rating: 68/100

Habemus Papum (Nanni Moretti)

This starts charmingly as a gentle, middlebrow sendup of the Papal selection process, but it indisputably runs off the rails by its midpoint. Moretti, something of a footnote in his own film, plays a psychiatrist tasked with assessing the mental state of the reluctant new Pope (Michel Piccoli). Unfortunately, the Pope quickly flees the Vatican, and the film becomes as unmoored as its subject. Endless scenes involving a volleyball game between the Cardinals and the new Pope’s obsession with Chekov miss their satiric marks entirely, making what was a novel comedy turn into drudgery. Potent in a few moments (e.g. the Pope’s confession, “I’m an actor” hits with blunt force), but far too diffuse to sustain any comedy. I suppose Moretti is attempting to critique the Catholic Church’s disconnect from the real world, by focusing on a process that shows its leaders in a state of self-imposed exile, but any coherent theme is lost among the digressions.

Rating: 49/100

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)

I wasn’t entirely sold on Nichols’ Shotgun Stories, but this second feature, which sees him switching inspiration from Greek tragedy to Biblical parable, suggests a second look is in order. Michael Shannon, giving a superb performance reminiscent of Robert Duvall’s best, plays a man convinced by his nightmares that a judgment day of sorts is coming. We’re made privy to his hallucinations, and Shannon’s work makes us aware of the tragic consequences that ensue when a man of action has to respond to a situation that he can’t fix with his hands. I am a sucker for male melodrama, and this worked me over. Scenes, such as the one in which we see the protagonist arrive at his counselor having already done his homework are heartbreakers. Indeed, the very premise, in which we are asked to watch a family disintegrate merely out of an obsessive desire to protect said family, is potent stuff.

Rating: 77/100

Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine)

This is a by the numbers British kitchen sink melodrama with unusually ferocious performances from its three leads. Surely an “actors’ movie” first and foremost, it’s somewhat disappointing then that only Mullan seems to craft a full-blooded characterization. The overall trajectory toward hard-won redemption feels somewhat forced and Considine’s tendency toward brief scenes seems like a shame. I would love to see these actors froth at the mouth in Mike Leigh-length shots. There are some nice details in the set design (the protagonist’s apartment is decorated with broken Hummel figurines and the photograph clearly removed from a shattered frame), but this is essentially a two-note film, alternating between redemption and confrontation, working the audience over ruthlessly with animal abuse and rapes.

Rating: 55/100

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold)
While the qualifications here as an adaptation of the novel are certainly questionable (it’s missing the second half, for starters), I found plenty to groove on here aesthetically. Maybe credit must go to cinematographer Robbie Ryan, but this feels as if Philippe Grandrieux got a hold on the Bronte work. The first half of the film, especially, rubs our noses in nature and the abuse that Heathcliff faces. While the plot rears its head more explicitly in the second hour and the older actors are outclassed by the younger, on a visual level things remain rather intoxicating all the same.

Rating: 75/100

Friday, September 16, 2011

TIFF - Day 8

That Summer (Philippe Garrel)

My basic opinion that if you’ve seen one recent Garrel film you’ve seen them all might have been something of an asset here. Indeed, all of the director’s familiar tropes (suicide, infidelity, film sets, Louis Garrel, etc…) are present and accounted for here. Perhaps this is why this film, notably the only one I’ve seen so far at this year’s festival that garnered no post-screening applause whatsoever, didn’t strike me as being particularly bad. Indeed, I found plenty to appreciate here, no matter how predictable its overall tale of doomed love might be. Garrel always verges on self-parody (e.g. after finding out his girlfriend is pregnant, a man tells her “No more suicide attempts, ok?”), but that’s because his movies are delivered with such absurd conviction. He keeps returning to the same well, but that repetition makes his movies feel more heartfelt. This one struck me as being surprisingly bracing, with an effective high-wire performance from Monica Belluci. The inevitability of the relationships’ demise gifts them with a real romantic pulse rarely achieved in this sort of drama.

Rating: 58/100

Breathing (Karl Markovics)

Issues of guilt, death and abandonment are looked at from the point of view of an apprentice undertaker in Karl Markovics’ uninspiring debut Breathing. Though things begin well enough, introducing us to an 18-year old protagonist in a spare, seemingly accomplished style, as soon as Markovics begins to integrate narrative elements, things go awry. The lead character is entirely too passive to suggest any sort of interior activity. His on-the-job interactions are meant to demonstrate his overriding reticence in dealing with other people, I suppose, but they could just as easily be indicators of ineptitude. When he begins to seek out his estranged mother, things get even worse. A horribly misjudged series of scenes (including an extended trip to Ikea) reveal an entirely conventional narrative core, which eventually overrides any formal concerns.

Rating: 35/100

Terrafirma (Emanuele Crialese)

Crialese works in a familiar register here, with this contemporary story set on the isle of Linosa coming across as a companion piece to his Golden Door. After an extended opening which establishes the rhythms of the lives of the local fisherman, the film takes up the issue of illegal immigration. Instead of becoming didactic, though, he keeps things allegorical, firmly grounded in the experience of the island’s people. The pre-existent “law of the sea” is the best argument given against the Italian government’s laws against aiding and abetting illegal immigrants. The tourists, who come to the island hoping to shutter out any social realities, are stand-ins for the Italian populace at large. Though I wish I got more of a sense of the family’s emotional issues (the father figure who disappeared at sea seems like he should be a more glaring absence), there is plenty of great imagery on display here and a humanist perspective that genuinely comes through.

Rating: 57/100

Michael (Markus Schleinzer)

A fairly stupid, intensely empty-headed movie about a pedophile with a boy stashed in his basement. I’m not sure if the intended effect here was to shock or to create black comedy, but the film fails to work on either front. The supposed formal rigor that was attributed to the film at Cannes turns out to be superficial at best, delivering neither a sense of routine nor a deadening repetition of events. Schleinzer’s mock-rigor is about as convincing as the mock-shock that the film feigns in its exploration of its seedy subject matter. The last fifteen minutes, or so, in which we sit through misplaced suspense about the fate of the captured boy, expose the film as the cheap stunt that it is.

Rating: 30/100

The Day (Doug Aarniokoski)

A strange post-apocalyptic action film. Taking place almost entirely in one location, the first half is something of a chamber drama, in which (poorly acted) characters bemoan the state of humanity. Just as things begin to look what everyone feared when we learned that McCarthy’s “The Road” was being brought to the screen, Aarniokoski drops any pretenses and turns this into a home invasion thriller. As the cast fends off a group of largely anonymous cannibals and fight among itself, the film finds itself in familiar, yet acceptable, territory. Fans of this sort of thing will no doubt be pleased with the level of gore and sadism here. The obviously low budget is worn well.

Rating: 51/100

Thursday, September 15, 2011

TIFF - Day 7

Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)

Perhaps the overbearing film festival climate is to blame, but this light, witty comedy from the usually sophisticated Stillman hit a sweet spot for me. Set at a traditionally females-only east coast private university, the film follows a group of young women who are hilariously earnest in their “outreach” efforts to the local male population. Volunteering at the campus suicide prevention clinic and dating far beneath their means are their most notable acts of charity, and their unorthodox methods of helping (donuts, hygiene tips) provide many of the laughs here. Like Stillman’s past films, self-imposed social rules and standards are exploredS, and while this might not be his most insightful work, it’s quite possibly his most consistently funny. The characters here always threaten to become caricatures, but deftly avoid true glibness, giving the film the feel of a high-wire act that favorably recalls Heckerling’s Clueless. It’s disconnected from reality, but in a pleasing way. The cast is excellent, with Gerwig the note-perfect standout.

Rating: 74/100

Like Crazy (Drake Doremus)

Not sure what this was going for exactly. With a zillion snippets of conversation, it recounts several years in the mundane romance of two young college students who run into visa trouble. The toll that distance takes on their on-again, off-again relationship is anything but revelatory, and you would think that director Doremus would isolate more distinctive moments from their lives if he was going to chop them up like this. Instead, we get an infinite number of shots of the two inadequate leads sulking and absurdly stupid moments like the one in which she breaks the bracelet he gave her (inscribed “Patience”!) while having sex with another man. Neither of these lousy actors seems to have much of a character to play, and audiences who keep waiting for their tale to develop into something that works on a deeper level will be doing so in vain. Pretty unlikeable.

Rating: 42/100

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel)

There’s a thin line between creating a pervasive atmosphere and dragging one’s feet, and I think Justin Kurzel, in his debut film, falls on the wrong side of it. This true-crime story of what is apparently Australia’s worst series of serial killings, is told entirely from the perspective of the perpetrators, who acted in a small group. This gambit ensures that Snowtown is exceedingly seedy and capable of taking audiences into a dark place, but I found myself largely undisturbed by it. There’s little effort to focus on psychology here, as the film seems more caught up in procedure. The most surprising moments come as we see these people make a clear demarcation between the evils of, say, child molestation (many of their victims were homosexuals and pederasts) and the apparent acceptability of torturing people to death. Things are definitely not sensationalized here, as events are neither played for thrills nor turned into opportunities for lyricism. This gives Snowtown some hard-earned grit, but perhaps costs it perspective on the events that it depicts.

Rating: 47/100

Pariah (Dee Rees)

One suspects that the fluke success of Precious is desired for this well-acted and well-shot but predictable coming out drama. This is a far less singular effort, to be sure, which might be seen as an asset for those who found the histrionics of Daniels’ film to be a bit too much. In my view, as well done as it is and as vividly as it realizes its Brooklyn setting, Pariah’s decision to focus on its teenage protagonist’s anxieties and sensual experiences comes at a price. The film seems content to view the girl as a lesbian first and an emerging mind (she’s a straight A student) only as an afterthought. A better film would have paid more mind to her intellectual coming out. There’s little doubt here that the resilient young Alike will find her way in life, which limits the potency of the drama somewhat. Still, well done, if precisely what one would expect it to be.

Rating: 53/100

Kotoko (Shinya Tsukamoto)

A true mindfuck, this maternal drama is recognizable as the product of the director who brought us Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Tsukamoto uses an extremely loud soundtrack, vibrating camerawork, superimpositions and double vision in an attempt to approximate the mind of his mad heroine. A new, single mother, who soon has her child taken away from her, Kotoko’s waking hours are spent imagining horrible fates that might befall her child (many of which the director makes real). Her reclusive nature makes the film recall Polanski’s Repulsion, to be sure, but this is a more extreme (if less subtle) vision of madness. Gory scenes in which Kotoko cuts herself are interspersed throughout the narrative, and fantasies often threaten to take over, leaving us uncertain of where reality lies. This portrait of a modern-day Medea is a largely uncompromising vision of madness, taken farther than many viewers will like, but it’s been made with enough horrible conviction that it becomes tough to shake.

Rating: 69/100

Lovely Molly (Eduardo Sanchez)

In many respects this deliberately paced spiritual successor to Blair Witch is a tired retread of an overdone conceit. Still, I found it to be a somewhat unsettling viewing experience, so there must be something done right here. The narrative here is a simple tale of possession in which a recovering drug addict/abuse victim returns to the home where her dead father assaulted her. The gradual encroachment of madness here gives the film a deliberate pacing that really doesn’t pay off, but the sheer unpleasantness of Molly’s slow decline was enough to make the film work for me. Sanchez’s mixture of conventionally shot scenes and those done in the first person works well, and the film often manages to feel creepier than it has any right to, given how stupid it all feels by the time it’s ended.

Rating: 50/100

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TIFF - Day 6

Faust (Alexander Sokoruv)

Beginning with a graphic vivisection, Sokoruv’s Faust initially suggests a radical shakeup of Goethe’s text. It really isn’t one. The script here modifies the details of the original plot (indeed, the pact with the Devil is only signed in the final reel), but its spirit is true to Goethe’s play. Faust and the Devil travel about a German town and the surrounding areas (the scope here is smaller than the play or the Murnau adaptation), discussing the human condition. It’s engaging enough from moment to moment, and the central plot involving Faust’s romantic/guilty feelings toward a girl in the town is well-executed, but I was a bit too tired to get a firm appreciation of the picture as a whole. Stylistically, we seem to be in Terry Gilliam’s territory as much as Sokoruv’s. Fisheye lenses and other visual distortions abound, and the performance style seems as likely to irritate as draw empathy at any given moment. Various gross-outs, such as a dying homunculus or the Devil’s grotesque, seemingly cancerous body help to keep interest from flagging.

Rating: 59/100

Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton)

This confirms that my previous walkout of Shelton’s Humpday was the right call. She’s an incredibly inept director, barely elevating this “script” to the realm of bad theater, despite the fact that it asks next to nothing of her. The cast, each of them terrible in their own ways, struggle through awkward, overextended improv sessions, hoping to give some sort of energy to a plot that deserves no respect whatsoever (a man with a crush on an unattainable girl sleeps with her lesbian sister, only to discover than she’s loved him all along). There are too many clumsy establishing shots, a supremely embarrassing montage near the end, and an absurdly pat resolution to the idiotic premise. Certainly proof that extremely talky movies need not be extremely smart or clever.

Rating: 26/100

W.E. (Madonna)

As hopelessly self-absorbed as one would expect a movie directed by Madonna to be. Still, this is a competently, if conventionally made romantic drama with some real flashes of wit (e.g. She says, “You certainly know the way to a woman’s heart.” He replies, “I wasn’t aiming that high.”). Two plotlines are juxtaposed here, usually with clanking obviousness. The first details the trouble marriages of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), including her “fairy tale” romance with Prince Edward. The second, set in 1998, sees a woman named after her (Abbie Cornish) gain some degree of self-sufficiency through spending her husband’s money at an auction of Wallis’ estate. The fundamental premise here is so privileged that the script’s pleas to look at what was given up for fame and love seem destined to fall on deaf ears. Still, I found this glossy, enjoyable, and surprisingly unembarrassed by its melodrama. I’m sure to be in the minority, but I’d take this over The King’s Speech and its portrayal of monarch-as-underdog any day.

Rating: 48/100

The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

This seems to be, like many (if not all) Dardenne movies, a parable about forgiveness and unconditional love. In it, a troubled child finds himself systematically abandoned by adults, with the exception of a veritable stranger with no obligation to him. Her acts of kindness and capacity for forgiveness seem to approximate a state of grace here, and the suspense in this film seems to come from whether or not the boy whom she loves will recognize this miracle when faced with it. While I felt that this overtly Bressonian plotline was somewhat tidy, the details that comprise it are frequently striking. There are many heartbreaking scenes here, such as those involving the boy’s father (Jeremie Renier, very well cast) and the bravura tracking shots which show the boy racing somewhere… anywhere on the titular bike. The confrontations between characters here are especially well done, achieving a raw ferocity rarely seen outside of Pialat. Simple, but rather certain of what it is setting out to accomplish, which makes it feel like a breath of fresh air.

Rating: 67/100

ALPS (Yorgos Lanthimos)

ALPS, in which a group of people offer to stand in for recently deceased family members, is so much in the vein of Dogtooth that one wonders if Lanthimos is already running out of tricks. One could assemble a checklist of similarities between Dogtooth and ALPS (e.g. pop-culture non-sequitirs, awkward, overly precise dialogue, a plot involving a secret outside culture’s brush with a “normal” world that is only slightly less outré, rehearsals that seem to eradicate personal identity, etc…) and when finished with the exercise, it would be very difficult to see what makes ALPS distinctive, indeed. Is this just a cynical bid for auteur status, or do these motifs have more to offer? For most viewers, it seems that getting more of the same has been somewhat disappointing. Dogtooth struck the international film community as the product of a unique voice, but at the same time there’s not much else like ALPS, outside of its predecessor (and Attenberg, I suppose). Trying to appraise this on its own terms, one suspects it’s trying to say something about the codedness of human interactions and our intense desire for familiarity. Lanthimos’ tricks still work, but this is generally a calmer, more sedate film than Dogtooth, which means its impact is reduced as well.

Rating: 58/100

The Moth Diairies (Mary Harron)

Like a teen drama that crawled off of the WB network, Mary Harron’s mostly inoffensive lesbian vampire tale is never as salacious as you want it to be. Indeed, things are so calm here at times that the overall vibe is closer to a Harry Potter movie than anything. In this movie, girls creep around a boarding school, suspecting that the latest addition to their roster might be a vampire. By midway through the film the mystery has its answer, and there’s little left for the viewer to do. Frequent invocations of Le Fanu’s Carmilla only underscore how unoriginal this is. One hopes that some interesting subtext will emerge here, but given the extreme frankness of the film in dealing with lesbianism, there’s really nothing left for the vampire myth to disguise.

Rating: 37/100

Sleepless Night (Frederic Jardin)

A straightforward police thriller with a focused plotline and an inspired locale, Sleepless Night stands out from most Midnight Madness selections. The plot, involving a police officer who is trying to rescues his son from drug dealers, doesn’t get in the way of the action, or slow down the film past the first fifteen minutes. Instead of a series of outrageous set pieces, Jardin delivers a consistently exciting tone here, with tension about the officer’s success riding high throughout. This cop is no superhuman with crazy kung-fu at his disposal, which actually raises suspense levels. The bulk of the film is set inside “Le Tarmac,” a sprawling nightclub. It’s a wonderful decision that helps to erase the sense of contrivance inherent in most action films. Worth seeking out.

Rating: 56/100

TIFF Day 5 - Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Incident

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Pretty much what the positive advance buzz suggested it would be, this drama about an escapee from a cult/commune plays more like a horror film. Each cut threatens to find our heroine (Elizabeth Olsen, very solid) trapped back on the proverbial ranch, which lends the entire film a deeply unsettling feel. Olsen’s performance is largely non-verbal, but her nervous tics and constant backward glances make her anxiety palpable. “Fear… makes you truly present,” one character states, and that couldn’t feel more appropriate than in this film where the past is so ferocious that it threatens to overtake the present at any given moment. I’m less sold on the interactions in the present. The “real” family here behaves somewhat less than plausibly at times, some of the parallels between past and present are too tidy, and these scenes are often perfunctory opportunities for Olsen to spazz out (I imagine this stuff could make for a singularly fucked up sitcom). Still, a wonder of sustained tension that really helps viewers to understand how traumatic this type of trauma must be.

Rating: 69/100

The Incident (Alexandre Courtes)
Dismal. Four bandmates in a heavy metal band (for no reason whatsoever are they in a heavy metal band) take a day job at the local insane asylum. During a blackout, the patients rebel, taking down the hospital staff. Half of the run time here takes place before the run-time, and it’s excruciatingly slow-paced. After darkness falls, the film only offers a series of scenes in which people run around in the dark hitting one another (you’d be hard pressed to tell one character apart from another here). The last fifteen minutes are finally gruesome and mildly effective, but it’s far too little too late. Apparently, IFC picked this up for a Pay Per View release. That’s probably more than it deserves.

Rating: 21/100

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

TIFF Day 5 - Rampart, Whore's Glory, Roman's Circuit, The Woman in the Fifth

In the interests of not falling hopelessly behind (these seven movie days are killer!), I’ll be brief:

Rampart (Oren Moverman)

Set in Los Angeles in 1999 and dealing with police corruption and brutality, this is exactly the sort of drama you would expect it to be. Harrelson is committed to a character that is barely more than swagger and debauchery. The script is something of a mess. It tries to incriminate every aspect of the Los Angeles justice system and the protagonist’s home life in an attempt to be comprehensive, but really it never gets below the surface. Ultimately, a very light, unsatisfying retread of Bad Lieutenant with no obsessive core to drive it.

Rating: 37/100

Whore’s Glory (Michael Glawogger)

A triptych of depravity. Rarely have I wanted a shower after viewing a film more. Glawogger shows us sights here that most of us will never see, though he seems as interested in architectural spaces as the people who live in them. The whores all seem like individual personalities, so no sense of what constitutes a typical life in any of these places emerge. Indeed, the best information here is usually gleaned through a process of comparison between one whorehouse and the next. While the women in the Thai brothel “The Fishtank” seem reasonably well adjusted and even go out to hire “bar boys” after their shifts end, the young girls who work in the Bangladeshi “City of Joy” seem to have little but the avoidance of homelessness on their minds. Admittedly, I found myself grooving on the soundtrack from time to time, taking questionable aesthetic pleasure in what could only be described as sheer abjection.

Rating: 52/100

Roman’s Circuit (Sebastian Braham)

I can tell that I’m in the minority in finding this one intriguing, but then again I am currently writing a thesis on French philosopher Henri Bergson’s theories on memory and perception, making me part of this talky film’s very narrow target audience. It’s a promising debut, at times recalling Shane Carruth’s Primer, due to its stylistic commitment to its theoretical underpinnings and its willingness to indulge in babble. The schtick in this drama set in academia is that memories, when recalled simultaneously, tend to bleed into one another. Braham uses this as an explanation for why our patterns of behavior repeat, and this makes for an interesting thesis, if not quite a powerful dramatic core (I literally felt no emotional involvement here whatsoever). Formally, this means the early scenes end with abrupt cuts while later scenes blend into one another without any cuts whatsoever. It’s intriguing stuff, even if it’s extremely dry, and it suggests that Braham is a potential talent to watch.

Rating: 54/100

The Woman in the Fifth (Pawel Pawlikowski)

Not at all what I expected from the director of My Summer of Love and Last Resort, this comes across like a classier, less thrilling David Lynch film. In it, Ethan Hawke plays an American author who travels to Paris in hopes of reuniting with his estranged wife and child. Instead, he falls into relationships with two beautiful, dangerous women and hobnobs with Arabic gangsters. The style here relies heavily on translucent surfaces, out of focus images and reflections, giving the movie a dreamlike feel. The narrative is purposefully opaque, and never congeals into something that can be firmly interpreted, which is sure to frustrate some viewers. The Lynch comparison doesn’t do Pawlikowski many favors, given that his film is entirely too aimless and sedate to draw us in. Fine but forgettable.

Rating: 46/100

TIFF - Day 4 - Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Livid

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky)

Thinking back about Paradise Lost 3, I realize that it’s possible I like it more for its extra cinematic impact than its cinematic qualities and I’m okay with that. While the third entry in this epic documentary saga is certainly made more proficiently than the second, most of the outrage that it stirs up is recycled from the seminal first entry (and the events recounted here are as outrageous as ever). New exonerating proof emerges here, thanks to changes in Arkansas’ laws governing appeals based on new DNA evidence. I do wish, however, there was more time actually spent with the West Memphis 3 in this film. That might not have been possible, due to their incarceration, but they, like Berlinger and Sinofsky, now almost seem like minor players in a movement and drama that has taken on a life of its own over the past eighteen years. The film’s efforts to hypothesize that the stepfathers on one of the three murdered boys could have been responsible for the killings seems slightly unscrupulous, even if the film eventually backs off on its accusatory tone.

This was a final cut, but given the recent release of the West Memphis 3, twelve minutes of the film will be added.

Rating: 60/100

Livid (Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo)

A visiting nurse coaxes some friends into robbing a creepy house on Halloween night, to disastrous results in this slow-burning horror movie from the directors of the cult hit Inside. While watching, Livid seems too slow. It takes forty-five minutes before any scares crop up. Still, in retrospect the dread that the directors generated in the film’s first half are probably more effective than the outright shocks that follow. There’s nothing original to see here, as the hauntings in question involve vampiric ballerinas and a creepy old hag. The final moments attempt to class the joint up (the filmmakers claim to have been inspired by old Hammer films), but they end up making the time spent watching feel silly.

Rating: 41/100

Monday, September 12, 2011

TIFF - Day 4 - Dark Horse, Girl Model, Crazy Horse

Dark Horse (Todd Solondz)

Solondz continues to shoot fish in a barrel in Dark Horse, his latest exploration of arrested development. Focusing on a thirtysomething man who collects toys and lives with his parents, this comedy starts out by playing broader than Solodnz’s recent work. When his desperate wedding proposal meets with an unexpected acceptance the possibility of change arises. Of course happiness is fleeting at best in a Solondz film, so it’s only a matter of time before our rotund hero’s dreams are crushed. The narrative, which drifts off into the absurd after a major character falls into a coma (Solondz’s Bunuellian tendencies are at their worst here), is really just an excuse for the director to air his current grievances about culture and demonstrate his witty dialogue (her reaction to their first kiss? “Oh my God… It wasn’t horrible.”). Selma Blair makes less of an impact than one would expect as the would-be spouse and as the hero’s parents Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow barely register at all. The moral seems to be that none of us will ever live up to each other’s fantasies, but this might be best seen as a minor work, where the accumulation of cheap shots that Solondz lobs at pop culture targets (e.g. pre-show movie “entertainment”, Tron: Legacy, bad pop music) are designed to at least take some of the heat off of the characters. They can hardly be blamed for being awful, Solondz seems to be arguing, given how awful all of New Jersey is.

Rating: 46/100

Girl Model (Ashley Sabin & David Redmon)

This documentary tracks Nadya, a pretty 14 year old girl from Novosibirsk, who travels to Japan in hopes of achieving a modeling career. She discovers a ruthless industry instead, seemingly designed to exploit the families of young girls in the hopes of turning out a rare money maker. I appreciated the film’s jaundiced view of a world that I know next to nothing about, but at the same time, I felt that the filmmakers refused to press on any tough questions. The close alliance of these modeling agencies with the sex trade is underexplored, for example, and the degree to which Nadya’s family could have anticipated a terrible outcome for her trip is left vague, probably to boost drama (at one point she clearly states that her friends warned her that the business was a scam). Ultimately a sad portrait of young girls left to fend for themselves in a world that is too willing to exploit them, Girl Model is hamstrung by its somewhat slapdash construction and lack of formal interest.

Rating: 38/100

Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman)

With Crazy Horse, a documentary about the famed Parisian burlesque club, Wiseman varies his trademarked approach somewhat. Instead of merely observing anonymously, he shows several numbers here that have been obviously staged for his camera. These are a mixed bag, quality-wise, but they are generally interesting, especially insofar as they present the bodies of the female dancers at the Crazy Horse as assemblages of abstract parts. What works better here are the glimpses at the behind-the-scenes workings of the clubs. A conversation in which a costumer talks about achieving the appearance of a round buttock under stage lights is fascinating, for example, as are the few glimpses that we get into the business details of the club. These highlights do not comprise the bulk of the run time here, though, which suggests that Crazy Horse would be better still if it were as long as most of Wiseman’s other output. Beyond this, it’s interesting that Wiseman manages to get interviews from the club’s artistic directors by merely taping them as they are interviewed by other media personalities. This might be a violation of his usual fly on the wall style, but it’s a clever one. Odd too that there should be so little focus on repetition here, given that the girls perform essentially the same show each night after exhausting rehearsals. Wiseman’s desire to show us what a night at the Crazy Horse is like keeps Crazy Horse from showing us what life at the Crazy Horse is like to some degree.

Rating: 51/100

TIFF - Day 4 - Lipstikka, The Descendants

Lipstikka (Jonathan Segall)

An absurd late-breaking plot twist undoes the largely credible relationship drama Lipstikka. Spanning a decade or two, the film examines the mostly unrequited relationship between two Palestinian women who relocate to the United Kingdom. There’s an odd distance between them when they meet in the present day, and director Segall uses flashbacks to fill in the gaps. The pivotal moment here occurs back in Israel, when the two have an unfortunate encounter with some Israeli soldiers, lending the film some political power that it can’t quite seem to focus into anything productive. Back in the present, their mindgames make for trashy fun. The two lead performances play well against each other and the director is unafraid to indulge in his salacious instincts. Still, the script can’t resist fucking things up. A final revelation about one of the women renders all of the interactions that have come before totally incoherent and leaves the viewer with unsatisfactory questions that distract from the emotional core of the film.

Rating: 36/100

The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

Heartfelt to a fault, Payne’s latest sees him largely dropping the satiric edge of his earlier work and working in a much more conventional tone. The question of “what’s really important in life” is central here, and Payne’s answers are all clichés. The plot, involving a workaholic’s recentering brought about by his wife’s impending death, begs for an airing of resentment and pain that has built up, but what we get is considerably kinder and gentler than one would expect. It is telling here that the best scene of the movie, in which a black sheep daughter learns of her mother’s inevitable decline, is probably the film’s rawest (Shailene Woodley is the lone performance of note here). Payne resists anything remotely biting, which is odd, given that an early scene involving a forced apology among children suggests a comedy of manners about behaving nicely under terrible circumstances. There’s the rare line here that suggests a movie with something to say about the rage that must surely be felt in this situation (e.g. “You were putting lipstick on a corpse!”), but trite homilies win the day. A subplot involving the future of a patch of unconverted Hawaiian beachfront property offers plenty of opportunities for Payne to pander with so-called hard-won wisdom. A braver movie would be far more direct and less willing to comfort us with lessons learned from sitcoms.

Rating: 44/100

TIFF - Day 3

Trishna (Michael Winterbottom)

Trishna is Michael Winterbottom’s second adaptation of a Thomas Hardy, following his 1996 Jude, but while that film retained its period trappings and British locale, Trishna is a contemporary recasting of Tess of the d’Urbervilles set in India. This transfer has its benefits (there’s a travelogue quality to this country-spanning film that’s not to be discounted) and its drawbacks (moving the action from the English countryside, it’s lost much of its elemental power). Hardy’s plot is retained, for the most part, but Winterbottom gives the second half of the film an overheated vibe, out of In the Realm of the Senses. Here the film threatens to alienate audiences who have been drawn in my lilting music and pretty pictures, but it does credibly lift the tale to the realm of tragedy. What we end up with is lesser than Jude and certainly inferior to Polanski’s Tess adaptation, but still a damn fine adult romantic drama nonetheless.

Rating: 63/100

House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello)

Early in House of Tolerance a patron of the titular French brothel observes that the place never changes. “It changes slowly,” replies the woman he’s about to bed. In this bracing film Bonello brings that gradual sense of change as the “twilight of the 19th century” gives way to the “dawn of the 20th” into sharp focus. Through an accumulation of detail, as opposed to an overt presentation of back stories and dramatic incidents, we gain a sense of the mores of the women and men who work in this high-class brothel. The limits to the social relationships between the prostitutes and their patrons become clea. In its languid pacing and pictoral beauty it naturally recall’s Hou’s Flowers of Shanghai, but it reminded me of Demme’s Beloved adaptation, of all things, with its central trauma serving as a haunting reference point around which a forgotten way of life swirled. Still, this is probably a livelier film than either, with boldly imagined set pieces that are as close to pure cinema as anything I’ve seen at this year’s festival thus far. The final formal salvo struck me powerfully, with a cut to contemporary times inducing a real tear or two after Bonello’s ballsy imaginary ones. Not until the house was gone did I realize how deeply invested in it, which is probably something close to the point.

Rating: 71/100

Monsters Club (Toshiaki Toyoda)

No need to waste time here, as I can’t imagine that this terrible film, inspired by the writings of the Unabomber, will be much considered. I will say that Toyoda has at least made this material its own, transferring it to a snowy forest in Japan and adding a fixation on pancake makeup that could have come from a Matthew Barney film, but it’s difficult to see how he’s thought critically about Ted Kaczynski’s ravings (which are quoted at length here) or advanced his point of view beyond an adolescent anti-establishment stance.

Rating: 18/100

Alois Nebel (Tomas Lunak)

In the lousy tradition of Waltz With Bashir and Persepolis comes this crudely animated Czech trauma drama. The Holocaust, predictably, provides the central event from which the titular protagonist’s troubles sprout. When one considers his occupation (train station operator) unfavorable comparisons to Closely Watched Trains inevitably crop up. The cheap, inadequate black and white animation is going for a noir style, but this is a psychological drama with little action, making the choice seem more likely borne out of financial necessity. Ultimately, this goes for slow-burning psychological drama, but as with Waltz With Bashir, I find such a goal difficult to achieve when human faces have been replaced with crude flash animations.

Rating: 23/100

Low Life (Nicolas Klotz & Elisabeth Perceval)

Klotz and Perceval’s Low Life presents an odd mix of socially aware, didactic drama and the navel gazing of young lovers. There are passages in Low Life that I adore, most of them luxuriating in self-absorption. One masterful shot, for example, set at a party without audible dialogue, sees two young lovers fight, make up, and break up again. It has a real pulse and typifies what works best in Low Life. The use of ambient music, the felicity of youth and the feel for a life spent at night mostly waiting around (or is it posing?) are all strong here. This mood doesn’t really last past the first hour, though. These young aspiring artists and scholars become increasingly tied up in the political problems of some local immigrants as the film moves on, shifting its focus radically. The film remains engaging, to be sure, but I was somewhat disappointed that the surface beauties I was reveling in had given way to something more explicitly important. Still well worth seeing, and very, very French, but something other than the movie I selfishly wanted it to be.

Rating: 56/100

You’re Next (Adam Wingard)

You’re Next is nothing less and nothing more than an expertly made and audience-pleasing slasher film. Wingard clearly knows his target audience here, and as such has crafted a gory and suspenseful thriller with a satisfyingly large body count. I can’t imagine it won’t be seen as something of a classic in a few years. Though there are a few funny nods to the conventions of the genre (one character wants to flee for safety at the first ominous bump upstairs; the final girl is entirely capable of defending herself), this is too happy to perfectly execute a proven template than to reinvent it entirely. The comic elements here, which arise largely from the family dynamics of the family placed under siege by mysterious fox-masked killers, only add to the general sense of hysteria. The inevitable plot twists, when they come, scarcely stop this rapidly paced film in its tracks and the ending does not disappoint. Really, just an extremely proficient, extremely enjoyable genre film with a good sense of what it needs to do.

Rating: 70/100