Friday, September 17, 2010

More ratings...

Day 7

Potiche (Francois Ozon)

Rating: 62/100

Buried (Rodrigo Cortes)

Rating: 73/100

Brighton Rock (Rowan Joffe)

Rating: 60/100

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)

Rating: 54/100

Kaboom (Gregg Araki)

Rating: 42/100

Red Nights (Julien Carbon | Laurent Courtiaud)

Rating: 37/100

Day 8

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)

Rating: 67/100

I Saw the Devil (Kim Jee-woon)

Rating: 53/100

Sandcastle (Boo Junfeng)

Rating: 37/100

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apitchatpong Weeresethakul)
Rating: 88/100

Day 9

Sarah’s Key (Gilles Paquet-Brenner)
Rating: 41/100

A Horrible Way to Die (Adam Wingard)
Rating: 52/100

I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke)
Rating: 50/100

TIFF Day 6

Miral (Julian Schnabel)

Julian Schanbel’s Miral covers the period from the establishment of Israel up through 1994, but it’s less a historical account of Palestinian oppression in Israel than the tale of several Palestinian women and their relationship to that state of affairs. There is some considerable tension here between the script, which is didactic and blunt, and Schnabel’s direction, which always seems to be looking at the fringes for something of interest within this conventional framework. Extreme close-ups, color filters, Vaseline on the lens, and extensive handheld camerawork give the impression that the sensual backdrop is more interesting to the director than history or the people portrayed. Indeed, the stories of these women provide a mixed bag of material. Things start strongly with the account of a woman’s establishment of an orphanage. This plotline could have easily sustained the film, especially since Hiam Abbas is quite good in the role. Instead, Miral drifts toward the stories of other repressed women, until it finally settles on the titular girl (Freida Pinto), who is supposed to serve as some sort of hope for the future of the Palestinian state. That message becomes obscured, though, as the final segment is easily the film’s weakest. Abbas, so effective early on, becomes stranded in a tiny role and a ridiculous wig. Miral herself is strident (“You don’t understand anything because you’ve been hiding in the mosque your whole life,” she tells her father) and politically naïve. Pinto adds little to the character that exists on the page, making the future of Palestine seem quite vapid indeed. Still, Miral is better than its already damaged reputation would suggest. There are well-played scenes here, such as the one in which a woman exaggerates her Arabness to scare off an Israeli girlfriend, that work quite well, regardless of political import. Though the film is unlikely to change hearts and minds about the issue of Palestine, it is an effective, large-scale drama.

Rating: 53/100

Submarine (Richard Ayoade)

News came this week that The Weinstein Company picked up Submarine, Richard Ayoade’s debut feature. The decision to acquire this low-key Welsh comedy seems somewhat odd, as the American indie market is flooded with a million films along this line, many of them better. When we have superior films like Rushmore, there’s no need to import mediocrities like this.

In any case, Submarine tells the coming of age story of one Oliver Tate, a young intellectual who is about to discover his first love. The movie adopts a wry, somewhat distanced tone, but this is entirely familiar stuff, depicting issues such as his parent’s possible infidelity, his virginity anxiety, his mistreatment of an outcast girl, and a cancer scare. The best material here, by far, involves his well-mannered parents, played by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins. The two adopt comic personas that are based on extreme rationality and parental understanding. Their frankness becomes hilarious, providing the majority of Submarine’s laughs. As for, Craig Roberts, the young actor playing Oliver, his greatest asset seems to be his vacant stare, which is less damning than it sounds, given that the title refers to the feeling of being underwater brought about by depression. Ayoade’s direction is decent, with a reasonable visual sensibility, but he indulges in too many overlong musical montages, ending every chapter of this three-part film with a whimper.

Rating: 45/100

Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell)

I suspect that a few people might write John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole off as clichéd claptrap, but I was completely disarmed and moved by its unerring ability to treat the aftermath of the death of a child with fresh eyes. Much has been made of the fact that this is a change of pace for director Mitchell (he’s previously directed Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus), but Rabbit Hole is far more a screenwriter’s or an actors’ movie than a showcase for its director or his personality. That’s more than fine in this case, as both the screenplay, based on a Pulitzer-winning stage play, and the performances are top-notch.

With affecting clarity and surprising humor, Rabbit Hole examines the difficult fact that we all have to mourn in our own ways, at our own pace. Set eight months after a couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) have lost their only child in a car accident, the film sees the two struggling to mourn in a way that provides them comfort. Much is made here of the idea that there is a socially acceptable way of acting after a tragedy, and many of Rabbit Hole’s best scenes involve quiet, unstated judgments of others’ coping mechanisms. These pressures are palpable, thanks to Kidman’s performance, which at times works through similar terrain as There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview. Social circumstances require the repression of emotions, and much of the film is spent waiting for said emotions to explode. It’s a credit to Rabbit Hole’s intelligent script that that explosion comes without upsetting the delicate balance of sadness, humor, and healing that it works toward the whole time. A major achievement in a minor key.

Rating: 81/100

The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo)

This remake of a Korean film classic is glossier than the ‘60s original. In it, Eun-Yi, a wealthy household’s new maid, enters a realm of emotional manipulation and upstairs/downstairs class struggles. Im’s approach is far kinkier than expected. There are uncomfortable sexual situations galore, each of them a metaphorical struggle for power. The movie’s politics are entirely blunt, with the rich characters all too willing to resort to murder if throwing cash at a problem doesn’t work, but they result in a film that carries a wicked spirit. It’s dumb, but it’s fun, and it builds toward a truly jaw-dropping finale. Not the smartest movie I’ve seen at the festival to be sure, but one of the boldest.

Rating: 60/100

Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)

Whereas I Killed My Mother was surprising because it came from a director of Dolan’s age, Heartbeats is precisely the sort of thing that you would expect from a 21-year-old director. What becomes obvious, in retrospect, is how much Anne Dorval brought to the sensibility of Dolan’s debut film (it certainly fell apart once she left the screen). She shows up here, in a cameo, and it’s the best scene in the movie, by far. The rest of it is shallow stuff, obsessed with questioning the existence of bisexuality, the allure of an unrequited romance, and the way that love makes us abandon other concerns. Ideas are tossed about, but there’s no vision. Slow-motion musical montages don’t advance the mood or narrative, faux-documentary interview sequences end up trumping the main story. Everything seems self-dramatizing and overly aestheticized instead of honest. It’s overextended for what it is, and the three leads all seem like weak performers. Only the wit of the final scene caught me off-guard.

Rating: 48/100

Leap Year (Michael Rowe)

A master-slave relationship develops over the course of a month, forcing us to gradually question who’s controlling who in Michael Rowe’s debut feature. Things begin cryptically here, with no clear motivation given for single-woman Laura’s odd, promiscuous behavior. As we watch her tick the days off her calendar, building to an ominously colored February 29th, though, her actions shift into focus, turning the movie into a sub-Repulsion study in sadness brought upon by abuse. The film is psychologically unconvincing. Monica del Carmen, who plays Laura, is whatever the script calls for in a given scene, with little connective tissue from one vignette to the next. We’re supposed to feel bad for a woman who can be so businesslike or empathetic one moment and so childlike and victimized the next, but there’s nothing bridging the two personalities. Much of this is due to Rowe’s formal approach, which tends to use one shot per scene. That directorial choice would be more acceptable if it were more consistent, but we get odd decisions like the one to open the film outside of the apartment, in a supermarket. A decent first feature, but I suspect that Rowe will have better luck in, say, another four years.

Rating: 57/100

Insidious (James Wan)

This haunted house movie is definite hackwork (from the director of Saw), but it has a clear eye on entertaining the audience, which makes much of its ineptitude forgivable. With a plot that shamelessly rips off the brilliant Poltergest (Wan claims homage), much of the work has been done for them. The scares here begin to build almost immediately, whether a scene is set in day or night. Better yet, they build off one another, with most scenes offering more than one opportunity for the audience to jump in fright. Every cliché from every haunted house movie resurfaces here. Barbara Hershey, from The Entity, even turns up in a small role. This is fairly straight-faced, totally unambitious stuff that knows what it wants to be. It only really falters in its disappointing last act, in which a trip to the spirit realm feels more like a trip to a wax museum. Still, good fun.

Rating: 60/100

Thursday, September 16, 2010

TIFF Day 5

Outside the Law (Rachid Bouchareb)

A polished historical epic about an Algerian family’s struggle against French oppression, Outside the Law ranges from 1945 to 1962. Covering such a large span of time, things are bound to get lost, even with a 140 minute run time. Unfortunately, what remains most obscured here is how these immigrants developed a political conscience that saw terrorist action as the most effective path to liberation. One or two brief conversations shown in a prison setting do not comprise an ethos. It’s difficult to separate the Algerian identity from the immigrant experience from the political sensibility here, which is somewhat damning, given that the film’s main goal seems to be to provide access to a terrorist’s mindset. Its inability to be revelatory might be more forgivable were it not so glossy or self-serious. There are moments of irony scattered about (e.g. “See You Later, Alligator” plays on a radio as a man is killed), but never a moment of levity. Still, there are things to admire here. The gritty picture of shantytown life and the community’s sliding ethical standards is compelling, and an early scene showing the mass slaughter of Algerian protestors and innocents sparks genuine outrage.

Rating: 46/100

127 Hours (Danny Boyle)

Danny Boyle delivers real-life drama, as thrillseeker Aron Ralston gets trapped under a rock and cuts off his own hand to escape. Boyle doesn’t try to make this scenario scary or tragic so much as ironic and relateable, which is a choice that feels questionable. The film’s focus on the sensual dominates, and it lends the ordeal a visceral, sometimes unbearable feel. Some edits, like that from an ant crawling on Aron to a memory of his girlfriend stroking his chest, show real inspiration. Other moments, like one in which Aron takes pleasure basking in the fifteen minutes of sunlight granted by his situation each day, universalize the action. Throughout it all, there’s some gallows humor (e.g. a urine Slurpee) to temper the dread, but that only goes so far. When Aron finally cuts off his arm, the moment is gruesome and painful, to Boyle’s credit. There’s not much going on here, really. The film seems designed as a showcase for the director. Franco makes little impression, given his screen time. Boyle’s visuals are inventive, but inconsistently so. It’s clever to show a change in temperature by focusing on the condensation in a water bottle, but considerably less so to place a temperature gauge on screen. Whenever the high concept gives way to a character study, things weaken considerably into a series of corny flashbacks and flights of quasi-spiritual significance.

Rating: 56/100

Home for Christmas (Bent Hamer)

There are several stories here, all arranged around a Yuletide theme, but none of them step outside of a very predictable, professional course of action. The performances are all fine, and Hamer resists sentimentality as often as he indulges in it, so the film is not nearly as mawkish as it might have been. Still, this feels inescapably like product. Beyond its mysterious opening sequence, in which a Christmas celebration gives way to sniper fire, it’s forgettable, watchable fare in every way.

Rating: 40/100

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)

A poetic meditation on remembering and the inability to forget, this documentary from Patricio Guzman examines links between astrology, archaeology, and political memory. Chile, and particularly its Atacama Desert, provides the unique backdrop. Its humidity-free climate makes it an ideal location for both star-watchers and historians. Throughout the film, Guzman interviews those who work there, finding common ground in their relationship to the past. The delayed images of the stars and the buried record of historical past provide equal points of obsession for the people of a country that actively denies its troubled recent past. That immobilization, triggered by the Pinochet coup d’état, has created a wound culture (as Guzman has observed in his other movies), and his work probes that wound, resulting in several heartbreaking, soul-searching interviews. Throughout, we are reminded of the true scale of history, with Guzman shifting effortlessly between macro and micro scales, broadening meaning in all of his chosen topics at once. A cloud of dust particles reminds us of the swirling cosmos. The calcium in the stars reminds us of the bones of Chile's Disappeared.

Rating: 65/100

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)

Granted unprecedented, exclusive access to the world’s oldest cave paintings (discovered in 1994), Herzog offers truly remarkable raw footage in a film that feels compromised by the limitations of its production. The strict limits on the access that Herzog was given to explore the caves means that we’re doing anything but venturing into uncharted territory here. It’s understandable given the precious nature of the caves, but it means that we are watching a guided tour from a filmmaker known for blazing his own trails. In typical Herzog fashion, a few of the talking heads (generally there to help contextualize the paintings) exhibit quirky personalities. A 3D effect is used to help the audience to get a sense of the contours of the cave surfaces. The best moment comes when it is revealed that several of the drawings were designed to simulate motion, almost as a prototypical cinema, as torchlight moves across them. The content here is indispensible, the film as a whole, merely adequate.

Rating: 53/100

John Carpenter’s The Ward (John Carpenter)

A group of girls in an insane asylum are stalked by the ghost of one of their former peers in this tepid and uninspired horror film from John Carpenter. Seeming like a work from hire from this usually distinctive director, The Ward lacks much of the compositional strength that distinguishes his usual output. There are a few mild scares to be had, but they seem like a weak payoff for a film that is not well-acted enough to function as the psychological thriller that it wants to be. Had this been a direct-to-video work from an anonymous source, it would have felt mediocre, but passable. Coming from Carpenter, who hasn’t made a feature film since the underrated Ghosts of Mars, it’s cause for alarm.

Rating: 41/100

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The rest of Day 4

Tabloid (Errol Morris)

Morris takes a break from his recent political documentaries with Tabloid, a frantic portrait of a former beauty queen and self-described “incurable romantic” who became a notorious media figure when she kidnapped and possibly raped her Mormon beau. The subject, Joyce McKinney, is endlessly quotable. Her conversational demeanor makes her the best person to recount her life’s story, even if Morris makes it clear that she’s not above taking liberties with the truth. What emerges is a tale of obsessive, mostly unrequited love, which grows increasingly unbelievable as the story unfolds (there are absurd disguises, sexy secrets, and clones). The tabloid press’s unethical obsession with figures like Joyce is a marginal concern here. It mostly permits Morris to play up the sensational aspects of the story, which he does most memorably by flashing headline-like graphics of the salacious terms that his interviewees use (e.g. “SPREAD-EAGLED”). The result is something less than a profound meditation on Joyce’s life, but it is one heck of a story.

Rating: 59 /100

Hereafter (Clint Eastwood)

After a harrowing, effects-filled opening, Eastwood’s latest transforms into a quiet consideration of death. Following three characters, the story adopts three approaches toward its subject matter, alternating between intellectual, emotional, and supernatural modes of inquiry. What results is an unpredictable, consistently beguiling work that could only have come from a master filmmaker. Its unrushed demeanor and willingness to hold back from commitment lend it a profundity that escapes the schematic traps of similar films like Babel. Instead of forcing a point of view upon us, Eastwood simply flirts with various ideas and genres, until his quiet search becomes a quiet release from that search. Because it’s so low key, it’s less immediately impactful than many of Eastwood’s recent work, and the scenes set in London sequences are weaker than the others, but this is a film of uncommon insight and patience.

Rating: 64/100

Vanishing on 7th Street (Brad Anderson)

This apocalyptic horror film, in which a mass disappearance afflicts an unnamed city, attempts to make us scared of the dark once again. Featuring a small cast of characters who must remain in light lest some shadowy boogeymen snatch them up, the movie boasts an intriguing premise at its start, but things barely develop, leaving the impression that we’re watching an extended, gimmicky episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Clumsy expoisition (e.g. one character just happens to be reading about the Roanoke colony’s disappearance at the film’s start) and some terrible performances (Thandie Newton’s in full-on Beloved freak-out mode) harm the overall effect, but really the most damning thing here is Anderson’s inability to capitalize on his dark versus light motif in any but the most obvious ways.

Rating: 38/100

Tabloid (Errol Morris) 59

Hereafter (Clint Eastwood) 64

Vanishing on 7th Street (Brad Anderson) 38


Outside the Law (Rachid Bouchareb) 46

127 Hours (Danny Boyle) 56

Home for Christmas (Bent Hamer) 40

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman) 65

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog) 53

John Carpenter’s The Ward (John Carpenter) 41


Miral (Julian Schnabel) 53

Submarine (Richard Ayoade) 45

Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell) 81

The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo) 60

Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan) 48

Leap Year (Michael Rowe) 57

Insidious (James Wan) 60

Just a few of these for tonight... an especially tight schedule the last two days, some lingering illness, and school commitments threw me a bit behind.

Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole)

Probably the sweetest movie ever made about a May ’68 rebellion, this is plays like a thoroughly tamed Norma Rae. The setting is in the titular town, at a Ford Motors plant, where a group of women choose to go on strike for equal pay. The film is sure to be the target of scorn, some of it rightful, but I found it so light on its feet and enjoyable that I could forgive its utter manipulation (e.g. every man is an ineffectual pig, with the exception of the one played by Bob Hoskins) and its complete predictability. There are nice turns from Sally Hawkins and Rosamund Pike. The audience for this is extremely self-selecting. If this general sort of thing would likely appeal to you, it probably will here, but it won’t convert those averse to braindead, feel-good movies by any means. Cole still isn’t much of a director.

Rating: 51/100

The Conspirator (Robert Redford)

Something like the inverse in grace and sophistication when compared to Redford’s superb Quiz Show, this anonymously-directed misfire feels like something that would premiere on cable, at best. The subject, the trial of Mary Surratt, the first woman sentenced to death by the U.S. government, should be a surefire one, but it falls flat at every turn. Famous names fill the roster, but many roles here are stunning miscast (James McAvoy, Justin Long, Alexis Bledel), killing whatever atmosphere is generated. The target audience for this seems to be history buffs, as there are plenty of presumably true details to be gleaned (e.g. soldiers were ordered to stand in front of Mary Surratt as her daughter testified in her defense), often at the expense of quality dialogue or narrative propulsion. Anyone expecting suspense or a competent visual sensibility will need to look elsewhere.

Rating: 37/100

The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet)

Sylvain Chomet sets out to revive Jacques Tati, an idol, by animating an unfilmed script by the master, but mostly proves that animation is a poor medium for Tati’s style of physical humor. The melancholy mood and small scale here, too, seem a far cry from Tati’s wondrous celebration of life in all its forms. The plot of this film, set in late-50s Europe, involves an underappreciated magician who yearns to protect the innocence of a young woman. It’s an exercise in sustaining delusion, which disturbingly recalls Vertigo, without generating any of the complexity found there. Because The Illusionist at least looks nice, it’s not as overwhelmingly unpleasant for me as The Triplets of Belleville, but that’s hardly high praise. The film is conceptually funny at best most of the time, and the well-realized watercolor visuals are scarcely enough to justify the entire thing. Many seem to be entranced by this, but for me, only the final moments were effective at generating any sort of emotional response.

Rating: 46/100

The First Grader (Justin Chadwick)

This feel-good effort about an 84-year old Kenyan who wants to take advantage of his government’s recent offer of free education to all by enrolling in primary school, has enough of a premise to sustain interest for about one-third of its run time. Director Chadwick brings more visual imagination than usual to what is essentially a character drama, and he manages to wring adequate performances from even his untrained cast members. The mix of modern-era grumblings about the decision to educate an old man and that old man’s flashbacks to his abuse at the hands of other tribes can only go so far, however, and the film quickly runs out of things to say about its scenario. What should be a powerful testament to the need for universal education suffers because the core issue becomes subsumed in a morass of petty squabbles. The characters here are too sketchily drawn to register. Kenya itself scarcely earns any sort of distinctive identity by the film’s end.

Rating: 43/100

Sunday, September 12, 2010

TIFF Day 3

The King's Speech (Tom Hooper) 49 - Crowd-pleasing and bound for Oscar glory, but it runs out of steam quickly. The first hour is charming, touching and funny. The second is overly important, and entirely too willing to turn the King we were struggling to know into a symbol. Firth's performance never evolves beyond a gimmick. Rush's best moments all come early on, but he's surely a frontrunner for awards. Still, that first hour is good, with lots of awkward comedy and very British charm.

What I Most Want (Delfina Castagnino) 36 – This ode to female friendship is seventy-odd minutes long, with many of them taken up with interminable, poorly framed shots. It’s something like a female-driven Old Joy, but that overstates its quality or ambition. It really only grows interesting in its final reel, as it becomes obvious that the two girls’ concerns in life are being contrasted. Just as tension begins to emerge between the two, the film ends. It’s so minor that it requires expert precision to be worthwhile, but first-time feature filmmaker Castagnino feels like a hack.

Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman) 57 – This unassuming observational documentary set in a Texas boxing gym is surely the most consistently entertaining thing that I’ve seen at the festival thus far. Wiseman doesn’t particularly deviate from his well-worn template here, but the chosen subject matter ensures that there is no bureaucracy to wade through, so no shot wears out its welcome. There’s a realization here that everyone shown on camera has a story and everyone has a unique motivation for being at the gym. Wiseman’s approach respects that, and therefore respects the viewer’s intelligence. The ringside philosophy picked up along the way (e.g. “You don’t pay your dues, you ain’t get shit.”) enhances the film considerably, although brazenly topical moments involving the Virginia Tech shootings or tech millionaire Richard Garriot seemed like odd distractions.

Armadillo (Janus Metz) 54 – Not especially impressive content-wise, but this documentary about the Afghanistan invasion probably looks more like a fictional feature than any documentary since Zoo. It’s extremely well-shot. It wrings its hands with predictable ambivalence over the raging boners that the young troops have for combat. When they finally get a taste of battle, the footage that’s been captured is rather extraordinary… to the point that some level of editorial trickery must have been involved. A last-minute questioning of the troops’ action under the gun recalls a similar debate in The Tillman Story.

Love Crime (Alain Corneau) 56 – Starting out as a witty comedy about workplace rivalries, this morphs into something a lot more plot-driven in its second half. The scenes in which Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier threaten each other are terrific. I largely lost interest as predictable the aftermath of a mid-film plot twist played out, though. Corneau’s style here is appealing and stands at a mild remove from the action, which makes sense in a story filled with such startling manipulations.

Break Up Club (Barbara Wong) 26 – I’m probably overrating this. It keeps rebooting itself, as it tells the story of a young Hong Kong couple’s on-again, off-again relationship. It moves from personal film diary, to bizarre meta-film in which characters document their own break-up stories, into a glossy and conventional soap opera format. None of these work particularly well, and all of them are undercut by a uniformly inadequate cast. Festival schedule filler all the way… I won’t remember this in a year.

Bunraku (Guy Moshe) 20 – You know a fight scene sucks when it can’t prompt a reaction from a TIFF Midnight Madness crowd. Three early fight scenes in a row from the overlong Bunraku failed to rouse much of anything at tonight’s screening. This is really dire stuff that will probably find some defenders due to its visual style, which combines German expressionism with day-glow Japanese stereotypes. My eyes mostly felt that director Moshe never met a color palette that he didn’t like. The performances are extremely bad, especially in the case of Josh Harnett, who is supposed to be some sort of Eastwood-channeling Western badass. What’s the point of endless visual invention if you are recycling a tired, aggressively boring plot?

Super (James Gunn)

Big screen superhero parodies tend to be as terrible and over-caffeinated as the films that they target, so it comes as a mild surprise that James Gunn’s Super manages at least some level of storytelling coherence. Focusing on Frank (Rainn Wilson), a sad sack short order cook who experiences a religious epiphany after his wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), Super surpasses recent attempts such as Kick-Ass in its efforts to make the superhero movie look ignorant. Wilson’s character here adopts the moniker The Crimson Bolt, and soon takes to the streets, fighting crime, wherever he finds it (even if that entails hiding behind a dumpster for hours, waiting for it).

Probably as a result of its modest budget, Super has an indie film feel. Gunn uses a great deal of handheld camerawork and natural lighting, which helps to ground the absurd plot in some level of reality. The film’s gross-out moments, which are myriad, actually do a good job of reminding audiences of the latent psychopathic tendencies that exist in the superhero genre. Watching a petty criminal get hit in the head with a wrench might be funny once, but watching it happen repeatedly, in gory detail is a definite buzz kill. Things get amplified on this front once Ellen Page, who has a manic energy here that she’s not shown before, shows up as a sidekick, and pushes the Bolt to greater levels of mayhem. Her too-brief time on screen energizes the film. Whether Page is bashing a possibly innocent young man’s head in with a statue or rubbing her crotch through her spandex, telling Frank that “it’s all gushy,” she gives a fearless performance.

It’s a shame that Wilson himself isn’t working at that level. His brand of self-deprecating humor soon runs out of targets (he can only make fun of his fat ass so many times…), and Gunn has nowhere to go but toward unwelcome sincerity. As Super winds to a close, it seems to forget that it’s a parody, and wants us to endorse the character it’s created. Such a miscalculation is unfortunate. Super offers less than its title implies, but it’s better than most of its ilk.

Rating: 46/100

Passion Play (Mitch Glazer)

Passion Play, the debut feature from screenwriter Mitch Glazer, has been described as a fable. More appropriately, I’d say, it is a self-indulgent sexual fantasy run amok. Starring Mickey Rourke as a jazz musician who runs afoul of a gangster (by sleeping with his wife, naturally), the film offers superficial romantic noodling that kicks off when he comes across a girl in a carnival who sports real wings (Megan Fox). Perhaps it’s needless to say, but Rourke and Fox are a thoroughly mismatched screen couple, who exude zero screen chemistry with one another. Rourke possesses a down and out shaggy dog appeal only works in a very limited, realistic range of films. Fox is a sex kitten with little depth. This is probably her greatest acting challenge to date, and she fails miserably. When the film asks the two to play off one another, the results are disastrous. When sparks fail to ignite between the two in a story that entirely depends upon us getting caught up in their future together, the whole enterprise collapses.

Bill Murray, playing Happy, the previously mentioned gangster, is the clearest asset here, doing what he can by adding his signature comic timing to what is pretty sorry material. Glazer has no obvious skill behind the camera. His imagery recycles noir stereotypes to little effect, and the overall mood here recalls the L.A.-centric work of Alan Rudolph, with next to none of the quirky charm. Based on the way that Glazer trots about his real-life spouse Kelly Preston in Passion Play (she rarely wears more than underwear, and sometimes wears less), one could uncharitably read the movie as an autobiographical story about trophy wives. That’s disturbing, but par for the course, given the rest of Passion Play’s vapid, sexist content. A last ditch effort to add a spiritual dimension to the preceding wankery falls as flat as the rest of the film. Awful.

Rating: 12/100

Poetry (Lee Chang Dong)

Sensitive, almost to a fault, Lee Chang Dong’s Poetry is a well-observed but minor effort from one of the top Korean filmmakers. Centered on Mija, a woman in her sixties who discovers that she is afflicted by the first stirrings of dementia, the film is a quiet study in repression. It traces Mija’s struggle toward articulation of her emotions, most expressly during scenes that show her enrolled in an adult education poetry course. There’s little plot to be found in Poetry, but most of what is there involves Mina’s discovery that her loutish grandson has been involved in a group rape of a girl that culminated in her suicide. Mina’s gradual process of identification with the dead girl becomes the movie’s emotional arc, which both helps to clarify the director’s attitude toward her illness and helps to confirm Poetry as yet another significant entry in the oeuvre of a director whose work has become increasingly centered on women’s suffering.

Like Lee’s earlier Oasis and Secret Sunshine, Poetry lives and dies by the quality of its leading actress’ performance. Yun Jung Lee, who plays Mija, doesn’t let her director down. She anchors every scene of the film, creating a character who is alternatively flighty, devoted, and despairing. Her struggles to assert herself emotionally are the film’s central concern, which gives her performance ample opportunity to shine. “The point is the feeling,” an amateur poet tells her while describing her writing process, and where Ms. Lee succeeds is in helping us to understand her uncertainty about her conflicting emotions. Elsewhere, director Lee’s devotion to women can be felt. Most of the men here are emotionally stunted louts. Even the one male who is attempts to describe his feelings in Mina’s poetry class talks somewhat superficially in comparison to the parade of women who rhapsodize about the glories of childhood or love.

Much of Poetry is spent watching Mija play an amateur detective, as she attempts to understand her grandson’s crime, or watching her scribble phrases in her poetry notebook. This makes for a singularly quiet and observational film, which creates mixed results. Many of the lyrical moments here (e.g. Mija’s hat blows off her head, into the river in which the young girl threw herself) work toward an intended, unmissable effect, diluting their impact. Mija’s few emotional outbursts seem somewhat uncharacteristic, given the film’s ultimate trajectory. Still, the overriding feeling of empathy that comes to dominate Poetry grows moving by the film’s inevitable final sequence. In many respects, this could be seen as a subtler companion piece to Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, which examined similar issues of death and devotion. Next to the sheer anguish displayed in Secret Sunshine, Poetry’s quiet despair seems bit slight, but its subtlety makes it a singular experience.

Rating: 58/100

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bad Faith (Kristian Petri)

While introducing Kristian Petri’s psychological thriller, TIFF programmer Steve Gravestock described the film as “one of the most fun viewing experiences that I had this year.” Such a description is absolutely baffling, given that Bad Faith is anything but fun. This predictable, overly calculated Swedish misfire not only drains the thrills from its genre, but also traffics in absolutely inexplicable character behavior.

Things get off to a bad start as meek heroine Mona finds a dying man in an alley during the opening credits sequence. She immediately begins digging her hands in his wounds, getting blood on her hands, while passersby retreat from the scene, without offering assistance. Later that night, she randomly witnesses a confrontation that leaves another man lying wounded in a parking lot. She follows that up by disappearing from her job, attempting to track down a serial killer, and throwing herself sexually at a mysterious stranger.

Director Petri sets his chosen tone almost immediately, when he employs a series of glacial lateral pans. All of Bad Faith adopts a similarly narcoleptic stance, never generating the least bit of suspense until the final reel arrives. What should be a tense cat and mouse game, though, is undone by completely implausible performances (the script offers the actors nothing). Little about this film convinces, making it feel like an unnecessary in posturing. Thought it clearly is trying to say something about obsession and madness, it fails to ever grow articulate, partially because its main character scarcely has an identity to lose as she grows increasingly obsessed. Implying that a film might be a dream is about the furthest thing from being profound.

Ultimately, Bad Faith is less overtly awful than deficient in redeeming qualities. It moves sleepily along its predictable course, maintaining a sense of professionalism where it should be offering a sense of abandon. Petri has a sound visual sensibility, but he lacks any perspective on the events that unfold here. The obvious twist and mild sense of subversion that close out Bad Faith scarcely are enough to compensate for the tedium of viewing it.

Rating: 36/100

Day 2 Grades

Bad Faith (Kristian Petri) 36

Poetry (Lee Chang-dong) 58

Passion Play (Mitch Glazer) 12

Super (James Gunn) 46

The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Andrew Lau)

Andrew Lau, of Infernal Affairs fame pays tribute to Bruce Lee by reincarnating one of his most memorable characters in the formulaic yet passable The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. Donnie Yen, certainly the most prominent Hong Kong action star of the moment, has begun to star in a series of historical films, which consistently feature underdeveloped characters and too few action scenes. Over the last two years, he delivered two films loosely based on the life of Ip Man. Here, he tackles the same time period, even if he’s playing a fictional character this time out.

The Legend of the Fist is a sequel, of sorts, to the 1972 Bruce Lee classic Fist of Fury (the villain here is the son of the previous film’s bad guy). In it, Yen plays a revolutionary freedom fighter, who is struggling to reunite China and overthrow the Japanese occupation. The setting here is Shanghai, in 1925, which allows Lau to create images on an epic canvas. The visual opulence extends to the elaborate art direction, CG flybys, and no shortage of gaudy period detail. With much of the action taking place in the western-influenced jazz club “Casablanca,” glamour has as much place here as brutal action.

That glamour is best represented by actress Shu Qi, who plays a double-agent spy and showgirl named Kiki. Her relationship with Chen Zhen develops along predictable lines, but it does prevent the movie from feeling like a monotonous series of fight scenes. Still, fans of Yen’s action movies will not likely be too disappointed, as Legend has a series of scenes that feature torture, rape, and more assassinations than one can count. Most of the energy on that front, though, is focused on three extravagant set pieces. The opening sequence, which takes place in France during World War I, sets a bar of outrageous action that the rest of the film fails to match. Featuring a series of brutal knife kills and awesome acrobatic action from Yen, it definitely provides the film’s greatest thrills. A crowd scuffle on a rainy street, and a finale at a dojo, in which Chen Zhen takes on a crowd of Japanese soldiers, provide the other two battles of note.

The Legend of the Fist is blatantly commercial, but that’s not entirely bad. Yen may not be an accomplished actor, but playing a masked hero here, he brings much of the same charisma to his role that made Bruce Lee a star. Lau acquits himself well during the fight scenes, but some of the expository sequences are clumsily edited, giving the movie a slightly incoherent feeling. It shifts tones unpredictably, and shuttles characters on to screen, only to kill them later, without achieving much emotional impact. The movie only really comes to life when there’s fighting on screen, which is unfortunate, if not entirely unexpected.

Rating: 47/100

Inside Job (Charles Ferguson)

Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job attempts to offer a consolidated explanation of the 2008 financial crisis. Since this is hardly an obscure subject, many of Ferguson’s insights will be old news, particularly for those who, say, listen to NPR or have seen the PBS Frontline Special “Inside the Meltdown.” No End in Sight, Ferguson’s previous documentary, was similarly premiered after most of its content was common knowledge, but it came out precisely as public opinion about the War in Iraq reached a point of no return. The 2008 financial crisis stirred public outrage even back in 2008. Without too many particularly new insights into the cause of the crisis, Inside Job will likely be less impactful than No End Left in Sight.

Literally by the numbers documentary filmmaking, Inside Job is divided into five distinct chapters. Beyond brief diversions in China and Finland, where Ferguson attempts to depict the global reach of the American market collapse, the bulk of the film is filled by a procession of talking heads, who work to either assign or deflect blame for the crash. The presence of many of the interviewees is a testament to Ferguson’s ability to get important figures to agree to speak on camera, but he has a disingenuous tendency to imply that anyone who refused to speak with him is guilty of ethical transgressions.

Where Ferguson’s documentary does seem to offer something new to the debate though, is in its fourth segment, entitled “Accountability.” Here, in a particularly vicious manner, Ferguson extends his conspiracy theory about the corrupted economics field back to its origins. Singling out business school professors at Harvard and Columbia Universities, Ferguson presents a series of damning circumstances that demonstrate that much of the professors’ income and scholarship has its roots in the corporate world. The suggestion that much of the economics discipline serves to lend bought credibility to corporate interests is damning, and the evidence that Ferguson presents is rather persuasive. The lack of disclosure of funds received in academic reports seems a definite conflict of interest. To see famed economists defend the blatant lack of transparency is shocking. If anything in Inside Job is likely to prompt real-world change, it is this segment.

Ultimately, Inside Job will not have much to offer those who follow financial news reports. Ferguson’s goal here seems not to create any sort of definitive historical record, but rather to create a palatable, two-hour distillation of a complicated and far-ranging systemic breakdown. Gripes that Ferguson doesn’t spend more time explaining the failure of our credit rating agencies or interviewing lower-level members of financial firms becomes more understandable in this context. At the end of the day, Inside Job finds something less than the smoking gun that it wants to, but when the picture it paints is so damning anyhow, who’s counting?

Rating: 46/100

Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard)

TIFF started out its 2010 edition with a particularly sadistic decision. Namely, the festival programmers chose to show a totally unsubtitled print of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature, Film Socialism as the fest’s first public screening on its first day. At least forty percent of the film’s eager audience left before Godard’s work (and possibly career – this is said to be his last feature) ended. Presumably, many of those remaining, unlike me, spoke French, which is only the most frequently used of the many languages that Godard employs here. Though Godard is the very definition of one of our Masters (the name of the festival Programme that the film was included in), something this obtuse and aggressive toward its viewers’ expectations probably would have been better served by being included in the festival’s experimental sidebar, Wavelengths.

Lacking even the broken English subtitles that it sported during its Cannes premiere, Film Socialism in its current form forces analysis of imagery for all but the most polyglot of viewers. This lack of translation brings as much opportunity as frustration. The subservience of language here helps to illuminate Godard’s late period as a whole. Freed from interpreting the specific meaning of his aphorisms, we are able to focus on a style that builds a steady rhythm, interspersed with moments of sheer visual epiphany. Divided into three parts, if Film Socialism is intended to be Godard’s final coda, it’s clear that he has a great deal left to say (even if most of us won’t be able to understand what, exactly, it is that he’s saying).

The first act of Film Socialism is set aboard a cruise ship. The multinational societal microcosm depicted, though, doesn’t really live up to the film’s title. Instead of a socialist paradise, the boat is something of a consumerist nightmare, where hordes of anonymous passengers move from buffet to disco to church service. A group of attendants and servants are glimpsed throughout, as are a few recurring characters, who surface and resurface, generally to quote literature. Here, the style is invigorating, as Godard switches camera types, making the most of his various digital formats. Offering images that are either crystalline in their clarity or corrupted by artifacting (including a soundtrack that frequently becomes an indecipherable garble, brought about by the limits of consumer-grade microphones), this segment is a formal stunner. Much of the content eludes me, to be sure, but the closest point of comparison that came to mind for me is Manoel de Oliveira’s hilarious, glacial A Talking Picture, which similarly parodied our modern lives as it looked backward at our history.

Film Socialism’s second part, which seems to have a plot involving an unwelcome news reporter and a family at a filling station (tinges of the Spielberg lackeys from In Praise of Love can be felt), is the most bound by narrative, and therefore the least successful when viewed without the help of subtitles. Just when this segment, which has less impressive image-making than the first, is about to convince you that nothing in this work will be as ambitious as the montages in Notre Musique, Godard’s last feature, Film Socialism transforms itself into an essay film. The final third, which juxtaposes images with skill equal to Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema, presents an accelerated world tour of great sites of revolution, creating a beautiful procession of filmic citations and historical markers.

Obviously, due to my unfamiliarity with the various languages that it employs, I cannot make definitive statements about Film Socialism’s quality or meaning. That being said, it seems to operate with many of the same themes and stylistic flourishes of Godard’s later work, making it easy to interpret, regardless of language barriers, for those familiar with his oeuvre. Since no first viewing of a Godard film will ever offer up every citation and every intended meaning, ignorance of the bulk of Film Socialism’s dialogue has a less disastrous effect on one’s ability to appreciate Godard’s accomplishments than one might suspect. Hopefully, the opportunity to see a translated version of the film will present itself in the future, but even if Godard’s obstinate wish to withhold subtitles continues to be honored, Film Socialism feels like a significant entry in the director’s body of work.

Rating: 59/100