Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Odds" and Ends

  • The first TIFF movie I saw this year, a Canadian teen-gambling thriller called The Odds (**/****, Canada First!), is unfortunately a tiny dot in the rearview now. What I remember of it is that writer-director Simon Davidson, shooting in 'scope presumably to announce his transition to a bigger canvas (he's a veteran of short films, all of which previously played at the TIFF), seemed to have a good eye but trouble maintaining momentum for the length of a feature. With its Psycho-esque shocker a half-hour into the film, in fact, The Odds comes to feel like a short with two more acts tacked on. And its distinctly "Degrassi"-esque vibe of kids playing dress-up affirms the wisdom of Rian Johnson's Brick in stylizing its high-school setting to abstraction.
  • If Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life was my favourite movie of the 2011 TIFF, my favourite moviegoing experience was Killer Joe (***½/****, Special Presentatons), William Friedkin's second collaboration in a row with Pulitzer-anointed playwright Tracy Letts, the Tennessee Williams of scuzz. It accomplishes two things I once thought impossible: 1) It made me a fan of Matthew McConaughey, at least momentarily; and 2) Though not based on a Jim Thompson novel, it goes to those quintessentially Thompsonian places in its final minutes that are always jettisoned when the movies adapt the author, either for lack of balls or lack of vision. I think I need another viewing to wrestle it into place in Friedkin's filmography; in many ways, it's not like anything he's done before (even Bug, with which it shares a trailer-trash milieu), and yet it feels as if only the guy who had 13-year-old Linda Blair masturbate with a crucifix could have made it. Killer Joe is exhilaratingly vulgar. (My respect for it shot up when a mass exodus of the audience began with just ten minutes left in the film.) I hope the buzz surrounding McConaughey, whose performance as the Mephistophelean title character is indeed one for the ages, doesn't drown out Thomas Haden Church's exquisite work as a dark variation on his "Wings" dimwit.
  • I hereby admit that I don't totally get Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt (***/****, Special Presentations). Here's the thing: it's pretty stupid, a shaggy-dog, barely-coherent, decidedly-underpopulated supernatural mystery that requires its hero to go to sleep for the plot to advance in any meaningful way. But along with being pretty stupid, it's transparently autobiographical, with Val Kilmer--so burly here that he looks very much like his director in silhouette--playing a cash-strapped, commercially-compromised artist grieving the loss of his daughter (who, like Coppola's son Gio, died in a boating accident). What I'm saying is that mere bad movies are rarely so conscious of themselves, and things like Twixt's cryptic use of 3-D--only two relatively uneventful scenes require the use of glasses, not counting the closing credits--suggest to me there's an unknowable intentionality in its alleged cheese. This is perhaps not personal but private filmmaking. In any case, it's not a hatefully bad movie like, say, Jack--if it's a bad movie at all, it's a lovable one that almost miraculously recreates the sensation of reading Poe (eventually a character in the piece essayed by Ben Chaplin) under the covers on a crisp autumn night. "Did you find that spooky?" an elderly woman asked me afterwards. "No," I lied.
  • That's a wrap until TIFF '12. I promise I'll try to see something outside the Special Presentations programme next year. (Weird how that worked out.) Thanks for reading!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (ds. Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky) + Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (d. Werner Herzog)

On August 19 of this year, the West Memphis Three--the no-longer-young men railroaded in a triple homicide that left a humble Arkansas town mobbishly seeking justice--were finally released from prison, making Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which premiered at the TIFF on September 11, instantly obsolete. (The film reveals their parole in a postscript that feels laughably abrupt after 100 minutes of handwringing.) Where 1996's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills dealt with the role of religious paranoia in the scapegoating of the West Memphis Three (who were accused of killing a trio of boys as part of a Satanic ritual) and its 1999 sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, was profoundly if not explicitly about the ineffectuality of the original as an agent of change, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is mostly a lot of housekeeping, a refresher course for viewers of the first two films and a lint trap for details about the case that have emerged in the media over the past decade. More a glorified DVD supplement than a documentary, the picture's at its best when it shows how easy it is to work up a head of righteous anger for dead kids by framing one of the fathers of the victims, Mark Byers, as the killer with "evidence" no less flimsily circumstantial than that which was used to condemn the West Memphis Three. (He had priors, his son's death didn't curb his criminal lifestyle--he must have done it!) In fact, Byers is compelled by his moment on the other side of the torch-wielding villagers to write a letter of apology to Damien Echols, the only one of the West Memphis Three on Death Row, whose head he called for back in '93. But by the end of the piece, another of the fathers, Terry Hobbs, has implicated himself in the killings by virtue of suing the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines for slander, and Byers hastily commits to this new version of events, drafting a giant pros-and-cons list that seals Hobbs's guilt in his eyes. Hobbs may well be the culprit (the DNA does not work in his favour), but the point is, eighteen years later, nobody has learned to let nature take its course--except the Zen-patient West Memphis Three.

Fast-paced and dense, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is bad for the blood pressure (the doddering old occult "expert," who so relishes the spotlight that he has all his various TV appearances scrupulously catalogued on VHS, is particularly infuriating), and as they were preparing to execute Troy Davis last Wednesday evening despite several key witnesses in his trial having withdrawn their testimony, I flashed back to the various men--the lead investigator, the judge, the D.A.--who had too much personal pride invested in the West Memphis Three's conviction to entertain the fallibility of the legal system. And when I learned that they actually did execute Davis, I thought of Werner Herzog's devastating Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life. The subject--capital punishment, specifically as it relates to a crime perpetrated in Conroe, Texas a decade ago--humbles Herzog in some ineffable way. His quasi-poetic narration is kept to a minimum and his interview subjects seem both less coached and, with a couple of glaring exceptions, less exposed to ridicule; in one case, Herzog's speaking to a person, Michael Perry, whose last words these will effectively be, and he is clearly not taking the responsibility lightly. The film is quintessentially Herzogian, though, in its anthropological curiosity and curious anthropology, with the father of one of the convicted killers shown to be a felon himself, serving time in the prison across the way. Herzog states in no uncertain terms that he is against the death penalty, but Into the Abyss is less a polemic than a sombre sifting-through of the collateral damage that collects in concentric circles around an execution. Almost two weeks later, I'm haunted by the woman who doesn't own a phone because it only ever brought news of another loved one's demise, by the Death Row supervisor who quit after an inmate casually thanked him, and by Perry's perhaps-madly chipper demeanour. An epilogue provides incongruous and dubious comic relief; I was grateful for it.
PROGRAMME: Real to Reel
Real to Reel

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Paul Williams: Still Alive (d. Stephen Kessler)

Stephen Kessler's fun, funny Paul Williams: Still Alive proves that you can revere and challenge a documentary subject at the same time, and in that sense, the film was a tonic after watching two-plus hours of Pearl Jam blow their loads into Cameron Crowe's waiting mouth. Paul Williams is of course the diminutive singer-songwriter who was a veritable Zelig in the '70s, his facile wit making him a favourite guest of Johnny Carson, his unique look making him a viable character actor, his whorish need for attention making him powerless to turn down any offer to appear on television. (The day after he won an Oscar for the Barbra Streisand song "Evergreen," he agreed to do "Circus of the Stars".) Williams didn't adapt well to '80s pop culture, in part because he could no longer juggle his career with drugs and alcohol, in part because, I would argue, movies, TV, and music all started becoming so image-conscious as to marginalize guys like Williams, nobody's definition of a pretty boy. According to his self-deprecating narration, Kessler, an Oscar-nominee himself (for the short film Birch Street Gym), idolized Williams in his youth for precisely that reason. I know that girls feel the phantom pressure of the media but believe me--boys do, too; Williams was a homuncular beacon among the studly John Travoltas and Burt Reynoldses, and though many of his career choices look tacky in retrospect, most misfits only saw that he was everywhere and felt validated, nay, vindicated, by his mainstream ubiquity. Ironically, the trouble with Paul Williams: Still Alive is that it's image-obsessed in a different way. Kessler catches up with the decades-sober Williams, whom he thought dead (hence the title) and who now enjoys a quiet life of performing on the casino circuit. He grills Williams about the crap larding his resume and Williams is philosophical about it all (at one point, he muses that Simon & Garfunkel probably wish they'd done more "Hollywood Squares"), bristling only when Kessler starts speaking to him from an ivory tower. In a phenomenally squirm-inducing sequence late in the picture, Kessler subjects Williams to an episode of "Merv" the latter guest-hosted with coke-fuelled hubris. (Remember that episode of 'The Larry Sanders Show" where the chance to guest-host went to Hank's head? Multiply the painfulness of that by a thousand.) The star's reaction, as the film portrays it, is to unload a storage unit filled with archival footage of himself. Williams's arc--rags to riches to rehab--is a familiar one but that's not the problem: the problem is that although Kessler periodically reminds us that there's more to Williams than kitsch (the melancholy strains of "The Rainbow Connection," for instance), no one needs reminding more than Kessler. **½/****
PROGRAMME: Real to Reel

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (ds. Mark & Jay Duplass)

I'm no mumblecore slut and found the two previous Duplass Brothers films I'd seen--The Puffy Chair and Cyrus--to be an off-putting cross between Judd Apatow and Henry Jaglom, but Jeff, Who Lives at Home is lovely. Jeff (Jason Segel) is an unemployed, 30-year-old pothead living in the basement of his widowed mom, Sharon (a surprisingly tolerable Susan Sarandon). He's obsessed with the movie Signs, but the filmmakers seem to accept, rather than ridicule, that it is simply the thing that helped him crystallize his fatalistic belief system, and that if his worldview were less limited by circumstances--namely, depression--he would perhaps have latched onto something more highbrow. When his mother calls him from work demanding that he go buy wood glue to fix a broken shutter, it's the beginning of an adventure-filled day that brings him into orbit with older brother Pat (Ed Helms), a paint salesman whose fears that his marriage is disintegrating are confirmed when he spots wife Linda (Judy Greer, gorgeously lit) having lunch with another man. (In a nice reversal of the reversal of expectations to which sitcoms have conditioned us, she really is contemplating an affair.) Meanwhile, Sharon keeps receiving Instant Messages from a secret admirer at her cubicle; it's a subplot that doesn't quite repeat the theme of interconnectedness but does provide a sweet sidebar as well as a nice comeback role for Rae Dawn Chong, who's hardly aged a day since Commando. Everyone here transcends their typecasting, including slacker balladeers Mark and Jay Duplass, who make a bid for mainstream success (two words: car chase) without precisely abandoning their idiosyncrasies, such as their camcorder- honed/derived aesthetic--which establishes a cinematic grammar that allows for shabby but essential angles like a shot of Segel's hair poking up from behind a vending machine. An opening-credits montage of family photos set to Michael Andrews's lyrical score manages to be uniquely affecting, however conceptually clichéd, while the final scene is an emotional sucker punch that reminds of About Schmidt in how tenderly it pays off a comic thread. A movie about broken people trying their best, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is warm, funny, wise, and only the tiniest bit cynical (two words: car chase), if at all. ***/****
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Countdown (d. Huh Jong-ho)

Speaking to my new friend George after a screening of the stylish but gratuitously long South Korean export Countdown, I said, "It was a good yarn, at least. It reminded me of the kind of thing Hollywood used to do and do well." "Yes, you can just see Bogie in it," he replied. Then, almost in unison, we both added: "Only the Bogart version would've been over in 90 minutes." Tae (Jung Jae-young) is a debt collector who receives a terminal diagnosis of liver cancer after passing out in traffic. Since his best hope is a transplant, he puts his skills to use tracking down the recipients of his dead son's organs: knowing their blood type will match his own, he hopes to guilt one of them into a reciprocal donation. Finally, he locates Cha (Secret Sunshine's luminous Jeon Do-youn, surely bound to be poached by the American studios any day now), the con woman who got his son's heart, and she agrees to give up a piece of her liver if he'll provide in exchange the whereabouts of a criminal kingpin on whom she seeks revenge. Underestimating her slipperiness, the increasingly weary Tae spends a frantic couple of days pursuing and protecting Cha in equal measure. What I haven't belaboured, which first-time writer-director Huh Jong-ho most certainly does, is the significance of the dead son, a Down syndrome sufferer whose final moments were captured on audiotape, thus facilitating Tae's poignant self-flagellation. Parallel climaxes and multiple endings all wallow in this kid's death--you'd think he were a real-life martyr--to the point of total desensitization. (As an aside, I can't remember the last movie I saw with this many psych-out fade-outs. The Return of the King, maybe?) But there's another casualty of Countdown's detour into bathos besides the film's cool allure, and that's the accountability of Do-youn's character, a true sociopath falsely redeemed in the tide of sentiment. *½/****
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Oranges (d. Julian Farino)

Except perhaps for Hugh Laurie, who tries valiantly but hopelessly to extricate the mannerisms of Dr. House from his American persona, The Oranges feels like it was cast by a computer--why are Alison Janney and Oliver Platt even still willing to read scripts that call for a sardonic homemaker and a schlubby hubby, respectively? Catherine Keener is Laurie's ballbreaking wife, Adam Brody and Alia Shawkat are their ironic offspring, and Leighton Meester is Shawkat's hotter frenemy; what happens is that rather than elevate the material, this archetypal, overqualified cast only exacerbates its familiarity. Distinguishing itself from the rash of post-American Beauty Suburbs Suck flicks with Wes Andersonian title cards (way to think outside the box!), The Oranges--taking its cryptically metaphorical name from the affluent New Jersey neighbourhood in which the film is set--finds two close families rended asunder when Meester's Nina rebounds from heartbreak with her father's best friend, David (Laurie), whose loveless marriage has him sleeping in his "man cave" most nights and counting down the minutes 'til his perfunctory mid-life crisis can begin in earnest. It's the Sundance version of Blame It on Rio, which is to say direly lacking in scenery and titties. It's also the feature debut of a director with lots of "Sex and the City" and "Entourage" episodes under his belt, which is misleading but fair warning nonetheless. */****
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Dark Horse (d. Todd Solondz)

For a while, at least, Todd Solondz's Dark Horse does suggest something of a response/antidote to the oeuvres of Judd Apatow and Happy Madison in general and Apatow's The 40 Year Old Virgin specifically. Jason Alexander-esque Jordan Gelber is Abe, a thirtyish man who lives with his parents (an embalmed Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) in his childhood bedroom and works for his father in a small office that does real estate business for strip malls. He drives a Hummer, listens to '80s music, and bids on "Thundercats" memorabilia when he's supposed to be filing reports. He abuses his status as the boss's son to cut out early and go to the movies--in an astonishingly meta moment, Solondz lets a few of those pre-show trivia slides play out in close-up--or Toys"R"Us, the logo of which is always cryptically blurred out. He pursues Miranda (Selma Blair), a pretty woman he met at a Jewish wedding, seemingly ill-prepared for his kamikaze bravado having any sort of positive effect on her. As it happens, having contracted Hepatitis B, she's considerably lowered her own marketplace value. (I love this as a rationale for the conventional hot chick/schlub pairing.) But although Dark Horse acknowledges, somewhat subversively, that a kind of manic depression has taken root in geeky Abe, Solondz is not so interested in exploring the societal forces that have conspired to make Abe a cultural stereotype and indeed a common iteration of the modern man. Instead, he gets caught up in a game of narrative rug-pulling straight out of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which finally allows him to string together a series of vignettes just as he's done, albeit with more cohesion, in his last couple of films. (I'm starting to think he can only write in terms of sketches.) Solondz has viewers so conditioned to his cruel ironies by now that most of this picture's were met by howls of approval at my TIFF screening, but the soul that saved Palindromes and Life During Wartime from disappearing into Solondz's navel is all but indiscernible here; two closing shots that should devastate us...don't, exactly, though they still manage to suck some air out of the room. **½/****
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Pearl Jam Twenty (d. Cameron Crowe) + Sarah Palin: You Betcha! (ds. Nick Broomfield & Joan Churchill)

When Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam Twenty was over, I lined up to use the bathroom between two other people, a woman and a man, who were at the same screening. The woman, who looked perhaps like she might've been in kindergarten when Pearl Jam's "Ten" came out, asked me, "That Chris Connell [sic], the guy with the--" she crooked her finger over her lip to indicate a pencil moustache, "--was he in the band?" "No," I said, "he's the lead singer of Soundgarden." "Oh," she replied, and I could tell this answer didn't satisfy her in the least, but the bathroom became vacant and she excused herself. Then the man behind me, who was closer to my age (36) and patchouli-scented, wanted to know what I thought of the film. I told him that as someone who lost track of the band--lost interest in it is the truth, but something told me not to say that, for he'd take it personally--after "Ten," I had trouble keeping up with it. He nodded sagely and said, "The thing about the drummers?"

It was as if he had read my mind: despite lead singer Eddie Vedder referring to drummers as "the heart of a band" and comparing the replacement of a drummer to "a heart transplant," the issue of Pearl Jam going through drummers like Kleenex is reduced to a jokey bit with guitarist Mike McCready. "Matt Cameron, the current one, is from Soundgarden," the man in line for the bathroom informed me. I was extra incredulous for effect: "Really? You'd think they'd mention that connection. It's relevant." "Yeah," he shrugged. "I loved the movie, but then I'm a superfan and knew the subtext." As Walter Chaw wrote of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, Pearl Jam Twenty is for an audience that "seeks the extra-sensory validation of their interior projections." The Thing About the Drummers is also indicative of a larger lack of controversy that beleaguers this glorified "Behind the Music" special. I stopped listening to Pearl Jam when they started making a concerted effort to be "less commercial," which is its own form of cynicism. Moreover, I felt disenchanted by the group's habit of adopting of every trendy political cause and by Vedder's childish polemics (see: "Bushleaguer" and its attendant hubbub). The film touches on each of these things, only in a way that is celebratory; a deadly combination of fanboy, friend, and Richie Cunningham, Crowe has zero objectivity about the band and transparently tries to protect them from embarrassment by skimming the surface of subjects--McCready's drug use, for instance--that can't be reframed in terms of artistic integrity.

Both Pearl Jam Twenty and Sarah Palin: You Betcha!, the latest muckraker from neo-exploitation filmmakers Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, preach to the converted (Palin h8rs in the case of the latter). But that's really all they do. Structured exactly like Broomfield's lurid yet undeniably enjoyable Kurt & Courtney, You Betcha! interviews many a scorned acquaintance from Palin's past--for a former mayor of an Alaskan podunk, Palin has amassed an impressively Nixonian list of enemies--as prelude to a climactic confrontation with Palin herself that happens limply in a public forum because Broomfield can't get close enough to her in private. Listen: I hate everything about Sarah Palin (including her stupid face, which is positively dick-shrivelling on the big screen), but these stories of her scandalous behaviour in the offices she's held burn too quickly as rage fuel and are destined to be dismissed as bitter gossip once they reach her supporters in an inevitably secondhand fashion. While I appreciate the urge to reiterate on the eve of the next presidential election that she's a Creationist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, hypocritical moron, the film deflates its own alarmism by suggesting her political career has already come to a definitive end and forgoes almost every opportunity to examine the cultural vacuum that allowed this ignoramus to flourish in the first place--which, history being what it is (i.e., doomed to repeat itself), may have extended You Betcha!'s shelf-life a bit. Though always mischievous, Broomfield's work used to have that Channel 4 veneer of sophistication, but he's strictly a tabloid journalist now.
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations
Real to Reel

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Dangerous Method (d. David Cronenberg)

I wish David Cronenberg would direct a script of his own again. A Dangerous Method is recognizably Cronenbergian in its careful anthropology (DePalma-esque, too, in its frequent use of the split dioptre), but it's also a hit-or-miss period talkfest, identifying it as a Christopher Hampton adaptation of a Christopher Hampton play through and through. Distilling all the expected body-horror in grotesque and painful-looking contortions of her jaw, first-billed Keira Knightley does fine if exhaustingly histrionic work as Sabina Spielrein, a patient of Carl Jung's (the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender) who becomes his apprentice while in therapy. Jung corresponds with the more popular Sigmund Freud (Cronenberg muse Viggo Mortensen, ingeniously cast against type) over Sabina's case as well as his own neuroses, and Freud eventually tosses another patient Jung's way, protégé Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), whose maverick disregard for the ethics of transference and countertransference ultimately influences Jung's decision to embark on an affair with the sexually-repressed Sabina. On some level, A Dangerous Method is Cronenberg's first out-and-out comedy, and though a few of the laughs are of the historically-superior variety, more still are born of the characters using psychobabble to rationalize their every surrender to their urges. (Also funny: that Freud is never not smoking a cigar.) Which is not to say the movie is especially satirical or irreverent. Indeed, the dense debates that blossom between Jung and Freud as the former attempts to broaden the latter's horizons beyond the psychoanalytic movement reveal a passionate respect for the work of these men, if an ambivalence--to borrow a Freudian term--towards their differing points-of-view. (The split dioptre is generally employed here to keep both Jung and Freud in focus.) Unfortunately, things get a little bit repetitive and tedious, culminating in an ending that feels somewhat arbitrarily placed; as much as I love Cronenberg, I was going to suggest that this stagy material might've benefited from a showier director--but then I remembered Julien Temple's Pandaemonium. ***/****
PROGRAMME: Gala Presentations

Thursday, September 8, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin (d. Lynne Ramsay)

Elliptical, sprawling, transfixed by the natural or at least the pseudonatural (chiefly, food), We Need to Talk About Kevin confirms that Lynne Ramsay is the heir apparent to Terrence Malick in more ways than just her lack of prolificacy. But she shows that his method can be used to more sobering, less transcendental effect. Where billowing curtains are a hopeful, ethereal symbol in The Tree of Life, here they signify death; where Malick has locusts wreak biblical havoc on the farm in Days of Heaven, Ramsay has ants devour a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich left angrily smeared on a glass coffee table. Her images, though no less pretty, are all about bringing you back down to earth. She's also more willing to be ironic (Tilda Swinton's Eva Khatchadourian, reluctantly enduring her fifteen minutes, hides from onlookers amidst a Warholian row of soup cans) and blackly comic--I suspect I haven't been with an audience this ashamed of itself for laughing since I saw Happiness, also at the TIFF. Based on the similarly fragmentary book by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin paints an impressionistic portrait of Eva's purgatory as the mother of eponymous bad seed Kevin (played, at various ages, by Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, and Rocky Duer), who only shows his true colours when he and his mom are alone together. It's ultimately something of a horrible sign of respect, but is it psychologically acute? The movie doesn't want to deliver any Simon Oakland speeches and I respect that, but in its caginess it effectively recapitulates the plot of Orphan, with a miscast-feeling John C. Reilly as the dimwitted husband making "boys will boys" excuses for his black-eyed offspring until it's too late. The saving grace is that Eva's in nearly every scene, suggesting a narcissistic degree of subjectivity that might account for not only the one-dimensionality of everybody else (including Kevin, who's entertaining but not that much more complex than Damien Thorn when all's said and done), but also the way that trick-or-treaters seem to be menacing Eva personally during a Halloween drive. Not to mention Ramsay's knack for imbuing objects with totemic weight (my stomach churned a little when I saw a guy locking up his bike outside the theatre afterwards), her brilliant song choices (Buddy Holly's "Everyday" scores the aforementioned Halloween montage), or her often inspired use of 'scope, like an overhead shot of a crowd stomping grapes (?) that evokes a microscopic view of cells suspended in blood. Truth be told, when she rhymed this later with an insert of actual cells--breast cancer cells, according to the closing credits--dividing, I felt disappointed, almost patronized. There's still so much to say about Kevin. ***/****
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Sunday, August 28, 2011

TIFF 2010: Wrap It Up

originally published September 27, 2010
  • The films are fading fast in the rearview for me (no reflection on them, necessarily), but before they become too vestigial I want to at least highlight the rest of what I saw at this year's TIFF, starting with a movie called White Irish Drinkers. How I wound up catching this flick is fairly embarrassing: the director is "John Gray," which I misread in my bleary, end-of-festival state as "James Gray." I was severely late for the flick, so I don't want to pummel it (or even officially rate it), but keen auteurist that I am, I figured out my mistake pretty quickly: James Gray just wouldn't have a naked girl (the maddeningly familiar Leslie Murphy) run around a cemetery with "free spirit" music cued up on the soundtrack--he's not a de facto film student anymore. Though it turns out that John Gray has an extensive TV-movie resume, having done everything from The Marla Hanson Story to the remake of Brian's Song, this feels very much the work of a novice, not a little for its pretensions to be the next Mean Streets. Because Stephen Lang salvaged Public Enemies virtually single-handedly, I was hopeful when he turned up here, but his character may be even more one-note than the one he played in Avatar. As his put-upon wife, Karen Allen has seemingly recovered from the stupefying euphoria of getting to resurrect her iconic Marion in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Strangely, I missed said goofy grin, yet she makes the most of a thankless role that indirectly references her previous brush with this genre, Philip Kaufman's The Wanderers. The rest of the cast is made up of baby-faced thugs who have to be given black eyes at regular intervals in order to pass for tough. On a related note, I never could shake the feeling that this is exactly the sort of project Vinnie Chase would be hot for on "Entourage".

TIFF 2010: On "Womb"

originally published September 19, 2010
I found the jury-rigged misery of Never Let Me Go a lot less provocative and haunting than the self-inflicted kind one encounters in Benedek Fliegauf's Womb, whose one-word title seems to not-unduly affiliate the picture with Jonathan Glazer's great Birth. I love this movie, but it took me a few days to digest it, and I'm not sure I'd have the patience to sit through it again. It's challenging from the get-go, what with the quasi-kiddie porn of its opening sequences, in which a beautiful young boy and girl start sleeping together, and the girl caresses her skin, then the boy's, as if trying to decipher some message between them written in Braille. (For pure eroticism, though, nothing trumps the pair watching a snail writhe across a kitchen table--and it's here that I wish I possessed Walter Chaw's vocabulary for discussing suggestively Romantic images such as these.) The girl, Rebecca, moves to Tokyo, and grows up to be played by Eva Green. She returns to the little beach community where she met the boy, Thomas (Matt "Doctor Who" Smith as an adult), and looks him up, having transparently spent the intervening years pining for him. When they meet again, he's so thunderstruck that he dumps his current girlfriend on the spot, and the two impulsively begin a life together as eco-activist--an amateur entomologist, he breeds cockroaches, speaking to indelibility and infestation--and muse. Just as suddenly, Thomas is killed on the way to a protest, and Rebecca, feeling cosmically robbed, has and implements the lunatic idea to be artificially inseminated with Thomas's clone and cultivate in the child an Oedipal complex, so that at some point in the future she will get to be with a facsimile of her lover, even if he is, technically, her son. What ensues is a distaff Lolita that makes up for in controversy (the incest angle) what it may lack in guts (all things considered, this is a fairly chaste film), though the Zen patience with which Rebecca courts Thomas II only affirmed the intelligence of the piece for me: you're just not going to see a woman exhibit the immoral lust of Humbert Humbert with the same urgency.

TIFF 2010: On "Let Me In"

originally published September 15, 2010
The logo for the refurbished Hammer Films that opens Let Me In is a little like the one for Marvel Films, only images of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing flutter past instead of Spider-Man and other "-men." I think it may have caused me to squee, as the girls say. The movie itself doesn't labour to honour the Hammer legacy per se--I had secretly hoped it'd find room for at least one slutty Victorian barmaid--but it does reverentially emulate its key source, the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, which Walter Chaw and I had on our Top 10 lists for that year. That Let Me In doesn't feel synthetic like Gus Van Sant's Psycho redux is something of a miracle; xenophobic viewers will get to have an experience roughly analogous to the original in tone as well as content--but do they deserve it? Me, I found it a pleasant sort of déjà vu, with Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas--ringers, both, in the final analysis--brilliantly cast as twin avatars of middle-aged pathos. Jenkins barely utters a line yet steals the show as the reluctant star of his own slasher movie (which has a curious resonance, given that the film is set in the genre's heyday of 1983), and writer-director Matt Reeves gifts him with the film's best (and most innovative) sequence, a white-knuckle car chase shot entirely from the back seat of an automobile. In the lead role of Oskar, née Owen, Kodi Smit-McPhee appears to be genuinely, heartbreakingly smitten with co-star Chloe Moretz, who initially struck me as too polished, too actressy, dare I say too pretty (between this and Hit Girl, I see a few too many Hinckleys in her future), though as Let Me In wears on, these qualities start to seem designed--she's a shrewder, if not preferable, take on a character who is, after all, grooming a replacement for her lackey. The bullying sequences are highly visceral, Greig Fraser's anamorphic cinematography captures the bleak Los Alamos winter without falling into colour-coded cliché (even as it's hamstrung by Reeves's prosaic shot-reverse-shot strategies),'s a little thing, but...the picture gets 1983 right, down to wholly ineffable details like body language. Reeves cut "the shot" (you know the one I'm talking about), but I actually don't blame him. If the mass exodus at my press screening during Moretz's first attack on an innocent is any indication, he's already fighting an uphill battle against the prigs. ***/****

TIFF 2010: On "John Carpenter's The Ward"

originally published September 14, 2010
Before we resume our regularly scheduled programming, a few words on a film evidently especially anticipated by readers of this site/blog. Like most movie fiends around my age of my gender, I'm a lifelong, dyed-in-the-wool John Carpenter fan, and I didn't hesitate for a moment to clear a space in my TIFF sked for his first feature film since 2001's Ghosts of Mars. He's been off his game for years--decades, even--and this is the sort of festival fare that makes me feel like I'm opting for peanuts over the vegetable platter, but still: a no-brainer. Alas and alack, that's doubly true of The Ward. Usually when Carpenter fails, it's because he overthinks--not this time. Amber Heard plays a new patient at a psychiatric institute for criminally hot chicks (fellow inmates include Danielle Panabaker and Lyndsy Fonseca), though Carpenter's so asexual you can forget about Sapphic overtones or witty leering. (This movie must have the most un-titillating all-girl shower scene in cinematic history.) The picture courts the MAXIM demo, verisimilitude be damned, because that's how you cast something you expect to go straight to video, and Carpenter's similarly nuance-free direction all but confirms he had no higher aspirations for The Ward. Which is why I'm baffled that the film is officially called John Carpenter's The Ward: he made it abundantly clear in Gilles Boulenger's interview book that he leaves his name off the title if his heart wasn't in it. A return to form it definitely isn't, in other words--but, worse, aside from its cannibalizing of a few Cundeyian Steadicam moves and the ending to Prince of Darkness (and, again, that lack of sensuality), it doesn't feel like a Carpenter flick. There's no mood, no tension, no originality (and all that that implies in a year which saw the release of Shutter Island). It's deeply stupid, without the balm of his inimitable style, or any style. It relies on jump-scares. It broke my fucking heart. 0.5/****

TIFF 2010 Day 2

originally published September 11, 2010
Friday began with Jack Goes Boating, the directorial debut of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also stars as the title character. Jack is an airport limo driver who's been the third wheel in the lives of his married friends Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Ruben-Vega) for so long that they've decided to intervene by setting him up with the mousy but receptive Connie (Amy Ryan). The movie, adapted--and, one suspects, significantly "opened up"--by Bob Glaudini from his own Off-Broadway play, casually parallels their burgeoning romance with the evaporation of Clyde and Lucy's relationship. In a fall preview on his delightful blog, Nick Davis summed up his level of anticipation for Jack Goes Boating thusly: "Loved Synecdoche but can't take much more schlub." Truer words, etc. Jack isn't just a schlub, he's the ur-schlub, a maddeningly static individual who has to be nudged into action like a soccer ball, and Hoffman lights and poses himself to look as appetizing as Grimace from the Happy Meals. I much prefer another passion project of Hoffman's, Love Liza: although it operates on the same demented frequency as Jack Goes Boating, there's a whole slew of theatrical affectations to contend with this time around. (You can eventually set your watch to Jack's nervous throat-clearing.) Ortiz is tremendously winning, though, in a bromantic role that reveals a lot more range, not to mention teeth, than Hollywood's ever given him a chance to show. Jack Goes Boating reminded one woman I spoke to of Rocky; I can see it if I squint.

TIFF 2010 Day 1

originally published September 9, 2010
I started the morning off on a bum note by boarding the wrong subway train (which caused me to miss The Town), but other than that, the day went off without a hitch. I found the new homebase of the Festival okay, spotted Karina Longworth (who like most critics of note looks part cartoon character), got mistaken for a stand-up comic (am I the only one who feels bizarrely contrite when this happens?), and managed to park my ass in a cinema just as Stone was beginning to unspool. As an aside, I now see a real upside to holding the press screenings at the Scotiabank instead of the Varsity, as the larger auditoriums are cutting down on the last-minute scrambles to find a seat; at both of my movies today, the first few neck-straining rows were almost entirely empty. It's a throwback, really, to the good old days of the Uptown.

Stone opens...if not promisingly, then intriguingly, with stand-ins for young Robert De Niro and Frances Conroy experiencing what is presumably only an uglier-than-usual day in a loveless marriage as she announces she's leaving him and he threatens to throw their baby daughter out the window if she does. Though this incident is never actually revisited directly, it informs every aspect of the De Niro character, a parole officer who uses his cases as a moral yardstick against his own transgressions and, as we've seen, treats his wife like a prisoner. Into his life enter convicted arsonist Stone (Edward Norton, doing voices now) and Stone's wife (Milla Jovovich), who's intent on expediting her husband's release through her considerable sexual charisma. Director John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil) frustrates: he has a nice eye for widescreen tableaux and good editing instincts, but despite their dramatic promise his films are crock-pots instead of pressure cookers, and Stone, like his previous work, never peaks in any way that could be conventionally described as satisfying. All kidding about his Travoltan croak aside, Norton is quite good, but the real stars of the show are Jovovich and the woman photographing her, Maryse Alberti, who shows her documentary roots in a close-up of the actress's blotchy legs, only to reveal a deepening interest in all the individual parts--the gumdrop toes, the antenna nipples, the dewy lips--that make up this authentically beautiful creature. De Niro is, alas, uninspired, and it doesn't help that his younger self is played by Enver Gjokaj, an actor with some of the hunger and tabula rasa range De Niro used to have; "Dollhouse" fans will wish for more flashbacks that fail to materialize. Worthy of further exploration: how Angus McLachlan's screenplay echoes the one he wrote for Junebug.

2009 TIFF Bytes #3.5

originally published September 23, 2009
Too long for Twitter, too brief for the capsule page, some quick takes on films screened at this year's TIFF:

A SHINE OF RAINBOWS (dir. Vic Sarin)
Gawd, this movie is so nauseatingly nice. And generic. And hackneyed--any seasoned moviegoer will be able to predict every single story beat in advance. Connie Nielsen and Aidan Quinn--neither of whom is from Ireland (the director, meanwhile? From India)--play an Irish couple who adopt an adorable stuttering moppet (John Bell) from the local Dickensian orphanage. Because the kid is timid, kind of effeminate, and more than happy to learn the ropes from Nielsen, stoic, grunty Quinn can't relate to him. But then tragedy strikes (as you know it will from the first moment Nielsen tentatively clutches at her chest), and Quinn goes on a bender, and the kid steals a boat, and Quinn's grinch heart grows three sizes when the kid inevitably capsizes. Did I mention the baby seal yet? Who is this movie for? ½*/4

There may still be another capsule at the mothersite, but otherwise this it for my TIFF coverage. Apologies that I wound up reviewing such underwhelming fare; I confess I didn't pursue the buzz very aggressively--a muscle injury, coupled with the unexpected death of a friend, left me at the start of the Festival with little physical or psychic stamina. I'm kinda bummed that in the case of both Werner Herzog movies I showed up at the wrong theatre, but on that I blame a seemingly genetic aversion to doublechecking. Thanks for reading, even if you haven't felt much like commenting!

2009 TIFF Bytes #3

originally published September 22, 2009
Too long for Twitter, too brief for the capsule page, some quick takes on films screened at this year's TIFF:
A Gun to the Head (d. Blaine Thurier)
Those who, like me, missed Male Fantasy, the sophomore feature of Blaine Thurier, may find themselves at a loss to distinguish between Thurier's growth as a filmmaker and advancements in digital video since his directorial debut, the better-in-retrospect Low Self Esteem Girl. Thurier's latest, the Vancouver-lensed A Gun to the Head, is comparatively polished, yet the film, with its focus again on suburban drug culture, feels dismayingly unevolved coming from someone who leads a prolific life that includes a steady gig as the keyboardist for the indie-rock supergroup The New Pornographers--even as it cops to a certain anxiety about abandoning comfortable milieux via Trevor (Tygh Runyan), a newlywed struggling with the demands of marriage in the face of his old freedoms. Basically a bush-league Mikey and Nicky, the picture has Trevor ferrying paranoid cousin Darren (Paul Anthony) all over town on a drug run just to avoid the dinner party his wife (Marnie Robinson, the spitting image of Jordana Spiro) is throwing back home; eventually the two run afoul of Darren's suppliers, who have already shown themselves capable of murder. I will say that Thurier is good with actors--this cast really brings it, with the suddenly-vivacious Sarah Lind a particular standout. (Revealing hidden comic chops, she plays a nasal-voiced bimbo who only picked up the word for "um" on her trip to Japan.) Lead baddie Hrothgar Mathews unfortunately bears a sometimes-striking resemblance to Glenn Gould the same year a documentary about the famous pianist plays alongside A Gun to the Head at the TIFF. Which leads me to... (**/4, by the way.)

2009 TIFF Bytes #2.5

originally published September 21, 2009
Too long for Twitter, too brief for the capsule page, some quick takes on films screened at this year's TIFF:

Vincere (Win) (d. Marco Bellocchio)
Structurally and even editorially, the oddly-titled Vincere (Win) is kind of a mess, but the badass opening scene hooked me. Therein, a slender, dark-eyed journalist with a good head of hair--you guessed it: Benito Mussolini--sets a pocket watch and gives God five minutes to strike him down; if he's still alive when time runs out, Mussolini (Filippo Timi) tells the pious crowd gathered before him, it means there is no God. I really wanted to like this guy, but the movie's about his mistress and alleged other wife, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who has the sort of face you can lose yourself in), whose story pretty much precludes any chance of that. Ida bears Mussolini a son and sells all her worldly possessions to subsidize his fascist newspaper, but as soon as his political career starts to gain a little traction, he has her exiled and eventually institutionalized. (Benito Jr. (Timi again) is committed as well once he reaches adulthood.) I'm not sure what the movie's out to prove, other than that Mussolini was a fucking fuckhead, but it's hard not to feel a subversive tickle during the fairly-graphic sex scenes between he and Ida, which reduce Il Duce in the act of giving him human urges. As much as veteran director Marco Bellocchio wants to honour Ida's Snake Pit ordeal, he does seem a little wistful about the aesthetics attendant to her ruin. Indeed, Inglourious Basterds might be the second-most cinema-fetishistic war movie I've seen this year, and it's hard to deny the strange enchantment of a war hospital tableau in which religious silents are projected onto the ceiling to placate the wounded. ***/4

2009 TIFF Bytes #2

originally published September 18, 2009
Too long for Twitter, too brief for the capsule page, some quick takes on films screened at this year's TIFF:
A Single Man (d. Tom Ford)
I can't speak for Christopher Isherwood's novel, which seems like it must be a pre-emptive eulogy for the relationship documented in Chris & Don. A Love Story, but the movie made from it is pretty embarrassing. For better or worse (worse, if you ask me), A Single Man is precisely what you'd expect from fashion designer Tom Ford, even if you can't quite picture that sensibility as applied to a movie set in the world of academia circa the early-'60s. (Cue much "Mad Men" envy.) I don't think I've ever seen digital colour-timing so serially abused, or so hammily: Colin Firth is an English professor trying to go about his routine after the recent death of his long-time companion (Matthew Goode, better than he was in Watchmen), whom he can't publicly mourn; every time he sees something 'sublime,' like a pretty little girl in a dress who asks him why he looks sad, the image goes from washed-out pastel shades to near-blinding Technicolor. Lee Pace, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Elisabeth Harnois are squandered inasmuch as one can squander those actors and Julianne Moore is cringe-inducing as a go-go lush hoping against hope that Firth will start to swing both ways, but the pièce-de-resistance is Nicholas Hoult, all grown up but still disconcertingly sporting the same head he had in About a Boy. Hoult's character, a student of Firth's who stalks him like a lost puppy, is ascribed an emotional clairvoyance Hoult himself is utterly incapable of conveying authentically. Indeed, he's matured into such a terrible actor that it's actually disturbing to watch him in scenes with Firth (solid here), as though he's some theatre geek who's cut himself into the film with iMovie. */4

2009 TIFF Bytes #1.5

originally published September 15, 2009
Too long for Twitter, too brief for the capsule page, some quick takes on films screened at this year's TIFF:

White Material (d. Claire Denis)
This is Claire Denis' very own
Gone with the Wind, and she seems to denote it as epic by shooting it in 2.35:1 widescreen. Headstrong Maria (Isabelle Huppert) struggles to keep the Vial coffee plantation operating in the midst of an African civil war despite accumulating exit cues. Her entire workforce heeds the evacuation call she chooses to ignore. She finds a severed animal's head among the beans. Her son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) goes mad after a brush with the rebels. Highly sought-after resistance fighter The Boxer (Isaach de Bankole) takes up residence in the Vials' shed far too conspicuously. And still she remains undeterred. One of Denis' most fascinating protagonists, Maria is an interloper everywhere she turns: a white woman in Cameroon, a divorcée living on the estate of her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert), the boss of a plantation she has no formal stake in; Denis subverts the paternalism of shit like I Dreamed of Africa, as you'd expect from the director of Beau Travail and Chocolat. But I have to admit, for all its indisputable richness of theme and craft, I found it a little tedious and just didn't connect with it; Walter's final words for Public Enemies ("It doesn't mean a thing to me") rang unfairly in my ears. No matter: Denis already made one for me this year (the lovely 35 Shots of Rum), and I am content to have discovered that Lambert is aging into a far more interesting actor than he ever was in his youth. **½/4

2009 TIFF Bytes #1

originally published September 13, 2009
Too long for Twitter, too brief for the capsule page, some quick takes on films screened at this year's TIFF:

Jennifer's Body (d. Karen Kusama)
I missed a good chunk of Jennifer's Body's first reel, so I think it would be dubious of me to assign it a star rating; nevertheless, it would have to be a hell of a redeeming opening for me to consider going higher than *. Why is Karen Kusama directing a movie this high-profile after the hard flop of Aeon Flux when Joe Dante's reduced to "Goosebumps"-style kiddie fare after the comparatively-revered Looney Tunes: Back in Action? Kusama again shows a special talent for blurring that fine line between camp and ineptitude (see: step-printed flashbacks to little girls playing with Barbies), and Megan Fox, the sex object from the Uncanny Valley, delivers some lines so sluggishly I felt bad for keeping her up. (Attention tit fiends: the paparazzi captured more skin with their zoom lenses on the set of this film than actually made it onto the screen.) I hope Walter or Ian tackles it in general release--it could really use the new asshole--but in the meantime I recommend Glenn Kenny's take for his articulation of the Diablo Cody Problem. ????/4

Mute Witness

originally published September 14, 2008
As threatened, a few stream-of-consciousness thoughts on Charlie Kaufman's latest...

When Synecdoche, New York premiered at Cannes, I remember being annoyed by how feeble the critical coverage on it was. But I get it now. This is a film I'm hard-pressed to describe, let alone review in depth, after just a single viewing. I can say that I see why Kaufman kept this one for himself rather than entrusting it to Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry—it's so dense and cryptic that it would be nigh uninterpretable by anyone but the source. Kaufman is a pretty meat-and-potatoes director, all things considered, but there are so many idiosyncrasies built into the material that it's stylish by default.

The film itself suggests an X-ray of a self-loathing artist's soul (he wrote without any intention of qualifying it). A miserable theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) receives the MacArthur Genius Grant and what he does with it transcends mere navel-gazing: he erects an exact replica of his life in a cavernous warehouse, eventually hiring actors to shadow him and his inner circle. (Synecdoche, New York reaches some mad crescendo when the boundaries between representative and actual realities have blurred such that doubles for the actors themselves start cropping up.) Once Kaufman started taking his games off court, so to speak, for instance by casting Emily Watson as Samantha Morton—the two are often mistaken for each other offscreen, and are certainly doppelgangers here—I found myself wondering if even Kaufman/Hoffman was a planned coincidence. That’s the kind of insanity this movie breeds.

TIFF File (Up Up and Away'd)

originally published September 7, 2008
The stars don't tell the whole story, of course, but for quick reference purposes, here's a rundown of everything I've screened so far @ this year's TIFF, followed by brief commentary:

    • Gigantic (d. Matt Aselton) - **
    • Synecdoche, New York (d. Charlie Kaufman) - ****(?)
    • Adoration (d. Atom Egoyan) - *
    • The Wrestler (d. Darren Aronofsky) - ***1/2
    • Not Quite Hollywood (d. Mark Hartley) - ***
    • Examined Life (d. Astra Taylor) - **1/2
    • Two Legged Horse (d. Samira Makhmalbaf) - **1/2
    • Rachel Getting Married (d. Jonathan Demme) - **
    • 35 Shots (d. Claire Denis) - ***1/2
    • Gomorrah (d. Matteo Garrone) - ***
    • Lorna's Silence (ds. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne) - ***1/2
    • The Girl from Monaco (d. Anne Fontaine) - **
    • Derrière moi (d. Rafaël Ouellet) - **1/2
    • A Christmas Tale (d. Arnaud Desplechin) - ***
So far I appear to be in the minority on Rachel Getting Married (the praise-by-way-of-Altman comparisons must have Altman turning in his grave) and Lorna's Silence (pretty much said it all in my capsule). On the other hand, I'm slowly coming around to the positive consensus on Cannes Grand Prix winner Gomorrah: its title a play on the Camorra, better known as the Mafia, the picture is about the trickle-down effect that organized crime has had on an industrial Italian city not unlike "The Wire"'s Baltimore. But if "The Wire" too often betrayed its gritty authenticity with platitudes and contrivances (in the show's defense, I think viewers ascribed a documentary realism to it that the creators themselves, telling a modern Greek tragedy, never actively pursued), Gomorrah is told at such a clinical remove that it actually made me feel a little sociopathic for how frequently disengaged I was by it all. And yet, I'm finding it has a half-life greater than almost anything else listed above. Go fig; just wish I could find a way to articulate that paradox.

Feel free to discuss "True Blood" in this thread, by the by; seems to be the non-TIFF highlight of the week. Viva Anna.

Why I'm Not Formally Reviewing 'Control'

originally published September 9, 2007Control is an authentic-feeling biopic about the late Ian Curtis, the epileptic front man for Joy Division who committed suicide--though a revisionist theory absurdly contends that he "accidentally" hung himself from the clothesline in his Manchester flat--in 1979 at the age of 23. Spoiler. Directed by music-video auteur Anton Corbijn and objectively lensed in black-and-white and 'scope by Martin Ruhe, the film overcomes the central miscasting of Samantha Morton as Ian's wife Deborah (though she would've nailed this role in her Morvern Callar days, she's far too long in the tooth for it now) with the near-perfect casting of Sam Riley as Curtis, Craig Parkinson as Tony Wilson, and Alexandra Maria Lara as Annik Honoré, a.k.a. The Other Woman. (Morton's incongruous star-power is easily explained by the basis for Control's screenplay: Deborah Curtis' own memoir Touching from a Distance.) The film is admirably not a hagiography while engendering empathy for a gifted asshole more successfully than, say, Man on the Moon, and the song recreations are surprisingly persuasive, although I was a bit disappointed with how literalmindedly the music is applied at times.

The TIFFing Point

originally published September 14, 2006
Two more days until I turn back into a pumpkin (or something like that), probably for the good of not only my health, but also that of FILM FREAK CENTRAL. Anyway, some more stopgap coverage for you...

FAY GRIM (d. Hal Hartley)
As far as this unlikely sequel to the brilliant Henry Fool is concerned, those hoping for a Before Sunset should brace themselves for a Texasville. The movie feels like it came out of Hartley sideways (or, conversely, all too painlessly), and it never really catches fire until Thomas Jay Ryan makes his long-delayed cameo as Henry Fool. By then, it's too little too late. **/****

BLACK SHEEP (d. Jonathan King)
A thoroughly superfluous mutant-sheep splatter flick that nevertheless hums along nicely. Due homage is paid to old-school Peter Jackson, Aliens, and the werewolf and zombie canons, but it's a lot better paced than the similarly-derivative Undead. **/****

BLACKBOOK (Zwartboek) (d. Paul Verhoeven)
Returning to Holland for the first time in over twenty years, Paul Verhoeven proves that while you can take him out of Hollywood, you can't take Hollywood out of him. It was kind of a relief to see a movie-movie after a string of homely indieprods, but I wonder how many more variations on the Anne Frank and Mata Hari stories I can sit through before I stop flinching in Pavlovian disgust at Gestapo iconography. (There's an unfortunately fine line between ensuring we "Never Forget" and desensitizing us.) If there's at least a flimsy rationale behind the homage to Basic Instinct, a "Three's Company"-style contrivance late in the game is merely indefensible. **/****

Keep an eye on the mothersite for more capsules as well as Walter's review of The Black Dahlia.

My TIFF So Far

originally published September 9, 2006
Seems we're all a little constipated right now but rest assured reviews are on the way; here's a quick rundown of TIFFpix screened thus far by yours truly.

BABEL (d. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
It coheres better than 21 Grams, but Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga are really spinning their wheels at this point. A few funny extratextual lessons are imparted: never take a Fanning to Mexico (Elle has almost as harrowing an adventure there as sister Dakota does in Man on Fire); and never trust a director who includes a post-script dedication to his children. As with 21 Grams, though, Babel doesn't make room for any intentional levity, eventually desensitizing you to all the calculated anguish. *½/****

HALF MOON (Niwemung) (d. Bahman Ghobadi)
Ghobadi has really honed his craft since the dire A Time for Drunken Horses; his use of 'scope here--thinking of the opening cockfight, or a tableau of exiled Iraqi women serenading a band of Kurdish musicians as they leave town--is particularly cinematic. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't find its "Waiting for Godot"-isms a little draining. **½/****

THE HOST (Gue-mool) (d. Bong Joon-ho)
I'm no scholar of the Man in Suit genre, but I feel pretty confident in saying that this is the pinnacle of giant-monster cinema. A Spielberg movie that doesn't wuss out (and that traffics in the kind of black humour that used to be his métier), The Host has a shot at becoming South Korea's first real crossover hit--so long as its American distributor doesn't do something stupid like remake it instead. ***½/****

Rather than grow with the demographic that helped make "Generation X" part of the vernacular, Douglas Coupland is like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused
, still courting the slackers because even though he gets older, they, with their disposable income and impressionable minds, stay the same age. A disingenuous sermon to the choir on the cul-de-sac of working a cubicle job that has the gall to hate money and Vancouver's film industry. */****

Click here for capsule reviews of Torn Apart (La Coupure)The Page Turner (La Tourneuse de pages), and After the Wedding (Efter brylluppet).

More Two-Second TIFF Reviews

originally published September 15, 2005
Wassup Rockers
 (d. Larry Clark)
Somehow the most humanistic film of Clark's career is also his most nihilistic. Nice to see him acknowledge the "other," but they're still skater punks. *** (out of four)

Romance & Cigarettes (d. John Turturro)
A fugue. In the words of David Lynch, "Fugues make me crazy!" Actually eager to rant about this one. *1/2 (out of four)

All the Invisible Children (ds. Various)
As with any omnibus film, hit-or-miss. I think I liked Kátia Lund's segment best, but John Woo does his best work since heading West. Your mileage will vary. **1/2 (out of four)

Two-Second TIFF Reviews

originally published September 12, 2005
 (d. Abel Ferrara)
Third-tier Ferrara, as evidenced by his choice of star (Matthew Modine). ** (out of four)

Heading South (Vers le sud) (d. Laurent Cantet)
Cantet works in dread the way some work in oils. A much-needed antidote to the twee likes of Ladies in Lavender. *** (out of four)

Takeshis' (d. Takeshi Kitano)
A kind of career summary for Beat by way of Buñuel; heard outside the screening: "Was that a comedy?" Short answer: yes. ***1/2 (out of four)

In Es-Crowe

originally published September 10, 2005
Because Cameron Crowe considers it a work-in-progress, critics at last night's TIFF screening of the interminable Elizabethtown were asked, in not so many words, to handle the film with kid gloves. (Apparently the folks at Venice saw a completely different cut.) So to avoid a flap, I won't be posting a capsule review at the mother site, but let me just say that the version I saw--which looked polished but by no means finished--makes one long for the subtlety and finesse of Garden State. (And really, how much more warning do you need?) Its epiphanies are so processed and its characters are so inorganically whimsical that the movie verges on self-parody (and it's possible that a performance of "Free Bird" by the Stillwater-esque Ruckus pushes it over the edge, albeit consciously)--the suicidal hero (Orlando Bloom, channelling Crowe surrogate Tom Cruise (Elizabethtown's producer)), for instance, plans to do the deed by rigging up his exercycle with a butcher knife to simulate a stabbing motion! While it may say more about my proclivities than about Kirsten Dunst that she still turned my knees to jelly even though I found her Claire insufferable, there is distilled in one aspect of Dunst's characterization virtually everything that is wrong with the piece as it currently stands: she does this thing where she pretends to take a picture, and the first time, it's fetchingly spontaneous; but by the third, you can smell the screenwriting. (I'm reminded of something Alex recently wrote concerning the cigarette-lighting motif in Now, Voyager.) And the presence of Susan Sarandon actually increases one's respect for the similarly-themed Moonlight Mile, which at least knew when to get the hell out of Dodge (hint: before Sarandon had a chance to embarrass herself with an impromptu stand-up routine/tap-dance number). Know that I really want to go to, er, town on this flick, but some form of chivalry is holding me back.