September 27, 2010

TIFF 2010: Wrap It Up

  • 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".
  • If the effusive headlines at AICN are any indication, the geeks were born to love James Gunn's fast, cheap, and out-of-control Super (**/****). I wasn't exactly indifferent, but I'm definitely burned out on these pomo comic-book movies. Aggravating the picture's been there/done that feeling is its pronounced debt to Taxi Driver, which Super rehashes with selective realism and a much greater emphasis on shock value. It also has a Troma patina--which is probably a hard thing for Gunn, who cut his teeth on stuff like Tromeo and Juliet, to shake--that makes the all-star cast look like they're participating in a telethon, although Ellen Page overcomes this obstacle to deliver another performance for the ages. As the ferocious sidekick to Rainn Wilson's homemade superhero the Crimson Bolt, she resists every impulse towards good taste and forces audiences to start recognizing her as a) an adult woman and b) a sexual being by modeling her skin-tight spandex costume as indecently as possible. Still, the film is so glib and so arch that I kind of resented its presumptuous detours into sentiment and tragedy.
  • I don't show my appreciation for Bruce Springsteen--an evergreen artist if ever there was one--often enough, thus in a way going to see The Promise: The Making of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" (**½/****) was a form of penance. But I confess I had an ulterior motive, which was to set foot inside Toronto's new state-of-the-art cinema complex the Bell Lightbox. It's beautiful. Huge, too. My visit was basically a hit-and-run, but I did of course get to audit one of the five spacious screening rooms, with its impressive corridors and seventies-brown, perhaps quintessentially Canadian interior. (The lobby is a mix of cool blues and modernist whites.) As for the Bruce doc, a quasi-sequel to Wings for Wheels: The Making of "Born to Run", it's a pleasant mix of fly-on-the-wall footage of the original recording sessions for the titular album and retrospective interviews with the E Street Band as well as various industry types. You've got to admire Springsteen's chutzpah in documenting and cataloguing his creative process with a borderline-Kubrickian obsessiveness long before his reputation warranted it, but as much as his collaborators bitch about his anal-retentiveness from their current vantage, he's such a benign genius that the studio material frankly doesn't generate a lot of electricity--at least between jams. Moreover, so much of it is presumed to need contextualization by the latter-day interviews that I grew restless with the constant cutting back and forth.
  • I don't know what to say, really, about Canadian Carl Bessai's Repeaters (*/****) or Ji-woon Kim's I Saw the Devil (**/****). Bessai has flirted with sci-fi tropes before but he's wading pretty deep into the genre pool with this indie riff on Groundhog Day, in which three rehab residents take the place of one weatherman. While these 12-steppers are more obviously inclined to seek redemption in do-overs than Bill Murray was, they might as well still be TV meteorologists: given that they cheerfully relapse upon realizing tomorrow now comes with a clean slate, it's a cheat that they're able to control and even forget their addictions once some semblance of a plot kicks in. The '80s-horror-movie coda doesn't help matters. The premise of I Saw the Devil, another film instantly enshrined by the geek cult, is that a serial killer locks horns with a Korean secret service agent, who uses every tool at his disposal to track his wife's murderer and thwart the bastard's attempts to claim another victim, thereby giving him a terminal case of blue balls. It's a potentially exasperating conceit rendered all the more so by the execution: the picture's too long, too repetitive, and neither stylish nor meta enough to get away with lazily-plotted scenes like the one where the presumed-unconscious killer overhears a crucial bit of information. I write this as a fan of Kim's A Tale of Two Sisters and his Leone pastiche The Good the Bad and the Weird.
  • Let's go out on a high note, with Eric Lartigau's The Big Picture (L'homme qui voulait vivre sa vie) (***½/****). (The literal translation of the French title is considerably more loaded: "The Man Who Wanted to Live His Life.") I actually don't want to spoil this one with a plot synopsis, because I can't discount the sheer pleasure I got from its constant gear-shifting. (This year's TIFF taught me that I'm learning to appreciate a good yarn well told.) Suffice it to say, the first act filled me with dread that this was going to be another film that sets out to punish the workaholic patriarch, only in French (it's in fact based on an American novel by Douglas Kennedy), but the picture soon flies off in a different direction, and then it soars--a draggy section of pipe-laying in the middle notwithstanding. What I love is its moral ambivalence, its neutrality: Romain Duris's Paul Exben isn't a bad guy, he just does bad things; and somehow, his acts of atonement are even worse, yet there is a certain consolation in that he's following his muse. We observe him with interest if not attachment. A literate epic,The Big Picture waxes poetic on everything from the nature of identity to the virtues of digital vs. analog (both reveal their boundaries in Paul's transition from one world to the other), to photography, to fame, to globalism... And let it not go unsaid that A Prophet's Niels Arestrup and Public Enemies' Branka Katic are absolutely lovely in pivotal roles that leave a little hole in the air when the movie's over.


Looks like we're gonna have to switch to comment moderation, at least for the time being. These fucking spammers--they ruin it for everybody.

Working on a TIFF wrap-up and there's lots of other cool stuff coming up, so stay tuned. Please don't be scared off by the comments approval; our standards will be as lax as always.

September 20, 2010

Boardwalk Empire Talkback

My two biggest issues with the show were evident in the ads though after last night's pilot I'm not really sure they are issues exactly.

1. Steve Buscemi is no James Gandolfini and he is no Jon Hamm. I like Buscemi and his directorial debut Trees Lounge, which he is in roughly eighty percent of the time, is easily one of the five best films of 1996. But he seems too broad and uncharismatic to carry an entire television series. (I find his henchman, played by Michael Pitt, considerably more interesting). Then again, I suspect that you could argue that Nucky Thompson isn't Tony Soprano and he isn't Don Draper. The line between politician and gangster is much more diffuse than in something like "The Sopranos". In fact, it might be something that we haven't seen before. I suspect the problem isn't that Buscemi is all wrong, but that he's just giving us something brand new.

2. Set in 1920, the show is a work of science fiction. Highlighted by a sideshow showing off incubators for premature babies and a strangely unfunny vaudville routine, the show has relatively few reference points to guide us through. I was so busy absorbing the alien culture that I found myself missing a lot of signficant plot points. Again, it might not be that it's wrong it might just be that's brand new.

Your thoughts though?

September 19, 2010

TIFF 2010: On "Womb"

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.

Beneath its sensationalistic hook, Womb is also solid pop anthropology, with Rebecca recreating original Thomas's environment as much as possible in the hopes of raising a true clone but finally bringing up someone who is, unlike his "father," unmotivated and kind of an idiot. (Though she appears to enjoy fucking him too much to care, new Thomas's girlfriend (Hannah Murray, who has the sexiest overbite I've ever seen--writer/director/composer/sound-mixer Fliegauf has an eye for carnal mouths) hits the nail on the head when she calls him "juvenile.") There are simply too many variables involved in how a child turns out, not the least of which the human soul. That none of this is actually put into words by the filmmakers shames Never Let Me Go, which wheels Charlotte Rampling out like Blofeld to speculate about souls in genetically-engineered individuals. Green is fabulous, by the way, a woman for the first time on screen and walking a tightrope with aplomb. There's ambivalence in her maternalism that's exactly right; accepting her predicament requires a huge suspension of disbelief, but she believes it first. ***1/2/****

September 15, 2010

TIFF 2010: On "Let Me In"

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. ***/****

September 14, 2010

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

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/****

September 11, 2010

TIFF 2010 Day 2

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.

The more aggressively deadpan Curling is the first film I've seen from the well-regarded Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté, and I'm getting a strong Kaurismäkian vibe from him--though VARIETY's review of Curling claims that Côté traffics in "arthouse misery." Maybe it's that a Canadian can see the humour in the sort of wintry desolation this movie depicts and an American can't. Real-life father and daughter Emmanuel and Philomène Bilodeau play, or perhaps role-play, Jean-François and Julyvonne Sauvageau, rural Quebecers trapped in a prison of the former's making. Lots of parents don't want their children to grow up, but Jean-François seems uniquely determined to freeze Julyvonne on the precipice of womanhood, sheltering her from the outside world to the extent that she doesn't go to school--he buys textbooks for her that probably collect dust--and doesn't get to go to work with him at the bowling alley (where the picture's most overt comedy springs from), because it's not "safe" for a twelve-year-old. She's left to her own devices at home, however, which ironically hastens her loss of innocence once she stumbles on some dead bodies (and, inexplicably, a tiger) during a stroll through the nearby woods. A slow burn that respects the audience's literacy when it comes to subtext, Curling is a gratifyingly dense piece that pings off zeitgeisty anxieties about powerlessness I wouldn't describe as exclusively parental. Further reading: Jason Anderson's cover story on the film and Côté's career in the latest issue of CINEMA SCOPE.

I succumbed to buzz by ending the day with Mark Romanek's Danny Boyle-esque Never Let Me Go, which proved not-uncomplementary to Curling in that they're both about dead-end indoctrinations of the young. Based on the beloved (and unread-by-yours-truly) Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Never Let Me Go represents an alternative history in which genetic cloning became possible in the fifties, inspiring the government to begin breeding people to give up their organs in adulthood; the story follows a love triangle from its inception at a Hogwarts-like school for future donors to its pitiful "completion" in sterile operating rooms. Never Let Me Go represents, too, my least favourite kind of exploitation: the polite, pretentious kind that, somewhat hypocritically, plays coy with the specifics while getting off on the emotional sadism of its high concept. (The movie is three innocents placidly riding a conveyor belt to a meat-grinder.) The blue-collar filmgoer in me would not stop asking literalminded but no less valid questions Never Let Me Go is above addressing, such as why don't these motherfuckers run? At the risk of accusing the book of same, the whole thing reeks of fear of genre, and while Romanek's direction is certainly moody, it lacks the tone-poem quality that might've transformed evasion into evocation. Credit where credit is due, the kid they cast as young Carey Mulligan (one Isobel Meikle-Small) looks so much like a shrunken version of her that it's actually topical, but my final recommendation is to watch Seconds or Blade Runner again instead.

CURLING: ***1/2/****

September 09, 2010

TIFF 2010 Day 1

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.

Post-Stone, I leapfrogged across the lobby to the much-anticipated I'm Still Here, which I have to FORCE myself not to type as I'm Not There. Here's my take on the whole Joaquin Phoenix-quits-acting-for-hip-hop thing: yes, it's a hoax--and what's pissing him off in this film is that everybody sees through it. (It suggests he's not a very convincing actor after all.) There are scenes in this movie, like when Puff Daddy tells Phoenix he doesn't like his music enough to take it on as a producer, that are just too well-timed in the vein of embarrassment comedy. Apropos of which, I liked Puff in this a lot more than I expected to: he has this great lecture about the democratization of the entertainment industry disrespecting the hardworking, talented people who deserve to be in it. Ben Stiller's cameo is heroic, too, and we infer real vitriol in his mocking impersonation of Phoenix at the 2009 Academy Awards. I also believe that Phoenix genuinely desired a break from (traditional) acting, that I'm Still Here is going to be as difficult for him to live down as a season of "The Surreal Life" would be, and that he needs a hug. And a Bowflex. Ian's got a full review of this one in the pipeline.

BOTH FILMS: **/****