September 23, 2009

2009 TIFF Bytes #3.5

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!

September 22, 2009

2009 TIFF Bytes #3

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.)

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (ds. Peter Raymont & Michèle Hozer)
Going in, I knew nothing of Gould beyond what I gleaned from Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, and coming out, I mostly lingered on how miscast that film's Colm Feore seems in retrospect. This is a conventional womb-to-tomb doc, chock-a-block with interviews and archival materials and predictably more fun in the earlygoing when its subject is eccentric than near the end when its subject is damaged goods. Over and over, it piques--then sates--curiosity with a reassuring rhythm, but that clunky, arrogant title has a reach exceeding the filmmakers' grasp on the sphinxlike title figure; mileage will of course vary depending on one's degree of Gould-love. **½/4

September 21, 2009

2009 TIFF Bytes #2.5

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

September 18, 2009

2009 TIFF Bytes #2

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

Trash Humpers
(d. Harmony Korine)
Harmony Korine dares you to hate this movie...and I accept. Shot (and edited) on VHS in Korine's hometown of Nashville, it's "about" people in old-people masks--including Korine and his asshole wife, Rachel, who spends the last five or ten minutes of the film traumatizing an actual infant--who dry-fuck garbage cans--you didn't think that title was a metaphor, did you?--and find various horrible ways, in vignette after endless vignette, to amuse themselves. An elderly man degraded by a French-maid's outfit recites poetry while one of the titular humpers--who look more like burn victims than like anything else--sets off firecrackers (a Putney Swope/Boogie Nights reference? How cutting-edge). In the next "scene," the poet is dead on a kitchen floor, his throat slit. My problem with Trash Humpers is not that it's stupid, ugly, masturbatory, and tedious, it's that, unlike Gummo, it doesn't transcend all those things to become simultaneously sublime, beautiful, titillating, and rewarding. Whatever you think of Mister Lonely, this is a regression, a tragedy akin to watching an alcoholic relapse. I agree with critic Dennis Lim's theory in the latest CINEMASCOPE that Korine effectively invented YouTube with the man-vs.-chair sequence from Gummo, but YouTube exploitation is a dilettante's game, and so is courting pure shock; Korine is just too old for this shit.* With any luck, he just needed to get this out of his system--like diarrhea. ZERO/4

*Then again, so am I, I guess.

September 15, 2009

2009 TIFF Bytes #1.5

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

September 14, 2009


He was physicality personified for children of the blockbuster. Shirtless, tousled, he proclaimed Baby eternally free from the proverbial corner and, in coining another eternal phrase from the Me Generation, declared that pain didn’t hurt. I didn’t reassess Patrick Swayze until his appearance on SNL convinced me that he had a sense of humor about himself. I always liked Road House, but after that, I began to appreciate it as something a little more than just a camp curiosity. It’s a little self-awareness that found Swayze as the pederast in Donnie Darko towards the end; that this embodiment of meat and mimic motion was also the dancer; the devoted husband that spent the last 20 months of his life penning a memoir with his wife of almost forty years. Obits today are almost universal in identifying the two key Swayze pictures as the two most successful: Dirty Dancing and Ghost. But my favorite is his big brother turn in Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders – his Bodhi from Point Break a close second. As big brother/mentor his physicality makes sense: imposing, the avatar of some order – it comes clear why he was cast notably as a philosopher who happened to kick ass along the way. Of course he did, look at him. Dirty Dancing and Ghost exploited his physicality: one obviously, the other by mining the film’s only pathos from the denial of it. The Outsiders honored it. And so it goes.

Here's a link to
One Swayze Summer for the curious.

September 13, 2009

2009 TIFF Bytes #1

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

My Toxic Baby (d. Min Sook Lee)
This one's a documentary, only 45 minutes long, and scheduled to air on Canadian TV in the coming weeks. It's nightmarish, but not for the same reason it intends. Director and narrator Min Sook Lee is a new mother growing increasingly paranoid about the invisible threats to her daughter; in the film's best sequence, she invites a toy tester into her home to check for lead and soon has him scanning her whole kitchen for traces of the stuff. (Cut to: hubby tearing out the cupboards.) The punchline is that a tox screen reveals her daughter is practically antiseptic, though Lee's closing voiceover suggests she won't be satisfied until the kid's fitted for a Hazmat suit. Setting out to enlighten and inform her fellow parents, Lee instead captured the onset of OCD from the eye of the storm. Also: Pox Parties? Ick. ***/4

September 06, 2009

Once a 'Ponyo'

It's easy to look at Ponyo's fairytale roots, and especially its stateside Disney pedigree, and write it off as another bastardization of Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Mermaid" fable. That's not incorrect, but it is simplistic, because Hayao Miyazaki can reinterpret any damn thing he pleases and make it something valuable and new. Andersen's story offers a perfect vehicle for Miyazaki's longtime pet obsessions — metamorphosis and nature pushed off-kilter — and like its source, Ponyo recognizes that love is often what drives us toward the worst disasters. "She's now a little girl, and she loves a little boy, and the whole world is out of balance," moans Ponyo's father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), and that's it in a nutshell: The beginning of love is the end of the world as we know it.

The Disney flourishes upon this elegant piece — stunt voice casting, junior Mouse House stablehands thrust before the microphone, and a shitty, abominable closing song — don't overwrite Miyazaki's touch. The tale is too simple, the execution too masterful. It's of a piece with the great Princess Mononoke, which similarly found lovers from different worlds facing ecological catastrophe, but its message is cast toward a different listener, much younger than I.

For love of Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas), the merchild at first called Brunhilde (Noah Cyrus) gives up the name her father gave her in favor of that bestowed by the human boy. Rather than rescue her prince from a storm like Andersen's tragic heroine, Ponyo brings the storm herself in a quest to reunite with Sosuke. The moon is falling because this magical child loves a mortal, and she'll blithely inundate the world to reach him. The sea princess skips atop massive swells drawn straight from Hokusai's
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa and carries the tide right to Sosuke's door. (Little Brunhilde's soundtrack, in her assault on the land, is very much like "The Ride of the Valkyries.")

As for Sosuke, he loves Ponyo in return, but by slipping into that trap he loosens ties with his mother (Tina Fey), and finds reason to worry that his father (Matt Damon) may have died at sea. Andersen's story was all about mortality, and characters here are threatened with death more than once along their road — a road, by the way, that's also traveled by beautiful armored Devonian fish – but we tend to forget the source material also provides a note of transcendent hope in its tragedy. The men of
Ponyo, from Sosuke's semi-neglectful father to the fretful water wizard Fujimoto, are invariably out of their depth in dealing with this crisis of love. The women — Sosuke's resourceful mom and Ponyo's vast and unknowable mother-goddess (Cate Blanchett, talking like Marlene Dietrich so we won't confuse her with the other goddess she's played) — have a secret insight to this mystery, something they won't share even with the audience. With the exception of elderly Toki (Lily Tomlin), who bears the standard folkloric warning against a sea-being living among mortals, they understand that love will out, though the heavens fall, and that a sanctified love can actually support the moon in the sky.

Oh, and my two-year-old loved it.