Toronto capsules — Day 5
A SERIOUS MAN (Coen Brothers, USA, 1)
After the happy accident of BURN AFTER READING, the Coen Brothers are back to their usual comic form with another snarky cartoon minstrel show, a contemptuous put-up job that looks down on its characters and the caricatured world they inhabit for no discernable reason, and here manages to add “profoundly stupid and borderline blasphemous.” Very early in my viewing notes (the previous scrawls refer to the next-door neighbors going hunting), I have it written “why am I so not liking this.” And on a few day’s reflection, I realized it was because of the tonal and plot resemblances to my all-time least favorite Coens’ film, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU (the overdone minstrelsy, ending with a natural disaster that has theological implications), and the way that the central character, a Job figure, was too put upon for anything resembling believability, sense or even funny stylization — every person around him is one-note and played in an extremely shrill chord. And the Coens’ baroque writing and directing style manages to turn it all up to about 12.
The contempt oozes off the screen — the first thing we learn about a certain character is that he gets pus drained from his neck regularly (and sure enough, guess what he’s doing on first viewing); the daughter does nothing but complain about bathrooms but in a way that doesn’t want the bathroom just the complaint; one of the very first things we see is a doctor smoking (cue audience laughter, prompted by how the Coens have him play the scene); there are two Asian characters that had me thinking “you know, maybe Ryan was right about FARGO”; the next-door neighbor just glowers suspiciously and do nothing but act “Minnesota caricature” like deer on the car roof on Hunting Day (but with none of the sense they had in FARGO); there’s an enormous lecture-room blackboard filled to the edge with equations “proving” the uncertainty principle that is 20-feet high (i.e. unusable); when the son walks into a family dinner, they are all slurping soup loudly (what Americans do that). Basically, I just wanted everyone on the screen to stfu.
Then we get to the film’s attempt at profundity, in telling a Job-like story set among late-60s Minnesota Jews, which manages to make Woody Allen look like a sage and almost makes me want to convert to Judaism so I’d have the right to spit on the Coens for dishonoring “our people.” There’s nothing wrong with the concept — the Job problem and the apparent absence of God will be with us forever — but the execution and resolution indicate the Coens just can’t turn off the snark. One rabbi tells the Job-hero a parable about a Jewish dentist so absurd in its premise (Hebrew characters carved into the inside of a Gentile’s teeth) that you can’t take seriously the supposed moral of the story (“try helping people, it can’t hurt”; and that the dentist eventually stopped looking). Another rabbi tells him “God doesn’t owe us answers, the obligation goes the other way,” which is warmer and in fact the final answer the Old Testament Job gets, but the Coens indicate they don’t take it seriously by having their “Job” essentially repeat the initial question. We also get a different and IMHO the real answer to the “Job/theodicy” problem, where the hero’s brother flees to Canada with “Job’s” help and tells “Job” tearfully as he departs that God has given him nothing, but given “Job” everything. Or more colloquially, “the grass is always greener”; or more Christianly, we all bear the Cross but only feel our own). But then the Coens piss on that by having the Christian family next door shoot the two while hunting “great son … there’s another Jew, get him” and having it all turn out to be a dream. The film concludes but upping the blasphemy quotient by having the son’s go through his Bar Mitzvah ceremony through a drug haze and then getting to meet a hugely profound rabbi that won’t speak to the father, only to have the rabbi recite Jefferson Airplane lyrics to him (“when the truth is found to be a lie” … hmmm), and conclude “just be a good boy.” As anything that any serious man would say, “be a good boy” is profoundly stupid. Any serious man knows that this is one ginormous question-beg — it presupposes the actual answers religion and philosophy provide and which are the points in dispute — “what *is* good” and “*why* be good.” In the Coens hands, 5,000 years of Jewish thought gets reduced to a fortune cookie.
GET LOW (Aaron Schneider, USA, 3)
It’s bad enough that a film is bad. But how can a writer-director making his debut produce something this staid, this calcified, this ““? Dan walked out and Jason and I both nodded off for a bit (neither of us missed anything; the film is that transparent and obvious). It’s a classic valedictory tale — old man sees death, and decides he wants to attend his own funeral and hear all the people had to say about and then have his own say too (wanting to avoid a bad eulogy was the moral George learned in an episode of “The Jeffersons”). The minute you see as an ornery old cusser who shoots visitors you know there’s gotta be some hidden wound, some secret heartbreak, some injustice at the heart of his ostracism. And when an old woman from the past comes into town from years away, whaddya wanna bet she has some connection with the old tiger and that he’ll turn into a pussycat around her (though there has to be a time of trial and quarrel before the cathartic revelation). The physical plant is well-reproduced and Duvall is never not good — but the direction lacks flavor, and the script is made of mediocre — basically an Identikit movie, made of plots and characters pasted in from other movies.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED (J Blakeson, Britain, 9)
To be perfectly honest, I fear I may be overrating this, as I had just seen two dogs in a row and hadn’t been having a good festival. And it is definitely in my aesthetic wheelhouse: plotty, tight, tension-filled and largely following the classic Aristotelian unities — TAPE meets A SIMPLE PLAN, I quickly IM’d a friend. The first words in my notes are “grabs you right away,” with a scene of two men shopping for a bunch of stuff, cut as quickly and methodically as their shopping. Then they set up shop and it quickly becomes clear that what they’re doing is setting up a kidnap plan, converting a van and an apartment into the perfect crime scene — buying yards of soundproofing material and then stapling it over every inch of the walls. The plan is as methodically worked out as the film itself; the film’s and plan’s styles are spare, but direct and blunt.
ALICE CREED basically a one-set, three-handed stage play (actually two sets — the action goes somewhere else, though just as enclosed and claustrophobic as the apartment, for the climax) between two kidnappers, jail mates out to commit the perfect crime and retire on the millions in ransom money, and their victim, who starts out (as she should … sorry, feminists) as basically an object, albeit a loud and uncooperative one but then becomes an agent and by the end, the drama’s fulcrum. Like TAPE, though with less nauseating handheld-in-an-enclosed-space camerawork, ALICE CREED is about two men competing for the loyalty of one woman. But it’s more than that , though I have to talk vaguely because the movie’s greatest pleasure is the twists and turns of its plot. ALICE CREED is also about the viewers’ loyalties and identification too — like most crime movies, it starts with the abstract criminal plan and thus with the criminals, then shifts ID to the victim when he becomes concretized. But what happens when the three begin to interact is that she becomes less sympathetic on a couple of counts and some reveals about events of the past recode what we see.
I can talk about the actors though — all three superb in their different ways. As the kidnappers, Eddie Marsan (whom I saw two people in line away from me later in the festival) and Martin Compston are well-cast and look right — Marsan’s weaselly face and aggressive manner, and Compston’s fresh-faced but wannabe-tough guy establish the dominant and recessive partnership right away even before some of the reveals. Compston has the same Glaswegian wit I loved from SWEET SIXTEEN (my favorite line in the movie: “wit can ah say; mah shite disnae stink”). So when a certain ironic event happens (it involves a bullet) and Compston collapses onto the floor and laughs in gallows irony, it actually works because of who he is, despite what I said re BIG DIG about not liking onscreen laughter. As for Marsan, he is capable of being more threatening than he was in Leigh’s HAPPY GO LUCKY without as much spittle. The title role is played by Gemma Arterton, and it’s impossible to say on this basis whether she can act with any subtlety — she only really is required to do two things and both in very high registers of terror — plead and be angry. But she does deliver. Literally.
SOUL KITCHEN (Fatih Akin, Germany, 6)
This may sound like damning with faint praise, but SOUL KITCHEN is basically the world’s greatest 12-inch-single remix of episodes of “Alice” — which is both its strength and its limitation. The film even invites the comparison — I don’t know how consciously; it’s also the style of blaxploitation — by having the credit style and opening music conspicuously come from the 1970s. Seriously, this story about a Greek’s effort to run a restaurant in Hamburg so resembled “Alice” in the multiple character-plot strands that I began mentally ticking off real “Alice” episodes — Mel losing the restaurant in a poker game; Mel wanting to get out of the business and sell the diner, leaving Alice, Flo and Vera out in the cold; Mel being incapacitated by a back injury; the women learning to cook without Mel around; Mel hiring a new chef to upscale the menu; a private party wrecks the diner; threats to close the diner by health inspectors. Every one of those is an actual episode from “Alice,” plus such recurring themes as Flo’s romantic issues, a dessert made with an aphrodisiac, the motley crew taking on The Man and so on.
But as I say, I mostly mean this as praise, if limiting praise. SOUL KITCHEN knows it is derivative and sitcommy and has as much fun with its “remix” as you can expect with such a movie. The upscaling chef is a comic delight, and I wish there had been more of him particularly — we’re introduced to him at another restaurant refusing to heat gazpacho as a blasphemy against his cooking and he has a way of expressing himself with knives. The movie’s best scene involves him taking a simple diner-fried meal and before the owner’s eyes, repackaging just a fraction of it as haute cuisine that’ll sell for 45 euros (mixing mayo and ketchup was the capper). And don’t worry — everything turns out happily in the end, even after I wrote in my notes “this is basically a movie of defeat.” The film also works as “food porn” — luxuriating in the sight of banquets and meals being prepared and whatnot. Speaking of sex, the thread about a food aphrodisiac is the essential plot behind LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, a Mexican film from the early-90s that was one of the biggest foreign-language hits ever. And make no mistake, this movie also is a crowd-pleaser (I’ve overheard three strangers in lines or in audiences saying it was their favorite film of the festival. If SOUL KITCHEN is handled correctly by the right distributor, it will be (not “could be”; “will be”) the biggest foreign-language hit of whatever year it comes out.
MY DOG TULIP (Paul & Sandra Fierlinger, USA, 3)
A couple of years ago, an estrangement began (there were later causes too) between myself and a Christian critic over the announcement that ZOO, based on a notorious fatal case of horse sexual abuse, would play at Sundance. I defended the notion that one could make a worthwhile film about excessive or obsessive love between humans and animals (not necessarily that Robinson Devor did make one — we were all operating in a critical vacuum, a key part of why I saw his post as sheer demagoguery). One of the films I cited was WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU, based on a J.R. Ackerley novel about a man’s dog whom his gay lover comes to see as representing him while he serves a prison term. So I was excited at the possibility of a film from another Ackerley novel on a similar topic. MY DOG TULIP is also set in post-war Britain, and also centers on an Alsatian and on its relationship with the owner, the narrator of the film. Christopher Plummer narrates very well, but in a way that’s too dry, charming and witty for the film’s eventual own good — more on that anon.
The animation was interesting in a low-tech kind of way; the drawing is resolutely two-dimensional and keeps the look of paper-and-pencil sketches (though it was actually entirely done on computers with no actual trees having to give their lives for this project). Indeed, the look is even more radically stripped down to a schoolboyish few lines on lined-paper for the several “imagination” scenes. The style is resolutely that of, appropriate to the setting, and reminding me also of the illustration style of the British kids books I had as a boy — Paddington Bear, Puffin editions of Milne or
But what an unclean experience. The content of the two works really left me irked, and a programmer buddy told me his wife also loved WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU and sought out this book on that basis, and had the exact same reaction — that it’s nothing more than a very adolescent obsession with bodily functions. You could imagine Beavis and Butt-head being asked to write about owning a dog and producing something like this. Most of the movie (and I assume the book too), and I’m not exaggerating when I say “most,” centers on rituals surrounding peeing, crapping and mating — mostly the dog’s and the narrator’s fascination thereat, though we’re helpfully told of the epiphany of Tulip becoming as interested in his human urine. Nor is it simply the story, it’s also details in the drawing like showing a randy maid with two large curves under her chest or showing Tulip (a female) with eight such curves (the drawing is sufficiently stylized and low-tech that realism is no excuse). And when the narrator described using Vaseline to facilitate Tulip’s receiving the attention of a male Alsatian, I pretty much checked out of the movie. Not necessarily because of crassness or crudeness, because MY DOG TULIP isn’t exactly either — I am not an easily offended person and I might have enjoyed a bawdily-toned openly X-rated cartoon like FRITZ THE CAT. But because the dry narration and understated animation, when combined with a schoolchild’s focus on clinical discussions of sex and waste, frankly creeped me out. Because the people making it are not schoolchildren. The book/film have the aura, not of watching a porn movie, but of looking at a flasher walk down the street waiting to strike or of sitting on the lap of an old man in a raincoat. You just feel more weirded out the more charming and apparently-witty the descriptions become, like how the subject of an unsuccessful effort to mate Tulip “is one that requires no further enlarging upon.” Enlarging? Huh-huh, huh-huh. Yeah … hehehehe … He said “enlarge.”