Rightwing Film Geek

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 9


I refused to see the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes [sic] film when I saw that the trailer had him as a bare-knuckle/pit/cage/UFC-for-the-under-35-male-demographic character. Sherlock Holmes does not kick ass. And if you want to have a 19th-century English detective who does, then create one of your own. But maybe this film got away with a similar gambit simply because of my ignorance of the intricacies of the Tang dynasty (apparently “Detective Dee” is a historical figure, whom Tsui said he wants to make rival Sherlock Holmes in world consciousness). But then, DETECTIVE DEE also has the only 7th-century Umayyad ambassador who speaks perfect 20th-century Castilian Spanish, which I doubt many Chinese viewers will notice but which mightily annoyed this Westerner for as long as he was in the film (just the first 10 minutes, more or less). There’s also Chinese-pandering thematic elements, which I won’t spoil and can’t really say I minded, but which is an unmistakable, if weak-tea, version of the ending of HERO, widely derided as fascist.

As for the action, well … one of the seminal moments of my filmgoing life was the start of the opening fight in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON when one of the characters suddenly, unexpectedly and as-if-entirely-routinely starts running up the side of a wall. That specific moment popped my eyes out and ever since then, my opinion of wuxia fight scenes has pretty much turned on how continuous the stunts are — Jackie Chan actually is doing most of what you see. You get some of that here — I love the 100-foot hops in real time, e.g. — but Tsui’s style is probably too edit-heavy for me ever to embrace fully.

But this film is too much fun and with too much declamatory ass-kicking to denigrate. All the “Sherlock Holmes” mystery-detection elements are there — clues, secret agendas and the man  with brains figuring things out with the help of sidekicks who might have their own agendas. There’s even an overture featuring a particularly creative method of death, which the detective figures out. Only because this is a wuxia movie set in 7th-century-China, it’s a phosphorus poison that, when activated by sunlight, causes the body to burn to a crisp from within, hence The Phantom Flame (I am not making this up. And it comes back in the movie’s best scene, dramatically.) No movie that features talking deer as religious oracles, **and then as kung fu fighters** will not have a sweet spot in my heart. DETECTIVE DEE also has characters catch in-flight swords with their hands, and black-clad ninja assassin teams who’d rather die than be captured. It’s all very agreeable popcorn nonsense and in a world where American multiplex viewers didn’t a-priori dismiss subtitled films, this film would be a huge US hit.

OF GODS AND MEN (Xavier Beauvois, France, 9)

Contrary to appearances, I’m not just putting out for the Catholic film about holy martyrs, for a film about an Islamist terrorist attack on an Algerian monastery of Cistercian monks. I actually had some serious reservations going in about OF GODS AND MEN and several ideas about where it could go wrong — as an easy ecumenical homily or as a liberation theology wankfest. (The review at Slant perfectly describes a film I would dislike.) And I do think the film a little too eager at the start to burnish its ecumenist street cred. For example, it is hard to believe Brother Christian (the monastery’s head played by Lambert Wilson) would have no idea where the Islamist terrorists had come from, as he says. It was a reaction to the Algerian army’s nullifying an election the Islamist political party was poised to win, with the stated intention of imposing Sharia law and dissolving democracy as un-Islamic.

But neither of these things happen for a couple of reasons — one is that the film is as liturgically structured and as theologically engaged as the monks’ lives. It’s not as rigorous on that front as INTO GREAT SILENCE (how could it be), but there’s more than enough of it to make clear that these are men of serious religious conviction, not social workers, in Mother Teresa’s famous formulation. The prayer meetings, masses and readings often turn out relevant, and the theology is not scrimped on.

In a late scene, Brother Luc, the doctor who freely gives medical help to all the village, literally caresses the figure of Jesus in a crucifixion painting. He even tells a girl in an early scene that he had fallen in love as a young man, until a greater love come along (he means his calling, though he doesn’t put it in explicitly Christian terms, while conversing with a Muslim on secular matters). In another late scene, we hear Our Lord’s words that “whosoever will save his life, shall lose it; for he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall save it” (the film in a nutshell, really). Brother Christian elaborates on those words, putting the decision to stay in explicitly Incarnational terms. And the climax of the film, when they pull out wine and play a music tape (the two best films at the fest both feature “Swan Lake” at the climax), the cinematography and iconography are clearly meant to recall a “Last Supper” painting. Martyrs don’t seek out martyrdom but do embrace it as part of embracing Him when it happens. (Frankly, I’d have been happy had the film ended there, or, if OF GODS AND MEN must continue to the actual kidnapping, with the images of the empty monastery.)

In an unbelievably insensate review in the Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt provides more evidence that secular critics simply do not “get” religious films, saying

All that can be said is that Beauvois, who co-wrote the script with Etienne Comar, avoids any real scrutiny of the monks’ refusal to leave. Since martyrdom is viewed as the only plausible outcome of this decision, it’s a pity the director never analyzes it. No one presents any real argument for leaving. Nor does any one present any real reason to stay. What is gained by their deaths, for them or for the church? Will it do any good for the local community they profess to honor and serve? Does God even figure in the decisions? They say He does but how are they so sure?

At times, it’s hard to know what to say. Throughout the film, discussion of whether to stay or leave has been the subject matter. Honeycutt’s insensibility to what’s in front of him is encapsulated in a single word, used twice: “Real.” His problem is that all the discussion in OF GODS AND MEN explicitly framed as “what is true to my calling as a monk” (and therefore evidently not “real”). Even the monks counseling a move say not “I want to live” or some other form of “real” egoism, but speak in “calling” terms — “I didn’t become a monk to get my throat slit,” one says exactly. Ah … but they did. And as Honeycutt realizes, just as a matter of common sense, the local community will not be served by their deaths. So therefore, service to the community is not their raison de vivre. But if one has a calling from God greater than one’s own life, with service to man being a derived duty, then a decision to stay can make sense. And at that point, all Honeycutt does is throw his agnostic hands in the air — “how are they so sure?” as if he wanted a Richard Dawkins cameo or something.

AFTERSHOCK (Feng Xiaogang, China, 4)

You’d have to be a heartless bastard not to be moved by certain scenes in AFTERSHOCK, which covers 30 years of Chinese history between two devastating earthquakes — the Tangshan quake in 1976 and the Sichuan quake in 2008 — through a single family affected by both. But you’d also have to be a gauzy-eyed idiot not to barf at the maudlin hack quality of — well, practically everything in AFTERSHOCK, even the scenes that you can’t help but be affected by. The initial sequence in Tangshan climaxes with a Sophie’s Choice scene, in which a mother (Fan Xu) is told she can save one of her children. The rest of the film follows the consequences of that decision (though both children survive and grow up).

Not only is My Inner Heartless Bastard stronger than My Inner Gauzy-Eyed Idiot, but My Reason rebels at and resents being manipulated this way (those who’ve read Pauline Kael’s famous review of THE SOUND OF MUSIC know what I mean). The whole movie is really just one big long series of “And Then” scenes, few satisfying in themselves or given enough room to breathe and build. This may sound paradoxical, but AFTERSHOCK, weak though it is, might have worked better at four hours; it’s just trying to cover too much ground for two. And one particular ellipsis annoyed me … we never see the brother and sister meet, instead we get an overheard conversation during Sichuan relief efforts, in which one realizes the other is talking about the same “Sophie’s Choice” moment in Tangshan. Cut to a drive out to see the mother. As for that 1976 Sophie’s Choice scene, of course it’s heart-rending (and the reunion heart-tugging), but Fan Xu’s aggressive yelling act, however realistic, simply goes too far for a work of art and becomes abrasive and alienating. A little voice inside my head also tells me, though reason reasserts itself and I eventually come to doubt it, that maybe the one role involving a Western actor speaking English (the daughter marries a Canadian businessman and emigrates there, worth a couple of Vancouver-set scenes) is a bit of Chinese chauvinism. His performance, though short, is also one of the worst I have ever seen, failing even the basic ABCs of saying your lines convincingly. It’s as if: “these ‘foreign devils’ don’t even know how to act.”

Ah … Chinese nationalism. A comparison of this film and Zhang’s TO LIVE, Chen’s FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE and Tian’s BLUE KITE say some really poor things about Chinese movies in the last almost 20 years and their ability to criticize, or even portray in non-heroic terms, the country’s regime. I didn’t so much mind the “don’t rock the boat” theme in DETECTIVE DEE, because that’s a legitimate theme and one derived from a well-told story. But AFTERSHOCK’s portrayal of the People’s Liberation Army goes beyond mere nationalism or Hobbesian deference to authority and enters into the territory of fawning and fetishism that belongs more in a TOP GUN-type recruiting film. I have no doubt that the left-for-dead daughter was adopted by two PLA soldiers and that the Army led the disaster relief efforts in both quakes (though the film doesn’t tell you that China categorically refused all outside aid offers in 1976; but accepted them and genuinely cooperated with NGOs in 2008). But there’s needlessly heroic dialog, commie-kitsch posters and loving fetishizing of military symbols in both sequences. There’s also a mystifying scene of China on the day of Mao’s death, which ends the first section of the film but comes across as completely unnecessary except as another bit of flag-waving.

RARE EXPORTS (Jalmari Helander, Finland, 5)

Reading over my notes, I downgraded this from a 6. There’s was real potential here and I love the concept of a Bizarroworld Christmas film, in which Santa spies on children and kidnaps and punishes the bad ones until he’s defeated by hunters in a kind of NIGHT OF THE LIVING SANTA story. But it really does take too long to get cooking and it is a bit of a cheat that Santa Claus doesn’t actually appear, except off in a sidebar involving his grave being dug up by a flamboyantly evil businessman. Instead, the main story deals with Finnish reindeer hunters dealing with the escaped elves set loose by this excavation project. These ugly, withered, naked old men as elves (among other things, including some pretty bloody images) also mean RARE EXPORTS is too sick-weird for kids, while adults either won’t get enough gore (if they’re Midnight Gorehounds) or will be restless at the weak storytelling. It’s not really a movie for anybody.

The first halfhour of RARE EXPORTS is really tough going — with the two stories not seeming to connect in any way and your interest (well, mine) far greater in the one that gets less time (the gloriously fruity kidnapping). Meanwhile the film spends more time with a routine and Finnish-glum fairy-tale setup involving a sensitive boy and his mean single father, complete with really overdone music and sound effects. But to be fair, the last halfhour of RARE EXPORTS had me pretty much grinning ear-to-ear. If you ever wondered how Santa can be in a million places at one time, this film provides an answer. There is a gag involving a fireplace (to say more would spoil it) that was very funny and there’s an even sillier DIE HARD reference. The thawing out of the first Elf is tense and well-directed, and you have to admire(?) the film’s integrity in pushing its premise to the end with a frozen snow-draped landscape covered with naked old-age-pensioner elves. But at the end of the day, there’s just isn’t too much to the film beyond the home-run premise that just ekes out a single.

September 25, 2010 Posted by | Feng Xiaogang, Jalmari Helander, TIFF 2010, Xavier Beauvois | Leave a comment

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 8

MEEK’S CUTOFF (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 5)

OK … this is the capsule where I play the Dissenting Fool, giving a “mixed” grade to the film voted the Best of the Fest in the IndieWire critics poll and that Scott Tobias (in whose Tweet-presence I blasphemed) has apparently called the favorite of his entire life as a working critic. I don’t hate MEEK’S CUTOFF, a sorta-Western “lost on the Oregon Trail” drama, like I hated GERRY, to which Mike D’Angelo compared it. Indeed, if it had come up with an ending at all, it was a shoo-in “7” and possibly higher, depending on how that ending came off. But that’s not what we have. Instead we have a film that ostentatiously refuses to end, instead settling on a sub-Malick nature-awe note of ambiguous something or other. Saying why I hated the ending will necessitate describing it. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

However I can’t just ignore what’s good about MEEK’S CROSSING –- and it is for a long time. First of all, it’s dazzling to look at, almost feeling like a black-and-white film with its blanched images of a parched, water-free land with few primary colors (the costumes match too of course). This is a desert/steppe environment, but it’s nothing like the sumptuousness amid the dryness in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or THE SHELTERING SKY, and when she cuts from a night scene to a dazzling white steppe, I had to restrain myself from applauding. MEEK’S CROSSING also creates a strong sense of place, far stronger than most classical Westerns -– what these people routinely did and how they did them, feeling almost like a 19th-century procedural. Near the end in that vein, there is a (Skandie plug) great scene of the families trying to get several wagons down a slope they fear might be too steep, and there’s a universe of dreams and lives riding on the tug-of-war apparatus the settlers build. Reichardt also favors long shots and closeups of elements other than the face – hands doing stitching, for example – and thus creates more of a community than a group of individuals (think STAGECOACH). This is obviously fine; given this story, they will live or die together. But it proves fatal when she later wants to get into character conflict – she hasn’t set up THAT kind of third act.

The classic test of a film or play or novel is: look at the first scene, look at the last scene, what has changed. The answer to that question is what the film is about. And here, I have to submit that MEEK’S CUTOFF is therefore about nothing. For the entire movie, the wagoneers have been lost and desperate for water. At the end? They are still lost (that’s even one of the last lines of dialog – “we’re right where we always were”) and are looking at a leafy tree, which, yes, does imply that there’s water nearby, but … um … where, nearby? Especially since there’s a person on the point of death, to end the story at the tree is the narrative form of being a tease.

As for character, the conflict in the back half of MEEK’S CUTOFF centers on a captured American Indian, whom the group has come increasingly to rely upon instead of their paid guide (Bruce Greenwood), thanks to Michelle Williams pulling a gun (this is the character conflict that seems arbitrary once it starts). But they’re following him on faith since he speaks only an Indian language and performs some rites and ceremonies that Reichardt never subtitles or explains – which is fine in itself, because the settlers don’t either and so they haggle continually over “is he trying to help us,” “is he leading us into a trap” or “is he just leading us to nowhere, willing to sacrifice himself.” At the end, at the tree, some of the last lines of dialog are “we’re all following him now” and “we’re all just playing our parts” and “this was written long before we got here.” Meanwhile, the Indian himself walks away unmolested (why is he able to do so now but not before). If MEEK’S CUTOFF is about the transference of authority from Meek to the Indian (plausible enough), why, in story terms, should he walk off? And even of those thematic grounds, whether he was/is a good or a bad authority is not a question you can slough off. If Reichardt’s narrative was a tease, her thematic choices were the equivalent of then walking away.


Now here, on the other hand, is a three-hour essay movie that so bursts with ideas and thoughts and points that I wouldn’t even want it to be 90 or 100 minutes because it already feels that short. Apart from my irrational discomfort at never having disliked a Romanian movie and some minorly-weird subtitling from someone whose English is a little “off,” my only reservation is that Ujica is maybe a bit too rigorous with his premise – showing nothing but official newsreels, speeches, parliament footage and TV broadcasts with no commentary, thus building Ceausescu’s life story as he himself would have seen it (the title says “autobiography” not “biography”). As a result, people without some pre-existing knowledge of East European politics and history might find AUTOBIOGRAPHY a bit hard to follow -– at least give us a date card or two or identifying namelines like news-anchor chyrons, Andrei. I don’t think Alexander Dubcek is the kind of instant-face that Gorbachev, Nixon, the Queen or Mao are.

Which would be a shame, because this film pulls off the hard task of both being believable as a self-portrait and utterly damning from within. Since you’re watching footage, you have to construct the meaning yourself, but Ujica’s choices make it easy enough. Two threads in particular seem fruitful to follow – the presence of Elena Ceausescu and the personal hagiography of Nicolae himself, both being measures of how Ceausescu changed over his 25 years in power, from a non-descript general secretary to the out-of-touch head of an insane personality cult and a self-justifying Potemkin state.

At the start, Ceausescu is even a semi-attractive figure, hosting Dubcek for a public solidarity rally and then later denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in as public a forum and as blunt a manner as possible. After that, Ceausescu becomes a regular caller and host for the world’s biggest political figures. The film’s length helps here, because it lets us get a LOT of world leaders praising Ceausescu and, well, you can come to believe it. The film suggests he gets the ideas for the personality cult from visits to China and North Korea (the first trip to Pyongyang is a commie-kitsch hoot and has Ceausescu whispering to Kim Il Sung “that was wonderful”; and it’s also easily the best-looking color footage in the film, which says something about Romanian technology at the time). After seeing Mao’s and Kim’s displays for his benefit, his portraits at home become more publicly prominent, the celebrations of his birthday more lavish and obsequious on others’ part, and the sloganeering more personal (“Long Live Ceausescu” and “Ceausescu and the people,” say, rather than “Long Live Socialism and Communism”; “Traiasca” is Romanian for “Long Live,” BTW … something the film gives you plenty of chances to learn) As for the Missus, she’s hardly seen early on, but by the end she’s at her husband’s right hand during parliament speeches; not merely a member of the Politburo, but having the other members pass in line to kiss her ring; and even co-signing state laws.

And Ujica does it all without cheaply ironic Michael Moore insta-juxtapositions – you have to remember and connect. At one point, when Ceausescu is calling world poverty intolerable and Third World debt relief a moral imperative, I wrote in my notes “don’t cut to some luxury scene [of Ceausescu’s personal life] That’s already been established.” And Ujica, bless his heart, didn’t.

That’s not to say there’s not a lot of ironic fun here too, though some of it requires you to be a political-history or –theory junkie like me -– Charles De Gaulle venting in a communist country against the “cosmopolitan state”; the press conferences and the questions posed by East European socialist-state “journalists”; Nixon riding down the middle of Bucharest in an open limo past a canyon of high-rise book depositories apartment buildings; the short Ceausescu playing at the net in volleyball (and cheating); the change in Ceausescu’s rhetoric over the years, away from classical Marxism toward even dryer (if that’s possible) recitations; and what’s playing in the movie theater in the background as he drives by in the Queen’s carriage. Finally, there is one incredible scene (Skandie plug … as if), of old-time Communist Constantin Parvalescu rising at the 12th Party Congress to speak, unscheduled, and denouncing Ceausescu’s increasingly personal control of the party. Not only is it dramatic, but the reaction from the rest of the assembled party members is chilling. But best of all, you can see why Ceausescu would put it in his autobiography – “see, everyone supports me.”

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka “Joe,” Thailand, 7)

You know what my favorite scene in this film was: The very first. It’s just a black water buffalo at night in the Thai jungle, moving around a bit, but somehow, I was immediately enraptured at how sensual the photography was despite the dramatically poor conditions and how the sound design felt lived-in. Much of UNCLE BOONMEE is set at night, and it is simply the most gorgeous night photography I’ve ever seen — clear and dark at the same time, conveying humidity and heat, and both alluring and mysterious, though without expressionistic shadows or obvious “darkness pools” from which something will leap out and go “boo.” And since UNCLE BOONMEE is basically a ghost story, that wouldn’t exactly be an unprecedented move. But Joe doesn’t do “boo,” instead going more for things slowly dissolving in from the background, like camouflage that suddenly betrays itself (the tree of women from near the end of ANTICHRIST, say).

With TROPICAL MALADY and SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY, I’ve been on the “Joe is more accessible than his critical champions make him seem” kick. I wouldn’t exactly say UNCLE BOONMEE is difficult and it certainly follows a single through line — basically, the last days of the titular character and the increasing presence of the spirit world coming to claim him. But it is totally “mysterious” from start to finish, though not in a “mystifying” way, if that makes any sense (and I realize that semantically, it doesn’t). This is a semi-mythological world where ghosts appear and the locals take this as normal: there’s a talking catfish seducing a princess, a Bigfoot with glowing red eyes, and eventually a whole army of Bigfoots, etc. But I say “semi” because we still get Joe’s quotidian moments that never fail to feel right, like two people eating honey directly off the hive (only here, one of them is a ghost), and a descent into a cave. And when the catfish … um … churns up the water around the princess, it doesn’t feel at all like the dirty joke it might in lesser hands.

I wish I had more to say about UNCLE BOONMEE -– I’m pretty sure there’s some Thai political subtext about “making the ghosts disappear” and Uncle Boonmee’s role in putting down a Communist insurgency –- there’s a series of still photos out of nowhere of Thai soldiers in camouflage outfits that may have something to do with that. But what I hope I’ve conveyed is that UNCLE BOONMEE is a sensual experience, one very hard to describe rationally because it really is like a dream or a trance. I’ve written twice as much about the Ceausescu film, but that’s only because it’s clear about what it’s about, not because it’s twice as good.

September 21, 2010 Posted by | Andrei Ujica, Joe, Kelly Reichardt, TIFF 2010 | Leave a comment

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 7

POTICHE (Francois Ozon, France, 7)

The “return to roots” theory was only mildly successful for Tanovic, but it applied big-time in the case of the other director to whom I applied it pre-festival — Francois Ozon. Two of the three films of his that I would call really strong (ANGEL and 8 WOMEN; UNDER THE SAND being the exception) are candy-colored heavily-perfumed exercises in game-playing genre pastiche, centered on comically outlandish female characters. Everything is in italics, even (eventually) the italics themselves.

POTICHE is 2/3 of Ozon’s best film, as he has France’s greatest actress-symbol, Catherine Deneuve. She plays the trophy-wife (the meaning of the film’s title) of an exaggeratedly evil corporate executive and she becomes dissatisfied with the role she plays to the hilt. Did I say “exaggerated”? Let me repeat — every gesture and emotion in the first 2/3 of POTICHE is played to the hilt and beyond. The dialog is bitchy, references to other films abound (Deneuve owning an umbrella factory; Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu leading a “Saturday Night Fever” disco line) the costumes and decor are fruity, and the playing is comic caricature. Karin Viard probably has the most fun, as the owner’s secretary/mistress. It’s admission-price-worth-it to see her eyes glow as she says “I will make Monsieur my special broth” and runs offstage, or savor her arm and neck motions as she dispenses a big aerosol can of hairspray around her head (the movie is set in the late 70s).

The reason this grade is as low as a 7 is the complete failure of the third act, the content of which I won’t spoil except to sat becomes all serious and surface-redemptive and … ahem … straight. It’s as if the film has to atone for all the frothy fun it’s had with a sincere politically-correct politics story. Did Ozon not think the first 2/3 were feminist enough? After all, though through the conventions of comedy, they are about a woman taking over her husband’s company and doing a better job than he did.

BURIED (Rodrigo Cortes, Spain, 8)

When Alfred Hitchcock made LIFEBOAT, he at least gave himself a big enough confined space to fit about 7 or 8 characters. And daylight. Cortes not only invites the Hitchcock comparisons right away (the Bass-style credits and Herrmannesque score had me scribbling “NxNW” in my notes), but he submits himself to an even tighter constraint — a coffin illuminated only by the limited resources of a lighter, a BlackBerry’s display and a flashlight. For this story of US truck driver kidnapped and buried alive in Iraq, he also constrained himself by having only one actor (all the other roles are mere voice-overs on the BlackBerry or hallucinations), no flashbacks or visual backstory (some plot backfilling obviously occurs in the conversations), and rigorously staying inside the coffin for near enough the whole film (there is one God’s-eye POV and one [spoiler] shot). As someone who loves Hitchcock’s “constrain myself” exercises (I watched TCM for the majority of DIAL M FOR MURDER again last night in my hotel room) and tension-machine plots, if BURIED was any good at all, I was fated to love it. And it would be a festival-best contender instead of “only” an 8-grade if it weren’t for one scene.

The sound designer gets the first credit after the star and director, and that unusual order says a lot about how the constraints put huge burdens on sound design to create the film’s space and reveal plot points. The proverbial “pin drop” never has been truer. Reynolds is racing against oxygen, battery life, and trying to get the right person to help. Eventually, his family, his company, the State Department, the military and the Iraqis who took him hostage get involved. And inside the coffin … well, some holes develop, meaning such outside elements as unwelcome animals and really unwelcome and coffin-filling sand can find their way in.

One thing Hitchcock understood about narrative tension (“suspense”) is that banality and ordinariness and even humor play a role in it. Cortes completely absorbed these lessons, giving us, for example, a phone operator at whom Reynolds flies off the handle when she (understandably) doesn’t completely absorb the seriousness if this to-her-routine call. She responds curtly, “there is no reason to be rude, sir.” (Hitch also regularly made fun of bureaucratic officialdom’s following the rules.) And the semi-comic conversations between Reynolds and his wife’s best friend are pricelessly funny in picking over old issues and are not even BURIED’s best conversations. Those occur when he reaches his senile mother; though they’re of a completely different tone.

As a tension-filled thriller, BURIED is a complete triumph, though it is marred by one lily-gilding scene that immediately perked up my radar and had me mad enough at the film to contact a lawyer friend and a legal reporter. Since I don’t care about spoiling a scene that sucks and which doesn’t contribute to the film anyway: the company, which hired him under a contract to work in a war zone and therefore presumably under some sort of federal auspice or oversight, calls Reynolds to tell him he was fired and to cancel his job-related pension and insurance policies. The contract cancellation took effect immediately and without notice or other due-process requirements over a sexual misconduct charge that is news to Reynolds as he is in the coffin, minutes from death. It doesn’t complicate the story in any way, which makes it seem like a gratuitous Political Subtext About How Mean Corporate America is, not realizing that (1) operating under federal supervision, (2) under a standard contract, (3) with pension and insurance issues, and (4) providing notice only during a duress period all raise potential legal issues that even an estate can raise. We aren’t talking about at-will or entry-level work and so, given that it doesn’t complicate the story in any way, it comes across as a mere pile-on and a play to the leftwing wank set.

While it’s not exactly a constraint in the Von Trier-Leth sense, Cortes did not pick an obviously great actor — a Ken-doll named Ryan Reynolds, whom I’ve only seen in a couple of supporting parts but never in one of his Hollywoof starring roles. On the upside, Reynolds’ presence means there is no reason one of the best films here shouldn’t play in multiplexes (though BURIED is entirely a Spanish production, Reynolds and the wholly-English dialog means few in the audience will notice). On the downside … well, there isn’t one really. Reynolds does deliver a credible performance as a man growing in desperation, precisely because he can’t move much or rely on his looks or charm. Constraint is good, again. I’ve repeatedly compared Cortes to Hitchcock, so let me conclude by comparing this film to one by the “French Hitchcock.” (vague SPOILER) BURIED’s ending is for people who thought THE WAGES OF FEAR’s too uplifting, too humanistic and lingered over for too long.

BRIGHTON ROCK (Rowan Joffe, Britain, 5)

Start with the good news — BRIGHTON ROCK is not the religious gutting of Graham Greene’s novel that I feared. And I also might not have gone had I known beforehand the film’s setting had been moved forward to 1964 to add in the mods-and-rockers riots and diegetic references to the debate over ending the death penalty in Britain (the last two hangings were in August 1964). Fortunately BRIGHTON ROCK is reasonably faithful to the novel — at least as so as the 1947 film Greene himself co-wrote, even with the same camera gesture right at the very end as the record plays — one of the times I thought Joffe’s overdirection paid off. And the explicit Catholicism of two of the characters is not hidden or downplayed.

But I didn’t care much for this story as a film the first time around either, though it’s about a theme I generally eat up — a Catholic who devoutly believes he is irredeemably destined for Hell. My problem with the 1947 film was simple — I never bought Richard Attenborough as a vicious gangster or a tortured anything for one second. (Unbelievably to me, BRIGHTON ROCK was Attenborough’s breakthrough role.) This film doesn’t have that problem at all — Sam Riley is darker, meaner, more brooding, more believably working-class. But there are casting problems with the other two central chracters — I found Andrea Riseborough as Rose overdoing the shrinking weakling bit. And though I acknowledge it’s there in the original to be overdone, it’s hard to believe a girl this recessive would fall for a guy like Pinky. And while Helen Mirren is obviously a great actress, she doesn’t do “earthy” a la Ida, much less do so as well as Hermione Baddeley did in 1947.

Still there is enough of Greene here to salvage a mixed grade, as Riley’s performance embodies the essence of the Greene hero — a man who never believes in the Commandments quite as devoutly as he does while he’s breaking them. The scene where he marries Rose, he tells himself (incorrectly, according to Church teaching, but that’s who he is) that this is this not a real wedding and he and Rose can never go back to church. When the civil authority asks for a ring, Pinky brushes him aside with “this isn’t a church, we don’t need one,” and Riley has the right mix of darkness and devil-may-care (no … “devil DOES care”) to play a man convinced he is damning himself.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (Werner Herzog, France, 7)

This is really more of a great occasion than a great film, the first time a serious artist has used 3D for something other than a popcorn movie. Werner Herzog provides film audiences with an experience almost all of us could never have — seeing the oldest known works of art in the world, Cro-Magnon drawings preserved from 40,000 years ago on the inside of a cave in France that is almost always sealed off to all but a few eminent scientists. And Herzog is a valuable guide, making some interesting critical points — that the bison have multiple pairs of legs, which he calls an attempt to represent motion in a static form. And he points to a handprint (it was all I could do not to yell out “Banksy”) as a man’s first signature, putting his own personal imprint on something. The 3D form (which I hate on principle) really helps us see into the caves’ contours and “shapes” the drawings properly. Because Herzog eschews using 3D as a stunt (including one sequence where the temptation must have been mighty), even if it doesn’t work, you can’t resent it. (UPDATE: And how did I forget the radioactive albino alligators?)

However, Herzog’s sequences outside the cave seem more like half-hearted stabs at his “colorful eccentrics who say more than they intend.” But the perfumist cave-smeller doesn’t really go anywhere; the effort to demonstrate how powerful caveman arrows were just falls flat though thankfully, we get no arrow-flight or aims-at-camera shots to show 3D off; and playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a caveman flute would make Osama bin Laden feel sorry for that song.

But those last two things allude to why I did not find myself bowled over by this film. The art itself just isn’t very interesting on its own terms. Oh … I *get* its importance historically and I appreciate the experience. But this is why I liked better Sokurov’s RUSSIAN ARK, another “technical stunt” “museum tour” movie — in that case, through the various rooms in the Hermitage in a no-CGI-fakery 90-minute single take. Sokurov had better art on display. As I was making this point over frosted malt beverages during the fest, Scott Tobias told me, “c’mon Victor, give the cavemen a break.”

KABOOM! (Gregg Araki, USA, 2)

Sample dialog from early in this film: “This was all cute and fun when we were 15. But we’re adults of legal age now.” Actually … no.

A movie is in trouble if you hate the characters so much that you spend every minute wishing it would turn into a SAW movie so that everyone on the screen will die the most hideous, painful death imaginable. A movie is in real trouble if the director makes it obvious that he shares everything detestable about the characters and expect you to find this at least somewhat appealing. The characters in KABOOM! aka LIFESTYLES OF THE YOUNG DUMB AND FULL OF CUM, Part II are stupid, infantile sluts and aggressively proud of being stupid, infantile sluts. And director Gregg Araki proves he loves them and that their sensibility reflects his by putting them in a stupid sex-drenched plot so aggressively infantile that it can only possibly work as a joke or as an excuse for actors to get naked and fuck as much as possible. (Here’s one sample exchange: “have you heard of the New Order? / you mean the seminal New Wave ban of the 80s.” Hint: there was an earlier antecedent that had something to do with world conquest, the context of the scene.) It’s not the worst film I saw at TIFF this year, but it IS the one I’d least like to sit through second time.

The plot, which kicks in once the sex roundelay has (relatively) quieted down, has something to do with a secret cult-cabal with plans to take over the world unless the hero agrees to succeed his father as cult-commander-in-chief but has nuclear weapons stored in every city. At one point after a lengthy exposition catchup speech, one character says to another “how do you know all that,” and I said aloud (though nobody more than a seat away could have heard me) “because the script requires it.” Oh … and there’s secret agents wearing animal-mask costumes — “and I woulda gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.” OK … not exactly, but KABOOM! really IS just a two-part Very Special Episode of Scooby-Doo, with lots of fucking.

You could make a campy film with those elements, but KABOOM! has nothing to do with anything remotely related to people or experiences in whom I have the slightest interest. This is a movie for people for whom normal experience involves having sex with two people on the same day, getting a both-ways threesome as a birthday present, having someone pewk on your shoes at a party and walk off without a word, fucking your half-sister and telling Mel Gibson jokes. This film has no other reason to exist except as narcissistic fantasy for such people.

Which hints at the thing that pushed me over the edge with this movie — it’s utter absorption in the most juvenile of gay stereotypes, where the central character is a promiscuous slut who’ll fuck anything and everything. This is also the kind of movie with three really muscular men. What are the odds that you’ll walk in on two wrestling shirtless on the dorm floor calling each other “fag” over and over again? But guess what all three turn out to be? Even though one is married, a fact we only learn however after an anonymous sex encounter on a nude beach? Guess? Those who’ve been exiled in Timbuktu for 30 years get help from this bit of author’s message “dialog”: “the fact they can’t suck each other’s dicks make them gayer than gay boys.” And guess why else they turn out to be? (Hint: Animal masks.) This sort of smirking fuckfest not only belongs in the 2am Cinemax slot, but, from a 51-year-old man, provides grist for the old Freudian theory of homosexuality as a form of arrested development. In at least one case, it is. (By comparison Francois Ozon is 43 and Xavier Dolan a mere 21. And, despite making at least some identifiably “gay” films, both men are at least recognizable as adults.)

September 20, 2010 Posted by | Francois Ozon, Gregg Araki, Rodrigo Cortes, Rowan Joffe, TIFF 2010, Werner Herzog | 3 Comments

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 6

BLACK SWAN (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 9)

I would like to see Darren Aronofsky make nothing but movies like this one in the future — direct or indirect or modernized retellings of the canonical works of opera and ballet (Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” in this case obviously). What makes Aronofsky a singular director, if not always a successful one, has been his willingness to take an insane idea to its excessive, lunatic conclusion without a trace of irony or self-protection or self-distancing. He puts it out there, and not always to the best results (the climactic montage in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is just too g-d loud). It’s no accident that his best previous film, THE WRESTLER, deals with an essentially theatrical and ludicrous world, and here he surpasses that. After all, a story line involving a princess turned into a swan who can only be cured by love makes WWE storylines look like neorealism. That’s why I think Aronofsky could make this kind of movie for the rest of his life and I’d probably never tire of it — the whole Western canon in music- and dance-theater doesn’t have a credible plot in it.

Natalie Portman in the lead role as a ballet dancer is being protected by the editing and framing. But she clearly became a good enough dancer to be credible from the waist up, which is all you can reasonably ask a non-balletomane-for-life to do. More importantly, she nails the icy disregard that marred her previous performances, ideal for the perfect “White Swan” dancer who needs to become the “Black Swan,” until the film’s third act literally becomes the story of her own growth as an actress, played for our benefit as it unfolds. She arrives here. Vincent Cassel as the company director has the right mix of greasiness and genuine devotion to the art that makes you wonder whether his crude seduction attempts are really that or artistic strategems (if I were Mrs. Aronofsky, I would not like what this movie may be saying about my Darren in my opinion).

Most importantly, there’s Tchaikovsky. Not only is this the music to his story (obviously), but it’s also the right choice to illustrate Aronofsky’s trippy, nightmarish images and edits. But its out-there Romantic bombast and its brassy bossiness eventually comes to dominate the film until BLACK SWAN becomes essentially a great performance of “Swan Lake” itself. Aronofsky lets it happen, goes with it, until the music structures his own messiness, his own overcooking. But this time, he felt it and it was perfect.

RABBIT HOLE (John Cameron Mitchell, USA, 5)

I have to say that I really spent much of this movie actively hating the people onscreen, perfectly enacted though they are by Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman as a couple who lost their son in a car wreck, by Miles Teller as the teenage driver, and by Dianne Wiest as Kidman’s mother. My mind kept wandering to RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, a movie that covers some of the same emotional ground and is set an identical milieu among hyper-analysed rich Northeasterners. Here, instead of Demme’s improvisational feel and range of subjects and emotions, we get material that seemed too one-note and undigested to serve as anything more than Theatrical Thesis Scenes. I was cringing in the two scenes where we see Eckhart and Kidman yell at each other, not because they’re not believeable scenes or there’s anything wrong with what they do (Nicole’s talking on through his yelling, as if in musical counterpoint, is actually quite effective). But it just seemed like the transparent Oscar-bait clip scene that I thought WAYNE’S WORLD had rubbished.

It also didn’t help that I dislike the analytic culture of talking-through-one’s-feelings and support groups and hyper-selfconsciousness. Kidman seems to hate it too, but she does so entirely on its terms and she proceeds through otherwise-psychologized means like the (flatly unbelievable) stalking of the driver. Even the choking back scenes felt like Choking Back Scenes, done with all due deliberate deliberation. (I vastly prefer Leigh’s and Manville’s handling of this kind of scene. Indeed, seeing RABBIT HOLE is one of the things that clarified my thoughts on ANOTHER YEAR.)

But two scenes make me doubt this reaction, which is admittedly visceral and quasi-ideological, and therefore questionable. One involved the great Wiest (have I mentioned that every actor in this movie is awesome) and an extended metaphor involving having a brick in one’s pocket. The other is the closing monolog by Eckhart (have I mentioned that every actor in this movie is awesome) and the accompanying enacted imagery of the couple’s future. They’re both quietly done, Wiest’s character speaks hard-won experience, she recodes an earlier quarrel-yelling scene, and Eckhart ends on … well, let’s just say the two scenes together perhaps even recode the entire movie. I will give it another chance.

HEARTBEATS (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 6)

Or “TIFF’s Adventures of the Young, Dumb and Full of Cum, Part I” (and much superior to Part II, Gregg Araki’s KABOOM!). Dolan is, based on the combined three films of theirs I’ve seen, an infinitely more mature human being. And HEARTBEATS is a film not about how horny he is, but about what an awkward emotional experience it is to compete with a friend over a love interest. In a gayish TWO ENGLISH GIRLS, Francis (played by Dolan) and gal-pal Marie (Monia Chokri) both fall for Nico (Niels Schneider), who has a kind of Classical Greek beauty that you can see both a woman and a gay man falling for. But Schneider plays Nico as a Narcissus type, enjoying the company and attention of the other two but hardly even noticing them as his Ameneias and Echo. But instead of Echo losing everything but her voice, Dolan and Chokri start to come apart too.

I think Dolan does show off a bit much, and right at the start here he got off on the wrong foot with me, aping Godard with the “interview” technique and the unmotivated jump-zooms in and out. We even get the VIVRE SA VIE shot of two people conversing, seen from behind. Two differences though that make Dolan’s use better than Godard’s — (1) his interview subjects say stuff that is not only funny (the girl in the nerdy glasses was hilarious) but glances off, without being specifically about, the psychological dynamics in the surface-unrelated story; (2) his behind-the-head shot features no talking (i.e., stuff with which to interfere) and lasts long enough to make the point but not long enough to annoy. I also couldn’t help but roll my eyes when he obviously cribbed from Wong Kar-wai the combination of slo-mo and a ubiquitous music cue (here, an Italian version of the Cher hit “Bang! Bang!”). But at least he’s stealing from the best, and makes the slow-walks work as a kind of fashionable face-off. And Dolan lays “it” on everywhere — photographing sex scenes through primary-color filters, acting as his own fashion designer, flash edits of Michelangelo’s “David,” and the rest of the French New Wave bag of tricks.

The things that clinch I KILLED MY MOTHER though as the better of Dolan’s two films are that the stakes turn out a little lower (I can’t say why without spoilage) and that he doesn’t have a lead actress, fine though Chokri is, of the power and ease and brilliance of Anne Dorval. We’re unfortunately reminded of the latter by her one-scene turn as Narcissus’s mother.

LEAP YEAR (Michael Rowe, Mexico, 8)

There are only two reasons to live, one religious, one secular. Respectively, they are that God commands us to live (or in negative form, “God forbids suicide”), and that others love and need us (and no … the subject and object of that clause are not reversible). But even both those reasons are somewhat conditional. LEAP YEAR is about that fact.

I have to say though, that this is not an easy film to sit through or to like. And not simply, or even primarily, because it has some pretty raw sexual scenes (“raw” is a different adjective than “explicit,” though LEAP YEAR is that too). But also because LEAP YEAR necessarily, given what the film turns out to be about, flirts with really dangerous ideas. At one point during LEAP YEAR, I had mentally written a 0-review, and the director would only have to change a few things in the last 5 minutes to earn it back.

But what makes LEAP YEAR successful, like every work of art, is not “what it says,” but “how it says it.” This is basically a one-set movie with a central character Laura (played with the perfect understated loneliness by Monica del Carmen) and about three or four other persons we see, about the same number of phone callers (we only hear her end of the conversations though), and the same number of neighbors seen/heard through the window. The moment I said “this is a great performance” came relatively late, when Laura hears the doorbell ring and her face lights up like a kid on Christmas morning, which sounds banal I realize, but in context is absolutely unforgettable.

It’s a claustrophobic, lonely, isolating environment, expertly created, sustained and milked. Most of LEAP YEAR consists of quotidian tasks in between which we see Laura tell absurd lies over the phone to cover up her emptiness. The backstory of the relationship with her father, for example (and I’m 90 percent sure I got this exact point from Mike or Noel), is made perfectly clear without ever becoming the central explicit narrative engine. Oh … and there’s a man that she picks up for sex and, eventually, more. She hopes.

September 17, 2010 Posted by | Darren Aronofsky, John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Rowe, TIFF 2010, Xavier Dolan | 2 Comments

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 5

CLIENT 9 (Alex Gibney, USA, 1)

Apologies for the length of what follows, but it takes a special kind of movie to make me like Eliot Spitzer more than its director. But daggum, this tendentious piece of absurd conspiratorialism, of intellectually sloppiness, of self-contradictory double standards and of ignorance of how law-enforcement and the press both work is a 90-minute swig of 190-proof mendacity watered down only by Spitzer’s own moral rectitude (I am not kidding, folks).

Let me just cite 10 examples of some of those substantives (I actually counted 26 “bullshit” moments when I combed through my viewing notes shortly after the film). The only reason this film is not a “0” is Spitzer’s own manfulness, the tremendously entertaining character of Cecil Juwal (the Emperor’s Club CEO), the voice of sanity from 80s chocolate-sauce lady Karen Finley (yes … I’m still not kidding) and the fact the film includes some of its own refutations, though that may just be its own sloppiness.

  1. Does Gibney really believe any cause and effect relationship between Spitzer’s fall and the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, in any terms more specific than Oliver Stonesque “Wall Street Greed.” If so, why had Spitzer not acted against the proximate fuse (the housing bubble and/or its bursting) in all his years as NY attoney general? And if not, then why the juxtaposition in the early line “a few months after his resignation, the big banks he had been policing brought the economy down”?
  2. Why does Gibney spend any time at all on GOP operative Roger Stone’s “Spitzer’s doing whores” memo when (1) Stone says he didn’t know what all else the FBI may have had and (2) FBI said it never received it. In other words — there is no evidence, bar insinuation. Let me repeat. There. Is. No. Evidence. Why did Gibney pursue all the naked conpiracy whispers when Spitzer himself says it doesn’t matter (“I brought myself down … and if my enemies were involved in unearthing some of it, so be it”)? Grownup politicians like Spitzer understand, even if adolescent artists like Gibney do not, that politics involves the other side fighting back.
  3. If we get apologists saying prostitution should be legal, it’s not that big a deal, it’s better that Spitzer went to a whore rather than break up his marriage if his manly needs weren’t being fulfilled, etc., why does Gibney lovingly detail, with beefcake pictures, Stone’s involvement in swinging (which unlike prostitution, actually IS consensual)? Is it only a sexual sin if Republicans do it?
  4. If “Troopergate” in Albany was an irrelevant distraction about the source of a leak rather than the leak’s substance (though what would that make of liberal wallow in the St. Valerie Plame furor), why does Gibney spend any time at all, much less 15 minutes or so, trying to figure out how the FBI’s interest in the Emperor’s Club started and then more time on how a Spitzer enemy knew about postal orders, the basis for the federal charges?
  5. Why is it relevant that the Mann Act, on immoral transportation across state lines, generally isn’t used against customers — if no criminal charges were ever brought against Spitzer? And doesn’t the fact that criminal charges only were brought against Emperor’s Club officials suggest that Spitzer was never the feds’ quarry, only a lobster that swam it way into a shrimp net?
  6. Even if an unprecedented use of the Mann Act did happen or was seriously contemplated, how does the caterwauling over that fact square with the applause given Spitzer for “innovative” uses of state law to “go after” Wall Street as part of a social crusade, i.e., an effort to make the law serve ideological ends?
  7. In what possible sense are Hank Greenberg and Ken Langone people “with unlimited resources,” as Gibney says, that Spitzer’s previous scalps were not?
  8. Why would it be surprising that the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York would tell state law-enforcement to back off on a matter of regulating interstate commerce based in New York (interstate commerce is one of the federal government’s enumerated powers, like immigration; at least Bush didn’t pre-emptively sue New York). Or that the same person holding the same office would play the lead in a criminal case involving a New-York based prostitution ring and (at least potentially) involving the governor of New York. The word is j-u-r-i-s-d-i-c-t-i-o-n.
  9. Why does Gibney let a talking head get away with the lie, as part of the “partisan conspiracymongering” section that “they” went after Spitzer because he was a Democrat while “they” didn’t go after Republican lawmakers. Gibney **even cites** the ur-refutation of this conspiracy nonsense — the DC Madam case, which he even says snared two Republicans (curiously only David Vitter is named, and my memory and the Wikipedia page both tell me he was the only elected official). And BTW … the DC Madam case was also federal and also focused on mail- and wire-related services, proving that federal investigations of escort services on these grounds is common and nonpartisan. And when Gibney darkly notes that no charges were brought against Vitter and that what followed the Pelfrey indictment was press reporting that outed him and created a political problem. Exactly. What. Happened. To. Spitzer. Is Gibney so glib, or slobbering critics so forgetful as not to remember that no charges were brought against Spitzer?
  10. Why are headlines of Goldman Sachs and banks’ post-bailout profitability an indictment of anything? If Gibney has something crooked, he should say so. If not, all he is doing is playing the ressentiment card. Do we or do we not want profitable banks? (I genuinely don’t believe most liberals seriously do operationally, though they will say they do abstractly.) One sure way not to get them is to make “profit headlines” shameful.

There is nothing to CLIENT 9 other than “Democrats are good and for everyone; Republicans are evil and for the greedy.” And what does it say about our film-making culture that a movie like this can get financed, can get made and be taken seriously by people who don’t drool?

TAMARA DREWE (Steven Frears, Britain, 8)

The first thing we see is a shirtless young farmhand, well-built but not “modern musclebound,” as he works the bucolic English countryside. Obviously, one of those British period pieces. Then he picks up a serving of plastic-bottled water. I snickered a bit. What? You mean, this is now? Or did they have bottled water in Hardy’s time. This is far from a comic highlight in this very funny film, but it’s emblematic of the strange space TAMARA DREWE occupies — fully in today’s world, but somehow … not really.

Let me fess up to something that my Twitter feed may have possibly misled on. I skimmed “Far from the Madding Crowd” more than 20 years ago as Thomas Hardy is not a favorite. Leaving the theater I “knew” I’d seen some kind of modernization of it (Frears practically tells us that much in the opening moments, which quotes the poem from which Hardy took his title), but I really didn’t know more than that. The themes were similar, there were common updated class elements, a rich heroine and a poor farmhand, and obviously a lot of town gossip. But the plot points I remembered from “Madding” (the timing of the livestock stampede, say) weren’t mapping onto TAMARA DREWE as cleanly as I had remembered those of “Emma” had done onto CLUELESS, a fact I just dismissed as a function of having read the Austen just a year before seeing its updating. Well, I now realize that this film is twice-removed from Hardy — an adaptation of a serial comic strip based on modernized versions of “Far from the Madding Crowd” characters — and bares very little resemblance to his story. Nevertheless, I still think the points I was making in my Twitter feed were accurate — that it was much more of a comedy than “Far from the Madding Crowd” and that it was a mistake for Frears to include diegetic references to Hardy and set the film among a literary set including a Hardy scholar. You’re thinking, “don’t they notice that these events are like a Hardy novel.”

But to TAMARA DREWE … this is a wonderfully zippy little film, fast-paced, spryly scored and you can easily imagine, even if you didn’t know, this being a 19th-century novel — the seasonal titles, the shift in romantic alignments, the misunderstandings based on communications (e-mail here, rather than diaries), and above all what defines Hardy’s country-life dramas — boredom leading to gossip and sex from some people having nothing better to do (“I know it’s boring around here, but for fuck’s sake,” one person exasperatedly says). The performances among the cast (none major stars, other than Gemma Arterton as the title character) are all finely balanced between absurdity and self-regard. Except for the two excellent teenage girls (particularly the more-extroverted Jessica Barden) who takes things over the top in their eager desire to bring to the small Dorset town the fantasy lives of the rich and famous that Madame Bovary learned about from novels they get from reading teen mags.

ANOTHER YEAR (Mike Leigh, Britain, 9)

Has Mike Leigh given up on the working class?

There’s always been a little of the “health scold” about some of Leigh’s films (the doctor and Rory near the end of ALL OR NOTHING, some asides at the barbecue in SECRETS AND LIES, the way the “helping professions” are always lionized). But this movie takes that to a new level, and may even conclude that the working classes may be irredeemably booze-cigarette- and badfood-sodden. It begins with Imelda Staunton, playing a dead ringer for Vera Drake, even though she herself needn’t and though this movie is set today, 60 years later. She just wants some pills for her insomnia and stoutly resists any form of intervention and “psychology” from one of ANOTHER DAY’s two central characters, a counselor played by Ruth Sheen. She says the only thing that could make things better would be “a different life” and leaves Sheen’s office without saying goodbye. She never appears again, and the movie ends (and this is not a spoiler) on a lengthy closeup of someone trapped in a different kind of misery.

In ANOTHER YEAR, the second consecutive British film I saw that takes place over one year and is segmented into four seasonal sequences, social mobility has happened. This is the first movie you’ll see in which sympathetic Mike Leigh characters are playing golf. Sheen is married to Jim Broadbent, a university graduate who works as an engineering geologist (“you dig holes in the ground,” he’s reminded), and the couple and their son are the only really happy people in the film. They also don’t allow smoking in the house and tend to a garden that grows their own vegetables. They are drawn in sharp contrast to two characters in particular — Lesley Manville as an alcoholic and Peter Wight as Broadbent’s boyhood friend from out of town, both of whom are really over the top (the characters, that is; not the actors, who are both perfect) in portraying a sort of nakedly sensualist British lumpen-proletarian, whose only pointedly-drawn interests are smoking and drinking and overeating (for him) or obsessing over weight (for her). Their son is also reasonably normal, drawing a contrast again with Broadbent’s brother, whose son has abandoned them and, it is implied, is living some sort of dissolute life. I initially thought ANOTHER YEAR had nothing more on its mind than “marriage is good, especially for the old.” There’s no cathartic (usually a quarrel) last scene in ANOTHER YEAR, instead just that lengthy closeup. Which leaves me convinced (and I have accordingly raised the grade) that Leigh is contrasting lifestyle particulars as well and may have soured on the working class’s stubborn embrace of “eat, drink and be miserable.”

Oh … and this is a Mike Leigh film, so the acting is sensationally good, and unlike often happens in Leigh, there is no bad, one-scene wtf? turn. (No, Mike, Manville is not telegraphing any more than drunks often unintentionally do, and a non-drunk non-proletarian role like Anthony Hopkins in REMAINS OF THE DAY is a ridiculous contrast.) My favorite was Karina Fernandez, not because of what she does exactly, but because of the contrast with the only role I’d seen her in previously — a hilarious character turn as the tango teacher in Leigh’s HAPPY GO-LUCKY, which led me to take her, especially given her name, to be a Spanish actress Leigh happened to find/like. Here, she’s playing someone more … ahem … happy go-lucky in a perfect London accent without a trace of the Spanish caricature. And a relatively sane and bright person.

September 16, 2010 Posted by | Alex Gibney, Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, TIFF 2010 | 3 Comments

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 4

CIRKUS COLUMBIA (Danis Tanovic, Bosnia, 5)

Tanovic returns home after a couple of unsuccessful Western-made films and returns to the vein of his reputation-making NO MAN’S LAND — a black comedy about the early 90s wars that broke up Yugoslavia. And an early scene gives us the sense that CIRKUS COLUMBIA, set in a small Bosnian village on the eve of the war, will also mark a return to form. A couple of newly-empowered ethnic-Croat city officials drop by a Serb woman’s home to evict her. Her Croat husband has just returned to the newly-noncommunist country after 20 years in West Germany with a hot trophy wife to make good on his claim to the home — to “put things right,” you understand. She curses out the cops at the door and dumps a pot of boiling water on them from a floor above. Then, while they hop around screaming, a tube of burn cream drops into the frame. Obviously, we’re gonna see the whole war played out within the microcosm of this family and/or village. The returning husband has never known the couple’s son, who is being “protected” by a local Yugoslav Army officer who is sweet on the mother but has no Deutschmarks to buy everything up. There’s a colorful cast of town eccentrics and couples. Oh … and the husband has a black tomcat that is like a talismanic symbol of his good luck in the West. Naturally, it goes missing and the whole town gets involved in the hunt (its reappearance is the film’s high point).

There is a lot to like here and I wouldn’t exactly warn people off CIRKUS COLUMBIA. The problem is that the awesome cinema of neighboring Romania has really raised the bar in the last few years on this kind of story and on having the convictions of their mordant blackness. CIRKUS is really only intermittently funny, and then has the gall to get sentimental on us in the last reel, which I won’t spoil. Suffice to say that there are some pretty unbelievable character arc changes and the last image is unforgivably sweet. Let’s just say it’s of two people on an old ride at the titular circus — the exact same ending as one of the shorts from TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE. Only, the Romanian film knows how to weave a sick joke into the situation, while Tanovic just gives us the Peaches and Herb “and it feeeels so gooooood” sentiment, which is not undone by panning up to a few puffs of CGI smoke.

THE CONSPIRATOR (Robert Redford, USA, 2) Even by standards of leftist “issue” films, this is risibly bad and so on-the-nose I had to laugh in spots. More tk at Big Hollywood.

THE ILLUSIONIST (Sylvain Chomet, France/Britain, 4)

Just a misconceived film, if not exactly an unpleasant or punishing one. As everyone et son frere knows, this film is based on an unfilmed Jacques Tati script, about an early-60s magician being elbowed out the industry by newer forms of entertainment. But I think it’s more than name-dropping to point this out, because it’s the key to why this film is, I think, unsuccessful. The protagonist is an obvious M. Hulot cousin and is even named Tatisheff (Tati’s real name). While touring England and later Scotland, he takes on a young girl as a “Cinderella” project and is so successful, she begins to attract another man.

While Tati is very far from a favorite of mine — I think his comedy plays better theoretically and on the page (this is part of why, I think, he is a critics favorite) — even a fan should realize that pointing out that Hulot was a cartoon or Tati had cartoon elements in his films don’t mean that actually animating him is a good idea. Without Tati’s physical presence as an actor and the materiality of his world, the humor becomes even more theoretical.

There are some funny bits here — the most dangerous rabbit since the Carter administration, the reason the magician rolls up his sleeve at one point, and an on-the-side joke you might miss about British cuisine, as the POV sits outside an Edinburgh “chippie” and you can read the menu. But there’s also a distasteful element of self-aggrandizement and/or self-pity in the story, portraying a Beatles clone group (the Britoons) as loud, talentless nancy-boys just makes Tati/Chomet come across as Grandpa in the corner of the room (or Charlie Chaplin in A KING IN NEW YORK) ranting against the dang-fool younger generation and their awful jazz. And ultimately I think Sylvain’s animation style — its grotesque elements, the lack of speech and a barely-realistic template — works against the kind of semi-tragic story of lost love that THE ILLUSIONIST ends up being. I liked Chomet’s TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, so I felt down after this one and realized I hadn’t really seen a great film yet and started to think, “maybe it’s just me … I’m becoming a D’Angelesque impossible-to-please guy.” Until …

TABLOID (Errol Morris, USA, 9)

Finally, the festival gets started, with its first great film, on Sunday opening night at the new Lightbox theater. Indeed, given how blah a festival nearly everyone seemed to be having and how I was in the first audience for this one — I don’t even think there were press screenings, I definitely went into TABLOID cold of any “buzz” — I think (I hope, I pray) that schedulers deliberately back-loaded the festival until after the Lightbox opened.

Anyhoo … onto this film — Morris’s best since THE THIN BLUE LINE in significant part because it returns to his roots of making films about eccentrics and weirdos that somehow manage to say something profound about them and everyone else in between all the “oh, come ON” moments (just don’t ever make another political movie, Errol, mmmmmkay ….) The Morris film TABLOID most closely resembles is MR. DEATH, both films being profiles of some Nutcase who is famous for Thing X, and then we learn midway through (actually, about 4/5 of the way through here) about his separate, never-previously-mentioned fame for Thing Y.

But while Fred Leuchter went from just bizarre to wicked through an excess of epistemological and scientistic hubris, Morris maintains an appropriately breezier tone for Joyce McKinney’s story in TABLOID. In large part this is because she’s a much more appealing personality (albeit a rapist and a Nutcase; she could be a Tennessee Williams heroine) but also because Morris is interested in her media stardom. He takes an appropriately breathless, tabloidish tone and pace and visual style. Other than the familiar Interrotron look-into-the-camera interviews, the film mostly consists of collages of tabloid headlines or ironically recontextualized found footage of Mormon missionary films, 50s male-body contests, etc. When Thing Y comes along, it was a shocker to me (though I remembered it upon the film’s prompting).

I went in knowing about McKinney’s Thing X, which was a sensational tabloid story in Britain in the late-70s. McKinney became convinced a Mormon friend she wanted sexually had been kidnapped and taken away from her for cult programming. He was on a mission in Britain, which is routine for Mormon men, McKinney’s ignorance of which fact proves her vacuousness. So Joyce goes to Britain, kidnaps him and forces him to have sex with her, thinking that would cure him of Mormon repression. She became a tabloid sex celebrity (think Monica Lewinsky) until she fled the country. Then Fleet Street began digging about her past and a new round of publicity began

The one mistake Morris makes, I think, is giving too much voice (or any voice actually) to an ex-Mormon crusader who basically thinks McKinney’s victim was either asking for it or even if he wasn’t, he deserved it because Mormonism and premarital chastity are ridiculous repressions from which, in Rousseau’s memorable phrase, he should be “forced to be free.” But since that’s basically McKinney’s attitude too, it was unavoidable, and it will have the nice side benefit of seeing how feminists react to this film. When Morris asks the blunt question — “is it possible for a woman to rape a man,” she answers “no” and then tells the familiar joke about relaxing and enjoying it, like the weather a marshmallow and a parking meter. If the sexes were reversed, Morris (and McKinney) would be lynched at the next Take Back the Night rally for telling this story in this way.

Then Thing Y comes along, within the last few years and which I won’t even mention, except to say it becomes a different kind of tabloid story, one Morris suggests fits better in a new era. And it suggests that McKinney’s persona was not fake, kidnap-rapist though she was. She really was just starved for love and sought it any way and anyhow she could find it. Actually, I lied at the start. This is Morris’s best film since GATES OF HEAVEN.

NORWEGIAN WOOD (Tran Anh Hung, Japan, 4)

So *this* is what people who thought ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU or NOBODY KNOWS were too damn long were getting at??? Even if I didn’t know this film was adapted from a novel, it wouldn’t have been hard to figure out — the lengthy voiceover narration, the wealth of incident, and finally the excess of the latter, as if the adapter just had to “get it all in.” And that’s where NORWEGIAN WOOD falls.

For about 90 minutes I was fine with just luxuriating in NORWEGIAN WOOD’s textures and surfaces. Tran has a way with making languor appetizing, shown in his VERTICAL RAY OF THE SUN and SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA. In those films, tropical heat created an aimless hazy reverie mood (“Joe” was probably taking notes). Here it’s more the faces of the actors, caressed in light that looks like it was filtered through butter, giving the perfect faces the feel and texture of a creamy dessert you wanna taste on the screen. There’s also a fine setup — college-age boy and girl, Watanabe and Naoko (the latter an unrecognizable Rinko Kikuchi) meet after the suicide of a mutual friend who also was her first beau. And there’s a number of viruoso scenes. I especially liked the worst-thing-you-ever-said mistake Watanabe makes the first time they have sex, which sends her to a rehab-type clinic, away from him; the scene with Watanabe having dinner with his roommate and *his* girlfriend; and a lengthy track back and forth across a windswept Japanese grassy-reed field as Naoko talks about the suicide for the first time. And like with how the Vietnam war was echoing only-just offstage in PAPAYA, WOOD takes place during a Japanese student uprising that plays no role after establishing the time-frame early on, A 30-minute shorter cut of this film would probably be a strong 6 or a weak 7.

But for about 45 or 50 minutes, I was just going to myself “will this thing ever fracking end????” and not for external reasons like bathroom or hunger. There was another girlfriend, and another, and a counselor at Naoko’s camp, and Watanabe moves out the dorm, and one of the girlfriend prospects moves into his new pad, and he tries to take up again with Naoko and I start shaking my watch … faster, FASTER!!! It seems too mundane a complaint, but NORWEGIAN WOOD is just too damn long and has too many characters and incidents. (And the Emperor thinks the opera has too many notes, I know, I know …)

September 14, 2010 Posted by | Danis Tanovic, Errol Morris, Robert Redford, Sylvain Chomet, TIFF 2010, Tran Anh Hung | 1 Comment

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 3

THE KING’S SPEECH (Tom Hooper, Britain, 7)

In a disturbing trend, all the films I graded 7 or better for the first three days of the festival, I could only describe as “hokum.” Effective hokum; enjoyable hokum; but hokum. THE KING’S SPEECH is Oscar-bait hokum, a relatively-restrained “historical Wiki movie” designed for contemporary consumption of semi-history. One detail suffices to prove: Winston Churchill’s role is about three times the size of Neville Chamberlain’s even though the movie ends before Churchill’s return in 1940. And did Churchill really suggest that “Albert” sounds too German, as if somehow “George” doesn’t, given British royal history?

Of course, in 2010, the king’s character trajectory has to involve learning to be equal to a commoner who insists on treating him as an equal. Still, what “equality” means in a modern monarchy is an interesting subject (this film covers some of the same ground as THE QUEEN, albeit less trenchantly) and there’s also a profound exchange in which George saying “I wouldn’t know” what friends are for, because friendship presupposes equality. The basic history of THE KING’S SPEECH, that George VI had a speech impediment and had “Dr.” Logue brought in unofficially to help his public speaking, is true enough and the story of George VI leading the nation into war to save civilization will get the patriotic juices flowing. While I couldn’t resist a snicker at the war speech against Germany being accompanied by Beethoven, Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist keeps George VI mentally secure and “conducts his speech.” Rush has never been better — not as tic-ridden here as in some of his other roles. Colin Firth has both the regal bearing and the discomfort with that necessary to play an accidental king. And there’s a subtle contrast — one I wish the film had done more with — between George and his brother Edward about their attitudes toward royal power and what kingship (and leadership generally) means. THE KING’S SPEECH is also quite funny — one of my favorite scenes was George swearing in order to get used to natural speech flow.

The audience at the Ryerson ate it up and gave thunderous ovations to Hooper, Firth and Rush. Expect a lot of awards speeches in January and February.

BOXING GYM (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 6)

Besides being a huge boxing fan, I could also have been a character in this movie (or at least one of the types). For about three months a decade ago, I went two or three times a week to a boxing gym in Georgia that was a lot like this one. And so I can say definitively that BOXING GYM is observationally superb. The people here, and in a typical gym, run the gamut — Golden Gloves guys, semi-pros and ex-pros making a living by training others, whitecollar guys who want to get in shape, kids who need to learn to fight back, frat boys impressing their girl, ethnic minorities with a dream, soldiers or cops who enjoy combat in all forms, women learning self-defense.

Wiseman gets not only that (easy enough), but he also nails the camaraderie between gym people at these different levels and goals — nobody is too good to help out anyone else or to work with him. BOXING GYM also shows how conversation here presupposes the martial virtues rather the whitecollar aversion thereto. There are a score of conversations about violence in all its forms — the Virginia Tech shooting, the Afghanistan war, e.g. But in one scene, two men converse about one of them being trained to be a Ranger, and the other says “well, that’s good” to the remark that the soldier won’t be sent off immediately. The response is “well, I joined the Army to go into combat.” There’s also 100 small touches that tickled me — for example, the way hand wrapping is the first thing you’re taught and becomes a kind of nervous tic while doing something else; also, we see a young girl jump rope but doing so “like a girl” which is funny in this context (I had to be told to jump rope properly — the point is to develop ankle and heel strength, hence you have to keep your ankles and knees together). Wiseman also choreographed his cameras like a virtuoso, or even a fighter, in order to avoid their being seen (as is typical, this Austin gym is filled with mirrors).

For all this though, BOXING GYM is not a great film because it never really goes beyond slice-of-life observation. We really only get to know one person — gym owner Richard Lord, and he’s more a presence than a “character.” There are thus no real trajectories to follow — Twitter bud Darren Hughes said he could watch a 10-hour cut of this material, and I said there’d essentially be no difference, besides the sheer time. The closest I can say BOXING GYM has to a trajectory, a reason to finish rather than stop, is that the last scene is the first time we see two adults spar one-on-one, full-contact (i.e., the culmination of everything else). But even so, we don’t really see who *these* men are (I’m pretty sure from a tattoo that one of them had never been seen before). At his best (the HIGH SCHOOL movies, e.g.), even Wiseman’s deliberately uninflected films (no commentary or voiceover, film-maker never seen, not even onscreen “namecards”), stories of a kind do develop. To steal a line with permission from Jeremy Heilman, we generally do see “before,” during” and “after” in Wiseman’s films. Here, it’s all “during.”

THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 4)

Since I’ve just acknowledged having trained at a boxing gym, that gives me Man Enough cred to admit defeat and just say “I didn’t get this.” The set up is wonderful and promising — photographer rushed late at night to a bedside to photograph a dead girl, and then she comes alive and smiles at him in the developed photos. And he gets infatuated with her memory. I was able to go for a while with de Oliveira’s signature style — stiff performances, timing a little “off,” an excess of exposition and declamation in the dialogue. And I was willing to wait and see what the point of the protagonist also taking an interest in photographing old-school laborers in the fields (they come by and pose for camera, i.e., de Oliveira’s also). I was also intrigued by his pointedly being made Jewish while Angelica’s family is devoutly Catholic with a sister in an old-school public-habit convent — potential there too. And then … hmmm … supernatural elements …

But after having set up an intriguing premise, ANGELICA doesn’t go anywhere interesting, and the end was too predictable. The lengthy kitchen-cabinet table discussions are dire, dire, dire. And the lead actor, Ricardo Trepa, is as uncharismatic a leading man as I’ve ever seen, at least in a major film by an important auteur who has done well with the likes of Michel Piccoli in lead roles. But being the director’s grandson gives you the right to lie there like a lump of used charcoal, I guess.

LOVE CRIME (Alain Corneau, France, 8)

I have to acknowledge that the comparison I made on my Twitter — that this film is ALL ABOUT EVE set in the world of white-collar corporations — came from Ludivine Sagnier herself, during the Q-and-A. But she said it in response to a question from Yours Truly, so I feel free to use it. Like the Mankiewicz film, LOVE CRIME is bitchy trash, but it’s bitchy trash of the highest order. Trash on a croissant, you might say in this case. Sagnier plays the Anne Baxter role, only with a bit more viciousness, and Kristin Scott Thomas the Bette Davis role with a touch of Cruella de Vil. KST is a top-level executive who steals credit from Sagnier and says “you have real talent. I must make the most of it.” The first half of this film is a hugely entertaining game of dislikability one-upmanship.

But then the film’s big reveal happens (which I won’t spoil), and frankly I thought the movie was over and got a bit restless until I realized there was another reveal coming. Certainly I didn’t realize that Corneau, who died late last month, had a Hitchcock streak in him wider than I’d ever have guessed from his great TOUS LES MATINS DU MONDE (though Corneau is a French director; loving M. Hitch might be some kind of law). Sagnier also mentioned in the Q-and-A Corneau’s love of Fritz Lang and how the film didn’t deviate “one coma,” her French accent delightfully said, from the script. Indeed, LOVE CRIME is structured a bit like one of Lang’s deterministic geometrically-structured thrillers like FURY or SCARLET STREET, where everything is relevant, especially the apparent irrelevancies. If you don’t love (and apparently, some people didn’t) the second half’s deliberately anachronistic old-fashioned touches (having a criminal wear black gloves, say) and the way it has fun with the detective-story genre (I was laughing at one anti-believable “Death on the Nile” reference) — it might make LOVE CRIME seem predictable and tedious. But this is the kind of tight, hyper-controlled exercise in plot that I just eat up.

September 13, 2010 Posted by | Alain Corneau, Frederick Wiseman, Manoel de Oliveira, TIFF 2010, Tom Hooper | Leave a comment

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 2

A MARRIED COUPLE (Allan King, Canada, 1969, 9)

This film is pornographic, and by that I’m not referring to explicit sex, but to another kind of privacy self-violation. Toronto couple Billy and Antoinette Edwards are exhibitionists, not simply in the narrow sense that we see them (and their ~3-year-old son Bogart) nude on the beach, but the fact they agreed to make this film at all. And somehow trusted a stranger (or even a friend) into their home to see what we see, not only for his benefit but for the eventual benefit of the whole world. I feel like Marge at the end of FARGO, musing about how there’s some things in the world she just doesn’t understand. Why would two people who love each other, who ever loved each other, do this? I can’t think of a film in history where there is such a gap between my enthusiasm for the film and my enthusiasm for the film’s existence.

Don’t get me wrong, A MARRIED COUPLE is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, portraying a loveless marriage in all its pettiness and rawness, and suggesting sideways that this is what the sexual revolution and feminism does to marriage. Near the end, when the D-word is breached (I have married Catholic friends who say never broach the subject, because you can never take it back), Billy says “the problem is not the framework or the social structure, it’s you and me.” Wrong. This is a very modern marriage, in which the concept of “dying to self” and “mutual submission” and other religious mumbo-jumbo is literally foreign. Each is in the marriage for what they can get out of it as individuals, and that’s the root of all the quarreling. The quarrels here put Cassavettes and even Bergman to shame in how it always comes out that they’re either really about something else (getting a harpsichord is about status within the marriage; who gets the car in the morning is about who is a servant, and eventually even what “service” is). Or they are about the simple satisfaction of being right and doing things “my way” (the issue of returning some borrowed records reminded me of a much-more-comic quarrel on “All in the Family” between Mike and Archie over putting on socks and shoes).

After the film, you really feel like you want to take a shower or go home to your wife with some loving act or gesture. But I eventually decided that that reaction makes the film worthy, for me anyway. The film’s verite approach, apparent single-camera shooting and lack of commentary or even explicit self-awareness (I am told there was one reference to the camera’s presence, which I apparently missed) leaves open the space for us, or for me anyway, to detest these people and the ugly self-exhibitionism on display.

POETRY (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 3)

To plagiarize myself … In 2009, TIFF had a Korean film featuring a veteran actress as a dotty old lady whose son-figure is involved in a sex crime investigation. In 2010, TIFF had a Korean film featuring a veteran actress as dotty old lady whose son-figure is involved in a sex crime investigation. In 2009, Bong Joon-ho’s MOTHER was my favorite film of the festival. In 2010, Lee Chang-dong’s POETRY … will not be. Lee’s movie seems machine-tooled to prove by negative example all the things Bong did right. While Bong expertly used the conventions of the detective story and the policier genre, both for their own effects and to goose us for what the film was finally really about, Lee just includes a lot of behavior and potential ideas, none of which ever give the film much pull.

There’s the poetry class, though it’s hard to see why this woman would be attracted to it, except as retreat from reality (and there’s the unfortunate fact that poetry is not only hard to translate, but also ideas about poetry is differ greatly among cultures; I was mostly left unmoved by the poems we hear or see). There’s several scenes in poetry class where people describe their happiest moment, and I wanted the film to do that and become like Kore-eda’s AFTER LIFE; bit it doesn’t. There’s the Alzheimer’s diagnosis that implies that POETRY is going to be about a lot of things that it never is, about making art as one tragically loses one’s grip a la Schumann in Haneke’s LA PIANISTE (certainly the analog to the mother’s fate at the end of Bong’s film is withering). A compensation thread doesn’t really go anywhere interesting and is eventually canceled out, suddenly and without much internal drama. There’s a scene where the old woman wanders into a Catholic Church where there’s a memorial service for the dead girl, and you’re thinking of (Lee’s vastly superior) SECRET SUNSHINE, but the film goes no farther with that. Bong’s son figure was a lively comic “retard” who really didn’t like being called that; in the Lee, he’s just a big ungrateful lump who lies there (even his fate at the end is flat and uninflected). And I guess that’s the problem I had with POETRY in a nutshell — it was so damn inert.

I’M STILL HERE (Casey Affleck, USA, 4)

Here’s the basic problem. If Joaquin Phoenix really had a meltdown, this film is pointless and stupid (and coming from one’s brother-in-law, ugly and enabling as well). If Joaquin Phoenix pulled an elaborate stunt for two years, this film is an ugly form of misery tourism and a too-spun-out pointless practical joke. And as one of the “Entertainment Tonight” talking heads put it near the end when the real-or-fake subject is broached, “most of all, do we care” if it’s real or fake? No. Either way, I’M STILL HERE is only intermittently funny and a failure in every other conceivable way. The Letterman interview is one of the great comic moments in recent television; Puffy’s reaction to Phoenix’s rap record is priceless (whether he’s in on the joke or not); and there’ll always be a special place in my heart for a Hollywoof celebrity who sleeps through Obama’s inauguration.

The basic problem is that there is no on-camera difference, unless multiple textual layers become explicit and that doesn’t happen here, between being an asshole and playing an asshole. And so to do it full-time as part of a stunt doesn’t really tell us much, the effect on the viewer is the same. When Affleck shows an assistant’s penis upon Phoenix’s on-camera insistence or Phoenix snorts coke off a hooker’s body, it’s a public humiliation either way, and to leave open the “fake” question is just ugly. At least the Edwardses quarrels were genuine, whatever might be said of their exhibitionism about them (to see this film the same day as A MARRIED COUPLE was crushing).

And that simple fact points to where Phoenix’s project was doomed. He laments early that “I don’t want to play the character ‘Joaquin Phoenix.’ I just want to be myself, and be rid of all these preconceptions people have of me.” Sorry, but I call “bullshit.” If you want to retreat from fame, you retreat from fame, like JD Salinger or Thomas Pynchon or Terrence Malick or later John Hughes. You don’t make a documentary about your new career (also a show-biz one, mind you, only Phoenix craptacularly sucks at rap). Further, nobody is (or should be) under the illusion they’re saying “the real Big Star So-and-So.” We pay to see their image and their artistry, not their real personalities, which are no more interesting than yours or mine.

So for now, I’m with the “it’s fake” crowd. There are scenes, supposedly impromptu quarrels, where there’s cross-cutting between the two parties which implies either a two-camera shoot (unlikely for a homemade movie and the “other camera” is never visible, which implies careful “blocking”) or, as most fiction-movie scenes are made, shot over and over from different angles. The camera is also in some too-fortuitous for belief places — looking through a hotel peephole, just out of visual sight but within audio range of a crying Phoenix lamenting the end of everything at Central Park). Like Lee’s POETRY did to Bong’s MOTHER, this film really made me appreciate another film in my Top 10 to-date for the year — Banksy’s EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, another is-it-real or is-it-fake headscratcher, but one which was actually used the uncertainty gimmick to be about something other than itself (hucksterism in the art world and ultimately the nature of creativity).

SUPER (James Gunn, USA, 7)

The most-important thing to know about this very silly film is that at Midnight Madness, to get the audience in the mood while we were all filing in, the sound system was playing, among other things, the “Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl” theme song (yes … I can recite all the villains and most of their sidekicks without looking it up — Ali Baba and the Genie, the Sorcerer and Miss Dazzle, the Pharoah and Cleopatra, Glitter Rock and Sideshow, Spider-Lady, the Empress of Evil and Lucretia … and I’m damn proud of that). And it has Ellen Page in the “sidekick” role that she takes to … extremely enthusiastically. And it uses Cheap Trick’s “If You Want My Love,” a song that deserves to be as well known as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” in the ass-kicking, love-theme genre. You know from this descriptions what you will think of SUPER. Again, it’s fun cheese with fantasy elements designed to appeal to comic and other geeks

SUPER is basically a superhero parody film, deliberately low-budget and comic-book-y (the film includes “splat!!!” and “pow!!!” balloons) but it’s smart and knowing (though deliberately funny at the same time) about what’s repressed when, say, a superhero with no powers decides to make a wrench his weapon and go “splat!!!” and “pow!!!” It also, a la SERIAL MOM, shows the super heros getting increasingly … well, picky … about what deserves an ass-kicking. SUPER is a bit spell-it-out explicit about the needs the protagonist (Rainn Wilson) feels in order to put on the superhero costume — “I am [effing] interesting,” he yells at one point.  Between that and the vigilante angle (unfortunately dropped late), SUPER might have had a chance to plumb some serious unexplored depths. But only in a world where THE DARK KNIGHT didn’t already exist.

September 11, 2010 Posted by | Allan King, Casey Affleck, James Gunn, Lee Chang-dong, TIFF 2010 | Leave a comment

Bonus coverage of TCM from my hotel room

SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (Robert Wise, USA, 1956) — 8

Just looked at my Past Top 10s, and I can’t imagine why this film isn’t in the Top 10 for 1956 (nor can I quickly find my earlier grade … this was a total impulse watch in “morning hotel room” mode). After all, it’s not as though I’m exactly shy about loving certain films more than I “should,” or about the fact I’m a huge real-boxing fan and will watch boxing films even when they’re not good. But this film actually is very good, practically the Platonic form Boxing Biopic.

I know when I saw this movie the first time (this is about my 4th viewing), I was resistant to Paul Newman’s performance, thinking of it as a mannered caricature of a lower-class “guido” from someone who I knew from his life and later icongraphy was the very opposite and also didn’t look terribly like Graziano.

Over the years, I have softened my opinion about Newman’s performance and now pretty much treasure it — from seeing other boxing movies, from seeing other celebrity biopics, and from seeing the real-life Rocky Graziano in the ring and out of it. It’s more complicated than “but Graziano was a ‘guido’,” because Newman does not and does not try to look like him. It’s that I’ve now seen enough mimicry masquerading as acting to respect Newman’s efforts to act like a working-class Italian tough guy without specifically aping a particular one. And having a genuinely great actor like Newman, in his youth no less, helps greatly in the nonfight scenes. For example, in the proposal scene outside the courthouse with Pier Angeli, Newman’s body language and Method-inspired mumbling speech (it does SOMETIMES work) creates Rocky as a guy too shy to admit he’s in love, and who has to come with some excuse, ANY excuse, no matter how lame (“I don’t like courthouses”).

Seeing the real-life Graziano’s fights also gave me a greater appreciation of how Newman was actually able to fight like Graziano fought (a tougher achievement than it looks), though I acknowledge it helps that Graziano wasn’t a “cutie” or a counterpuncher — he fought swinging for the fences. It also helps that the Zale trilogy is not merely the greatest of its kind in boxing history but was tailor-made for the movies. All three fights were short, ultra-violent and back-and-forth, as Hollywood likes them but as very few real-life fights are. SOMEBODY only *shows* the second Zale fight, the one Rocky won — the women at the home front listen to the radio broadcast of Rocky getting KO’d in first fight; and the movie ends before Zale wins the rubber match. But that scene is one of the great achievements in sports-movie history, both convincingly choreographed and “you’re in the middle of the ring”-intense — two virtues often in competition.

I also appreciated a lot this time the way Wise inverts the convention of the “rise-to-the-top montage” from a million fight films. He does some of that with early fights, but when Graziano is making his way through the top contenders (i.e., the fighters good enough that you have to take a beating yourself to win), we see a montage of Rocky’s first-born growing up and reacting badly to seeing Daddy come home with a varyingly mangled face. And it’s got a good … ahem … punch line.

SOMEBODY also avoids the shapelessness that often haunts the biopic. The film is based on Rocky’s autobiography and while we all tend to narrativize or teleologize our lives, Graziano’s life was like a three-act drama (or close enough to provide a clear dramatic throughline with no liberties). He’s a tough thug who could do nothing but wrong in a bad environment (Graziano apparently knew in real-life boys who grew up to be men who sat in the electric chair) but who found redemption in the ring and with a woman. And his past sins (desertion, blackmail and fight-fix threats) play a role later on, in his boxing career, meaning there’s actually a dramatic “payoff” reason for all the events early on. But redemption doesn’t happen in a pat and easy way. A hack 50s screenwriter, for example, would have had the Army stint force Rocky to learn discipline. In SOMEBODY, it doesn’t of course, in large part because it didn’t in real life. But happily what really did happen is dramatically more interesting.

September 10, 2010 Posted by | Robert Wise | Leave a comment

More shameless self-promotion

I didn’t exactly plan it this way — news pegs happen when they happen. But this morning, my second piece for Big Hollywood was published, about the furor at TIFF about this year’s Istanbul City-to-City program. Or rather the lack thereof. Last year, writing if the Tel Aviv furor, I fearlessly predicted the following:

I guarantee you that if there is a C-to-C program next year, there will be no furor, regardless of that city’s past. If it’s Moscow, there will be no calls for inclusion of perspectives from Budapest, Prague or Tbilisi, to name cities in countries invaded by Russia more recently than the establishment of Israel.

I guessed the wrong city, but sure enough, no calls for counter voices from Yerevan, Diyarbakir, Nicosia, or Athens.

September 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 1

SCORE: A HOCKEY MUSICAL (Michael McGowan, Canada, 7)

Perhaps this might not have been as much fun seen under any circumstances other than Opening Night at TIFF, after waiting in the Rush Line and having a woman just give away her ticket and not even accepting payment. Or maybe I’m just laughing AT this film’s many amateurishnesses and absurdities in that snobby hipster way.

Certainly I can say I’m embarrassed by how much I enjoyed SCORE: A HOCKEY MUSICAL, which is not an objectively good musical and made my heart sink early, but quickly won me over, as a kind of self-referential comedy. The music is generic bubble-gum pop without soul, and the songs are more like recitatives than arias: they always advance plot, are usually castwide, and are absurdly (to the point of comically) “overwritten,” always trying to get in an extra few words, polysyllabic preferred, at the end. And only Olivia Newton-John (obviously) has any voice. But how can you not laugh at hockey players dancing in the locker room, choreographed fights, and lyrics like “hockey without violence is like macaroni without cheese / it’s still pasta but it don’t aim to please.” Or a Dan Hill ballad being sung without irony (though with knowingness).

The plot centers on the son of hippy parents who’s the greatest hockey talent ever, but he doesn’t fit into hockey’s he-man ethos. Maybe it was how SCORE embraced its amateurishnesses, or maybe it was some quick punchline-flashbacks that showed me both that, title aside, SCORE is a comedy first and that the director has chops. And the male-bonding scenes and montages and the sports-marketing scenes are no-excuses-needed hilarious. So somehow all these musical shortcomings pay off because the film is essentially a self-reflexive comedy about being a “Canadian” musical, an emblem of a country where self-deprecating amateurish inferiority is part of the national psyche. (A contest to fill in “as Canadian as ——,” the winner was “as possible under the circumstances.”)

The plot wrestles, really unconvincingly in the resolution, with the central paradox of Canada’s self-image. The country is obsessed with the most honor-based, hypoer-masculine violent sport in the world (besides actual combat sports). For example, when programmer Cameron Bailey mentioned how “we” won the Olympic gold medal, the Elgin Theater erupted in applause. Meanwhile, Canada’s political mythos is that we’re the peaceful caring polite country, unlike The Big You Know Who. So yes, Noel, the film relies on stereotypes, but that’s how this kind of humor works — think also de Sica’s and Germi’s 60s “Italian” comedies with Sophia Loren and/or Marcello Mastroianni. SCORE is, and quite deliberately like Canada itself — small, plucky, innocent, knowing and enjoyable in its inferiorities to the colossus films of US Hollywood. And I largely wrote this review sitting at a Tim Horton’s.

THE RETURN OF THE FIST (Andrew Lau, Hong Kong, 3)

A film has to first achieve a certain level of coherence before you can even explain clearly why it’s incoherent. RETURN OF THE FIST doesn’t even achieve that — I have no more idea of what “happens” than I got from reading the Guidebook. I couldn’t follow this movie one lick after its terrific opening scene.

In that scene, a sign of the movie that might have been, a handful of WW1 Chinese laborers with only a few knives defeat a whole battalion of faceless Germans with rifles and machine guns. The stuntwork-choreography, where the sets miraculously fall into place, is breathtaking. My favorite moment is when a wrestling-pinned German gets the familiar 20-lightning-punches-in-3-seconds treatment, only the Chinese guy is using knives rather than his fists. The film then flashes forward to 30s Shanghai and there’s elements of a great movie there — stylized over-opulent obviously-sets sets, musical acts and ridiculously glamorous folk. A nightclub called “Casablanca” promises shifting-loyalties-in-an-uncertain-zone war intrigue, and there’s triads and Westerners and Chinese generals and etc.

But for all his action chops, which come out again for scenes involving a masked superhero (don’t ask), Lau is lausy at exposition and tries for way too many characters and subplots and intrigue. Maybe this is cultural mother’s milk to the Chinese — certainly there’s enough Chinese flag-waving and flamboyantly evil “Japs” to make me think Lau is going for the home audience. And the “RETURN OF” title tells me there’s at least cultural antecedents, if not actual movies, to this story. But to this bakgwei, RETURN OF THE FIST simply doesn’t delineate and differentiate the characters enough to make sense.

September 10, 2010 Posted by | Andrew Lau, Michael McGowan, TIFF 2010 | Leave a comment

Because I’m sitting at a bar with nothing better to do…

Let me pick a fight with a friend, Scott Tobias of the Onion AV Club, the man whose moniker for me wound up in my Big Hollywood bio blurb (“the only hardline Catholic moralist you’ll meet who loved (or, for that matter, saw) Irreversible“)

Anyhoo … I was looking at the AV Club a little bit ago to see whether he and Noel Murray had any festival walkup pieces (press screenings just started this morning). And saw that Scott had another in his Gateways to Geekery series, a fun premise that actually does fill a very important role — “where do I begin?”

This one is about one of my very favorite directors — Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer, the man who, as Scott rightly notes makes Ingmar Bergman look like Stanley Donen. And there’s a tradition of me writing impromptu posts about Dreyer over beer, so here goes…

Scott’s suggested gateway Dreyer drug is THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece about the medieval French saint’s trial and execution. There’s no way around the fact that Dreyer may well be the most forbidding and intimidating director in the canon, and so there are good arguments against any place a critic might wanna start. But I still think JOAN is the wrong film to recomment to the not-already-hardcore (the second-worst of his five major “late” films, ahead of only the snicker-inducing GERTRUD), and I will suggest two better alternatives as well.

I think JOAN would be a bad choice because of things Scott correctly notes in his piece. Because Dreyer is so intimidating, I think you want something accessible and as “comfortable” as possible, to ease the way in. For one thing, JOAN is silent, and that’s an immediate turnoff for (too, far far too) many. It shouldn’t be — silent films are their own aesthetic, they “lack” nothing. And the “Visions of Light” score on the DVD is an astonishing work and addition in its own right. But it is, and everything else equal, or even somewhat unequal, a sound film will always work better for a filmmaker with masterpieces on both sides of the 1930 breach. Second, JOAN is in many ways a baffling film even to wrap your head around — extremely spatially disorienting, filled with eccentric wtf-angles and pays no attention whatever to establishing shots or to the ABCs of continuity editing (indeed one would see it has a score of contradictory cues if he were to try to “figure them all out” as David Bordwell did). JOAN is, therefore an alienating experience if one isn’t overwhelmed by the sheer emotional power of it (which is, of course, the ideal response).

So I’ll make two other suggestion for entry-points into Dreyer. The first is the one of his five films that I think comes closest to conventional viewing habits — DAY OF WRATH. I’m paraphrasing Bordwell from memory. But I think he was correct in noting that WRATH marks a transition point between (to use hostile critical vocabulary) the earlier alienating stylistic eccentricities and unclarity of JOAN and VAMPYR and the staginess and stasis of ORDET and GERTRUD. Thus you get both “sides” of Dreyer’s late work without the excesses of either. WRATH also, Bordwell correctly notes, has more melodramatic appeal and conventional character-conflict than any of the other four films.

The other entry point I’d pick may seem a bit counterintuitive, given what I just said about silents. But it tickled my mind when I realized Scott hadn’t mentioned it at all. That film is MICHAEL, which Dreyer made for UFA in 1924 at the height of expressionism with such important German collaborators as writer Thea von Harbou, actors Nora Gregor and Walter Slezak, and cinematographers Karl Freund and Rudolph Mate. If you can get past the silent part at all (and a somewhat hammy Benjamin Christiansen in the lead role), I think MICHAEL is Dreyer’s most accessible and melodramatically satisfying film, period. It’s a straight-up “Vie de Boheme” story about an artist, his male muse, his female love and the jealousies between and among them and the vicissitudes of his career. If you could imagine Oscar Wilde as a filmmaker, you’ll get MICHAEL. Like DAY OF WRATH, it also served as a Dreyer career bridge but, also like a lot of films made in 1924 and 1925, it too marks a turning point from the beginning to the end of the silent era. Dreyer’s early silents like THE PARSONS WIDOW and LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK are excellent films, but allowances have to be made for them because of the technical primitiveness of the 10s and early-20s. Meanwhile, Dreyer’s later silents, most radically JOAN, pose stylistic challenges that the improved state-of-the-art allowed. MICHAEL sits balanced on the scale of time.

September 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Shameless self-promotion

TORONTO — I make my debut today at the invaluable Andrew Breitbart and John Nolte site Big Hollywood (just a coincidence — the news peg came when it did). Riffing off the controversy over Jafar Panahi not being allowed to attend the Venice Film Festival, I take a look at Panahi’s career as an artist (mostly his three best films) and at some of the ways it dovetails with his “career” as a martyr. The piece is here.

One thing I wanted to mention but couldn’t find a way to do so elegantly (and the piece was already butting against Big Hollywood’s word-count suggestions) is that I saw Panahi present OFFSIDE in person here back in 2006, when he could travel abroad, though he was already skirting the edge of the mullahs’ tolerance. In his intro and/or Q-A (I forget which), Panahi mentioned that he was so afraid of regime censorship that didn’t even risk lab-development of the working materials in Iran, instead shipping the undeveloped film stock abroad (to France, if memory serves). Panahi said that all the material was safely outside Iran and that, while he was hoping that OFFSIDE would pass censorship and could play in Iran, he would not alter the film. The Toronto audience let out a spontaneous round of applause. God bless and be with this man.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Toronto schedule

Labor Day has come and gone, so in honor of last year’s best film at the Toronto International Film Festival (and the best film to be released commercially in the US this year) — it’s mother-tiffing time. The schedulers have made several changes since last year — all of them bad IMHO.

(1) basically all the Gala premieres are now special-ticket only and thus can’t be bought with passes, which means that with a lot of the Hollywood tentpole films, there’s only one chance (in a couple of cases, none) to see it; (2) they’ve extended the festival a day into a second Sunday, which I’m gonna take advantage of, but might make The Festival Wall even harder; (3) they’ve gutted the weekday morning programming (devoting fewer than half the number of screens as previous festivals) and backloaded the festival in terms of sheer numbers.

As I said on my Twitter feed @vjmfilms, where I’ll have an instant reax to every movie I see, there is exactly one (1) film shown to the general public before 3pm Friday that looks like a more attractive experience than having my balls chewed off, and it has two (2) of the five (5) public screening slots in those two half-days (frankly, if I had seen the schedule before booking my plane and hotel, I’d have delayed my trip a day).

But TIFF is still TIFF, and even when it looks like down, it’ll be awesome task to see 40+ films. There Joe and some other Cannes prize-winners, there’s Mike Leigh leading a flurry of promising looking British films, there are a bunch of mouth-watering documentaries by the genre’s masters, there are major sophomore efforts by Affleck (really), Chomet and Dolan, there are returns to roots (and maybe form) by Ozon and Tanovic, and a couple of new films from still-perfect-in-my-eyes Romania (a country that frankly TIFF has not led the way on).

After the jump is what I have tickets for and so expect to see, with the proviso that good buzz can add films and bad buzz and tiredness can take them away.
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September 7, 2010 Posted by | TIFF 2010 | | 6 Comments

Films of My Life — 2

AMADEUS (Milos Forman, USA, 1984, 10)

Much as I loved THE BREAKFAST CLUB, I would have to say that if I could only pick one movie and say “THAT is the one that made me a critic,” it would be Milos Forman’s AMADEUS.

When it was released in 1984, like most teens I suspect, I wrote it off sight-unseen as another PBS edumacational-type biography about that dumbass classical music composer that your parents and teachers were always trying to get you to “appreciate.” Hard as it may be to believe, I was fairly ambivalent about school; by the standards of Top-10-in-their-graduating-class bookworms, I fairly hated school. Then when it swept the Oscars, again like most teens I suspect, I just thought — well, that’s just those old farts who didn’t even have the sense to nominate BEVERLY HILLS COP.

One Monday night at home, around 1987 or so, AMADEUS was playing on TV on one of San Antonio’s independent channels at 7 p.m. and my father wanted to watch it. I wanted to watch Monday Night Football, which started at 8 p.m. I told him more or less what I just wrote in the previous paragraph. My father, who apparently already had seen the movie, assured me that it was nothing like I thought and that if I promised to sit through the first hour, but didn’t like it, we’d switch it over to MNF.

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September 7, 2010 Posted by | Films of my Life, Milos Forman, Roger Ebert | 3 Comments