Living in Toronto has its perks over comparably large American cities – reasonable cost of living, less chance of dying in a gunfight, and (I swear to God) way better junk food. But one of the biggest perks has gotta be TIFF. And despite having a job that keeps me busy I’ve managed to make it out to eleven films so far, and I’m hoping to hit twenty before I’m through. Until then, I figured I’d give you my impression of what I’ve seen, in chronological order, starting with this first batch of five reviews. I think they’re mostly spoiler-free.
The Way Emilio Estevez directs his father (and plays, in flashback, his father’s recently deceased son) in this tale of a man who rashly decides to undertake a journey his dead son couldn’t complete: hiking the ancient pilgrimage trail from the Pyrenees across the top of Spain to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. The movie was clearly a labour of love for both Estevez and star Sheen, which made it just a little heartbreaking that I disliked the film so much. Don’t get me wrong; the movie isn’t terrible. But maybe that’s the problem, at least for an audience-goer like me. It’s not audaciously bad; it’s boringly bad. It is a series of vignettes of differing quality interrupted by interminable montages of people walking across the Spanish countryside (usually set to decent but often inappropriately-place pop songs). The dialogue is stilted at best, and the characters – Sheen is joined on his quest by a jovial Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen), an angry Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger), and an eccentric Irishman (James Nesbitt) – are thinly-drawn from stock clichés. Over and over again the characters remind us that every traveler on the path to Compostela carries a secret; most of those secrets are, alas, predictable from the outset. When the characters do something genuinely surprising it doesn’t add depth so much as it simply seems out of place. Because this is a film where character is developed through talking, not doing, and the characters are constantly talking about themselves and each other: telling us in the audience who we’re supposed to believe they are. (Wageningen’s Joost, otherwise an amusing and attractive character, points out his bizarre Dutchness often enough to almost evoke Goldmember.) One of these speeches – a jeremiad by a minor character, a Gypsy, about the nobility of his people and his desire to prove to the rest of us that they’re not all thieves – is wince-inducing; it trades in the kind of earnestly patronizing cultural sensitivity that’s played for jokes in TV’s The Office. (And it is surpassed in awkwardness by an out-of-place ‘comedy’ sequence involving an innkeeper with multiple personalities.) The movie isn’t all bad. Sheen turns in a nicely understated performance. The aforementioned scene not withstanding, much of the light comedy sprinkled throughout The scenery is gorgeous, and a late scene in the Cathedral at Compostela is a marvel to behold. Judicious editing could clear up many of the film’s tone and pacing problems. It’s salvageable as a watchable film. But as something that aspires to more I’m afraid it’s largely a failure.
Passion Play Now here is a film with the balls to be audaciously bad. Much has been said about Passion Play already; every time I hear about its first public screening the proportion of walk-outs has retroactively grown. (For the record: I’d guess maybe a quarter to a third of the audience; not as many, I gather, as walked out of the un-subtitled Film Socialism shown the night before.) Having come from The Way I actually didn’t think this was as terrible as others did; I appreciated that it tried to do something original, even if that something hovers somewhere between totally inscrutable and mostly uninteresting. If you haven’t heard the story: Mickey Rourke is a hard-luck type (natch) who managed to piss off the wrong gangster (Bill Murray) and is abducted and taken to the desert where he’s about to be killed when he’s rescued by passing Indians and then wanders alone until coming across a small circus and freak show in the middle of the waste and, while looking for a phone, stumbles upon a booth in which awaits a be-winged Megan Fox, who Rourke (of course) instantly falls for, raising the ire of the freak show’s maestro (Rhys Ifans) who is, of course, Fox’s lover/master. And that’s the first ten minutes. So after that the movie is an exercise in style over substance, and not particularly good style at that. (Just look at those wings, for example: terrible when rendered in CGI and weirdly changing their properties so that an eight foot wingspan at one point folds compactly enough to be hidden under a shawl.) Rourke sleep-walks through the movie; Fox gamely tries to act, and often avoids terribleness, although at least one of her ‘dramatic’ line readings had the audience in stitches. Bill Murray, on the other hand, is surprisingly good, and brings complexity to a role that might remind viewers of his Mad Dog and Glory days. And, like I said, at least the film has balls. It’s the highest of high concept. If this was played as camp I think it could be embraced by audiences. In the end, the movie’s biggest problem is that it takes itself so seriously. Honest to Christ, with the ending it has, how could the director have imagined this could aspire to art?
Super Lots has been said about this one elsewhere, so I won’t bore you with a plot rundown (think low-budget Kick-Ass by way of James Gunn) and I’ll try not to repeat what’s already been said. Except this: that Ellen Page absolutely steals this movie. Her character will inevitably draw comparisons to Hit Girl but what she does here is in many ways more impressive. After all, Hit Girl’s audacity is largely premised on her age. Page is young-looking, sure, but her character does have 22 years to play with. In other words, she has to go even more ridiculously over-the-top to startle TIFF’s jaded (but lovable!) Midnight Madness crowd. And she does. I also want to point out Kevin Bacon’s villain. Extremely charming only to someone with a faulty evil detection meter, his psychotic drug dealer reminded me a little bit of Gary Oldman’s corrupt DEA agent in Leon. And that’s a good thing. This is a guy to root against. But I’m not as keen on the movie as others, and I think my problem is with Rainn Wilson’s character and performance – and, by extension, the movie’s inconsistent tone. At times Frank D’Arbo is a sociopathic maniac. Wilson’s performance runs over-the-top and the character’s actions in some scenes (especially in the sure-to-be-quoted ‘No butting’ sequence) mark him out as the anti-est of anti-heroes. But for much of the rest of the film he plays somewhere between deadpan and underdog heroics. (He even scolds Page’s Libby, at one point, for attacking somebody who hadn’t committed a crime.) Ultimately, the film wavers between a very dark comedy about an insane costumed vigilante and a gory-but-sweet film about a social misfit who learns how to be happy by kicking some bad guy ass. And so scenes which play well on their own, including the ‘No butting’ bit I mentioned above, seem out-of-place in this character’s development. Also out-of-place, incidentally, are animated onomatopoeia in the climactic fight scenes. By this point things have conspired to make for a darker and more serious confrontation than expected, and the silly BOOMs and POWs are jarring. On the other hand, the occasional use of animation throughout the rest of the movie is mostly fantastic, and I feel like I should mention here the incredibly awesome opening credits. I should also, finally, make clear that these are relatively mild dissents. Super is still a goddamned fun movie, and despite its imperfections I’d recommend it without hesitation to anyone whose non-pretentious taste in film I hold the slightest respect for.
Stone Holy fucking shit this is a great movie. Robert de Niro is a parole officer about to retire. Edward Norton is a convicted arsonist about to be paroled – or so he hopes. Milla Jovovich is Norton’s sensual wife, soon to be embroiled in a love triangle – or is it? I don’t want to say too much. The film has a lot of surprises along the way, and those rare and genuine surprises, built of character growth and revelation; not feeble gimmicks or even the ingenious machinations of the typical thriller’s plot. But is this film a thriller? I guess so. It’s set up as such: a three-way game between the parole officer, the parolee-to-be, and the seducing wife the latter tries to leverage to ensure the former helps him pass his parole board hearing. Each character could be in control of that game or totally out of control at any moment. It’s often not entirely clear to anyone, them or us. But let’s talk about them, because these are three actors so good in this movie that as hard as i search i seem only to hit clichés (which are, for once, barely adequate to describe what you’ll see on-screen): these are Powerhouse Performances; the actors are at The Top of Their Game; their Giving It Their All and acting with All Guns Blazing. First there’s Edward Norton, who takes his character in unexpected directions. (And that voice! As cracked and weathered as stone itself.) Then there’s Robert de Niro, in what is being rightly called his best role since Heat. And Milla, who so exceeds expectations here as to be perhaps the film’s greatest revelation. There are so many layers to her character that I feel like I’ll have to watch the film half a dozen times more just to begin to get a grip on her. (Insert lame frat boy joke here.) And let’s not overlook the smaller and less flashy but perfectly mysterious performance by Frances Conroy as de Niro’s repressed wife. But the movie is not a thriller, not really. At least it’s not a conventional one. It’s a character study, sure. It’s also concerned with more mystical and metaphysical themes. To this end I should point out the remarkable sound design, which weaves together Christian talk radio as the film’s “soundtrack” in a way that deepens both the film’s themes and its otherworldly tone. Though a very different story, the tone of thoughtful mystery reminded me more than a little bit of No Country for Old Men. In the end, this is a movie about more than just suspense, although it has a healthy dose of that, too. One audience member at my screening actually complained about this at our Q&A, saying she’d expected a thriller (she cited Norton’s role in Primal Fear) and felt ‘manipulated’ by the director into watching something else. Director John Curran’s response – that the movie is a thriller, though maybe not the kind that she expected; and, more importantly, that any film is by its nature manipulative – was pitch-perfect. And I can’t wait to let this movie manipulate me again.
Armadillo This is a Danish documentary that made a splash at Cannes, winning the Critic’s Week Grand Prize. The filmmakers follow a Danish platoon in Afghanistan, focusing on a handful of recruits in particular, for an entire tour – about seven months, from the days before departing their homeland until the soldiers’ return. The filmmakers, led by director Janus Metz Pedersen, have extraordinary access and capture many moments of surprising intimacy (at one point even following one of the soldiers into the shower). But it’s other moments that will leave audiences gasping: the camera is literally in there with the soldiers, following them on patrols and through firefights, and the documentarians were obviously in pretty substantial personal danger while filming. Combined with cameras mounted on soldiers’ helmets, the film gives us about as visceral an experience of war anyone can get short of enlisting. Many of the moments capture and presented, perhaps inevitably, raise thorny moral and political questions. (In Denmark, the film’s release engendered a firestorm of controversy and led to a thorough and still-on-going review of that country’s military conduct overseas.) More surprising is how artful and cinematic the documentary often is, and in its second half it begins to resemble a gritty narrative or fiction film about the Afghan war. You almost have to remind yourself that it’s all real. That’s not to say the movie’s perfect, however. The first half or more is essentially a barrage of scenes of life at home and then in the war zone, with only a few longer sequences and no clear narrative to guide us. The editing, at least on first viewing, didn’t always make clear the connection between one scene and the next – or even where one scene ends and another begins. It can be difficult, especially early on, to tell some of the characters apart. And while many of the combat and patrol sequences are necessarily difficult to film in a manner that makes clear the physical direction of the action, and to some extent that’s entirely appropriate (combat is confusing), after a while it’s hard for the viewer to remain totally engaged. Of course, all of this is exacerbated by the language barrier, and the film probably plays better to a Danish audience. I was also a little uncomfortable with the tone – and it’s possible that here I’m reading a bit too much into it, but in some instances the film seems structured to lead viewers to conclude that the soldiers’ actions are worthy of condemnation. I think a better film, especially one as deeply embedded in the action as this, would have presented a more conflicted portrait. After all, it is very easy to make moral judgments from a cinema’s comfortable seat. And if pressed to make judgment, I’m pretty sure I’d side with the filmmakers. But if placed in the situation those soldiers are in, would I make the same choices? Very probably. I think the documentary would have been more interesting, by which I mainly mean morally complex, if it showed more sympathy to its subjects. But that’s certainly not to say that it clings to a Manichean view of good and evil. And even if it did, it would still be worth watching for the sheer thrill (and wonder at the cameraman’s courage and audacity). So it was good, but not the best documentary I’ve seen at the Festival so far. I’ll talk about that next time.
The movies I’ve seen that I’ll be reviewing next (and there are some great ones here): Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer – The latest documentary from Oscar-winner Alex GIbney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side).
Julia’s Eyes – Another Guillermo del Toro-produced Spanish horror film starring The Orphanage’s Belen Rueda.
Tabloid – Errol Morris’s new documentary which marks a return to the quirky playfulness of his early work (and which we haven’t really seen since 1997’s Fast, Cheap & Out of Control).
Tracker – A period adventure film set in New Zealand and starring Ray Winstone and Temuera ‘Jango Fett’ Morrison.
13 Assassins – Takeshi Miike’s latest is (believe it or not) a mostly-serious Samurai epic in the spirit of Akira Kurosawa’s mid-century work.
I Am Slave – The new film from the director of Death of a President centres on the modern female slave trade.
And there’s still four days to go! If you use this, please call me Genghis Murphy.
Sept. 16, 2010, 2:22 p.m. CST
-- Someone who clearly has no idea what "high concept" means.
Sept. 16, 2010, 2:27 p.m. CST
CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS<p>
Sept. 16, 2010, 2:28 p.m. CST
It sounds great<p> http://tinyurl.com/392m989
Sept. 16, 2010, 2:30 p.m. CST
I'll be sending in a review soon. Which I'm sure will be shat on by all the Herzog fanboys who haven't actually seen it yet.
Sept. 16, 2010, 2:33 p.m. CST
I consider myself a fanboy, but I understand his work has flaws, I wasn't thrilled by My Son, My son, but I've never watched a Herzog movie that wasn't at least interesting. Look forward to your review.
Sept. 16, 2010, 10:59 p.m. CST
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