christopher funderburg


Day 1


A pseudo-horror film from Lars von Trier starring only Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe. I kinda loved it. Supposedly very violent and disturbing but jaded film enthusiasts such as myself will point out there's nothing in this movie surpassing what goes down in the average Miike or Martyrs. Incidentally, it's way better than Martyrs. The whole thing plays a little bit like an extended joke, but that's probably just one of the tactics it's using to attempt to provoke the audience. Other tactics include the aforementioned violence, hardcore pornographic images, violence towards animals and an inexplicable, out-of-the-blue epilogue. At this point in the history of art, I'm surprised that anyone would actually upset by it, but plenty of negative, angry reviews have already been written. Von Trier puts everyone in a catch-22: if you hate this film, it's exactly what he wants.  



Paul Bettany and the remarkably beautiful Jennfier Connelly in a film about Darwin. Bettany is great, the film is not worth anybody's time - surprise, surprise: Hollywood made a biopic with a tenuous grasp on both factual history and what made its subject interesting? I am, indeed, shocked and disappointed. I'm just glad Stephen J, Gould isn't alive to have to endure this. Jenny the Orangutan at least deserves to be in the discussion for this year's "Best Supporting Primate Actor/Actress" award. I'm not saying she deserves to win; she just deserves to be in the conversation, is all.


The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Very likable. Jeff Bridges, Ewan MacGregor, George Clooney - everybody is great, even Kevin Spacey as a truly hissable villain. Maybe too "wacky" and Grant Heslov isn't an amazingly talented filmmaker or anything, but I laughed out loud several times and the very final coda got me a little misty. It's not much of anything, all things considered, but its heart is in the right place and it feels game for anything - I can honestly say I had no idea where it was going, which ended up being both a virtue and a problem: it's a fun film that's too lightly tethered to reality to be really something special. You should see it though. I know you and you'll probably like it.



From the director of Last Life in the Universe. Not so hot, although it really suffered from being the last film I saw after a long day - John and drove all night to get to Toronto, arrived at 2:30 and slept in the car until we could go pick up our passes at 9:00. Nymph is another slow-moving pseudo-horror film from an art-y, art, art-art filmmaker. Maybe if I had seen it first and Antichrist last on this first day of the festival my feeling on them would be switched. Still, this one felt thin and underdeveloped. Not much happens: a couple goes on vacation in the woods, the husband disappears, the wife finds him shacking up with a wood nymph. Punishingly tedious and not nearly gorgeous enough to look at (actors included) to be worth enduring the somnambulistic plot.


Day 2

L’Enfer de Henri-Georges Clouzot.

This film is so unbelievably gorgeous as to hypnotize you all together - I could've easily watched another 3 hours of footage (and not even been aware of the passage of time) from the mind-blowing camera tests for Henri-Georges Clouzot's failed film, L'Enfer. A nice documentary that more or less gets out of the way when you want it to while allowing wide berth for Clouzot's stunning images, this film is a curio to be sure, but one that serious cineastes will go nuts for. Some folks hated the recreations with modern actors of a few scenes Clouzot never was able to film, but they're a blip on the radar - anyone not overwhelmed by the sheer sumptuous brilliance on display here doesn't really love movies, anyway. It's aimed at purists, but craftily made so that it's always accessible and exhilarating.


A Prophet.

A paint by numbers "noob gets pwned, recovers to find his footing and then - bam! - pwns the system, man! but you can't pwn the system forever, my friend. the system will always pwn you in the end. pwnage, indeed" flick about a young hood too soft for prison who quickly learns some harsh lessons inside the joint, uses his street smarts to exploit all the angles and then gets too big for his britches. It's fine. Actually, it sucks. I'm sure you'll be shocked to hear that the soft-spoken, classy gangster is actually OH GOD, CAPABLE OF SUDDEN BRUTAL VIOLENCE!!! This just in: coming up with a clever system to make a lot of money dealing drugs means that you will suddenly have a life filled with heretofore inaccessible things like high-tech consumer goods and lascivious women of easy virtue... but watch out because... and I think you should sit down before you hear this... those high times, those salad days, they will not last forever. Because there are other more ruthless, less scrappy and likable criminals than you and they are going to cut you down to size. Other important lessons: serious criminals are really just reasonable businessmen, if you want to talk business, ok? And violence is scary and bad but it is a lot of fun to watch and provides for a jolt of cheap, easy exhilaration, if you happen to be a filmmaker as well as a criminal.


Wild Grass (Les Herbes Folles).

Probably the most baffling film I have ever seen in my entire life - any description of Alain Resnais' latest thing is going to make it sound less strange and inexplicable than it actually is. The most common form of a "baffling film" deliberately uses narrative obliqueness or incoherency to keep an audience off balance - think of David Lynch, Joe Weerasethakul or Ming Tsai-Ling. If they are baffling it's because their director are intentionally making their plots difficult to follow. Another common form is the unsolvable mystery: L'Avventura or Resnais' own Last Year at Marienbad. With those films, you're never confused by what's happening on-screen - it's the "why" that is so elusive. To contrast, rather than futzing around with the "what" or the "why," I would say that Resnais is here playing games with the "how" of narrative structure. The film seems to slide between various genres and styles while never radically abandoning a consistent aesthetic tone - like the film is feinting in various directions but never really settling on the manner and philosophy guiding the presentation of the characters and narrative. Ok, there's too much to say here in a brief summary, but someone please see this thing and tell me I'm not crazy: this is one of the strangest films in cinema history.


Solomon Kane.

A pretty ok "tattooed-Puritan-pacifist/reformed-amoral-plunderer takes on a rampaging demonic horde" movie; there's not much to recommend it, but it's also completely serviceable. John left before the fighting even started, so ignore what he had to say about it: almost all of the violence and demons are done in old-school make-up effects not CGI (save the giant final hellspawn) and the film has a grimy, glum tone extremely reminiscent of creator Robert E. Howard's most famous hero, Conan. I'd say this film is very comparable to Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonya: basically pretty boring and predictable with the occasional curveballs and excesses pitched in with some regularity. I'd rate it above the recent Vikings versus Native American film (Pathfinder) and just below the Vikings versus Aliens one (Outlander).


Ong Bak 2.

It's impossible to say what this film is supposed to have to do with the original Ong Bak, but it certainly doesn't suffer from dropping most of that film's goofy supporting characters, cheesy settings and tedious plot. This one is a very straight-forward epic about a rural peasant who vows revenge against the evil warlord who killed his parents - and that's a good thing. There's some training sequences and then a lot of fight sequences choreographed to Jaa's unique (in cinema, anyway) muay thai style - elbows and knees delivered bluntly and brutally to the face, neck and head of helpless opponents. The original Ong Bak had a terrible narrative rife with bad acting and corny dialog - this one fortunately has virtually no plot to get in the way of the story. Jaa admirably continues to display his devotion to elephants (nature's greatest animal).


Day 3

Good Hair.

Chris Rock acts as narrator and interviewer in this better-than-expected doc about the massive cosmetics industry surrounding black women's hair. I can honestly say I knew next to nothing about any of this shit, so on that level, the film is very engaging. It's a strange subculture to be sure: the various chemical and wig-based applications that black women employ are unbelievably complex and dangerous - there's a memorable bit where Rock interviews a chemical scientist who is literally stunned by what these women are putting on their heads. It's a pretty standard mix of interviews with famous people, man-on-the-street interviews and more journalistic interludes - there's even a quirky competition thrown in for sport. But that's ok - it's engaging and intelligent, less of an excuse for stupid jokes than a serious look at a problematic social situation; it manages to balance a good-natured sense of humor with an even-handed critique of the queasy political problems inherent in its subject.



Let's have the TIFF 2009 program guide do the heavy-lifting on this one: "With his most recent film, Kirot, the director [Danny Lerner] again brings psychological complexity and socio-political commentary to essential elements of a thriller plot. This time, he takes on two tried-and-true archetypes: the assassin with one last job to complete, and the prostitute with the heart of gold." I know that sounds like there's some slim chance that might be ok or at least enjoyable and the female lead is gorgeous - kind of like a cross between Rashida Jones and Asia Argento - but, man, this is like the worst kind of cross between one of those mid-90's AmerIndie Tarantino rip-offs and the perennially glum Foreign Film archetype. Naomi Klein's high-profile boycott of the Tel Aviv sidebar in TIFF was faintly idiotic (or,at least misguided), but I would've joined up if the thrust of her argument had been, "hey, these films blow." Because there's no excuse for inflicting this one on audiences.



A Hong-Kong action film about a sort of Final Destination Squad that hires itself out to plan and execute outré murders designed to look like freak accidents. The kite goes up to drop the wire which in the rain will hit the rail which will electrocute the man in the wheelchair just as the balloons are released to float up to block the security camera as the banner is cut to shatter the glass, etc. Produced by Johnny To, it's similar to his other films in that it's not bad but also not nearly as satisfying as it seems like it's going to be. The second half gets really bogged down as the main character becomes convinced that a freak accident that killed one of their squad... wasn't really an accident! A fun, gimmicky idea in a movie that could be better and could be worse.


Deliver Us From Evil.

I have no idea why I had my hopes up, but this was the biggest disappointment of the festival for me. Ole Bornedal has always been a very solid genre filmmaker and, for whatever reason, I thought he could make this admitted Straw Dogs rip-off work. It borrows the plot mechanisms of Straw Dogs (a cosmopolitan type in a small town is drawn into a violent confrontation with the local yokels when his family harbors an outcast) without taking any of the plot or spirit of that film, if that makes any sense. It's a mess and Bornedal never comes close to giving it a coherent tone. The film stumbles sloppily around as it grasps for a purpose and focus - it certainly doesn't help that the main antagonist looks and acts like a Danish Matthew Lillard.


Mall Girls.

This Polish production belongs to the Raising Victor Vargas/Kids school of naturalistic "it's so really real out here on these streets" coming of age movies. As a matter of fact, I'd say that this film exists almost exactly between the sweet-natured charm of Victor Vargas and the bleak sexual depravity of Kids. A shy middle-school girl finds that the easiest path to joining the cool kids is to give middle-aged dudes blowjobs so they will buy her expensive jeans and fancy cellular telephones. That makes it sound terrible and I truly expected it would be, but this frequently sweet and affecting drama is as good as that sort of thing can possibly be. All the child performers are unbelievably excellent, especially the lead popular girl/world-weary blow-job enthusiast/math-test failer. A small film, but one of the real finds of the festival, in my opinion. Based of the grey skies and grim architecture yet again on display in a Polish film, that country still appears to be the most depressing place on Earth.



Since John already covered this one, all the good window-taping jokes are gone. Ming Tsai-Ling delivers another cinematic endure test in which nothing happens on screen for five minutes other than a deer wandering amidst mirrors in the woods. And Jean-Pierre Leaud is sitting there in a chair. Deliberately obscure, aggressively passive, the film insists that you settle in and submit to its nearly stillborn pace. That's not a bad thing and after an hour of it, it really stops testing your patience (or you leave). A collection of lip-synched music video-ish interludes, fragmentary Day for Night-esque scenes of the production of those music videos, and disjointed moments of the filmmakers' home lives, there's not too much to say about Face other than it features unforgettable images and sequences in almost equal measure to the intensely dull bits. A frequently naked Laetitia Casta engaging in Sapphic cavorting is my 8-grade dream come true. Somebody please send a vhs of this to me in 1993.


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