TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2009 REVIEW
Robert Duvall reprises his character from the "Grizzled Old Man" SNL sketch and not even Lucas Black can make the limp proceedings faster or furious-er. I'm such the wrong audience for this film that I have no idea if its total mediocrity will be generally greeted with disdain or leave folks clamoring for Oscars for Duvall and Bill Murray. Bill Murray is enjoyable and completely at home as a witty, sarcastic huckster – it's the type of role in which he used to specialize before he started playing exclusively disaffected aging men. The film builds to a lame-brained anti-climax completely divorced from reality, but I'm not sure how far it had to travel to get there. I didn't hate the movie, but it really is the definition of mediocre.
Eagle 38, Panther 10.
The heart-warming story of a rag-tag team of young players who overcome the tragic and unexpected death of their hard-assed (but ultimately lovable) coach to defeat an arrogant opposition. The villains include a hate-worthy coach (the corpulent John Fox), a flashy running back who cares more about stats than wins (the touchdown-obsessed DeAngelo Williams) and a felonious miscreant whose talent allows him to effectively be above the law (the team-mate sucker-puncher Steve Smith). When wily veteran Donovan McNabb is calling the shots, all bets are off! Catch it now because it'll be out of theaters by mid-January at the latest.
Like You Know it All.
It's a drama, it's a comedy, it's a behind-the-scenes-sho-biz-dramedy! This movie is good-natured enough, so it's really hard to hate and, yet, hate it I did. A thinly veiled bit of autobiography, the film follows a critically beloved, but financially unsuccessful director who takes a spot on the jury of a film festival. The ladies inexplicably love this neurotic dork and all of the dialog is quippy and overwritten. Are you ready for it yet? Meet South Korea's Woody Allen! That's the pitch, anyway - but even Allen's bad comedies (of which there are many varities) are never this bland. Actually, this film is as mild and pointless as Cassandra's Dream and Match Point, so maybe the comparison still works.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Abel Ferrara's pungent provocation is here re-imagined by Werner Herzog as a heart-warming comedy. Honestly. I laughed more and welled up with more positive feelings with this one than I did with any film in the festival - aside from maybe Fatih Akin's equally surprising feel-good frolic. That said, the lauds this film is getting are bullshit: it's nothing more than Nic Cage predictably acting like a twitchy jackass and Herzog refashioning his increasingly stale shtick to humorously idiotic effect. I'd be willing to cut it more slack if I hadn't heard Ferrara speak affectingly on how the original actually meant something to him and Zoe Lund and how it hurt him that a bunch of dismissive jerks were taking a shit on it for no good reason. Or, if Herzog didn't permanently ruin the Stroszek harmonica solo (no one can stop the dancing chicken!) by re-appropriating here it for the moronic "shoot him again, his soul is still dancing" bit. The film's good imbecilic fun and I won't deny that it's totally satisfying within the extremely limited and pointless parameters it sets up for itself, but it's a brain-dead waste of time that doubles as an insult to Ferrara and Lund.
I'm officially all out of excuses for Atom Egoyan. His last real success, The Sweet Hereafter, is a distant memory and I have no choice but to consider him a shitty filmmaker until he proves otherwise. Julianne Moore does her best to salvage this warmed-over "sexualized female interloper destabilizes family" drama (á la Curtis Hanson's The Hand that Rocks the Cradle or Shannon Tweed's Scorned), but her restless, resourceful performance is wasted amidst a truly awful script, Skinemax-level direction and a bland, forgettable supporting cast. The weak premise of the film - Moore worries her husband (Liam Neeson) is cheating, so she hires a prostitute (bug-eyed Amanda Seyfried) to seduce him - is made all the more embarrassing by Egoyan's hacky, softcore approach. Moore proves she's a great actress and Egoyan completely hangs her out to dry.
I bailed after a half an hour on Bruno Dumont's latest. He's always keen to try to push an audience's "sex" and "religion" buttons and this one's no different. It's about a young theology student's predictably complicated "real world" education, but it didn't even really get going by the time I did. He's not to my taste and this one instantly felt like more of the same.
A pretty amateurish slice-of-life film set in rural Iran, it's about the various ethical entanglements two young lovers find themselves in. It's all pretty small-scale stuff, but the film seems to want to make a big deal out of it - in that sense it's hard to tell if it's being critical of the characters, who all seem to perpetually being making too big a deal of things. Basically, it tries to generate tension between love and societal/familial constraints (a familiar tactic), but also between romance and harsh reality. Like I said, it's all pretty mild and the filmmaking is borderline competent - if I were cynical, I might suggest that this film is only in the festival because of its country of origin and not because of it actual value as an artwork.
Claire Denis speaks in her own inimitable cinematic language, one as piercingly intelligent as it is poetic. Her collaboration with Isabelle Huppert as a coffee plantation proprietor in the war-torn African countryside is perfect - they are so attuned to the same fragile, singular wavelength that it's hard to imagine that they've never worked together before. As always, everything in Denis' latest is technically exemplary: no film at the festival features better editing, cinematography or sound design - and, for certain, no film features a more harmonious confluence of those technical facets. But it would also be wrong to reduce it to the sum of its aesthetic brilliance: beautiful without being ostentatious, shocking without being puerile or provocative, mysterious without being obscure, intelligent without being didactic, poetic without being precious, emotional without being sentimental, political without being polemical, everything amazing a film can be without a single false note, White Material is true Greatness.
Probably the least perverted film ever made featuring a sex scene with a creepy middle-aged pregnancy enthusiast. A junkie's boyfriend dies just after he impregnates her and, to get her head together, she heads off to a fancy beach-house in gorgeous Southern France. The dead boyfriend's brother stops in to visit for a couple days and there's not much more to it than that. My burning hot passion for rich people was naturally stoked by this languid presentation of the privileged and pampered indulging their existential ennui. Director Francois Ozon has proven himself critical enough of, well, everything in the past that I feel like I should give him the benefit of the doubt here - I'm assuming this isn't intended a Summer Hours-style bit of lifestyle pornography where middle-class audience can jerk it to endless scenes of quaint villas and antique furniture and outdoor breakfasts and sunny beach lay-abouts. But I really don't know what else he has up his sleeve. The end of the film rightly portrays the heroine of the film as astoundingly selfish and coddled, but that much is clear five minutes into the thing.
The Time That Remains.
Easily the second best film I saw at the festival (from White Material), Elia Sulieman's autobiographical tale of his life in Nazareth (his childhood and then a return in adulthood after years in exile) has all of the virtues of the inventive, cinematically impressive Divine Intervention and almost none of the problems. Occasionally, the film is too clever for its own good, but since it stays generally rooted in reality it mostly avoids the moments of outlandish wackiness that made me cringe during Sulieman's previous effort. It's probably the biggest complement I can give the filmmaker to say that his direction reminds me most of Buster Keaton: perfectly-timed, stone-faced physical comedy that uses the frame as yet another prop to play with. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict provides the backdrop for this series of intricate gags and gallows humor that somehow come together to create a heartfelt and emotional whole.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
Directed by Werner Herzog, but produced by David Lynch, I knew I was in trouble when the first twenty minutes of it had the stink of Lynch all over it: tacky lawn ornaments, suit-wearing law enforcement officers drinking coffee and delivering stilted monologues, the seedy side of middle-class Los Angeles... the whole things feels like a bad student film that can't decide whether it's ripping off Lynch or Herzog or both. Frustratingly, this one contains a few moments of authentic Herzog ecstatic truth (the trip to Calgary and the dream of Emus), something Port of Call New Orleans was essentially lacking. But its framing segments during a police stand-off are unconscionably awful and the whole thing (shot on antiseptic digital video) is a flat, ugly mess. Herzog and Michael Shannon aren't quite the dream pairing I expected them to be: the actor's notably strange screen presence is employed to little effect by Herzog - they seem like they aren't on the same page, even though Shannon seems completely dedicated and utterly game. Still, he's the best thing about a film that is damn near worthless.
The disappointing climax aside (this film is the anti-Gremlins in that way), Joe Dante's first real feature in some time is actually a lot of fun. Thanks in no small part to the three leads - all kids - this 3-D youth-slanted horror film manages to frequently transcend its obvious and painful budget limitations. Dante clearly doesn't have much to work with beyond the three kid actors and the creepy basement of their suburban house, but those simpler sections of the movie are its most effective: they're creepy, charming, funny and tinged with an admirabe intelligence about and respect for the adolescent heros. But any time the film lurches awkwardly into the nightmare set-pieces which should be the real selling point of The Hole, the glaring financial constraints under which it is operating become painfully clear. The final showdown is borderline embarrassing and the film, while genuinely likable and skillfully crafted, leaves you ultimately wishing Dante had been able to go whole hog and deliver something on the level of the clever, large-scale freak-outs in the Gremlins films or the mind-blowing, exhilarating effects of Innerspace or Explorers. Watching this film is like watching a master chef in a straight-jacket try to make a ham sandwich - it's impressive, but the end result is still a ham sandwich.
Wake in Fright.
A truly unpleasant and ultimately pointless experience, when I settled into this film I began to vaguely recall that it was mentioned in Not Quite Hollywood – but what the hell was the context? Oh, yeah, this is the movie notorious for its violent, graphic, fifteen minute long sequence of the main characters actually slaughtering actual helpless kangaroos out on the actual outback. In the mood to see a small kangaroo really, actually, truly get its throat slit by a burly Aussie and catch a glimpse of Donald Pleasance wearing only a sweat and mud-caked wife-beater? This is the film for you. Just a repulsive, pointless film. I'm sure Tarantino shits his pants for it.
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.
The Lisa Kudrow comeback no one was asking for from the director of The Opposite of Sex. Don Roos' brand of shrill indie dramedy has all but died out and good riddance. Natalie Portman continues to be an exquisitely beautiful and essentially annoying screen presence – it's as though she might turn to the camera at any moment and smirk directly at the audience, basking in a condescending display of her own beauty. Love, sex, family, fidelity and who cares examined through a lens of joke-y, stilted too-clever dialog that resembles nothing ever spoken by actually human beings and self-serious melodrama. Among the festival's worst.
If Mall Girls is "as good as that sort of thing can possibly be," then Soul Kitchen would have to be categorized as "far better than it could reasonably be imagined." When a struggling independent business is threatened by an unscrupulous real estate developer, will the quirksters who work there come together against all odds to save it? I don't want to spoil it for you, but unlike in director Fatih Akin's other work, no one gets violently raped or murdered. Still, this movie is a lot of fun and I genuinely enjoyed myself. Akin is a bona fide talent and, much like Birol Ünel's temperamental chef, he works miracles with refuse, producing delicacies out of the utter garbage he has to work with.
Much more low-key and far less joke-y than I was expecting, Matt Damon and Steven Soderbergh's strange kinda comedy is now in wide release (and heavily, conflictingly reviewed) so you probably don't need me to tell you what an odd duck it actually is. The comedy is extremely dry (if it can even be labeled "comedy" at all) and the more thriller-based elements never kick into high gear, so I think any audience dissatisfaction on this one can be chalked up to erroneous expectations - it's not at all the fast-paced farce implied by the broadly-conceived trailer and 40-Year Old Virgin-aping ad campaign. But whatever this film is, I enjoyed the heck out of it. It's an intelligent and, ultimately, gripping exploration of the fine line between lying to yourself and lying to everyone else - it asks "how can anyone on the outside looking in discern between delusion and deception?" Damon is great and the supporting cast is loaded with likeable actors who acquit themselves nicely.
Waking Sleeping Beauty.
A standard hagiography of the animators who saved Disney from commercial and creative ruin in the 80's and ushered in the studio's golden age. To me, I'm dubious that diverting entertainments like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin should really be considered the type of artistic achievement that Walt and Co. undeniably churned out in the company's real golden age - does anyone really think that The Lion King is on the level with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Pinocchio or Dumbo? The film takes it for granted that this decidedly mediocre (but hugely profitable) output is really all it's cracked up to be. Any film that loves businessmen and Academy award nominations like this one is already on a different planet than me... but just wait till you hear Michael Eisner tell this one particularly poignant story of 1988's 4th quarter earnings! It's selling, but I'm not buying. And the supposed geniuses that came out of the studio? Sure, I love John Lassiter - but Don Bluth and Tim Burton? Gossip and ego-strokes, back-biting and self-congratulations. Can I go back to looking at Clouzot's test footage already?
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