TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2011
PART 2 (click here for PART I}
DAY FOUR: DUKE, DAMSELS AND DISAPPOINTMENTS
CHRIS: Aside from his breakout film Suicide Club, I haven't seen Shion Sono's other films - but based on John's enthusiasm for a couple of them and his delightful descriptions of Cold Fish (which I skipped at last year's TIFF in favor of the mind-melting Confessions), Himizu ended up on my must-see list. Unfortunately, John saw it later in the festival and told me it was almost certainly the worst of the Shion films he had seen. Fortunately, it's still a really interesting movie, if a little bit of a mess. Set in Fukashima in the aftermath of the recent nuclear reactor-jarring storm, it's the story of the awful natural disasters that can befall anyone, from tsunamis to abusive parents. It's the story of two teenage outcasts with little in common beyond how often they end up with a fist in their face – this movie seriously sets a record that I hope is never broken for adolescent girls getting punched and slapped by who would ideally be offering them love and support. It's an outrageously unpleasant movie with parallels to God Bless America in that the main character (a boy abandoned by his mother and left to deal with his alcoholic gambler father's debt to the yakuza) suffers resounding hopeless humiliation and decides to go on a killing spree to take out the callous bad guys who make life miserable for everyone around them. My sister (who has been living in Tokyo) informed me that the boy's mass knifings actually are based on a series of real attacks in which dudes went berserk and slashed random strangers in crowds. I haven't even mentioned his female counterpart whose parents are building her a gallows because she promised to use it if they made it – and that reflects a bit of the problem with the movie: the narrative focuses more on the boy, who is opaque and monosyllabic, when the girl is clearly the more interesting and compelling character, an indomitable spirit who refuses to let the oppressive abuse and ugliness of reality crush her. She's funny and more than a bit nuts – the film's tendency to forget about her for long stretches is irksome, especially since the boy does little more than mope and ride the cycle of abuse. The film's meandering final third reminded me of many recent Japanese films in the same "not quite a regular drama" genre that includes Tokyo Sonata, Sad Vacation or Still Walking in that many of these films doggedly pursue strange narrative back-alleys and willfully eschew standard plot arcs...so they frequently stumble to a close – they don't feel like even the filmmakers themselves know where the stories are going. Anyway, this is a really worthy film and belongs alongside those few I just mentioned – it's probably a cut below them, but even still there are few films made each year as original or surprising as Himizu.
Take This Waltz.
JOHN: The lowest point of the festival for me. Truly, truly awful. Essentially the (no-doubt autobiographical) story of Michelle Williams having a crisis over losing her cred as an oh-so-adorable hipster pixie girl, it sets her up with the most unappealing, smug dipshit ever to appear in a movie and puts them in one sickeningly cutesy scenario after another. They take turns batting a paperclip tied to a string back and forth (which she reacts to like it's the most dizzying fun she's ever had in her life), go on an indoor tilt-a-whirl (guess what, it's a metaphor for fuckin'!) and even indulge in some absurd synchronized swimming late at night (during which I prayed for a spear gun.) Just lots of embarrassing stuff it's hard to believe an intelligent writer and filmmaker like Sarah Polley would honestly believe is sweet and romantic. Especially when you consider Away From Her, which is such an moving portrayal of a husband's devotion to the wife he's slowly losing to Alzheimer's...the main thing you can say about that film is that Polley understands the pain and frustrations that come with loving somebody unconditionally. But in this movie, she makes falling in love seem like a weird perversion, and not in a good way, unfortunately. It's hard to put into words exactly what this movie's problem is, but I'll start with this: looking at Michelle Williams made me want to vomit. Usually she's tolerable enough in whatever stupid movie she's in, but here she is emphatically contemptible. She looks sickly, responds to the guy she's in love with as if he's a frog she's scared to dissect, and she plays the part like she's four years old. The guy comes off like a stalker, appearing anywhere Williams happens to be, while she encourages his behavior by putting herself out there like a prize he can win. It's just gross. Contrary to my prediction, Seth Rogen is by far the least offensive things about the movie: he plays a loving husband to Williams who supports and provides for her, owns a huge hipster house in Toronto (I thought they said it was Montreal but all the press blurbs say Toronto) and has apparently for years been sneaking in the bathroom dropping cold water onto her head while she's taking a shower (how could she not realize it was him??) If she wants to leave him for her rickshaw-driving* douchebag of an obsessive crush, I say get her packed and in the cab before she has time to change her mind, dude. She's an obnoxious spaz who treats their by-all-accounts nurturing marriage like it's a disease. At one pint she yells at Rogen accusingly after he shoots her down due to the fact that he's in the middle of actually working (something she seems to detest), "Do you realize it takes every bit of a wife's courage to seduce her husband?" My response is exactly that of Rogen's: uh, what the fuck are you talking about?? She clearly has mental problems, but Polley refuses to present it as anything other than a quirk that's apparently supposed to be endearing and relatable. Honestly, this is not a case of 'well, this movie just wasn't made for me'...I can't tell who would think these characters are people to get behind. To make things even more discouraging, the film's one attempt at a joke is stolen from an Adam Sandler movie, and not just any Adam Sandler movie: fucking Grown Ups! Also Sarah Silverman goes full frontal in a communal shower sequence, and I'll just say that it is less-than-flattering, even more so since she plays the useless sister-in-law character who's only in about three scenes.
* He's a goddamn rickshaw driver! At one point, this fucknut makes fun of Rogen - who at this point he's never even met - for being a cookbook writer. Hey asshole, you drive a rickshaw! Your job is to run around towing fat tourists around Toronto! I met lots of very nice Toronto cab drivers, and you're taking away their business.
Damsels in Distress.
MARCUS: This is when things started to get extra weird. I was letdown by Lynne Ramsay and somewhat disappointed by Todd Solondz but was delighted by Whit Stillman's latest film (for those of you who don't know, I'm not a fan of him, and I can't stand Metropolitan.) Like God Bless America, this also drew some inspiration from Heathers, like the clique of girls that the lead character joins up with at the beginning of the movie led by Greta Gerwig (ugh.) The casting of Gerwig was only one of two complaints I had about the movie. As the leader of a prissy all-girl clique, I think she needed to be a little more mean like the lead Heather or Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls and less boring like she usually is. My next complaint is about the misuse of Alia Shawkat and her two minute part. Seriously, why waste her time? Her role could have been played by anyone. Other than that I had no complaints. The dialogue, which I admit did kind of go over my head at times, reminded me of vintage Hal Hartley. Coming from someone who hated college, Damsels In Distress (which couldn't have looked more different than my Alma mater of Hampton University) made college look like a fun time. I'd see this again for sure.
JOHN: I was a nervous wreck going into this one...if Sarah Polley, who only made one film I kinda like, could disappoint me nearly to the brink of total despair, what about a dud from a director who made three great films I've loved for years? Long story short, this is a Whit Stillman film. I don't think his fans have any reason to worry. But at the same time I really really liked this movie, I'm curious to see it again because the structure is so weird. It's kind of patch-worky, it doesn't really settle on any one protagonist and by the end I wasn't sure how Stillman felt about the four college "damsels" who have turned their prudish poise and archaic elocution into a design for life (less ambiguous is what he thinks of their "distress," the hilariously exaggerated neanderthal frat boys to whom the girls try to introduce soap and teach basic colors.) I don't think it's Stillman's Mean Girls...it's more like his Clueless (which is appropriate, given his predilection for Jane Austen-style romanticism.) The leading ladies, especially Greta Gerwig's Violet, see themselves as moral and mental models for their fellow students and charitably extend their services to help the rest of campus find happiness. But while steadfast in their particular brand of proud narcissism, the damsels' unapologetic, delusional self-images are ultimately shields to protect themselves from a predatory world. In other words, they're Whit Stillman characters. Taking them out of his adult world and into the campus milieu is slightly jarring for the first part of the movie, but come to think of it who's more likely than to have created a defensive, intellectualized wall of standards and convictions than a college student? It actually works pretty well, and makes for his most screwball-y movie yet: there seemed to be more of an emphasis on one-liners and physical comedy than in the original trilogy. Ultimately I wish Gerwig wasn't in the movie - she's just not a good enough actress to make Violet as adorably loathsome as Jane in Metropolitan or Charlotte in The Last Days of Disco and she doesn't nail the dialogue like she should. And there's nobody to fill the Chris Eigeman void. But these are minor complains against a movie with pretty much everything else in its favor. It's a relief to know that it's no longer a question of whether Whit Stillman can still make a movie like he used to. Instead I have to wonder whether there's a place in the world anymore for Whit Stillman movies. I hope there is.
MARCUS: I'm pretty sure Francis Ford Coppola has lost his mind. Tetro is at least nice to look at, and not just because it has Vincent Gallo. But Twixt, Coppola's new 3D film starring Val Kilmer as a mid-tier horror author that gets pulled in to a vampire mystery, was just downright boring. It had the same flat/dry feeling that Monte Hellman's Road To Nowhere had. I felt like I was watching an extra long episode of Nickelodeon's "Are You Afraid Of The Dark?" I couldn't take anymore so I ducked in to The Oranges.
Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale
CHRIS: The type of too slick, mainstream in conception foreign movie that scarcely makes a dent on American screens, this would-be Blockbuster follows the aboriginal warriors of Taiwan in their fight against the encroaching Japanese army. The Taiwanese tribes look basically like South American "Indians": they live in the jungle, wear leather loin-clothes, have facial tattoos, pull their long dark hair back into ponytails and even lack the epicanthic fold that you would expect in native Taiwanese folks. It's a very straight ahead underdogs-versus-villains action movie not unlike Apocalypto (or even The Patriot) and the filmmakers treat their tale with the simple-minded gusto of a Joel Silver. The only notable thing about the movie is that our ostensible hero is actually a complete fucking dickbag. The opening scene: three hunters risk life and limb to fell a massive wild boar. It's quite a tussle to take down the beast on rocky footing deep in the jungle using only archaic muskets, but they take that monster down...only to be ambushed by a large group led by our hero, who commands them executed. He steals the dead pig – but not before cutting the heads off of the corpses of his enemies! Shortly thereafter, our hero runs into a rival tribe at a trading post. He's killed some dudes from that tribe, so a teenage boy vows to take revenge when he's all grown up. The hero assures the kid he'll never make it to adulthood. Our boys get the jump on the unarmed boy in the jungle, attempting to shoot the fleeing youngster in the back. Our hero lines the terrified kid up in his sites...and shoots his own man who darts in the line of fire at the last moment. His words to his dying compatriot? "That's why you follow the leader." In any other film, this dipshit would be the villain for whom you root to receive merciless comeuppance. I ducked out before the end to watch my Philadelphia Eagles annihilate l'il Sammy Bradford and the St. Louis Rams. It was just like 2001 Championship Game all over again, only the Eagles won, both teams sucked and it was depressing.
MARCUS: The Oranges starred Alia Shawkat. To my surprise she was one of the main characters and also provided the voice-over narration. What didn't surprise me was that the movie, about her father (played by Hugh Laurie) who cheats on his wife with a much younger woman, was bad (if you refer back to the Bad & the Beautiful article you'll see how I point out her habit of starring in bad movies.) I'm surprised Catherine Keener wasted her time on this.
MARCUS: This documentary was everything For Colored Girls, a movie with its heart in in the right place, should have been. It addressed real issues concerning black women and it could have easily been twice as long. Certain aspects of the documentary were summarized and wrapped up a little too nicely for my taste, but at the end of the day it dealt with things that other films haven't. This was one of my favorites of the festival and the ONLY good documentary I saw (I didn't see Crazy Horse and Werner Herzog's new documentary disappointed me.)
CHRIS: It's funny, I saw Chris Rock's Good Hair at TIFF a couple years ago and it completely blew my mind what black women put themselves through to deal with their curly hair. Sure, I knew a little bit about perms and weaves, but I really had no idea just how insane the whole situation was. Bill Duke's new documentary might as well be a sequel because I had no idea that skin-lightening was even a thing and that it's not uncommon for dark-skinned little girls to beg their parents to put bleach in their bath-water so that they might look more like white folks. There's not much more to the film than documenting the sickening self-inflicted debasements that many "dark girls" suffer because of their skin-tone: the source of their self-hatred is both obvious and mystifying, the problem both ridiculously simple and seemingly insurmountable. The filmmakers reproduce the famous test where young girls were asked to rate a series of photographs based on the beauty of the model in them – the catch being that it's the same model with a digitally altered skin-tone. It's heart-breaking to know that even black girls rated the dark skinned variation as the ugliest. On the one hand, the short film (75 min.) feels like a cursory glance at a deep and deeply troubling subject; on the other hand, every five minutes I felt like I was having my mind blown (in a bad way.)
MARCUS: After a somewhat heavy documentary, I wanted to end the night with a more entertaining and mindless movie. John & Chris kind of discouraged me from seeing Sleepless Night [I did? I don't remember saying anything about it one way or the other! -- john]so I went with Lovely Molly, an un-scary horror movie by the co-director of The Blair Witch Project about the ghost of some girl's father who comes back to molest her like he did when she was little. This was the first in a group of bad horror movies that I ended up sitting through at the festival. These modern day horror movies are just becoming more difficult to sit through. It's like they're all written and directed by the same angry 16-year-old white kid who goes out in the woods to kill animals for fun. There's scary horror movies (you know, the good ones) and then there's these ANGRY horror movies with that noisy shredding guitar soundtrack and blood and guts and more blood and more guts and that annoying cinematography and dark lighting that leaves you dizzy from looking at it for too long. Lovely Molly was the latter. Half of the movie was shot from the perspective of our main character holding a camcorder (she kept trying to catch the ghost of her dead father on camera so people would see him and not think she was crazy.) It was just a knock-off version of Paranormal Activity, which was just a knock-off version of The Blair Witch Project, creating a cycle of shitty recycled movies beginning and ending with the same director.
DAY FIVE: TEACHERS, TEENS AND MEAT TENDERIZERS
MARCUS: Monday was an AMAZING day. Probably the best day of the festival for me. It was full surprises (ALPS and Monsieur Lazhar), an entertainingly awful movie that was fun to laugh at (You're Next) and the movie of discussion. If I had to rank what I saw at TIFF, there would be a dog fight between Shame and God Bless America for first place. Shame is the movie that I've been describing to everyone as "Nenette and Boni: 15 years later" (had Boni become a successful businessman and Nenette continued down her destructive path of being knocked up at a young age by nameless men, smoking while pregnant and constantly running away from home.) I'm finding that there's a lot of people out there who didn't like Steve McQueen's Hunger as much as I did (like Chris) and they're a little apprehensive about seeing his latest movie. I cannot stress enough that even though there are a few similar shots in both films, Shame isn't really anything like Hunger so don't be discouraged from seeing this great film. Michael Fassbender, who seems to be in every single movie to come out in the last two years, gives the performance of his career so far and I'm starting to see what all the fuss is about with Carey Mulligan. This film, about the strained relationship between a sex addict brother and his sister, never completely spells anything out, but like Lynne Ramsay (on her A-game) and Claire Denis, Steve McQueen only hints at things and by the end of the film you're able to put all the pieces together. On a side note, sitting next to Atom Egoyan during this screening was a bit surreal being that he was in the promo that I mentioned in Day One which played before EVERY single movie at the festival. (More of Marcus' thoughts on the film can be found here.)
JOHN: Ah man. How does one rate Crazy Horse? It's undeniably great, but (as Chris pointed out in our TIFF preview) it's not the kind of Frederick Wiseman movie I truly love. It really reminded me of Robert Altman's The Company, in that Wiseman splits the movie between petty squabbling among the pompous engineers responsible for the creative decisions of an artistic troupe (in this case, a Parisian burlesque) and the lovably pretentious routines they have their weirdly-shaped dancers perform for the club's noticeably unsophisticated clientele. The heads of the Crazy Horse talk about the show as if it's this edgy, conceptual revelation when in fact it's just a bunch of ill-formed French girls with their asses hanging out. As casually nude as the girls from House of Tolerance, the girls of The Crazy aren't given much personality themselves beyond trying their darndest to please the bickering creative team and singing an amazing theme song which they perform charmingly off-pitch that includes the lyric "We are soldiers in the erotic army!" Stuff like this goes on for 134 minutes, with Wiseman expertly filming the hilariously goofy acts (which employ everything from arty shadow puppetry to just a mound of asses raising up and down like a fleshy river, a river free of mystique or exoticism) and never missing a nuance when capturing the creative directors roll their eyes at each other's wildly different (yet equally fruity) ideas for the direction of the club or individually trying to hog all the credit for this thing. So it's not exactly "blue collar" Wiseman where he's dealing with fellow Americans, finding unexpected connections despite whatever relationship they share within whatever title institution the director has set up shop in. Here, the people are servicing the institution itself - using whatever reputation it may or may not have to build themselves up and trying to put their mark on this allegedly important and classy establishment. Wiseman has little interest in the performers themselves as characters, showing them only in the context of rehearsal or live on stage: vehicles of the bland expressions of the show's creators. I image the same is true of Wiseman's La Danse, which documented the Paris Opera Ballet (and therefore probably had more in common with Altman's The Company) but I missed at the festival two years ago since it run up against The White Ribbon. (To intensify my guilt, they started playing La Danse by mistake at the White Ribbon screening.)
CHRIS: Yeah, it's the movie Madonna directed. Yeah, it's about a teenage girl's favorite Nazi-sympathizer and non-princess (gah, those fucking Grace Kelly: From Movies Star to Princess promos just came flooding back to me) Wallis Simpson. Uh-huh, that's right, it bites Julie & Julia's structure and contrasts a modern woman's not-so-perfect story with a classic, almost mythological tale. Yup, it really, really sucks. But if someone other than Madonna had directed it (say, Tom Hooper or David Frankel) then it would be accumulating such an impressive library of massively nasty reviews. It's mainly what you'd expect, maybe a little darker and dirtier than a Weinstein prestige pic (although even those movies have their share of spousal abuse and nudity), but more similar to that species of waddling bird than different. The two main actresses barely register: the modern girl is played by Abbie Cornish, who is like Sienna Miller in that for some reason people act like she's famous, but she's done absolutely nothing of note or value or interest and isn't even good-looking; and Wallis is played by the maddeningly plain girl who was only the third or fourth worst thing about last year's Brighton Rock remake. Did I mention the modern chick is named "Wally" after the non-princess and that's the reason she’s obsessed with the dead Nazi-loving aristocrat? Not even men are named "Wally" anymore. Seriously, this movie sucks – but don't get on your high-horse, you liked Slumdog Millionaire and Howard's End and Julie & Julia. You're not better than this movie.
MARCUS: I couldn't get in to William Friedken's Killer Joe. Matthew McConaughey is NOT a badass and the whole white trash/trailer park thing was shoved down my throat more than it was in Winter's Bone. I walked out after 40 minutes.
JOHN: Some kind of self-consciously repackaged, relabeled, rejiggered redux of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, only with less singing (lame musical numbers instead of constant harmonizing) and with Ludivine Sagnier as young Catherine Denueve instead of young Catherine Denueve as young Catherine Denueve. I like Ludivine Sagnier but that dog won't hunt, monsignor. Also no Jacques Demy. I wonder if, when all the New Wave filmmakers have passed on, French cinema will at last be free of the mandatory, feature length New Wave nods that make up about 70% of its output (the rest is extreme horror and over-stylized Luc Besson-inspired action pictures.) Not that super-talented folks like Arnaud Desplechin and Claire Denis should be discouraged from being influenced by their film forefathers...but any other generic French director should really just stop. Anyway, in this movie Chiara Mastroianni (who also popped up in weird small parts in Chicken with Plums and Americano) gets to play daughter to real-life mother Denueve (don't know if they've already done this; just that she played her daughter-in-law in A Christmas Tale.) She drunkenly throws herself at Paul Schneider, which is a little hard to believe...I'm not all that into her, but if you're Deneuve's daughter in real life as well as in the world of the movie you can clearly do better than the ugly dude from All the Real Girls no matter how shitfaced you are.
The Cardboard Village.
CHRIS: Just...fine. So perfectly stillborn that it could have been a theater piece, it doesn't seem possible that Cardboard Village was directed by the same Ermanno Olmi who brought us the effortless vibrancy and warmth of Il Posto and Fidanzati, films with troubling (even pessimistic) messages that nevertheless hummed with joy and humanity. The simple plot follows a group of African refugees who take shelter in an empty Catholic church recently marked for demolition due to its congregation shrinking into nonexistence. The church's ailing, elderly priest refuses to leave and decides to assist the refugees in whatever way he can, consequences be damned. It's more of the Catholic Marxism that has been the unwavering signature of Olmi since at least 1978's Tree of Wooden Clogs, but there's something about his insistent humanism that has caused his work to become increasingly...inhuman. The flat-lining performances on display might as well be automated and the bland cinematography might as well have been achieved with a point-and-click camera. It's dispiriting to see Olmi and have to compare his style to the drab, artless European house-style that characterizes filmmakers like Nanni Moretti, Andre Techine or Fanny Ardant – there's no personality to this movie, it could have been made by anybody (well, any aging European director.) All that aside, this isn't an awful movie – it's quiet and unambitious in a way that ultimately serves the material, the opening sequence in which the church is invaded by a forklift and the iconographic ornamentation of the hall is stripped for parts plays like something out of a science fiction film. Rutger Hauer has a significant role in the film but I didn't even recognize him despite his character just being a 100% regular dude, just a guy in a suit. He wasn't even wearing a hat or anything.
CHRIS: Is this the best film of the festival? Is this the best film of the year? Is this film better than director Giorgos Lanthimos' breakout film Dogtooth? All those question are legitimate, this is one of the absolute knockouts of festival and you almost certainly won't see a more original, hilarious, intelligent and all-around brilliant film this year. I know I haven't. Similar to Dogtooth in that you can't describe it without making it sound pretentious or nonsensical, a big part of the pleasure of ALPS is finding out what the mismatched quartet of paramedics and rhythmic dance experts calling themselves "Alps" are up to. Overall, the film contains a touch less humor than Dogtooth, but also a fraction of the disturbing explicit sex and stomach-churning violence of that film. Granted, there will be nothing funnier on screen this year than the funniest parts of ALPS and Aggeliki Papoulia is every bit as heart-breaking and strange as she was playing the older sister determined to lose her dogtooth in her first go-round with Lanthimos. This is another completely distinct and original film, an idea and execution with a forceful singularity and precision of vision – and that's a huge relief. Like John, I was worried that Lanthimos might be a one-hit wonder, a guy with one great idea and no real follow-up: ALPS proves he's legit and it's always exciting to see a legendary career taking shape. If he died tomorrow, we'd have a Jean Vigo situation on our hands and, goddammit, something so wonderful just doesn't happen that often. (A great director emerging, I mean. A director on the level of Vigo appearing is wonderful - not Lanthimos dying. That would make me use this :( emoticon. I'd probably do a Facebook status update about it too.) If you haven't seen Dogtooth and have no idea who Lanthimos is so this review is a useless jumble of references to things you've never heard of and is too oblique to get you excited for a truly exciting film and filmmaker, you are in the wrong. Correct that shit, immediately.
MARCUS: I was supposed to see Livid (the French vampire film), but thanks to John & Chris I found out that Yorgos Lanthimos had a new movie playing at the same time. He's responsible for Dogtooth, so his movie trumped anything else that was playing at that time. The premise is pretty funny: four people (a nurse, an EMT, a gymnast and her coach) form a business where they fill in for a loved one after they die. If you liked Dogtooth then you'll like this. The deadpan dark humor in ALPS is very similar and it has the same lead actress. The shock value is somewhat toned down this time around but it's still a great movie. This one is in my Top 5.
JOHN: So what, I gotta remember Yorgos Lanthimos' name now? For one thing, I'm not sure if I should write his name as "Yorgos" or "Giorgos" - I've seen it both ways and don't know which is correct. Seriously, this problem keeps me up at night. Thanks a fucking lot, ALPS. If you had been a bland failure, I wouldn't be in this mess. But you had to go and be fucking brilliant, didn't you? You selfish prick.
I don't know why I was convinced, going into the screening, that ALPS was an acronym for something. I guess it's because of the capital letters, or maybe I was thinking of ALF (one guy I overheard later in the festival referred to it by letters - "Did you see A.L.P.S? It was weirrrrrrd." - so I guess I'm not the only one, although after seeing the movie I don't know why the guy would pronounce it that way, unless he was trying to be hip like the marketing guys who denoted Friends with Benefits as "FWB"...problem with that is, it makes the title longer when you spell it out...I dunno.)
Wow, I'm really wasting a lot of time without saying anything about how terrific this film is, aren't I? Once again, it's all about the incomparable Aggeliki Papoulia, her face fixed in a painful plea to be accepted. It's like she's playing the same character from Dogtooth years later, and she wants to be let back into the fabricated life she had as the defiant "Eldest" of the house. It's easy to forget how essential she was Lanthimos' earlier film, and here she is given center stage to once again be horribly abused and perform more crazy dances. She's a permanent resident of this director's strange wilderness, a masochistic member of its weird clubs that take it upon themselves to maintain a healthy normalcy within a family unit, even if it means filtering out any semblance of identity. Trying to fit in within a fabricated community, she threatens the very pretense of routine. It's like Lanthimos' characters perfectly understand people but have no idea what it means to be a person: they replicate humanity through repetition, envy, the perfecting of the mundane, joyless sex and people's obsessions with unspoken rules and the indulgent listing their favorite things.
On that note, this is probably going to end up being my favorite movie of the year.
JOHN: Two or three years ago I thought mumblecore was the worst thing in cinema...turns out the mumblecore crowd branching into the horror genre is far, far worse. To these guys, all you need to make an effective horror movie is a bucket of blood and some freaky animal masks. Everything - the characters, the story, the setting - exist for no other reason than to give the uninspired "kill scenes" a slight variation from one another (and I do mean very, very slight.) This film is very much in the Tarantino conceit, except instead of looking at World War II and saying "Tsk - why didn't anybody just kill all the head Nazis and Hitler? That's what I would have fuckin' done!" these guys apparently watched The Strangers, ended up talking about it over a table of untouched cans of Lost Lake while smoking cloves in some hipster dive and came to conclusion "How come more people didn't die in that movie? We should make The Strangers, except totally have people fuckin' die in, like, every fuckin' scene...oh shit man it'd be SO. FUCKIN. FUCKED. UP!" Look, these guys have clearly read up on their slasher movies and understand the concept of the Final Girl, the savage coming out of the pointedly meek victim in order to survive, the hunter becoming the hunted etc. But there's not even a twist on the old formula to somewhat compensate for the underwhelming direction. When they were churning out these kind of films back in the day that kind of thing could fly, but today you've got to come up with some kind of hook, especially if you're trying to create any kind of wave in the bloated horror market. These dudes are at least smart enough to take the Rob Zombie approach to casting beloved icons of the horror community like Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, Dee Wallace and Barbara Crampton. I guess that will ensure that this gets noticed at horror conventions (or seen by rubes like me and Funderburg at film festivals), but don't they realize that these actors just make me sad to not be watching a classic horror film instead, one with warped ideas and no trace of irony? The You're Next crew make directors like Zombie and Adam Green seem like unequivocal geniuses by comparison, and The Strangers - by no stretch a classic - feel innovative and original. But I guess it doesn't matter to people who don't usually see these movies: the TIFF audience had a hoot, laughing and squealing and shouting "Don't go in there!" and laughing some more. Maybe I'm just a bitter old man...but a few more shitstains like this my friend and YOU'RE NEXT!
MARCUS: Even though there were a few scenes that got a reaction out of me, I still found this movie awful. I had no idea Joe Swanberg (a major figure in the mumblecore scene) was in this, but as soon as I saw his name pop up on the screen at the beginning I said to myself "Oh god..." This was just an attempt at paying homage to classic home invasion/slasher/grindhouse films. Sometimes I wish Tarantino and Rodriguez never made Grindhouse. Then we wouldn't have this new fascination with trying to remake and recreate a genre of films that were already stupid in the first place. Three guys armed with everything from machetes, crossbows and knives couldn't kill a feisty 100 pound woman whose main weapon is a meat tenderizer? C'mon now...
CHRIS: Boo. Fuck this movie. Honestly, you crazy SxSW kids win: you got me. You put Barbara Crampton in you movie and I went and saw it. That's my fault. That one's on me. But listen up, because I'm going to explain something to all you aspiring horror filmmakers out there, all you kids who make films like House of the Devil and You're Next: you are correct, there were indeed lots of bland, crappy horror movies made in the 70's and 80's. Lots of people saw movies like The Burning and Witchboard and Prom Night, they probably made money, they probably sold a bunch of vhs tapes. But nobody who saw those movies liked them. Those movies are artifacts beloved by no one. They are not classics, no matter how many times willful contrarians like Quentin Tarantino tell you that Pieces is better than The Texas Chains Saw Massacre or adorable pregnant teenagers tell you Herschel Gordon Lewis is better than Dario Argento. People don't like those movies because they are not good movies. People like Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Suspiria, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Re-Animator because they are great movies. They are original, expertly made, surprising, unpredictable, real works of genius made by individuals striving for excellence. They were not made by smug morons who got the idea to make their own crappy slasher because, like, wouldn't that be funny? It'd be totally gory and the villains would give big monologues and the one chick would be a final girl and she'd be really amazing at violence and it would be surprising because she'd, like, bust a dude's head in. If you set out to generate boring mediocrity, you will almost certainly fall short. You're Next needs a lot more than Barbara Crampton to even reach the notch below boring mediocrity. (For the record, the notch below "boring mediocrity" is "irritating competence.") I can admit that there are films like Friday the 13th which are beloved classics but are terrible. Those films were in the right place at the right time. You are not in that place or time. I hate to think that self-satisfied Xerox copies of the worst the genre has to offer made by bearded jackasses are having their moment, that this is their time and place. But fortunately, nobody sees or likes mumblecore movies, so I don't have to worry. If only critics would ignore them and companies (or mommies) would stop putting up money to make them, then we could finally enter a bright new future where shit like You're Next doesn't exist.
MARCUS: I ended the day with a movie that not only earned an instant spot on my Top 5 list, but also made up for We Need To Talk About Kevin. Both films dealt with a tragic event that happens at a school and are centered around children. In We Need To Talk About Kevin, we witnessed the horrors of a bow & arrow massacre (*snicker*) while in Monsieur Lazhar we watch as two students try to deal the loss of their teacher after witnessing her commit suicide. I knew nothing about the director or the cast of this film. The only reason that I saw this was because it was from Canada and I thought it would be wrong to come the festival and not see at least ONE Canadian movie (no matter how much John & Chris told me to stay away from them.) Monsieur Lazhar is a touching movie that kinda got me choked up. (More of Marcus' thoughts on the film can be found here.)
DAY SIX: TRAINS, TRANQUALIZERS AND TYRANNOSAUR
JOHN: There's a first time for everything. This is the first year I went into a theater to see a movie called Michael which turned out to NOT be the movie called Michael I was expecting to see. That is, there were TWO movies with the same title programmed this year, and I didn't realize it until about 20 minutes into the movie. You see, the only thing I knew about the Michael I had anticipated was that it's a pedophiliac melodrama about a man who keeps a young boy prisoner in his basement. I didn't think I'd last long, but it had gotten some buzz and I was curious enough to at least check out the first half or so. The first surprise came at the name of the director: Ribhu Dasgupta. 'Hm,' I thought. 'An Indian movie. I guess they got pedophilia over there...there are enough people in the country that shit like that has to happen. Just not as much, since they don't have Christianity.' Then a title came on screen to dedicate the film to its recently deceased director of photography, which almost made me laugh. 'I wouldn't want a movie about a guy who molests a kid in the basement dedicated to me!' (It reminded me of Koushun Takami dedicating Battle Royale to a bunch of people, then adding "...although they might not appreciate it.") The movie starts and we follow a police officer who's given the order - via walkie talkie - to fire into a crowd of peaceful protestors (or rather, stock footage of actual protestors clearly nowhere near the actor playing the cop.) Which he obeys. The f-?! Who receives an order on their walkie talkie to start killing innocent people and just goes 'Ok'? This guy deserves what he gets next, which is to be dishonorably discharged. 'Hm,' I said to myself, somewhat uncertainly. 'This must be what drives him to his deviant life as a dirty kidnapping pedophile!' But the next ten minutes or so chronicled the ex-cop losing his sight, obviously out of guilt for stupidly acting on the unofficial, unwitnessed order given to him via walkie talkie to murder unarmed civilians. 'Dipshit,' I thought. 'But wait, how is loss of eyesight going to help with the kidnapping and pedophilia? He could very well kidnap and molest a garden gnome and not even realize it! Where, uh...where are they going with this?' Finally, it's revealed that the guy has a loving, soccer-playing son of his own. 'Surely' - I was really getting worked up at this point - 'he's not going to kidnap his own child? Or is his son going to help him kidnap another kid? This is all starting to seem a little unlikely...' Long story short, I'm an idiot...but at least they weren't showing the Michael with John Travolta playing a Beatles-lovin' pot-smokin' angel.
CHRIS: Is it time for a rundown of the highlights? I feel like every other film I'm saying is a brilliant masterpiece, a beautiful work of distinct and singular vision – I've got to be running out of praise points, right? Another "masterpieces of le cinema" or two and you guys will begin to think that I'm talking a big game about films that can't back my big mouth. Well, mark it down: this is at least the fourth film I saw at TIFF that represents not only the best thing a good director has ever done, but a film that worked its magic perfectly on me personally. Hirokazu Kore-eda has always been a hit-and-miss director, but without wild deviation in quality: his bad movies like After Life and Air Doll are decisively flawed, but they're not giant misfires totally out of the league of his best films, which are modest, simple dramas like Still Walking and Nobody Knows. I Wish is Kore-eda's first film that is forcefully brilliant, his first movie that can shake and blow-back its audience as they themselves were hit with the full power of the passing trains at the heart of its story. Divorced parents, two brothers now not only separated by household but moved to different cities: the simple story follows the young brothers' plan to sneak out of school and meet where the north/south super high-speed trains pass each other, urban legend holding that a wish will be granted to those who feel the wind from the trains blowing by each other at the exact moment of their passing. Each brother ends up bringing along a group of friends on their slightly ill-considered journey to meet in a small town in the middle of Japan that neither one has ever been to. Most of the story follows their efforts to do simple things that are impossible for children like get money together for a train ticket, find an excuse to be out overnight and coordinate travel plans – the performances are completely charming and everything is heart-warming and lovable without being even slightly cutesy. It's a beautiful film about family and the wishes we all have that we know will never come true. Fortunately, despite this being a massive artistic leap forward for Kore-eda, he doesn't abandon his usual calm, clear-eyed approach and the movie never dips its toes in sentimentality or miserablism. It's the type of modest, poetic film with no particular hook that I know I'll have to beg people to see – but I also know they love it.
JOHN: I may have ventured into the wrong Michael - the non-pedophile one - but my 'gross sex-based cinema' quota for the day was filled by this Australian romp about a very unappealing young lady (apparently the chick from Sucker Punch) who has no self esteem or regard for anybody around her so she accepts a mystery job from a pervy old broad who skimps on the details but coldly assures her "You will not be penetrated." Turns out it's a hoity toity ring of scantily-clad girls who serve brandy to rich crusty old geezers - it figures it'd be something like this! The richest and crustiest of them is some sort of somnophiliac who gets off on having the girl drugged and...well, you can guess what kind of gross shit goes on there. Yet as nauseating as it sounds, the whole thing is pretty tame. Since she's introduced as a promiscuous brat I'm not sure why there's any element of tragedy or intrigue: are we surprised in a movie when a character who's been expertly riding a bicycle since the first scene agrees to participate in a bike race? "Listen promiscuous girl with low self-esteem and general hatred of the world around you, we want you to join...a group of girls who pour drinks for limp-dick millionaires in revealing lingerie!" "Why would the millionaires be wearing revealing lingerie?" "No - you'd be wearing the lingerie." "I know, I was just kidding. Well yeah sure, I've done nothing this whole movie but fuck old guys and show off my boyish body, so why the hell not?" (Sorry about all that...I lost my train of thought there. I decided to search Google Image for 'scantily'...weirdest thing it brought up was David Beckham courtside at the Lakers' game. I couldn't figure out why this particular image came up until I clicked on the link and saw that most of the pictures were of the Lakers Girls standing nearby.) I find it hard to believe that anybody who's seen any real movie will be even slightly shocked by this one. The preview has a quote from Jane Campion, who describes it as "extraordinary...sensuous...unafraid!" Then, in big letters, it says "JANE CAMPION PRESENTS" Hm. I'm no expert, but is it not something of a conflict of interest for somebody involved with the film to plug it like she's some impressed outside party? Or is this a new trend in movie trailers? Will the preview for the new David Lynch movie include the blurb "I think I did a pretty good job on this one. - David Lynch"? On a final note, it's weird that the movie feels like something Catherine Breillat would make (and, you know, do a much better job with), since she already had one called The Sleeping Beauty at last year's festival.
MARCUS: Probably the worst day of the festival for me, Tuesday was filled with a bunch of disappointments or movies that were "meh, ok." I think John described this one best when he said, "We're supposed to believe that George Clooney's wife was cheating on him with Matthew Lillard? And a rich George Clooney at that." Pretty much. I hadn't planned on seeing this, but I happened to wake up early and couldn't fall back asleep so I made my way over to the theater. I can't lie, this movie did have a few moments that made me chuckle but overall it just wasn't my thing. I can't get into Alexander Payne's movies. I can never tell if he's trying to make a dramedy, dark comedy or if he's being ironic. There's a scene in the movie where Clooney's youngest daughter sees the guy who accidentally killed her mother (the movie has to do with Clooney and his family coming to terms with taking his wife off of life support after she's badly injured in a boating accident), and she flips him off as if that's supposed to be cute or something. "Hey Troy!" *flips the middle* It's like, "You killed my mom! Here's my middle finger. Take THAT! YUCK YUCK YUCK." Every one of Alexander Payne's movies is about a middle-aged or older white guy going through some midlife crisis or trying to find himself. His films do bring out great performances in people (Matthew Broderick in Election and Giamatti in Sideways) but I still can't get into his movies. The highlight of watching this movie was sitting behind Roger Ebert.
JOHN: When I heard the premise of Pen-ek Ratanaruang's latest, I thought it seemed like an idea with infinite potential. A righteous hitman, after getting a bullet in the head during a botched assassination, sees the world upside down (the movie is based on a Thai novel called Rain Falling Up the Sky)...I can't think of a time when the mere concept of a movie was such an instant sell for me (yes I can: Beyonce v.s. Ali Larter in Obsessed!) Then my wife kind of killed my buzz by pointing out how tedious this kind of thing could be if executed poorly (and Ratanaruang's 2009 TIFF entry Nymph certainly proved he can bring on the boring.) The movie took me by surprise by barely bothering with the gimmick...which turned out to be the best way to go about it. Ratanaruang surrounds his hero's post-bullet perception with flashbacks leading to the disastrous incident and, in the present, lets the actor do most of the convincing with the way he moves and tries to focus on the world around him. Mainly, the gimmick services the story: in terms of mundane day-to-day, the guy sets his television upside down; as far as dealing with the handicap, he has to readjust when he aims his gun and has trouble figuring out where enemies are coming from during a shoot-out. When the perspective does switch to jarring "backwards" shots, it's never for long enough to induce a headache or get too distracting - it's always kind of beautiful and disorienting only when things get intense and confusing. Speaking of which, the action scenes in Headshot are masterfully done and there are plenty of them. Based on the director's earlier work, I wasn't prepared for this to be a full-fledged action film closer to the Pang brothers than Apichatpong Weerasethakul, complete with evil politicians, a secret assassins guild, sadistic torturers, a (beautiful) reformed prostitute and a cop-turned-prisoner-turned-monk-turned-hitman trying to find out who betrayed him. While seeing everything upside down.
MARCUS: Chris Funderberg said it best: It's like Guy Ritchie watched The Wicker Man. I don't really need to say anything else. I'm sure Chris can rip on this movie better than I can (even though that quote is all you need to know).
CHRIS: A funny thing about Kill List: I more or less enjoyed it until the last five minutes. Now I despise it. Strange how that works: a profoundly terrible ending annihilates 90 or so minutes of decent but unimpressive filmmaking. This movie is a typical "hitman and/or men take a job despite their reservations and quickly get in way over their head film." As far as that sort of thing goes, it's fine. It's nothing I'd go out of my way to praise – it's not even exactly "good, not great" but rather "ok, not good." But then...oh my friends, a stupid abortive ending that farts out a double whammy of being ridiculous and under-explained so you don't even really understand what happened other than it was goofy, implausible and totally out of left field. It's Animal Kingdom with The Wicker Man twist grafted onto the end. I don't want to say too much about this movie because saying anything makes the film sound more interesting than it is. The whole plot is this: you got your reluctant hitmen in over their heads involved in a shadowy conspiracy. The conspiracy turns out to be some sort of naked Wiccan human sacrifice cult and the hero is tricked into a knife fight with his wife who has their son strapped to her back. The hero/hitman kills his wife and kid, realizes what he's done and the crowd of naked, fat Wiccans begins to applaud. Cut to credits. Keep in mind, about 6 minutes previously, there was no intimation of a naked, fat Wiccan human sacrifice cult. It is the all-time worst payoff for shadowy conspiracy dealing that I have ever seen. And the payoff to shadowy conspiracy dealings always stinks. It makes zero sense, especially since the movie has been intimating that the hitmen have stumbled onto a child pornography ring; several times the movie implies that's the conspiracy (the conspiracy in which they are in over their heads and threatening to bring down fancy government bigwigs.) Why the naked fat Wiccan cult wants him to knife fight his wife to death and chooses their convoluted "fake hire a hitman to trick him into stabbing his wife and child" plan to do so will forever remain a mystery. Also: British people are ugly. Confirmed.
JOHN: I intended to sit through just an hour of Moneyball before heading to Tyrannosaur, but the movie is so darn charming I decided to skip Paddy Considine's film altogether (good thing too, based on Pinn's report.) It's funny that this is being touted as "the best baseball movie ever," because it's really not about baseball. I mean sure, it's got its Uplifting Game Sequence with Scott Hatteberg saving a nearly-botched high-scoring game to clinch the Oakland A's MLB record for longest winning streak, but really it's more about non-stop life as the general manager of a major league baseball team. Brad Pitt spends the movie eating his meals out of bags, dealing with huge egos, travelling constantly to scout new talent, sucking up to other GM's to make the trades he needs to build the team he wants and putting it all on the line for this radical new approach to winning. A very, very boring approach. All the fantasy-heads out there are going to love this movie, which is about working out the statistics of scoring and ignoring the demand for star players in favor of guys whose presence on the grass and at the plate will lead to more victories. Not very cinematic, but it works thanks to Brad Pitt's assured performance and, I hate to admit, a touching subplot involving the daughter he never sees that actually got me to tear up a little near the end. Only Rudy has the power to do that...so I guess this is a great sports movie after all.
MARCUS: I skipped out on Moneyball (the movie I was originally supposed to see) for THIS? What is it about English filmmakers and always wanting to show how grey, gloomy and depressing England is? Sure the food there is pretty awful, but other than that it's a lovely place (been there a few times) and what confuses me more is that I can't think of too many other nationalities that have more pride than people from England or the entire UK for that matter. I knew from the trailer that this was going to be one of those British kitchen sink realism movies that was going to leave me rather down after watching it, but this was just ridiculous. The movie is about an angry widowed borderline schizophrenic who tries to help a woman that's being abused by her husband. In the first five minutes of the movie we see a dog being kicked to death and then shortly after that a scene where the abusive husband (played by Eddie Marsan) comes home and pees on his wife while she's asleep. And there's still 90 minutes of the movie to go. It got to a point where I couldn't take this movie seriously anymore because it was so GLOOMY. When I was talking to Chris earlier in the day about whether or not I wanted to see this, some guy butted in the conversation and said something along the lines of "It's actually not that depressing. In fact, it's kinda uplifting." He lied.
Sons of Norway.
CHRIS: I don’t really have too much to say about this film: it's a seriotragicomic coming of age story, which is probably the most prevalent type of coming of age story. It follows the adolescent Norwegian son of aggressively hippy-dippy parents whose life is thrown out of whack after his gentle, loving mother is killed by a motorist while out bicycling (I recognized the actress playing the mom but couldn't place her and it was driving me out of my goddamned mind. It turns out she was the lead in a dud I saw at last year’s TIFF, Bad Faith.) Enter: punk rock. The kid buys Never Mind the Bullocks, sticks a safety pin through his cheek, joins a band fronted by a "real" punk rocker (who spits on folks and everything) and gets into a lot of mid-grade self-destructive hijinx. The joke of the movie is that everything he does to alienate his grieving hippy dad ends up being embraced by that good-natured, bearded Wilhelm Reich enthusiast and before long the old dude is wearing a studded leather jacket, taking the band out for picnics and even sitting in for the drummer (after he collapses from stage fright) during their first concert. Or "gig." Writing about the film, I can only recall it being fast paced, charming and quirky; effectively stylized without being oppressive. But I hated this movie for some reason. Maybe it's just that I think the Sex Pistols are a stupid boy band and Johnny Rotten's self-serving cameo at the end (in which he espouses the magic of punk rock) makes me want to punch the movie in the face. A lot of my friends from high school would have loved this movie when we were 15. I guess I would have too. Eh, I always hated the Sex Pistols. Tapeheads, with its Fishbone and Jello Biafra cameos - now that was my speed.
Into the Abyss.
JOHN: Herzog's new movie starts out promisingly, with a priest whose job it is to deliver last rites to death row inmates relating a seemingly light-hearted tale of squirrels frolicking about a golf course when he suddenly breaks down and weeps like Reinhold Messner remembering his dead brother. I sat forward in my seat: was it possible we were about to be treated to a "real" Herzog movie, one of his uniquely observed narrative documentaries charting a mystical journey to redemption a'la Little Dieter Needs to Fly or The White Diamond? Sadly, Wer-nerds everywhere, it was not to be. Into the Abyss is even less of a "Herzog TV" entry than something like Grizzly Man - it's barely good enough for regular TV. Just long, long sections of interviews with the people involved in a stupid, random crime who shed no light on our previously conceived notions of victims and guilt-denying perps. Herzog goes out of his way to assure his main subject, a young man eight days away from execution by lethal injection, that he is anti-death penalty and maybe he is, but it just feels like the filmmaker is being all palsy-walsy with his subject in order to get what he wants. Which is what, an eleventh hour confession? A plead for forgiveness? I don't even know, but in any case the kid is so clearly guilty and beyond remorse anything like that would not be worth the time invested. And if Herzog really is anti-death penalty, he picked two of the worst possible subjects to make a case against it...the whole experiment seems like something he couldn't walk away from once he started even though it was clearly not working from the inception. Although things pick up a little towards the end where he presents a good argument against capital punishment (a former death row guard who suffered a sudden bout with his conscious and quit after the execution of Karla Faye Tucker) and an infuriating case for it (an idiot groupie who married the suspect given life instead of lethal injection), it's a long road to get there and even then these people are little more than interesting opposite sides of the coin. Disappointingly, it feels like it was more important for Herzog to play Truman Capote and reach out to these morons rather than try to create a more compelling narrative.
MARCUS: I didn't think it was possible for ANOTHER one of my favorite directors to let me down but I was wrong. In Werner Herzog's latest film he follows a group of young men set to be executed for a crime they committed when they were teenagers (they murdered a family and stole their car.) What I found most distracting about this documentary was how friendly and jokey Herzog was with these obvious murderers, but then would turn around and interview the murdered victims' families the next minute. I found that very disrespectful. And when he wasn't joking it up with inmates, he was almost poking fun that the stereotypical "dumb trailer trash southerners" that he interviewed in the documentary. This was a serious letdown.
CHRIS: The subject of Werner Herzog’s latest documentary would have been better served by Errol Morris (or at least Joe Berlinger): two white trash jackasses kill a woman, her son and a random friend in order to steal the family's flashy red Camaro. It's a senseless crime committed by smug morons, an idiotic plan that seems to have "then shit goes awry and we have a shootout with the cops in a motel parking lot" built into it. The problem is that Herzog can't get a handle on the material and consistently, distractingly attempts and fails to impose his will on the subject. He's obsequious with all manner of scummy losers, insultingly ironic/poetic with the victims' families, unable to bring anything interesting to the table and trips over himself to reach the level of "bland." The problem is that Herzog has always specialized in mythologizing his subjects and this is a brutally pedestrian story: jackass criminals do something terrible for unbelievably stupid/selfish reasons. Aside from a moving interview with the former head executioner of the Texas correctional facility, there's nothing notable about the film. It's particularly frustrating to watch Herzog let these jerks get away with presenting such self-serving versions of themselves: if ever there was a group of schmoes more deserving of Morris' signature merciless skewering of delusion, I haven't seen a film about them. They don't need to be mythologized, they need to be ripped to shreds. Also, there are several types that Morris has already covered much more memorably: a cagey death row inmate, a deluded prisoner groupie, a crazy religious type talking about animals in a graveyard, the survivor of a horrific crime. Herzog just can't get a handle on things and the result is only slightly more idiosyncratic than something that would appear on Dateline or 20/20. I'm not sure if I'd rather see Herzog make films like this or My Son My Son What Have Ye Done? Both are pretty dispiriting.
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