Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Odds" and Ends

  • The first TIFF movie I saw this year, a Canadian teen-gambling thriller called The Odds (**/****, Canada First!), is unfortunately a tiny dot in the rearview now. What I remember of it is that writer-director Simon Davidson, shooting in 'scope presumably to announce his transition to a bigger canvas (he's a veteran of short films, all of which previously played at the TIFF), seemed to have a good eye but trouble maintaining momentum for the length of a feature. With its Psycho-esque shocker a half-hour into the film, in fact, The Odds comes to feel like a short with two more acts tacked on. And its distinctly "Degrassi"-esque vibe of kids playing dress-up affirms the wisdom of Rian Johnson's Brick in stylizing its high-school setting to abstraction.
  • If Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life was my favourite movie of the 2011 TIFF, my favourite moviegoing experience was Killer Joe (***½/****, Special Presentatons), William Friedkin's second collaboration in a row with Pulitzer-anointed playwright Tracy Letts, the Tennessee Williams of scuzz. It accomplishes two things I once thought impossible: 1) It made me a fan of Matthew McConaughey, at least momentarily; and 2) Though not based on a Jim Thompson novel, it goes to those quintessentially Thompsonian places in its final minutes that are always jettisoned when the movies adapt the author, either for lack of balls or lack of vision. I think I need another viewing to wrestle it into place in Friedkin's filmography; in many ways, it's not like anything he's done before (even Bug, with which it shares a trailer-trash milieu), and yet it feels as if only the guy who had 13-year-old Linda Blair masturbate with a crucifix could have made it. Killer Joe is exhilaratingly vulgar. (My respect for it shot up when a mass exodus of the audience began with just ten minutes left in the film.) I hope the buzz surrounding McConaughey, whose performance as the Mephistophelean title character is indeed one for the ages, doesn't drown out Thomas Haden Church's exquisite work as a dark variation on his "Wings" dimwit.
  • I hereby admit that I don't totally get Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt (***/****, Special Presentations). Here's the thing: it's pretty stupid, a shaggy-dog, barely-coherent, decidedly-underpopulated supernatural mystery that requires its hero to go to sleep for the plot to advance in any meaningful way. But along with being pretty stupid, it's transparently autobiographical, with Val Kilmer--so burly here that he looks very much like his director in silhouette--playing a cash-strapped, commercially-compromised artist grieving the loss of his daughter (who, like Coppola's son Gio, died in a boating accident). What I'm saying is that mere bad movies are rarely so conscious of themselves, and things like Twixt's cryptic use of 3-D--only two relatively uneventful scenes require the use of glasses, not counting the closing credits--suggest to me there's an unknowable intentionality in its alleged cheese. This is perhaps not personal but private filmmaking. In any case, it's not a hatefully bad movie like, say, Jack--if it's a bad movie at all, it's a lovable one that almost miraculously recreates the sensation of reading Poe (eventually a character in the piece essayed by Ben Chaplin) under the covers on a crisp autumn night. "Did you find that spooky?" an elderly woman asked me afterwards. "No," I lied.
  • That's a wrap until TIFF '12. I promise I'll try to see something outside the Special Presentations programme next year. (Weird how that worked out.) Thanks for reading!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (ds. Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky) + Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (d. Werner Herzog)

On August 19 of this year, the West Memphis Three--the no-longer-young men railroaded in a triple homicide that left a humble Arkansas town mobbishly seeking justice--were finally released from prison, making Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which premiered at the TIFF on September 11, instantly obsolete. (The film reveals their parole in a postscript that feels laughably abrupt after 100 minutes of handwringing.) Where 1996's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills dealt with the role of religious paranoia in the scapegoating of the West Memphis Three (who were accused of killing a trio of boys as part of a Satanic ritual) and its 1999 sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, was profoundly if not explicitly about the ineffectuality of the original as an agent of change, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is mostly a lot of housekeeping, a refresher course for viewers of the first two films and a lint trap for details about the case that have emerged in the media over the past decade. More a glorified DVD supplement than a documentary, the picture's at its best when it shows how easy it is to work up a head of righteous anger for dead kids by framing one of the fathers of the victims, Mark Byers, as the killer with "evidence" no less flimsily circumstantial than that which was used to condemn the West Memphis Three. (He had priors, his son's death didn't curb his criminal lifestyle--he must have done it!) In fact, Byers is compelled by his moment on the other side of the torch-wielding villagers to write a letter of apology to Damien Echols, the only one of the West Memphis Three on Death Row, whose head he called for back in '93. But by the end of the piece, another of the fathers, Terry Hobbs, has implicated himself in the killings by virtue of suing the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines for slander, and Byers hastily commits to this new version of events, drafting a giant pros-and-cons list that seals Hobbs's guilt in his eyes. Hobbs may well be the culprit (the DNA does not work in his favour), but the point is, eighteen years later, nobody has learned to let nature take its course--except the Zen-patient West Memphis Three.

Fast-paced and dense, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is bad for the blood pressure (the doddering old occult "expert," who so relishes the spotlight that he has all his various TV appearances scrupulously catalogued on VHS, is particularly infuriating), and as they were preparing to execute Troy Davis last Wednesday evening despite several key witnesses in his trial having withdrawn their testimony, I flashed back to the various men--the lead investigator, the judge, the D.A.--who had too much personal pride invested in the West Memphis Three's conviction to entertain the fallibility of the legal system. And when I learned that they actually did execute Davis, I thought of Werner Herzog's devastating Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life. The subject--capital punishment, specifically as it relates to a crime perpetrated in Conroe, Texas a decade ago--humbles Herzog in some ineffable way. His quasi-poetic narration is kept to a minimum and his interview subjects seem both less coached and, with a couple of glaring exceptions, less exposed to ridicule; in one case, Herzog's speaking to a person, Michael Perry, whose last words these will effectively be, and he is clearly not taking the responsibility lightly. The film is quintessentially Herzogian, though, in its anthropological curiosity and curious anthropology, with the father of one of the convicted killers shown to be a felon himself, serving time in the prison across the way. Herzog states in no uncertain terms that he is against the death penalty, but Into the Abyss is less a polemic than a sombre sifting-through of the collateral damage that collects in concentric circles around an execution. Almost two weeks later, I'm haunted by the woman who doesn't own a phone because it only ever brought news of another loved one's demise, by the Death Row supervisor who quit after an inmate casually thanked him, and by Perry's perhaps-madly chipper demeanour. An epilogue provides incongruous and dubious comic relief; I was grateful for it.
PROGRAMME: Real to Reel
Real to Reel

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Paul Williams: Still Alive (d. Stephen Kessler)

Stephen Kessler's fun, funny Paul Williams: Still Alive proves that you can revere and challenge a documentary subject at the same time, and in that sense, the film was a tonic after watching two-plus hours of Pearl Jam blow their loads into Cameron Crowe's waiting mouth. Paul Williams is of course the diminutive singer-songwriter who was a veritable Zelig in the '70s, his facile wit making him a favourite guest of Johnny Carson, his unique look making him a viable character actor, his whorish need for attention making him powerless to turn down any offer to appear on television. (The day after he won an Oscar for the Barbra Streisand song "Evergreen," he agreed to do "Circus of the Stars".) Williams didn't adapt well to '80s pop culture, in part because he could no longer juggle his career with drugs and alcohol, in part because, I would argue, movies, TV, and music all started becoming so image-conscious as to marginalize guys like Williams, nobody's definition of a pretty boy. According to his self-deprecating narration, Kessler, an Oscar-nominee himself (for the short film Birch Street Gym), idolized Williams in his youth for precisely that reason. I know that girls feel the phantom pressure of the media but believe me--boys do, too; Williams was a homuncular beacon among the studly John Travoltas and Burt Reynoldses, and though many of his career choices look tacky in retrospect, most misfits only saw that he was everywhere and felt validated, nay, vindicated, by his mainstream ubiquity. Ironically, the trouble with Paul Williams: Still Alive is that it's image-obsessed in a different way. Kessler catches up with the decades-sober Williams, whom he thought dead (hence the title) and who now enjoys a quiet life of performing on the casino circuit. He grills Williams about the crap larding his resume and Williams is philosophical about it all (at one point, he muses that Simon & Garfunkel probably wish they'd done more "Hollywood Squares"), bristling only when Kessler starts speaking to him from an ivory tower. In a phenomenally squirm-inducing sequence late in the picture, Kessler subjects Williams to an episode of "Merv" the latter guest-hosted with coke-fuelled hubris. (Remember that episode of 'The Larry Sanders Show" where the chance to guest-host went to Hank's head? Multiply the painfulness of that by a thousand.) The star's reaction, as the film portrays it, is to unload a storage unit filled with archival footage of himself. Williams's arc--rags to riches to rehab--is a familiar one but that's not the problem: the problem is that although Kessler periodically reminds us that there's more to Williams than kitsch (the melancholy strains of "The Rainbow Connection," for instance), no one needs reminding more than Kessler. **½/****
PROGRAMME: Real to Reel

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (ds. Mark & Jay Duplass)

I'm no mumblecore slut and found the two previous Duplass Brothers films I'd seen--The Puffy Chair and Cyrus--to be an off-putting cross between Judd Apatow and Henry Jaglom, but Jeff, Who Lives at Home is lovely. Jeff (Jason Segel) is an unemployed, 30-year-old pothead living in the basement of his widowed mom, Sharon (a surprisingly tolerable Susan Sarandon). He's obsessed with the movie Signs, but the filmmakers seem to accept, rather than ridicule, that it is simply the thing that helped him crystallize his fatalistic belief system, and that if his worldview were less limited by circumstances--namely, depression--he would perhaps have latched onto something more highbrow. When his mother calls him from work demanding that he go buy wood glue to fix a broken shutter, it's the beginning of an adventure-filled day that brings him into orbit with older brother Pat (Ed Helms), a paint salesman whose fears that his marriage is disintegrating are confirmed when he spots wife Linda (Judy Greer, gorgeously lit) having lunch with another man. (In a nice reversal of the reversal of expectations to which sitcoms have conditioned us, she really is contemplating an affair.) Meanwhile, Sharon keeps receiving Instant Messages from a secret admirer at her cubicle; it's a subplot that doesn't quite repeat the theme of interconnectedness but does provide a sweet sidebar as well as a nice comeback role for Rae Dawn Chong, who's hardly aged a day since Commando. Everyone here transcends their typecasting, including slacker balladeers Mark and Jay Duplass, who make a bid for mainstream success (two words: car chase) without precisely abandoning their idiosyncrasies, such as their camcorder- honed/derived aesthetic--which establishes a cinematic grammar that allows for shabby but essential angles like a shot of Segel's hair poking up from behind a vending machine. An opening-credits montage of family photos set to Michael Andrews's lyrical score manages to be uniquely affecting, however conceptually clichéd, while the final scene is an emotional sucker punch that reminds of About Schmidt in how tenderly it pays off a comic thread. A movie about broken people trying their best, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is warm, funny, wise, and only the tiniest bit cynical (two words: car chase), if at all. ***/****
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Countdown (d. Huh Jong-ho)

Speaking to my new friend George after a screening of the stylish but gratuitously long South Korean export Countdown, I said, "It was a good yarn, at least. It reminded me of the kind of thing Hollywood used to do and do well." "Yes, you can just see Bogie in it," he replied. Then, almost in unison, we both added: "Only the Bogart version would've been over in 90 minutes." Tae (Jung Jae-young) is a debt collector who receives a terminal diagnosis of liver cancer after passing out in traffic. Since his best hope is a transplant, he puts his skills to use tracking down the recipients of his dead son's organs: knowing their blood type will match his own, he hopes to guilt one of them into a reciprocal donation. Finally, he locates Cha (Secret Sunshine's luminous Jeon Do-youn, surely bound to be poached by the American studios any day now), the con woman who got his son's heart, and she agrees to give up a piece of her liver if he'll provide in exchange the whereabouts of a criminal kingpin on whom she seeks revenge. Underestimating her slipperiness, the increasingly weary Tae spends a frantic couple of days pursuing and protecting Cha in equal measure. What I haven't belaboured, which first-time writer-director Huh Jong-ho most certainly does, is the significance of the dead son, a Down syndrome sufferer whose final moments were captured on audiotape, thus facilitating Tae's poignant self-flagellation. Parallel climaxes and multiple endings all wallow in this kid's death--you'd think he were a real-life martyr--to the point of total desensitization. (As an aside, I can't remember the last movie I saw with this many psych-out fade-outs. The Return of the King, maybe?) But there's another casualty of Countdown's detour into bathos besides the film's cool allure, and that's the accountability of Do-youn's character, a true sociopath falsely redeemed in the tide of sentiment. *½/****
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Oranges (d. Julian Farino)

Except perhaps for Hugh Laurie, who tries valiantly but hopelessly to extricate the mannerisms of Dr. House from his American persona, The Oranges feels like it was cast by a computer--why are Alison Janney and Oliver Platt even still willing to read scripts that call for a sardonic homemaker and a schlubby hubby, respectively? Catherine Keener is Laurie's ballbreaking wife, Adam Brody and Alia Shawkat are their ironic offspring, and Leighton Meester is Shawkat's hotter frenemy; what happens is that rather than elevate the material, this archetypal, overqualified cast only exacerbates its familiarity. Distinguishing itself from the rash of post-American Beauty Suburbs Suck flicks with Wes Andersonian title cards (way to think outside the box!), The Oranges--taking its cryptically metaphorical name from the affluent New Jersey neighbourhood in which the film is set--finds two close families rended asunder when Meester's Nina rebounds from heartbreak with her father's best friend, David (Laurie), whose loveless marriage has him sleeping in his "man cave" most nights and counting down the minutes 'til his perfunctory mid-life crisis can begin in earnest. It's the Sundance version of Blame It on Rio, which is to say direly lacking in scenery and titties. It's also the feature debut of a director with lots of "Sex and the City" and "Entourage" episodes under his belt, which is misleading but fair warning nonetheless. */****
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Dark Horse (d. Todd Solondz)

For a while, at least, Todd Solondz's Dark Horse does suggest something of a response/antidote to the oeuvres of Judd Apatow and Happy Madison in general and Apatow's The 40 Year Old Virgin specifically. Jason Alexander-esque Jordan Gelber is Abe, a thirtyish man who lives with his parents (an embalmed Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) in his childhood bedroom and works for his father in a small office that does real estate business for strip malls. He drives a Hummer, listens to '80s music, and bids on "Thundercats" memorabilia when he's supposed to be filing reports. He abuses his status as the boss's son to cut out early and go to the movies--in an astonishingly meta moment, Solondz lets a few of those pre-show trivia slides play out in close-up--or Toys"R"Us, the logo of which is always cryptically blurred out. He pursues Miranda (Selma Blair), a pretty woman he met at a Jewish wedding, seemingly ill-prepared for his kamikaze bravado having any sort of positive effect on her. As it happens, having contracted Hepatitis B, she's considerably lowered her own marketplace value. (I love this as a rationale for the conventional hot chick/schlub pairing.) But although Dark Horse acknowledges, somewhat subversively, that a kind of manic depression has taken root in geeky Abe, Solondz is not so interested in exploring the societal forces that have conspired to make Abe a cultural stereotype and indeed a common iteration of the modern man. Instead, he gets caught up in a game of narrative rug-pulling straight out of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which finally allows him to string together a series of vignettes just as he's done, albeit with more cohesion, in his last couple of films. (I'm starting to think he can only write in terms of sketches.) Solondz has viewers so conditioned to his cruel ironies by now that most of this picture's were met by howls of approval at my TIFF screening, but the soul that saved Palindromes and Life During Wartime from disappearing into Solondz's navel is all but indiscernible here; two closing shots that should devastate us...don't, exactly, though they still manage to suck some air out of the room. **½/****
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Pearl Jam Twenty (d. Cameron Crowe) + Sarah Palin: You Betcha! (ds. Nick Broomfield & Joan Churchill)

When Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam Twenty was over, I lined up to use the bathroom between two other people, a woman and a man, who were at the same screening. The woman, who looked perhaps like she might've been in kindergarten when Pearl Jam's "Ten" came out, asked me, "That Chris Connell [sic], the guy with the--" she crooked her finger over her lip to indicate a pencil moustache, "--was he in the band?" "No," I said, "he's the lead singer of Soundgarden." "Oh," she replied, and I could tell this answer didn't satisfy her in the least, but the bathroom became vacant and she excused herself. Then the man behind me, who was closer to my age (36) and patchouli-scented, wanted to know what I thought of the film. I told him that as someone who lost track of the band--lost interest in it is the truth, but something told me not to say that, for he'd take it personally--after "Ten," I had trouble keeping up with it. He nodded sagely and said, "The thing about the drummers?"

It was as if he had read my mind: despite lead singer Eddie Vedder referring to drummers as "the heart of a band" and comparing the replacement of a drummer to "a heart transplant," the issue of Pearl Jam going through drummers like Kleenex is reduced to a jokey bit with guitarist Mike McCready. "Matt Cameron, the current one, is from Soundgarden," the man in line for the bathroom informed me. I was extra incredulous for effect: "Really? You'd think they'd mention that connection. It's relevant." "Yeah," he shrugged. "I loved the movie, but then I'm a superfan and knew the subtext." As Walter Chaw wrote of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, Pearl Jam Twenty is for an audience that "seeks the extra-sensory validation of their interior projections." The Thing About the Drummers is also indicative of a larger lack of controversy that beleaguers this glorified "Behind the Music" special. I stopped listening to Pearl Jam when they started making a concerted effort to be "less commercial," which is its own form of cynicism. Moreover, I felt disenchanted by the group's habit of adopting of every trendy political cause and by Vedder's childish polemics (see: "Bushleaguer" and its attendant hubbub). The film touches on each of these things, only in a way that is celebratory; a deadly combination of fanboy, friend, and Richie Cunningham, Crowe has zero objectivity about the band and transparently tries to protect them from embarrassment by skimming the surface of subjects--McCready's drug use, for instance--that can't be reframed in terms of artistic integrity.

Both Pearl Jam Twenty and Sarah Palin: You Betcha!, the latest muckraker from neo-exploitation filmmakers Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, preach to the converted (Palin h8rs in the case of the latter). But that's really all they do. Structured exactly like Broomfield's lurid yet undeniably enjoyable Kurt & Courtney, You Betcha! interviews many a scorned acquaintance from Palin's past--for a former mayor of an Alaskan podunk, Palin has amassed an impressively Nixonian list of enemies--as prelude to a climactic confrontation with Palin herself that happens limply in a public forum because Broomfield can't get close enough to her in private. Listen: I hate everything about Sarah Palin (including her stupid face, which is positively dick-shrivelling on the big screen), but these stories of her scandalous behaviour in the offices she's held burn too quickly as rage fuel and are destined to be dismissed as bitter gossip once they reach her supporters in an inevitably secondhand fashion. While I appreciate the urge to reiterate on the eve of the next presidential election that she's a Creationist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, hypocritical moron, the film deflates its own alarmism by suggesting her political career has already come to a definitive end and forgoes almost every opportunity to examine the cultural vacuum that allowed this ignoramus to flourish in the first place--which, history being what it is (i.e., doomed to repeat itself), may have extended You Betcha!'s shelf-life a bit. Though always mischievous, Broomfield's work used to have that Channel 4 veneer of sophistication, but he's strictly a tabloid journalist now.
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations
Real to Reel

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Dangerous Method (d. David Cronenberg)

I wish David Cronenberg would direct a script of his own again. A Dangerous Method is recognizably Cronenbergian in its careful anthropology (DePalma-esque, too, in its frequent use of the split dioptre), but it's also a hit-or-miss period talkfest, identifying it as a Christopher Hampton adaptation of a Christopher Hampton play through and through. Distilling all the expected body-horror in grotesque and painful-looking contortions of her jaw, first-billed Keira Knightley does fine if exhaustingly histrionic work as Sabina Spielrein, a patient of Carl Jung's (the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender) who becomes his apprentice while in therapy. Jung corresponds with the more popular Sigmund Freud (Cronenberg muse Viggo Mortensen, ingeniously cast against type) over Sabina's case as well as his own neuroses, and Freud eventually tosses another patient Jung's way, protégé Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), whose maverick disregard for the ethics of transference and countertransference ultimately influences Jung's decision to embark on an affair with the sexually-repressed Sabina. On some level, A Dangerous Method is Cronenberg's first out-and-out comedy, and though a few of the laughs are of the historically-superior variety, more still are born of the characters using psychobabble to rationalize their every surrender to their urges. (Also funny: that Freud is never not smoking a cigar.) Which is not to say the movie is especially satirical or irreverent. Indeed, the dense debates that blossom between Jung and Freud as the former attempts to broaden the latter's horizons beyond the psychoanalytic movement reveal a passionate respect for the work of these men, if an ambivalence--to borrow a Freudian term--towards their differing points-of-view. (The split dioptre is generally employed here to keep both Jung and Freud in focus.) Unfortunately, things get a little bit repetitive and tedious, culminating in an ending that feels somewhat arbitrarily placed; as much as I love Cronenberg, I was going to suggest that this stagy material might've benefited from a showier director--but then I remembered Julien Temple's Pandaemonium. ***/****
PROGRAMME: Gala Presentations

Thursday, September 8, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin (d. Lynne Ramsay)

Elliptical, sprawling, transfixed by the natural or at least the pseudonatural (chiefly, food), We Need to Talk About Kevin confirms that Lynne Ramsay is the heir apparent to Terrence Malick in more ways than just her lack of prolificacy. But she shows that his method can be used to more sobering, less transcendental effect. Where billowing curtains are a hopeful, ethereal symbol in The Tree of Life, here they signify death; where Malick has locusts wreak biblical havoc on the farm in Days of Heaven, Ramsay has ants devour a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich left angrily smeared on a glass coffee table. Her images, though no less pretty, are all about bringing you back down to earth. She's also more willing to be ironic (Tilda Swinton's Eva Khatchadourian, reluctantly enduring her fifteen minutes, hides from onlookers amidst a Warholian row of soup cans) and blackly comic--I suspect I haven't been with an audience this ashamed of itself for laughing since I saw Happiness, also at the TIFF. Based on the similarly fragmentary book by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin paints an impressionistic portrait of Eva's purgatory as the mother of eponymous bad seed Kevin (played, at various ages, by Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, and Rocky Duer), who only shows his true colours when he and his mom are alone together. It's ultimately something of a horrible sign of respect, but is it psychologically acute? The movie doesn't want to deliver any Simon Oakland speeches and I respect that, but in its caginess it effectively recapitulates the plot of Orphan, with a miscast-feeling John C. Reilly as the dimwitted husband making "boys will boys" excuses for his black-eyed offspring until it's too late. The saving grace is that Eva's in nearly every scene, suggesting a narcissistic degree of subjectivity that might account for not only the one-dimensionality of everybody else (including Kevin, who's entertaining but not that much more complex than Damien Thorn when all's said and done), but also the way that trick-or-treaters seem to be menacing Eva personally during a Halloween drive. Not to mention Ramsay's knack for imbuing objects with totemic weight (my stomach churned a little when I saw a guy locking up his bike outside the theatre afterwards), her brilliant song choices (Buddy Holly's "Everyday" scores the aforementioned Halloween montage), or her often inspired use of 'scope, like an overhead shot of a crowd stomping grapes (?) that evokes a microscopic view of cells suspended in blood. Truth be told, when she rhymed this later with an insert of actual cells--breast cancer cells, according to the closing credits--dividing, I felt disappointed, almost patronized. There's still so much to say about Kevin. ***/****
PROGRAMME: Special Presentations