Day 2 at TIFF brings the calculated scandal of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, a 3D animated Monty Python, and more love for The Master

Day 2 at TIFF brings the calculated scandal of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, a 3D animated Monty Python, and more love for The Master

Spring Breakers
Director/Country/Time: Harmony Korine/USA/92 min.
Cast: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Shake It, Shake It, Don’t Break It
Scott’s Take: Harmony Korine’s latest does for Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens what’s traditionally accomplished by upskirt paparazzi shots on TMZ: Offers formerly squeaky-clean starlets a one-way ticket out of Disneyworld. Other than the calculated shock of teen pop idols going wild, Spring Breakers is hyperbolically stupid in the usual Korine fashion, relieved only by luscious day-glo visuals (he’s always had a great eye) and James Franco’s demented performance as blinged-out gangsta who’s like a cross between Kevin Federline and William Dafoe’s character in Wild At Heart. (I really need to work on making Korine’s films sound less appealing.) Gomez and Hudgens stars as two of four friends (Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine are the others) from Nowheresville, U.S.A. who are so desperate to party in Florida that they knock off a diner with squirt guns and sledgehammers to get the extra money. Once there, they booze and grind their way through tedious Korine montage sequences until the cops finally round them up and throw them in jail. In comes their surprise benefactor in Franco, a hilariously dim-witted Scarface wannabe who’s sitting on a pile of guns and cash and brings them into his world of indulgence and criminality. (His crib includes a white grand piano by the pool and “shorts of every color.”) Poised somewhere between a celebration of “Girls Gone Wild” culture and a smug parody of same, Spring Breakers reveals how little Korine’s schtick has evolved since Kids. In the absence of any perspective or judgment on his part, Korine’s films about young people have an alarmist quality that’s not that far removed from Reefer Madness. The message here? Fathers, lock up your daughters.
Grade: C

Barbara
Director/Country/Time: Christian Petzold/Germany/105 min.
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Jasna Fritzi Bauer
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Exile In Stasiville
Scott’s Take: A few years ago, German director Christian Petzold knocked me out with Jerichow, an original and distinctive reworking of the oft-adapted James M. Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Petzold’s new film Barbara affirms his talent for evoking an aura of suspicion and tension that’s subtly unnerving without overly asserting itself. For non-Germans, it helps enormously to read the synopsis, because Petzold doesn’t provide any orienting signposts: Barbara takes place in rural East Germany in the early ‘80s, and stars the extraordinary Nina Hoss as a Berlin doctor who’s been banished to a rural hospital as punishment for requesting an exit visa. It’s an open secret among the country folk that Hoss is a possible subversive, and she doesn’t do much to try to fit into her new surroundings—her “otherness” only begins to dissipate when she warms to the hospital’s chief physician (Ronald Zehrfeld), who she nonetheless can’t completely trust. The hostility directed toward Hoss is made subtly apparent: A few not-so-friendly visits to her assigned apartment, a flat tire on her bicycle after she returns from a tryst in the woods. But Petzold is careful to make those threats just a part of life in East Germany, more insinuating than explicit. And he has the perfect actress in Hoss, a Verhoeven blonde who walls herself under an icy, withering stare but lets down her guard enough to where we recognize how carefully practiced (and necessary) her act is for survival.
Grade: B

Berberian Sound Studio
Director/Country/Time: Peter Strickland/UK/92 min.
Cast: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancini
Program: Vanguard
Headline: Movie technician becomes unsound
Noel’s Take: It’s not essential to know much about the Italian thriller genre called “giallo” to appreciate writer-director Peter Strickland’s quasi-giallo-homage Berberian Sound Studio, though knowing something will certainly help the viewer catch a few references, and will perhaps make them more attuned to a movie that’s more about sensation than making sense. Toby Jones stars as a British sound effects man who’d been working on nature documentaries and kiddie shows before getting invited to Italy to work on a movie called The Equestrian Vortex, about fetching young riding academy students who encounter the vengeful spirits of tortured medieval witches. Plotwise, there’s not much to Berberian Sound Studio. Strickland builds suspense out of the mundane: Jones stresses out about getting paid, and he watches as the people who run the studio argue in a language he can’t speak, about issues that have clearly been festering for some time. Mostly though, Strickland just plays around with the components of cinema itself. He never shows a frame of the movie that Jones is working on; he just suggests it through descriptions and sound. Then he extends that notion of how meaning and emotion can be conveyed representationally, by having Jones follow the saga of some hatchlings at his mum’s house via letters that the audience has to read; and by lovingly photographing the contours of the vegetables that stand in for women’s hacked-up bodies in Jones’ foley process. And just when Berberian Sound Studio seems to have made its every possible move—or, to be completely honest, about a half-hour after it’s starting to feel played-out—Strickland abandons what little narrative he has and just goes balls-out freaky, mimicking Jones’ deteriorating mental state. Ultimately, Berberian Sound Studio is just an exercise in meta; but it also shows how a movie doesn’t have to be “real” to be disturbing.
Grade: B+

Ernest & Celestine
Director/Country/Time: Benjamin Renner/Vincent Patar/Stéphane Aubier, France/Belgium/Luxembourg, 80 min.
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner
Program: TIFF Kids
Headline: Smarter than your average bear-and-mouse cartoon
Noel’s Take: Ernest is a loud, clumsy bear who never has enough to eat, and who disappoints his family with his wish to be a musician and storyteller rather than a jurist. Celestine is a headstrong mouse who’d rather be an artist than do what the other mouse expect her to do: steal the teeth that young bears leave for the tooth fairy, so that dentists can use them to replace other mice’s incisors. Ernest & Celestine is based very loosely on a series of gentle children’s books, given a loopy spin by an animation team that includes the creators of the gleefully warped A Town Called Panic. But it’s still very much a kids’ movie. It has a soft, picturebook-like look, and it indulges in both broad, noisy slapstick and heavy-handed messages about not judging people based on their reputation. The movie is also pretty darned delightful, with its intricate depictions of the wealth-obsessed bear city and the industrious mouse city, both of which have economies in which loose teeth play a surprisingly significant role. And the relationship that develops between Ernest and Celestine is truly charming, based on their mutual love of simple pleasures, and their fundamental decency. Ernest & Celestine could stand to be a notch or two crazier than it is; the story sort of peters out, and the film doesn’t do enough with its intricate little animal kingdoms. But it looks lovely, and has a lightly anarchic, pro-boho tone that’s rare for a kidflick of this type.
Grade: B

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story Of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman
Director/Country/Time: Ben Timlett/Bill Jones/Jeff Simpson, UK, 82 min.
Cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam
Program: Special Presentation
Headline: And now for something (almost) completely useless
Noel’s Take: Essentially an illustrated audiobook, the 3D animated A Liar’s Autobiography adapts the cheeky memoirs of the late Graham Chapman, using a variety of different artists and styles to relate the story of Chapman’s boyhood, his years at Cambridge, his coming out as a homosexual, his alcoholism, and, of course, his involvement with the groundbreaking British comedy troupe Monty Python. Some of the animation is unusual enough—especially in 3D—to merit at least a nod of admiration, and some of Chapman’s anecdotes are funny and touching. But the structure of this film is very odd, jumping around in Chapman’s life in a way that makes the chronology hard to keep straight; and many of the sequences are just dire, coming off as bad Python sketches marred even further by an off-putting air of pretension. The biggest problem with A Liar’s Autobiography is that it doesn’t seem to have been properly conceived as a movie. Taking tapes of Chapman reading his book and adding little cartoons is not inherently cinematic, no matter how striking the art. Stick to the prose, skip the pictures.
Grade: C-

The Master
Director/Country/Time: Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 138 min.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Program: Special Presentation
Headline: Id, ego, and super-ego wrestle brutally against the backdrop of the contradictory ‘50s
Noel’s Take: Scott has already written a TIFF capsule for P.T. Anderson’s much-anticipated new film, and has a longer review on the way, so I won’t waste time here rehashing the plot of the film, or hailing Anderson’s use of the 65mm format. Instead, I’ll just say that I found The Master overwhelming in the best possible way. It’s a novel on film, really, and a lot to take in even with the two hours and twenty minutes that Anderson allows. What impresses me most is that there’s nothing programmatic about the story or characters. Much like There Will Be Blood, The Master can’t be reduced to a story about a black-hearted businessman, or the insidiousness of organized faith, or anything simple. The Master is about two strong-willed men: an uncontrollable maniac played by Joaquin Phoenix, and a joy-filled guru played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. (And Amy Adams, as Hoffman’s wife, is also a major part of the picture.) Phoenix is so unpredictable that it’s hard not to focus solely on him, but Hoffman never behaves quite as expected either; he’s more impulsive than this kind of movie character usually is, and appears to be transformed by Phoenix as much as vice-versa. When people start trying to unpack what The Master is about—something that’s going to take more than a 400-word festival capsule written at 1:30 in the morning—I recommend focusing on the times in which it’s set. After the opening shots of Phoenix in the Navy, the scenes of Phoenix being prepared for discharge openly reference John Huston’s documentary Let There Be Light, about mentally ill soldiers; and Phoenix’s performance calls to mind James Dean and the other Method actors who made it into the movies in the ‘50s. The era The Master covers, from roughly 1945 to 1952, was a tumultuous one in American culture: it was the age of film noir and psychological realism, but also a time when the suburban placidity for which the ‘50s is remembered took root. All of that looms in Anderson’s movie, which deals with human impulses that run counter to the clean, composed America that the PR departments pushed. If I’m holding back from declaring The Master a masterpiece (a status I grant to There Will Be Blood, by the way), it’s only because the film is elusive at times, and difficult, without many bravura set pieces to compensate. But it’s a rich, rich piece of work, from the filmmaker who may be this country’s most vital.
Grade: A-

Post Tenabras Lux
Director/Country/Time: Carlos Reygadas/Mexico/120 min.
Cast: Adolfo Jiménez Castro, Nathalia Acevedo, Rut and Eleazar Reygadas
Program: Wavelengths
Headline: When A Metaphorical Tree Falls In The Forest, Does It Make A Sound?
Scott’s Take: After the art-damaged sex-and-death of his first two features, Japón and Battle In Heaven, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas made a great leap forward with Silent Light, an austere, beautiful, transcendental film about the domestic crisis within an isolated Mennonite family. Reygadas stays on the farm with Post Tenebras Lux, again following a marriage that’s coming apart at the seams, except the abstractions of his earlier films return with a vengeance. I don’t pretend to understand everything that’s happening in the film—cutaways to a rugby team in England, for example, have no apparent connection to the characters and events in the rest of the narrative—and that may be a case of Reygadas expressing something personal without feeling inclined to bring his audience in on the reference. Still, he remains a formidable imagemaker, starting with a pair of astonishing sequences at the jump: One in which a toddler wanders through a muddy field where farm animal thunder around her as a violent storm darkens the sky and the next in which…well, it’s too marvelously strange for me to ruin here. From there, an unsettling ambience haunts the entire film, as a wealthy couple with two young girls (played by Reygadas’ children), adjust poorly to life in a country villa, where they’re swamped by the husband’s erratic behavior and local class resentment. This all sounds straightforward enough, but Reygadas throws the audience off-balance with visual gadgetry—all the exteriors are shot with focus in a middle circle and a blur around the edges that renders figures as funhouse doubles—and odd excursions, some radical (like a spiritual visitation that wouldn’t be out of place in Uncle Boonmee) and some gentle evocative (like a gorgeous bathhouse flashback and a heartbreaking rendition of a Neil Young song). It’s a bafflement, but it’s my kind of bafflement.
Grade: A-

Sightseers
Director/Country/Time: Ben Wheatley, UK, 89 min.
Cast: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Eileen Davies
Program: Vanguard
Headline: View to a kill(s)
Noel’s Take: Ben Wheatley is an original; let’s stipulate to that. His previous features Down Terrace and Kill List are alternately funny and shocking, nearly always unpredictable, and attempt to say something about the ancient, primal darkness at the heart of Olde England. Sightseers too is unexpected and pointed—at least for a while. Alice Lowe plays a dowdy, middle-aged, working-class spinster who leaves her nagging mother behind to go on a caravanning holiday with her new boyfriend Steve Oram. Then the two have an accident, and the trip takes a weird, violent turn, which keeps getting stranger and bloodier. Sightseers, like all of Wheatley’s films, has a lot going on under the surface. As Lowe and Oram encounter different people on their trip— some loutish, some snobby—the movie explores class tensions, and as Lowe and Oram smooch and bicker and try to define their mission post-accident, Wheatley delves a bit into gender roles, and into the inherent difficulty of collaboration. But his themes are all over the map, and unlike Wheatley’s previous films, Sightseers is more overtly a comedy, which means the character are broader and the plot relies more on shock for shock’s sake. The result is a film that lives down to what Wheatley’s critics usually accuse him of: It’s flippantly cruel, and more than a little misanthropic. All of which would be okay if Sightseers were more consistently amusing as well. More often it’s just thudding, and predictable in a way that Wheatley’s films have never been before.
Grade: C

Something In The Air
Director/Country/Time: Olivier Assayas/France/122 min.
Cast: Clement Metayer, Lola Creton, Felix Armand
Program: Masters
Headline: The Dreamers
Scott’s Take: For a good half hour or so, Assayas’ loosely autobiographical film about idealistic radicals in a Paris suburb in 1971 looked like the movie of the festival, a highly charged remembrance of high-school kids who are inspired by the events of May 1968, but are reckless in acting out on it. Assayas channels that youthful spirit to electrifying effect—with regrets to Martin Scorsese and Cameron Crowe, he may have the best (and certainly most eclectic) record collection of any director out there—and appreciates both the vitality and danger of teenagers who believe they can change the world but don’t know the wisest ways to go about it. But for all the strengths that come with autobiography, like the specificity of Assayas’ memories, Something In The Air has some of the weaknesses, too, like a shapelessness that creeps in and starts to paralyze the film as it goes along. Some of that is just mission drift: Much like the eponymous terrorist in Assayas’ superior Carlos, there comes a time when some of the characters simply lose their edge or compromise themselves, and the film can only meander with them. But it halts the momentum of a film that, at its best, shows great insight into the political and personal development of Assayas’ alter-ego (Clement Metayer) and the flameout of an exciting movement that was too fractious to sustain itself. It’s an untamed vision, for better or worse.
Grade: B

Stories We Tell
Director/Country/Time: Sarah Polley, Canada, 108 min.
Documentary
Program: Special Presentation
Headline: Away From Her: the nonfiction version
Noel’s Take: During the opening moments of Sarah Polley’s autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell, one of Polley’s sisters expresses skepticism about the whole project, wondering who’s going to want to see a movie about their family. But there’s a lot in The Sarah Polley Story that should be fascinating to a non-Polley, even beyond the fact that it’s a story about a famous actress and filmmaker. Polley’s mother too was a dynamic personality, who died when Polley was 11, leaving behind secrets and mysteries that this movie seeks to untangle; and that alone is plenty to build a film around. But Polley seems to share her sister’s caution to some extent, and so insists over and over that Stories We Tell is really “about stories,” and how different people in the same family construct narratives—as though this theme will lend her story more meaning. It does not. If anything, Polley’s returning over and over to this idea is distracting, in part because it’s bad form for a filmmaker to keep stating outright what her movie’s supposed to be about, and in part because Polley amps up the meta by cutting to obviously staged “home movie” footage, using actors to play the younger versions of her family. Yet beneath all the overplayed artsiness—and not too far beneath, thankfully—there’s a genuinely affecting film, about how people pursue personal happiness, sometimes at the expense of their families, and sometimes as as way of building something newer and better. And by the end of Stories We Tell, Polley admits (when pressed by her father) that her Big Theme is kind of bullshit, and may just be a way of avoiding her own complicated feelings about her mother, her father, and the people whose lives they affected. It’s best not to say too much about the actual story in Stories We Tell, since the way it unfolds is one of the movie’s genuine pleasures. (The information is out there, for anyone with halfway decent Googling skills.) Suffice to say that Polley’s parents led complicated lives, and though she embellishes them with too much extraneous frippery, she ultimately does get what matters, concerning how people naturally grow and change—sometimes together, sometimes apart.
Grade: B+

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