Day Five at TIFF '12 offers Spike Lee on Michael Jackson's Bad, a Julian Assange biopic, and Seven Psychopaths

Day Five at TIFF '12 offers Spike Lee on Michael Jackson's Bad, a Julian Assange biopic, and Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths
Director/Country/Time: Martin McDonagh, USA/UK, 109 min.
Cast: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: A night at the meta
Noel’s Take: It’s awfully easy for a self-aware, super-violent black comedy to curdle, using its winking at the audience as a lazy justification for clichés and titillation. The best way to overcome that? Be smarter, funnier, and looser than the smug, overwritten movies that tend to populate the “meta-genre” genre. In writer-director Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths—his follow up to the strong but sometimes too clever In Bruges—Colin Farrell plays “Martin,” an alcoholic screenwriter who has an idea for a script called Seven Psychopaths, but who can’t decide who the psychopaths should be, ow what should happen. All Farrell knows is that he doesn’t want this to be another blood-spattered guns-and-explosions movie. Enter Farrell’s actor buddy Sam Rockwell, who tells him stories about some psychopaths he’s heard about while he’s been helping his deeply spiritual buddy Christopher Walken kidnap dogs for the reward money. Rockwell motivates Farrell even further when he takes the dog of temperamental mob boss Woody Harrelson, whose subsequent hunt for the heroes sends them out to desert, where they continue to collaborate on ideas for the movie. To say much more about what happens in Seven Psychopaths would rob it of some of its kick. Suffice to say that McDonagh weaves between fictional realities neatly, sometimes describing in advance what’s about to happen and sometimes varying the pitch. Suffice to say also that Seven Psychopaths can’t consistently maintain its highest highs, when the dialogue is popping and the plot is twisting. But when the movie is on, it’s super-on. (Rockwell in particular is at his most witty and charming here.) Ultimately, what makes Seven Psychopaths so successful is that while McDonagh does comment to some extent on his own past work—in a self-critical way, to an extent—this film isn’t a thesis statement on violence in movies, and it isn’t smart-ass-y for its own sake. There’s a soul to these nesting and rhyming stories of ruthless killers and what motivates them to pick up their guns and knives—and in some cases, gas cans.
Grade: A-
Scott’s Take: After seeing three straight turgid mediocrities—Byzantium, The Iceman, and Jayne Mansfield’s Car—McDonagh’s superior follow-up to In Bruges was a much-needed adrenaline shot. Like a pulp riff on Luigi Pirandello’s play “Six Characters In Search Of An Author,” the film adds layer upon layer of meta-fiction to the hilariously slight premise of a gangster chasing after the three petty dognappers who swiped his Shih Tzu. Detractors might fairly note that Seven Psychopaths is little more than a monument to its own cleverness, but when you’re as relentlessly clever as McDonagh, a little latitude is warranted. The script is wonderfully digressive, trailing off in funny monologues, dramatizations and extended bits of wordplay without caring much about moving the story forward. Since Seven Psychopaths is about screenwriting and grappling with the conventions of genre filmmaking, it can still go places while spinning its wheels. Though the casting is excellent overall, Rockwell is the clear standout here—little things like his habit of repeating entire sentences when someone asks what he just said are a delight, but he seems incapable of delivering a line without an odd mumble or piece of inflection. Only a disappointing conclusion kept my enthusiasm in check, but I can tell already that I will spend my remaining years watching it to the end every time I happen to channel-flip to it.
Grade: B+

The ABCs Of Death
Director/Country/Time: Various Directors/USA/123 min.
Cast: Various across all 26 shorts, but nobody famous.
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: A Is For Anthology, U is for Uneven.
Scott’s Take: Commissioned by Drafthouse Films, 26 filmmakers were each given a letter, a little money, and an average of about four minutes to make the horror-themed short about some manner of death or another. Like all anthologies, The ABCs Of Death has winners and losers and plenty in between, though the overall experience of watching so many shorts at so modest a length is palatable and fun, like judging a mini-film festival. With no time to build atmosphere, the film goes heavy on jokey/ironic one-joke premises, leaving the few straight-up horror statements to seem like a wet blanket. The standouts here: Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet doing more experimental image-making along the lines of their gorgeous giallo homage Amer; Adam Wingard appearing on screen to puzzle out a hilarious solution to being stuck with the letter “Q”; Xavier Gens landing a grisly statement on the tyranny of body fascism in the culture; and contest-winner Lee Hardcastle contributing a clever stop-motion bit about a little boy’s fears of potty training. Far more letters fail than succeed, but taken in bite-sized nuggets, The ABCs Of Death is easily consumed (and discarded).
Grade: C+

Arthur Newman
Director/Country/Time: Dante Ariola, USA, 101 min.
Cast: Colin Firth, Emily Blunt, Anne Heche
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Lost in America
Noel’s Take: There’s such a strong notion at the core of director Dante Ariola and writer Becky Johnston’s Arthur Newman that it becomes even more frustrating when the film follows a familiar road—something that happens within the first 10 minutes, actually. Colin Firth plays a somnambulant Floridian FedEx middle-manager who buys himself a new identity, fakes his own death, and hits the road to become a golf pro in Terre Haute. But before he gets too far out of town, Firth meets the erratic Emily Blunt, who sniffs him out as a phony right away (because she’s traveling under an assumed name herself), and asks if she can tag along. Soon she has him following her thrill-seeking lead, breaking into houses and pretending to be the residents, partly for the sexual kink of it and partly just to disappear into yet another persona for a while. Meanwhile, back in Florida, Firth’s girlfriend Anne Heche and his estranged son are wrestling with who Firth really was (or is). The strong notion here is that many people fantasize about erasing their lives and starting over as someone else, in another place. But while Firth, Blunt and Heche are all very good, ultimately their characters are nothing more than a collection of contrived hangups and quirks, explained via artificially parceled-out backstory. In other words: This is a standard-issue earnest Amerindie drama, where the people do as needed to serve the plot and the point, even if that means they behave far more idiotically and short-sightedly than they’re meant to be.
Grade: C

Bad 25
Director/Country/Time: Spike Lee, USA, 131 min.
Documentary
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Shamon
Noel’s Take: At one point in Spike Lee’s documentary Bad 25, Quincy Jones says of Michael Jackson that what made him unique as a performer is that he controlled the technical aspects of music-making with an almost scientific precision, yet he also had good instincts, and could write a song within minutes or come up with something brilliant completely in the moment. Bad 25 isn’t as great a documentary as it could be. It has no real structure beyond covering each song on Bad, in order; and even at over two hours, the movie feels rushed, with some subjects (like the media backlash against Jackson in the late ‘80s, and the mountain of never-released Bad demos) getting mentioned and the abruptly dropped. But Lee gets comments from pretty much every significant figure involved in the making of Bad—including the directors of the album’s videos—and he supplements it with appreciation from modern performers, who reflect on what they learned from Jackson. And given Jackson’s reputation as a creepy, perfectionist workhorse, it’s good to hear people talk about how good he was at improvisation, and to see examples of Jackson being soulful, on stage and video sets. There’s still not enough of the Jackson that his collaborators saw and loved—he’s still a little distant, even in the behind-the-scenes footage—but Bad 25 does make the case for the album as more than a cultural phenomenon but a pop masterpiece, as underrated as any album that sold 30 million copies could ever be.
Grade: B

Byzantium
Director/Country/Time: Neil Jordan/UK-Ireland/118 min.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The Vampire Diaries
Scott’s Take: Neil Jordan’s second crack at bloodsuckers after Interview With A Vampire suffers from the same impulse to favor mood-building over all other considerations. Given that vampires are doomed to walk the earth for an ageless eternity, some sulky atmosphere is a prerequisite, and Jordan gets a lot out of his setting—an English tourist town on the coast that appears to be permanently offseason. But Byzantium is content just to marinate in vampire mythos rather than give these old stories new life. Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton are both strong as usual as centuries-old “sisters” who are accustomed to moving from city to city after the bodies pile up and suspicion begins to mount. Ronan is a passive, bookish type who feasts mercifully on the old and feeble and writes stories to cast into the wind; Arterton is the practical of the two, a brassy sexpot who uses her body to pay the rent. After moving to the coast, they set up shop at the abandoned Byzantium Hotel, which Arterton turns into a brothel, but the town figures into their origin stories and that history exerts itself in threatening ways. Jordan weaves past and present with characteristic elegance, but unlike some of his best movies—The Crying Game and The End Of The Affair leap to mind—Byzantium tries to survive on mood alone, as if it were enough merely to evoke the condition of being a vampire. It’s gorgeous to look at and even prettier to listen to—Javier Navarrete’s piano score is exceptionally hummable—but an absence of passion leaves the film, well, bloodless.
Grade: C+

Ghost Graduation
Director/Country/Time: Javier Ruiz Caldera, Spain, 88 min.
Cast: Raul Arevalo, Alexandra Jimenez, Andrea Duro
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: A g-g-g-g-graduation!
Noel’s Take: Suppose the kids in The Breakfast Club were killed in a fire, and were condemned to haunt their school, Ghostbusters-style, until a neurotic teacher who can talk to ghosts arrived to go all Stand And Deliver, helping them pass their senior year so that they could move on to the afterlife? That’s more or less the premise of Ghost Graduation, a Spanish comedy that loads up on the ‘80s pastiche, from “getting in shape” montages to romantic interludes scored by Bonnie Tyler. What’s missing from the movie though is a fuller use of its premise. Writer-director Javier Ruiz Caldera has some clever ideas—for example, one of the kids died while drunk, and remains buzzed as a ghost—but Ghost Graduation doesn’t feel thought-through enough. For one thing, it never feels like these teens have been hanging around for 25 years. It’s up to their teacher Raúl Arévalo to explain to them all the changes in technology and culture, which is dumb, because what exactly have these ghosts been seeing happen all around them at school for the past quarter-century? But while Ghost Graduation could be smarter, it couldn’t be much more fun. The movie is brisk and bright, with an arc that’s predictable but in a comforting way. Caldera hits his marks well, delivering the requisite raunchy jokes and emotional highs at just the right moments. It’s almost as though these old crowdpleasing techniques have been hanging around for decades, waiting for their chance to be useful again.
Grade: B

The Iceman
Director/Country/Time: Ariel Vromen/USA/103 min.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Providing For The Family By Murdering For “The Family”
Scott’s Take: Over his decades working for crime families in Newark and New York, contract killer Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski claims to have murdered over 100 people, all while maintaining a double life as a husband and father of three in suburban New York. Making a compelling movie out of his life ought to be reasonably easy: To quote William Hurt in A History Of Violence, “How do you fuck that up?!” And yet director Ariel Vromen fucks it up plenty, making a boilerplate gangster drama that’s smothered in a tone of high seriousness. Michael Shannon does his best to salvage the movie as Kuklinsky, who he plays as a remorseless killing machine in his professional life and as the type of family man who provides for his wife and children without an excess of affection or engagement. The greatness of Shannon’s performance lies in the subtle ways the job-related stress starts to surface at home despite his best efforts to contain it. Kuklinski needs to maintain an air of quiet reserve on both fronts—his mob family and his real family counts on him for his sturdiness in taking care of business—and the act of killing chips away at his resolve. But Vromen applies too much gravity where it’s not needed: Kuklinski is shown hacking up bodies in one scene and taking his girls to the roller rink in the next, but the cognitive dissonance isn’t punched home. Kuklinski’s frenetic life is played at half speed. (And in a festival of questionable grooming, David Schwimmer’s mustache gives Argo and Cloud Atlas a run for the money.)
Grade: C+

The Impossible
Director/Country/Time: J.A. Bayona, Spain/USA, 107 min.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Geraldine Chapman
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Not a dry eye (or a dry anything, really)
Noel’s Take: It’s been five years since J.A. Bayona debuted with the terrifying-yet-tearjerking ghost story The Orphanage, and now he’s finally back in the director’s chair with The Impossible, based on the true story of a family that was visiting Thailand in 2004 with the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. While this subject matter wouldn’t seem to have much in common with The Orphanage, both films lean heavily on the bond between parents and children, eliciting sympathy with scenes of mothers and fathers faced with the loss of their kids. And like The Orphanage, The Impossible confirms that Bayona is a major talent, with a skill for shooting and constructing sequences that build tension masterfully. The tsunami sequence in The Impossible is likely to get most of the attention—and rightfully so, since it’s ten of the most harrowing minutes most moviegoers are likely to see this year—but the movie is actually filled with smaller but no less gripping scenes of these family members scrambling to find each other amid of landscape of wreckage and strangers. The script for The Impossible isn’t in the same class as the direction; the dialogue tends to be either functional or corny, constraining the characters to one or two levels. But overall, this is a superb example of the “man against the elements” film, anchored by the panic that sets in when one family member fears never seeing the others again. With that as his starting point, Bayona deftly pushes the audience’s buttons, going for the big swell of emotion, and getting it.
Grade: B+

Jayne Mansfield’s Car
Director/Country/Time: Billy Bob Thornton/USA/121 min.
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Duvall, John Hurt
Program: Gala
Headline: Sifting Through The Wreckage
Scott’s Take: Billy Bob Thornton and writing partner Tom Epperson share a longstanding interest in examining family bonds and divisions in the Deep South—One False Move and A Family Thing are both fine early examples—and they have a great ear for redneck colloquialisms. Their latest collaboration, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, tries to do many things at once: Consider the contrasting views of service within a military family in 1969 Alabama, reveal the estrangement of patriarch Robert Duvall from his grown children (who are also fighting amongst themselves); find the drama, romance, and fish-out-of-water comedy of a British family descending on their estate for a funeral. Thornton plays much of it too broadly—this is one of those movies where an old-timer accidentally ingests drugs—and the film labors to set up and follow through on the scores of relationships that develop between Duvall and his sons, and members of both Duvall’s family and the visitors from overseas. But for all the flaws in is overall design, Jayne Mansfield’s Car has a handful of powerful scenes, most involving Thornton as a damaged WWII veteran and Duvall and Hurt as men who loved the same woman, but feel inclined to suspend their rivalry after she passes. There’s no shortage of themes here—particularly fascinating is the way service in different wars affect how the veterans perceive one another—and the Thornton/Epperson team write a lot of nice, long scenes between the characters that make the most of the stacked ensemble. But the film has no sense of rhythm or pace—it lumbers forward with an awkward gait, a rewrite (or perhaps a different director) away from the refinement it needs.
Grade: B-

Underground
Director/Country/Time: Robert Connolly, Australia, 89 min.
Cast: Alex Williams, Anthony LaPaglia, Rachel Griffiths
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: There’s a world going on…
Noel’s Take: Here’s how square the filmmaking and storytelling is in Underground: Early in writer-director Robert Connolly’s docudrama about Julian Assange’s teen hacker years, Assange (played by Alex Williams) bets his buddy a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation that he can break into a system first. Assange wins the bet. A couple of scenes later, he meets his friend, who hands Assange the book. Connolly then includes an insert shot, to confirm that the friend has given Assange a copy of Foundation. Consider that “t” crossed. Let no one leave the theater wondering, “Wait, was that book Foundation or not?”Here’s another example: About midway through Underground, as Assange is using his access to the US military’s databases to figure out where troops are being deployed for the first Gulf War, his live-in girlfriend asks whether his computer can locate Melbourne, “where your son and his mother are.” So it wasn’t always easy for Assange, see. It’s not just governments trying to bring him down, but nagging women as well. The shame of Connolly’s highlight everything/turn-Assange-into-a-clichéd-movie-character approach is that there really is an interesting story here: about the early days of the internet, when young punks and radicals had the edge on the authorities, who weren’t even sure yet what should be considered a crime. It might’ve been better had Connolly made the film more about the older detective (played by Anthony LaPaglia) who hires a young nerd to guide him through this new world in all its facets. Or it might’ve been better if the whole film had been fictionalized, to better suit the middle-of-the-road melodrama that Connolly seemed bound and determined to make.
Grade: C

Next: Terrence fuckin’ Malick.

More Toronto International Film Festival