The A.V. Club At TIFF '08: Day 2

The A.V. Club At TIFF '08: Day 2

Rachel Getting Married
Director/Country/Time: Jonathan Demme, USA, 114 min.
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mather Zickel, Bill Irwin, Anna Deveare Smith, Debra Winger
Program: Gala Presentations
Headline: Fresh out of rehab, self-absorbed woman attends sister's wedding
Scott's Take: Cinema is littered with stories of addiction and family dysfunction—movies like Sherrybaby and The Celebration were bandied about in comparison to this no-frills, kitchen-sink melodrama—but few are as warm, incisive, and emotionally devastating as this one. The thing that broke my heart so consistently in Rachel Getting Married is that everyone on the screen is essentially decent and well-meaning, but they can't keep from hurting each other anyway: Not Hathaway's Kym, whose addiction is just the start of problems she may never overcome; not DeWitt's Rachel, whose big day is threatened by distraction, if not outright collapse; and not their father (played by Irwin, who's extraordinary), whose relentless optimism (sometimes forced, sometimes genuine) in the face of his daughters' turmoil reduced me to a quivering simp. It's been awhile since a project played so perfectly to Demme's strengths and he directs the hell out of it: He captures the group dynamic of the wedding party, with its seismic shifts in mood from celebratory to melancholy and back again, and he stages the rehearsal dinner, the ceremony, and the reception with his signature multi-culti humanism and great music. I never thought Hathaway was capable of a performance of this magnitude, but really, everyone is superb. As a portrait of addiction, the film is rivaled in complexity only by Andre Royo's "Bubbles" on The Wire, they have in common the idea that the physiological challenges are only a fraction of what it takes to get clean. When your conscience is also sullied with tragedy and regret, recovery is all but impossible.
Noel's Take: The script for this at-times-painfully-real slice-of-life clunks a bit, with characters venting maybe too directly about the pain that recovering addict Hathaway has caused all of them, and the added angst she's bringing to her sister's happiest day. But so much about this movie is so goddamned beautiful that I was pretty much a wreck by the last half hour. Pauline Kael once described Nashville as "an Altman party," and Rachel Getting Married feels a lot like a Demme party, populated by a rich, multiethnic cast of musicians, actors and comedians. (Dig these names in the credits: Roger Corman, Robyn Hitchcock, Fab Five Freddy, Tamyra Gray, and so on.) Demme captures the unique combination of stress and exuberance that surrounds the weekend of a wedding, and he smartly turns long stretches of the film over to off-the-cuff speeches and performances by people who let the title character know just how much she and her husband-to-be are loved. The wild card in the mix is Hathaway, who's so self-conscious about how her sister and her parents will see her after years of drug woes that she tries to defuse the situation by making jokes—which only makes matters worse, because it looks like she's trying to make the wedding all about her. There are moments in this film that are hard to watch, like Hathaway's meltdown of a rehearsal dinner toast, and moments that are achingly tender, like a scene where Hathaway gets bathed by her sister in the wake of yet another fuck-up. Really, here's just so much life in Rachel Getting Married that it makes other Amerindies look embalmed.
Scott's Grade: A; Noel's Grade: A-

Wendy And Lucy
Director/Country/Time: Kelly Reichardt, U.S.A., 80 min.
Cast: Michelle Williams, Wally Dalton, Will Patton
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: That dog don't hunt (but it whimpers on cue)
Scott's Take: Reichardt's follow-up to the lyrical Old Joy brings the same plain-Jane naturalism to the story of a loner (Williams, in a gratifyingly low-key turn) and her beloved dog who are driving to Alaska, but get permanently sidetracked in a small Oregon town. Without putting too fine a point on it, Reichardt shows the reality of a woman who's living on the brink of catastrophe, without the means to get out of town, much less think about the long term. One problem leads to another, bigger problem: Williams' car breaks down, which prompts her to try to shoplift groceries and leads to her arrest, which in turn leaves her dog stranded outside for hours. When she comes back, her companion is gone and only a Walgreen's security guard (Wally Dalton) extends her any sympathy. Reichardt deliberately obscures Williams' reasons for being a drifter, focusing instead on her mounting desperation to find her dog, fix the car, and get the hell out of town before she loses all her money. Shades of Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D., which also revealed societal ills through a poignant dog-owner relationship. As with Old Joy, Reichardt has an excellent sense of proportion: She doesn't try to do too much, but what she does do is fully realized. Pet-lovers are hereby advised to bring the Kleenex, however. Grade: A-

Burn After Reading
Director/Country/Time: Joel & Ethan Coen, USA, 96 min.
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormad, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins
Program: Gala Presentations
Headline: Civilians play at being spies, spies play with civilians; nobody comes out clean
Noel's Take: Everyone who complains that the Coen brothers are contemptuous of their characters—or even their audience—will find a lot of ammunition for that argument in Burn After Reading, a darkly comic riff on the D.C. thriller genre in which nearly everyone is an idiot and is convinced that they're the only ones they know with any real savvy. Arch to the extreme, and populated by cartoonish character turns—even by the leads—Burn After Reading offers a vision of modern life and modern espionage in which people concoct wild theories about what's going on in the government, while covertly getting screwed by more mundane evils, like internet predators and the beauty industry. I can't pretend this movie is anything less than a slight, broad comedy, and I imagine that many people will find it too mean-spirited and trifling after the Coens' Oscar-winning adaptation of No Country For Old Men. Me, I thought it was frequently hilarious and brilliantly constructed, with a script that adds and subtracts elements exactly when necessary. I also think it has a point of view on mankind's malicious machinations that is both condescending and kind of true. In fact, I'm eager to see it again, since I wonder if I might be underrating it slightly. Often the Coens' comedies get funnier and more resonant on repeat viewings.
Scott's Take: Back when I wrote a primer on the Coen Brothers a few months ago, I had this to say about their debut film: "Blood Simple set the table for many Coen movies to come: Though the amount may vary—it's $10,000 here, $80,000 in Fargo, and $2 million in No Country For Old Men—money makes the world go 'round in the Coens' eyes, with greed driving people to short-sighted decisions and appalling acts of violence." With their first original script in seven years, the Coens have circled back to the same themes again in Burn After Reading—the amount, in this case, is more in line with Blood Simple, adjusted slightly for inflation—except here, they give them their lightest treatment to date, which makes the mayhem that ensues all the more needless and avoidable. The Coens have made many funnier films than Burn After Reading (though John Malkovich, as a belligerent laid-off CIA agent, is a hoot), but here it's the plotting that pays off in spades. The object of desire—a computer disk found by two dim fitness-room employees—is a MacGuffin of the first order, because even though its value is questionable at best, it has a sizable cast of characters scheming and sneaking around and playing off each other. If any of them knew what the audience knows, the whole movie would just end right there, but the Coens keep these individual plot strands from connection until the last possible moment. Anyone who calls the film "inconsequential" is precisely missing the point.
Noel and Scott's Grade: B+

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Hunger
Director/Country/Time: Steve McQueen, UK, 96 min
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Brian Milligan, Stuart Graham
Program: Discovery
Headline: Irish prisoners starve themselves in 1981
Noel's Take: Artist Steve McQueen announces himself as a filmmaker to be reckoned with in his debut feature, a mostly dialogue-free recollection of the various ways Irish prisoners tried to convince the Thatcher government to grant them status as political prisoners, not terrorists. The first half of the film follows one twitchy guard, one new prisoner, and one old hand as they endure day after day of shit-smeared walls, secret messages stashed in remote orifices, and routine beatings. The second half follows Bobby Sands (played by the remarkable Michael Fassbender) as he launches a new strategy to draw attention to his cause: a chain of hunger strikes, led by himself, with new prisoners to join in every two weeks. Linking the two halves of the film is a roughly 10-minute dialogue scene between Sands and his priest, followed by a roughly 5-minute monologue by Sands. Both are shot in single, static takes. In fact, my only strong qualm about Hunger is that McQueen sometimes seems to wield his directorial control a little tightly. At a certain point, those long takes start to look more like a stunt than the ideal way to convey the information McQueen means to; and at other times, lengthy journeys into the abstract or the mundane come off as a little self-indulgent. But honestly, when a director has the eye and the feel of a McQueen—who finds visual poetry in snow melting on bloody knuckles, or in the reflections in a puddle of piss—he earns the leeway to go down some blind alleys. Grade: B+

The Good, The Bad, & The Weird

(For credits and Noel's Take, click here.)

Scott's Take: There's no denying that director Kim Jee-woon has style (and a generous budget) to burn, based on the shootouts, robberies, and chase sequences that barrel one on top of the other. But at 130 minutes, the effect is often more enervating than exhilarating, in much the same way Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull was earlier this summer. There are enough inspired moments (many of them courtesy of Song Kang-ho, the slacker hero of The Host, who at one point blasts his way through a shootout while donning an old-fashioned diver's helmet) to excuse a plot that gets a little soupy, but the movie suffers from some of the blockbuster bloat that tends to dog its Hollywood counterparts. Noel spotted more references than I did—even the obvious nods to Leone only come through the three main characters and an homage to the famous climactic showdown—and more themes, too, though I'll admit that the activities of Korean bandits in ‘30s Manchuria falls in a historical blind spot for me. Fortunately, the film does better than JCVD by not front-loading its best material: The last 20 or 30 minutes bring the Good, the Bad, and the Weird together, along with legions of Japanese Army troops, for a cross-desert free-for-all like nothing I've seen The Road Warrior. Grade: B

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
Director/Country/Time: Kevin Rafferty, USA, 105 min.
Documentary
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: In 1968, two undefeated Ivy League rivals meet in a game for the ages
Noel's Take: I feel about this generally entertaining, occasionally exciting documentary much the way I felt about Man On Wire earlier this year—that there's a great story here, inaptly told by the filmmaker. Rafferty's interview subjects touch briefly on the charged atmosphere surrounding the Harvard and Yale campuses in '68, and they drop names of some of the people hanging around back then: Al Gore (roommate of Tommy Lee Jones, who played guard for the Harvard team), George W. Bush (roommate of one of the Yale players), Meryl Streep (girlfriend of one of the Yale players) and Garry Trudeau (who was drawing the nascent version of Doonesbury for the Yale student paper at the time, and using Yale's star quarterback Brian Dowling as the model for his character B.D.). But there's very little in the way of file photos or archival footage to flesh out the larger world that the story of this game takes place in, and no narrator to streamline the story. Instead, we get reminiscences by the players (who often parrot each other) and lengthy excerpts from a telecast of the game itself. Of course, that game was a wild, unpredictable affair, and much like Man On Wire, Harvard Beats Yale builds up some strong momentum in its home stretch, and sends the audience out on a high. (The people in my theater were laughing and cheering throughout.) Ultimately, I found the movie enjoyable, but frustratingly unambitious.
Grade: B-

JCVD
Director/Country/Time: Mabrouk El Mechri, France, 93 min.
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Meta Van-Dammage
Noel's Take: The overwhelmingly positive early response to this "offbeat" Van Damme film seems to stem in large part to the sense of surprise some feel that Van Damme would (a.) spoof himself by playing a has-been action star named "Jean-Claude Van Damme," and (b.) be in a good movie for a change. But really, it's not like Van Damme has been persistently humorless—he mocked himself on Friends, for example, and more than a few of his films have been tongue-in-cheek—and it's smugly revisionist to pretend that movies like Hard Target, Universal Soldier, Bloodsport and Knock Off weren't entertaining in their own way. My problem with JCVD is that aside from a few big scenes—the opening, Van Damme's big biographical monologue, the ending—it's a sub-par heist/hostage movie with minimal thrills and no real effort to divide "movie reality" from "actual reality." There's enough meat here for about a 30-45 minute movie, not the needlessly elongated, annoyingly repetitive 90-minute feature I saw at the ungodly hour of midnight. (By the way, you know what would be a good TIFF program? "10 p.m. Madness.") I was rooting for JCVD, and I appreciate what it's trying to do, but the more I think about it, the crankier it makes me.
Scott's Take: One shot into this multi-layered look at the life and career of Belgian superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme, and I was certain it was going to be the great discovery of the festival. Simply having Van Damme, in a single, choreographed take a la Touch Of Evil, kick and punch and shoot his way through a multiple bad guys with machine guns, grenades, and even a flame thrower, is impressive enough, like some Spike Jonze music video stunt. But then it's enhanced by some deliberate mistakes—punches missing by half a foot, stunt men missing their cues by a beat or two—the underline the fact that Van Damme, once a bankable action star, has since been reduced to subpar, straight-to-video projects. And the two or three scenes afterwards are similarly promising, following Van Damme through a custody battle (where his violent karate moves come back to haunt him) and a small city where overeager fans badger him for pictures. But just when JCVD looks like it's going to be Van Damme's 8 ½, a freeform journey through its star's cult of personality, the movie gets permanently stalled by his involvement in a post office robbery. Aside from a couple of sharp moments—including a stunning monologue that Van Damme the actor probably never would have imagined doing—the film wastes a golden opportunity.
Noel's Grade: C+; Scott's Grade: B-

Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist
Director/Country/Time: Peter Sollett, USA, 90 min.
Cast: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Hipsters meet cute, flirt cute, love cute
Noel's Take: Remember what I wrote above about how Rachel Getting Married makes other films look kind of pathetic by comparison? This is one of the "other films" I was talking about. Cera is as charming as always as a teenage indie-rock bassist still pining for his ex-girlfriend by making her mix CDs titled "Road To Closure, Vol. 12," and Raising Victor Vargas director Sollett makes good use of New York rock clubs and hangouts as the milieu for this story about one night in the life of Cera and his potential new girlfriend. But Dennings is underwhelming as the girl, and since the movie largely consists of one wacky accident or coincidence after another—most of them designed to keep the romantic leads artificially separated—neither actor really gets a chance to develop much of a rapport. In short: they don't talk. And when they do, they don't say much. Nick And Norah has a good soundtrack, naturally, but its failure to supply much in the way of unexpected incident or witty conversation makes it a huge missed opportunity, and a real disappointment.
Grade: C

Tomorrow: Danny Boyle, The Dardennes, Keira Knightley, and Disco Worms!

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