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The A.V. Club At TIFF '08: Day 7

Director/Country/Time: Matteo Garrone, Italy, 135 min.
Cast: Toni Servillo, Gianfelice Imparato, Maria Nazionale, Salvatore Cantalupo
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The mafia ruins everything

Noel's Take: If you've been watching cable TV over the past 10 years, you won't need this sprawling neo-realist portrait of modern Neapolitan organized crime to tell you that being a gangster is neither romantic nor all that lucrative; and you'll probably also be fairly familiar with Gomorrah's depiction of how unchecked criminality can stain every aspect of a community's life. And yet you've probably never seen these points made in quite the way they're made in Gomorrah, a doggedly unglamorous movie that eschews any conventional notion of colorful bad guy "characters." There's no Jimmy The Eel or Billy Knuckles here for us to admire on the sly—just a bunch of self-involved thugs and complicit civilians that Garrone doesn't even take the time to introduce us to properly. Gradually, by the second hour, we start to get a sense of who's who, as the movie settles on a few specific folks to follow: a poor kid looking to break into the organization, a garment industry professional caught between the Italians and the Chinese, a government official who's given up trying to fight the system, and so on. Even when Gomorrah is chaotic and confusing, Garrone captures the imagination with his vision of a Naples consisting of crumbling slums and burned-out buildings, connected by networks of bridges and secret tunnels. People frequently pop their heads out of holes or disappear into shadows in Gomorrah, and the one time that something recognizably "Italian" appears—a courtyard filled with classical statuary—it's being smashed up by a bullet-riddled car. The movie may be hard to follow at first from a narrative point of view, but thanks to Garrone's visual command, it's never hard to grasp the essential meaning.

Scott's Take: Guys like David Chase (The Sopranos) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) have gone to great lengths to express their revulsion for gangsterism, and they've had to go to these lengths because their work inadvertently romanticizes it. Just as François Truffaut once opined that it was impossible to make an anti-war film because war films make it look like fun, the colorful characters and bang-bang action in gangster melodramas has a natural allure. So credit Garrone's indictment of the Camorra crime organization for taking the glamour out of gangster life and exposing how the mob poisons the populace—quite literally, when they take over the garbage business and start dumping toxic waste into landfills. Garrone's anecdotal style takes some getting used to: There's no one character to lead us through the film, so it requires time and patience to get a handle on the who's and what's. (Its democratic approach is a little like The Wire, compressed to feature length.) But the overall effect is immensely powerful, as we watch crime overwhelm the most vulnerable members of society—women, children, law-abiding citizens, and the conscientious few who want to get out of the game. The final shot sealed the deal for me.

Noel's Grade: B+; Scott's Grade: A-

Synecdoche, New York
Director/Country/Time: Charlie Kaufman, U.S.A., 124 min.
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Being Charlie Kaufman

Scott's Take: Consider this capsule and the accompanying grade to be entirely provisional, because Kaufman's directorial debut is the kind of movie that not only rewards (or presumably rewards, anyway) repeat viewings but virtually requires them. As you might expect from the writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York rides a high concept through the inner recesses of Kaufman's warped conscience. But it's a denser and pricklier work than any of them, and not necessarily for the better. Hoffman is ideally cast as one of Kaufman's tortured, neurotic, deeply pathetic heroes, a regional theatre director who uses grant money to stage the ultimate personal project: an ongoing theatrical opus that incorporates every waking moment of his life. (Now that I think of it, the film is a lot like Hamlet 2 in that respect, only more ambitious by a factor of 1,000.) Scenes from his dissolved marriage and anxieties about his absent daughter are mixed up with bits from his current romantic adventures, to the point where he and flirty box-office attendant both have doubles that follow them around. Kaufman allows the absurdities to pile up in a matter-of-fact way that recalls Buñuel, and he comes to both self-deprecating and surprisingly poignant conclusions about how writers use their lives as grist for creative ventures. The only trouble: It's so baffling and convoluted that my pea-sized brain shut down after a while. Mitigating factor: The Kaufman wit comes through no matter how confusing it gets. Grade: B+

Tears For Sale
Director/Country/Time: Uros Stojanovic, Serbia, 86 min.
Cast: Katarina Radivojevic, Sonja Kolacaric, Stefan Kapicic, Nenad Jezdic
Program: Vanguard
Headline: Two professional mourners from a manless Serbian village embark on a fantastical quest.

Noel's Take: I imagine that a lot of people might want to bail on this adult fairytale in the first five minutes, when one of the heroines bathes in a pond formed by her dead grandmother's tears. And Tears For Sale doesn't get any less outsized or whimsical as it goes along. Women in a village that has been robbed of its virile young men by war are reduced to either cuddling up with the sole remaining male (an impotent elderly dope), or drinking "spider brandy" so they can have visions of their ghostly exes. Later in the film, the two leads meet their ideal mates: a circus performer who gets shot out of a cannon, and a smarmy singer who calls himself "The Duke Of The Charleston." As much as they'd like to keep the men for themselves, they're obliged to share with their neighbors, lest the spirit of their grandmother—represented by a flock of bats that follows the heroines around—be consigned to hell by the village witch. So, yeah… it's that kind of movie. I felt zero emotional connection to any of the fantasy elements, but I did find them far more delightful than grating, and the overall spirit of the film was disarming. I'm hoping it gets picked up and more widely distributed; this particular combination of wild imagination and tight storytelling is all too rare.

Grade: B+

Every Little Step
Director/Country/Time: Adam del Deo & James D. Stern, USA, 96 min.
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: A documentary about auditioning for a Broadway show about auditioning for a Broadway show

Noel's Take: From the moment I first read about the premise for this doc—which follows a group of young performers as they try out for the revival of A Chorus Line, a show that's provided aspiring theater geeks with "Hey that's me!" moments for over 30 years—I figured there was no way it could miss. And it doesn't. Fans of A Chorus Line will appreciate the detailed history of the original show (including audio excerpts from the interviews that provided the foundation for the project) and multiple high-quality performances of most of the songs. Even people unfamiliar with A Chorus Line ought to be caught up in the drama of who's in and who's out, which significantly outstrips the manufactured drama of TV competition shows. (For one thing, the Chorus Line auditioners have more actual talent; and better backstories.) My only real qualm about the movie is that it's fairly unimaginative in its approach. Some talking heads say positive things, some young hopefuls sing and dance, some people get cut, some people get jobs, and everybody cries (including the audience). There's not much room for real surprise. Also, the actual image in Every Little Step—which is shot on not especially high-end video—appears pretty muddy. Or to put it another way: "Dance: 10. Looks: 3."

Grade: B+

More Than A Game
Director/Country/Time: Kristopher Belman, U.S.A., 105 min.
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: How LeBron James became a high-school superstar, with a little help from his friends.

Scott's Take: There have been so many documentaries about basketball in recent years—Year Of The Yao, The Heart Of The Game, Through The Fire, and Gunnin' For That #1 Spot, to name a few—that it takes something special for one to rise above the standards of, say, an ESPN doc. Belman would seem to be in a position to provide it, too: An Akron native, he caught onto the LeBron James phenomenon early enough to have his camera around as King James and his "Fab Five" court dominated Ohio high-school basketball and turns their high-flying exploits into a traveling road show. Though More Than A Game has plenty of crowd-pleasing appeal, Belman focuses heavily on the lifelong bond between the core members of James' Saint Vincent- Saint Mary High School basketball team, who had played together since grade school. The kids (now men) are likable enough and easy to root for—though not dynamic personalities like Yao Ming or Coach Bill Resler in The Heart Of The Game—but Belman glosses over the more problematic aspects of James' high-school career. While he's correct in batting away manufactured scandals like James' impoverished mother buying a Hummer (on a loan supported by James' future earnings) or his ineligibility due to accepting two vintage jerseys as a gift, Belman doesn't look into the bigger problems of James' team jet-setting across the country during the school year or the media spectacle that was allowed to build up around him. He cares most about what happens on the court, which is diverting and fun as far as it goes, but not enough. Grade: B-

The Dungeon Masters
Director/Country/Time: Keven McAlester, USA, 93 min.
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: Fantasy obsessives try to translate gaming skills to real world

Noel's Take: This film and the three that follow were all part of my decision to "graze" on my last day of the fest, and take in pieces of as many films as possible. If any of these had been truly great, I would've stayed to the end, but you shouldn't consider my not finishing them as a "walkout." I left only because another movie was starting; all things being equal, I probably would've stayed. The Dungeon Masters is the one I most regret not finishing, because I felt like McAlester was doing a creditable job of capturing the poignancy and—lets face it—inherent goofiness of adults who spend a significant portion of their lives obsessing over role-playing games. The rhythm of the editing is such that the audience is invited to laugh at McAlester's three main subjects more often that I would ordinarily prefer; but he also gives them all plenty of space to explain themselves, in that tone of studied nonchalance—mixed with an obvious desire to impress—that defines a certain brand of geek. (And I speak of this as an insider, mind you… not to RPGs, which I've only played a little, but as avowed geek.) I look forward to seeing the rest of this movie at some point, if only to see more of the woman in the picture above, an emotionally bruised person who enjoys the strength that her fictional character shows so much that she spends a lot of her time in make-up, leaving traces of elf-smudge everywhere she goes.

Grade: Incomplete (55 min. seen) … trending "B"

Director/Country/Time: Miguel Martí, Spain, 100 min.
Cast: Macarena Gómez, César Camino, Alejo Sauras
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Spanish medical student slays jerky men in colorful, kinky ways

Noel's Take: It's hard to beat this snappy would-be cult film for entertainment value. Between the lead's jokey asides to the camera and the unapologetically lurid blend of scantily clad women and icky gore effects, Sexykiller definitely delivers the goods. But it's also doggedly shallow, with nothing novel to say about gender roles or horror archetypes. (In fact, some of the movie feels like it was cribbed directly from Scream, under the shady guise of "homage.") It's pretty fun, but hardly essential.

Grade: Incomplete (45 min. seen) … trending "B-"

Public Enemy No. 1 (Part One)
Director/Country/Time: Jean François Richet, France, 110 min.
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Cécile de France, Gérard Depardieu
Program: Gala Presentations
Headline: Legendary French criminal Jacques Mesrine rises in the ranks

Noel's Take: This is part one of an epic Mesrine biopic, and it suffers some from "serious movie" syndrome. For a re-enactment of the lives and times of such a controversial figure, Public Enemy No. 1 is awfully conventional, with little to note about its style or theme. The one potentially interesting thing I noted during my hour in the theater was the emphasis on Mesrine's attempts to lead a normal life while working as a crook. As he quickly learns, it's impossible to be just a little gangsta; it's all or nothing. I can't say I'm eager to see the rest of this (or the coming-soon Part Two), but it's certainly not bad. Just dry.

Grade: Incomplete (70 min. seen) … trending "C+"

Director/Country/Time: Matt Aselton, USA, 99 min.
Cast: Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Ed Asner, John Goodman, Jane Alexander
Program: Discovery
Headline: Emotionally distant New York bed salesman meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl while simultaneously attempting to adopt baby from China

Noel's Take: This might well have been an actual walkout eventually, though the only reason I left after 25 minutes was because I was eager to see Tears For Sale, a movie that I'm sure many would find as intolerable as I found Gigantic's parade of at once affectless and affected New Yorkers and their contrived motivations. I expect this kind of wry indie romance from Deschanel—here playing a Zooey Deschanel type, named Harriet… "though everyone calls me Happy"—but it was disappointing to see Dano follow up his electrifying There Will Be Blood turn with a bloodless performance as a one-dimensional character. The people in this cast all strike me as pretty smart. Couldn't any of them have gone up to the director and tried to talk some sense into him?

Grade: Incomplete (25 min. seen) … trending "C-"