TIFF '10: Day 1

The Town
Director/Country/Time: Ben Affleck/USA/130 min.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Titus Welliver, Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper
Program: Gala
Headline: Affleck’s back in auteur mode
Noel’s Take: The burgeoning genre of Boston Noir burgeons on with Ben Affleck’s second outing as a director, adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince Of Thieves. Unlike his excellent Gone Baby Gone, Affleck steps in front of the camera this time, playing a bank-heist mastermind who strikes up a relationship with Rebecca Hall, a witness to one of his crew’s crimes. Initially, Affleck gets close to Hall just to find out what she knows, but then he starts to like her, and finds himself willing to risk the livelihoods of people he’s known since childhood in order to escape the Charlestown neighborhood with his new girlfriend. Meanwhile, FBI agent Jon Hamm is piecing together clues and zeroing in on Affleck and his boys. There’s a predictability to The Town that’s bothersome, largely because the cast is so strong and their dialogue so flavorful that I wished their work had been in service of something other than yet another “Just let me pull one last big job and then we’ll blow this town” plot. Also, while Affleck The Director has shown his skill at moving story along and eliciting strong performances, he’s too in love with close-ups, which keeps much of his beloved Boston local color out of the frame. That said, The Town does feature one killer car chase through narrow streets, and one exciting shoot-out in the bowels of Fenway. And did I mention that cast? Well, let me mention it again, because not a one of them sounds a bum note: not Hamm, as he gets into a swagger-off with Affleck; not Affleck, as he plays the part of the affectless thug for Hamm even though his heart’s not in it; and certainly not Jeremy Renner, who plays the role of Affleck’s livewire best friend with such puggish intensity that you’d think that role wasn’t a shopworn cliché.
Grade: B

Biutiful
Director/Country/Time: Alejandro González Iñárritu/Mexico-Spain/148 min.
Cast: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Diaryatou Daff
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: 99 Problems (And A Bi-Polar Cheating Wife Is One)
Scott’s Take: Directing his first movie without the screenwriting services of Guillermo Arriaga—who penned three straight puzzle pictures for him, with diminishing returns (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel)—Iñárritu has basically staged the same annoyingly “poetic” miserablism in chronological order. The amount of garbage piled on Bardem’s character is impressive in its sheer quantity: He’s a black market middleman responsible for African street merchants (drawing attention from the cops) and Chinese migrant workers (who are housed shoulder-to-shoulder in sleeping bags below the space where they work on knock-off goods); he can communicate with the dead; he’s got terminal cancer; he’s got a bi-polar wife who’s sleeping with his brother and a family on the brink of financial oblivion. And that’s all before the really bad shit starts happening! I still contend that Iñárritu is an immensely talented filmmaker, and there’s evidence of that on display, from his textured images of urban poverty to a pair of beautifully directed sequences—one a police raid on the African merchants, the other inside a nightclub. But he just doesn’t know when to stop: The constant, humorless pummeling of Bardem’s character would be hard enough to take without Iñárritu’s bad habit of trying to relieve it via magical realism and visual “poetry.” Despite fine work from Bardem and Maricel Álvarez as his troubled wife, it’s an irritating and oppressive 150-minute dirge, and hardly the hoped-for evolution after Iñárritu dissolved his partnership with Arriaga.
Grade: C-

The Edge
Director/Country/Time: Alexey Uchitel/Russia/119 min.
Cast: Vladimir Mashkov, Vyacheslav Krikunow, Anjorka Strechel
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Stranded in Siberia, playing with trains
Scott’s Take: Shortly before the press screening started, it was announced that The Edge was Russia’s official submission for Academy Award consideration. I’d put its chances of winning roughly at North-Korea-winning-the-World-Cup level. The film promises a rough-and-tumble depiction of life at a Stalinist labor camp in Siberia after World War II, where alleged traitors were shipped for hard time in the cold, arid, snowy wasteland. (One funny detail: There are no guards to keep the prisoners contained, since the vastness of Siberia does that for them.) But The Edge turns out to be a bizarre and unappealing hybrid, crossing a love triangle (between a war hero, a blonde Russian mother, and a German runaway) with a “steampunk” movie focused obsessively, at times pornographically, on the mighty train engines of old. A catfight at the communal bathhouse is the sole scene I stand a change of remembering. If you like shots of coal being shoveled into a furnace, this is the movie for you.
Grade: C-

The Hunter
Director/Country/Time: Rafi Pitts/Iran/92 min.
Cast: Rafi Pitts, Mitra Hajjar, Ali Nicksaulat, Hassan Ghalenoi
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: The Green Revolution bleeds red
Noel’s Take: From the moment The Hunter’s colorful, rock ‘n’ roll-stoked opening credits fill the screen, it’s clear that writer-director Rafi Pitts is striding purposefully away from the usual Iranian neo-realism. Granted, The Hunter is as deliberate as any other Iranian art-film, quietly following an ex-con (played by Pitts) as he learns that his wife has been killed and his daughter has gone missing in the wake of an election protest. But when he gets the news, our hero flips out, goes on a shooting spree, and then retreats into the woods where he’s pursued by two bickering policemen. The Hunter is way too heavy-handed at times about depicting its protagonist’s sense of loss, and it bubbles a little slowly for a potboiler. But the film is stunningly composed, with images that convey Pitts’ sense of being ground down by modernity and beset by institutional hypocrisy. There’s lots of footage of car washes and factories—where processes have been automated, removing the human element—along with scenes set in the hazy outdoors, where it’s hard to tell who’s on who’s side, or why.
Grade: B+

Inside Job
Director/Country/Time: Charles Ferguson/USA/108 min.
Documentary
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: The ’08 Global Economic Crisis: A Primer
Scott’s Take: Back in 2007, Ferguson debuted with the highly regarded Iraq documentary No End In Sight, which wasn’t an original piece of reporting per se, but clearly explicated the reasons why the United States was stuck in a quagmire. Ferguson’s decision to look past the question of why the war was started to engage in the missteps in how it was conducted was a real masterstroke, and made a good case for the tragic consequences of de-Baathification. Ferguson takes precisely the same approach to the ’08 economic crisis, but Inside Job is a little late to the party. If you know nothing of subprime mortgages, the derivatives market, and the incestuous relationship between Wall Street and Washington, this movie isn’t a bad place to start. On the other hand, previously published work like This American Life’s “The Giant Pool Of Money” or Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short get the information across with more originality and verve. Ferguson assembles all the talking heads he can muster—and makes a couple of the smaller-time villains squirm under questioning—but there are no fresh revelations here, and his attempts to spice up the material with slick helicopter shots and obvious music cues (Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time,” BTO’s “Taking Care Of Business”) fall flat. Ferguson has a muckraker’s heart, but his two features to date are too much summary, not enough original investigation.
Grade: B-

Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen
Director/Country/Time: Andrew Lau/Hong Kong/106 min.
Cast: Donnie Yen, Shu Qi, Anthony Wong, Huang Bo
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Allow me to pass you your ass
Noel’s Take: If you thought that Ang Lee’s movie would’ve been better if it’d been called Lust, Caution, Ass-kicking, then have I got a motion picture for you. Andrew Lau and Donnie Yen’s martial arts epic Legend Of The Fist opens in WWI and then shifts to ‘20s Shanghai, where a band of brothers who fought on the front lines in Europe re-band to thwart the imperious Japanese. Leading the charge? Yen’s Chen Zhen, a legendary, possibly immortal fighter who dons a black mask to bring his special brand of pain to those who would oppress his people. Yen played Chen Zhen on television in the ‘90s series Fist Of Fury, based on the Bruce Lee movie of the same name. Legend Of The Fist is ostensibly a sequel to the TV show, which means it makes passing references to past events that—when combined with the dense historical references—can make the film a little hard to follow at times. But the period detail is eye-poppingly opulent (hence my comparison to Ang Lee) and the fight scenes… well, there aren’t enough ‘a’s in “bad-ass” to describe the fight scenes. They’re as brutal as they are gravity-defying, with lots of throat-punches and blood-letting. I just wish there were more of that kind of action, and fewer scenes of well-dressed men and women sitting around in nightclubs talking politics.
Grade: B

My Joy
Director/Country/Time: Sergei Loznitsa/Russia/127 min.
Cast: Viktor Nemets, the various ghosts of Russia past and present
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: And the road leads to nowhere
Scott’s Take: The first of two Russian films I saw today with inexplicable titles—though this one is unquestionably meant as ironic—My Joy has been described as an extended Twilight Zone episode or (via the program book) a horror movie directed by Alain Resnais. In other words, it’s the type of film that leaves you struggling to define it, following a young truck driver (Nemets) who chooses to head down a forbidden road and embarks on an episodic journey that creeps to the edge of the surreal and supernatural without quite going over the line. The driver encounters characters who recall troubling incidents in Russia’s past and present, and some individual segments are more gripping than others. (Most of them weighted heavily toward for the first half; the film takes an abrupt and confusing turn in the second that yields fewer dividends.) What keeps My Joy compelling throughout is Loznitsa’s direction, which evokes an eerie, otherworldly progression into darkness while making particularly suspenseful use of foreground and background action. It’s hard to know what to make of the film itself—those schooled in Russian history (or, well, Russians) may find it more resonant—but I can see why Mike D’Angelo, in his Cannes coverage back in May, cited Loznitsa as his choice for Best Director. Definitely someone to watch.
Grade: B

Score: A Hockey Musical
Director/Country/Time: Michael McGowan/Canada/92 min.
Cast: Noah Reid, Allie McDonald, Olivia Newton-John, Stephen McHattie, Marc Jordan
Program: Gala
Headline: Did you know that Canadians enjoy the game of hockey?
Noel’s Take: When I was a kid, my brother and I both checked a book called Hockey Wingman out of our public library over and over. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly; something about the book’s very specific details about how a hotshot teenager rises through the ranks of youth hockey to play in the NHL just appealed to us, I guess. And thanks to Hockey Wingman, I enjoyed Michael McGowan’s Score: A Hockey Musical maybe more than I might’ve. Though even with me cutting it a lot of slack, I still found it disappointing. Noah Reid plays the home-schooled son of two political activists who frown on his love of hockey; but when Brampton Blades owner Stephen McHattie sees the kid play in a pick-up game, he signs him up, and soon Reid is the sensation of the league, much to the dismay of his parents and of the now-neglected girl-next-door who’s secretly in love with him. I enjoyed all the hockey-related stuff in Score, which showed how a phenom gets ground up in the sport’s starmaking machinery. But Score: A Hockey Musical is, y’know, a musical, and its tunes are more in the operatta-like plot-advancement mode than the “give the audience something to sing on the way home” mode. The songs are pleasant enough, but there are no showstoppers here. Plus, even by the broad, cartoony standards of this kind of musical, the characters in Score are too defined by their types: naive, liberal, goony, etc. McGowan keeps the energy up and stages some scenes inventively, but this movie plays like an over-eager rookie that needs to be body-checked into fighting shape.
Grade: B-

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