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TIFF '10: Day 3

Let Me In
Director/Country/Time: Matt Reeves/USA/115 min.
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Moretz, Richard Jenkins
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Déjà vu
Scott’s Take: What was once in Swedish is now available in English. There are two ways to look at Reeves’ uncanny remake of the moody cult horror/emo film Let The Right One In: 1. It’s a faithful adaptation, honoring the story nearly to the letter and retaining the slow, methodical tone (and bursts of ultra-violence) of the original, which sets it apart from Twilight or the shock-filled American horror films of the day. There’s no question Let Me In will see many more eyes this time around, and it’s still an intelligent, gratifyingly ambiguous twist on the genre. 2. However, Let The Right One In still exists. There are prints in circulation, the negative is presumably intact, and you can find it anywhere on DVD (albeit with possibly fucked-up subtitles). Why should another one be produced, just to cater to the babies who can’t bring themselves to read subtitles? Though the differences between them are slight—one fairly silly scene involving cats has been cut from Reeves’ film—the Swedish version is the better of the two. Reeves does well to cast Smit-McPhee and Moretz, both strong young actors, in the roles of an outcast boy and the eternally teenaged vampire who befriends him. He also reproduces the spare, haunted, wintry palette of the original. (And more regrettably, the jittery, cheap-looking digital effects.) But neither of the two big scenes—the climax and the scene that gives the film its title—are staged nearly as effectively, and the film overall feels like a pointless facsimile. Fans hoping for a respectful rendering should be careful what they wish for.
Grade: B-

127 Hours
Director/Country/Time: Danny Boyle/USA/94 min.
Cast: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Cocky dude meets heavy rock
Noel’s Take: I had the same reaction to this stirring survival tale that I have to most Danny Boyle films: it starts out with a fine sense of excitement and potential, and hits some real highs along the way, but Boyle just doesn’t fill the gaps all that well. James Franco is terrific as a cocksure thrill-seeker who goes on a solo excursion in the canyons of Utah and then runs into trouble when his arm gets pinned by a big boulder; but aside from the exhilarating opening (where Franco bounds joyously through the desert with two fellow tourists) and the gruesome climax (where he takes the necessary steps to extricate himself from his predicament), 127 Hours isn’t as exciting as it’s pretending to be. Boyle employs a lot of visual gimmickry to indicate the passing of time, the depletion of Franco’s resources, what’s running through his head, whatnot. But it’s all in service of a pat lesson about how much people need people. I liked Franco and the ending enough that I didn’t feel as irritated by 127 Hours as I did by Slumdog Millionaire. But like that Oscar-winner, 127 Hours often seems too concerned with keeping the audience happily distracted while it’s showing us people in misery.
Grade: B-

Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer
Director: Alex Gibney
Program: Reel To Real
Headline: Don’t fuck with the machine
Scott’s Take: The past few months have seen a resurrection of Eliot Spitzer in the public eye—first as a columnist for Slate and now as co-host of a CNN show with Kathleen Parker—but he’s still a walking punchline, a once-popular New York governor ruined by his dalliances with high-priced prostitutes. And given his reputation as a tireless crusader, his downfall was especially precipitous: Once called the “Sheriff of Wall Street” for his takedowns of white-collar chicanery as attorney general, then later elected to clean up the systemic corruption in Albany, Spitzer lost the moral authority that defined him as a politician. Gibney’s documentary—one of a whopping four to be released this year—doesn’t excuse his indiscretions (or hypocrisy), but it does lay out a convincing case that Spitzer was kneecapped by the powerful Wall Street titans and Republican stalwarts he’d battled throughout his career in public service. Spitzer surely understood the take-no-prisoners style of New York politics—and the soft-bellied culture of backroom deal-making it protects—yet he chose to antagonize the wrong people while acting with astounding personal recklessness. Gibney balances a thorough history of Spitzer’s turbulent (but frequently triumphant) career with a fascinating account of the big-money prostitution rings that serve many New York athletes, Wall Street executives, politicians, and other elites The targeting of Spitzer is viewed as an egregious overreach at best, and a pernicious conspiracy at worst. Client 9 feels at times like another step in Spitzer’s image rehabilitation and Gibney’s journo-doc template, established in movies like Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and Casino Jack And The United States Of Money, is getting a bit too predictable. But he rescues the story from tabloid hell, and asks for a saner assessment of a deeply flawed man.
Grade: B

Cool It
Director/Country/Time: Ondi Timoner/USA/84 min.
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: An alarming non-alarmist documentary
Scott's Take: Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg created some waves with his book The Environmental Skeptic, in which he poked holes in long-held assumptions about the effects of climate change and how the world was going about addressing them. It should be said upfront that he’s not a climate change denier, but those who want to slow (or stop) any efforts to address the problem have nonetheless eagerly embraced his arguments. For his affront to conventional wisdom—or, you know, the findings of a vast swath of environmental scientists—Lomborg was officially reprimanded for “scientific dishonesty” by the Danish Committees On Scientific Dishonesty (sounds like committee created just for him, no?), a decision that was later annulled by another body. Adapted from his book, Cool It gives the charismatic Lomborg a forum with which to blast the “alarmist” claims of work like An Inconvenient Truth, with its terrifying images of cities consumed by water, whole continents turned to desert, and digital polar bears losing their ice floes. And that’s all fine and good, I suppose, since conventional wisdom needs to be questioned and the tendency of politicians and activists like Al Gore to use scare tactics to motivate people is often insidious. However, Cool It basically fights propaganda with propaganda, accepting Lomborg’s work at face value while giving little time to the many scientists who have taken issue with him. With no one to challenge him, Lomborg sounds convincing and sane, offering many pragmatic, cost-benefit solutions to addressing not only climate change, but also global poverty and disease. While I recognize that Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth also goes unchallenged, that was more like a concert movie than a proper documentary, which should have a greater commitment to verity. Here’s a guy who’s doing to environmental science what the Atkins Diet did to weight loss, and Timoner isn’t looking for anyone to call his conclusions into question? Bullshit.
Grade: C-

Everything Must Go
Director/Country/Time: Dan Rush/USA/96 min.
Cast: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Michael Peña, Glen Howerton, Stephen Root, Laura Dern, Christopher C.J. Wallace
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Will Ferrell + Pathos = Indie-mush
Noel’s Take: Based on a Raymond Carver short story, Everything Must Go stars Will Ferrell as an alcoholic who loses his job and then comes home to find that his wife has dumped all of his stuff on the lawn, changed the locks, and frozen all of his accounts. So Ferrell buys some beer, plops down in his easy chair, and proceeds to live in his yard for the next five days, while holding a little sale. There are dozens of ways that writer-director Dan Rush could’ve approached this story, but the way he chooses—turning it into a occasionally wry, ever-earnest dramedy—is precisely the wrong one. Nearly everything about the movie is standard-issue indie, from the plunky soundtrack to the procession of quirky and/or achingly sensitive supporting characters. Even the comic moments follow form; this is the kind of movie where if a character says, “I don’t need to borrow your bike,” you know the next shot will be of him peddling away. I understand that someone like Ferrell will want to challenge himself occasionally by taking on dramatic roles, but honestly? Everything Must Go would’ve been a much better movie if it had been closer to Talladega Nights than Sunshine Cleaning.
Grade: C-

Julia’s Eyes
Director/Country/Time: Guillem Morales/Spain/112 min.
Cast: Belén Rueda, Lluis Romar
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The injury-to-the-eye motif, writ large
Noel’s Take: It takes about half an hour for this Guillermo del Toro-produced thriller to really get rolling, but once it does, director Guillem Morales serves up an hour-plus of pretty freakin’ terrifying cat-and-mouse antics, spiked (literally) with multiple eye-threatened-by-pointy-object scenes. Belén Rueda stars as a woman whose blind twin sister hangs herself under suspicious circumstances; when Rueda begins to investigate the death, she begins to get the creeping sensation that she’s being followed. Worse, her own eyesight—never that great to begin with—is starting to degenerate into permanent blindness. Before the screening, del Toro introduced the film, calling it a Spanish version of the Italian “giallo” genre, and there are definitely some similarities, in that Rueda is being pursued by an unseen, blade-sporting killer, and her resulting paranoia isn’t always taken seriously by the authorities. But mostly Julia’s Eyes tries to keep topping itself with stock horror movie “Look out, there’s someone behind you!” scares, and damned if it doesn’t do just that, even if it has to borrow some material from Wait Until Dark and Rear Window along the way. Morales may not have much a knack (yet) for moving a story along, but he’s got some impressive formal chops when it comes to keeping audiences disoriented. In much of the last half of Julia’s Eyes, for example, Morale avoids showing anybody’s face, save the heroine’s. Then the faces appear. Oh, do they appear.
Grade: B+

Machete Maidens Unleashed
Director/Country/Time: Mark Hartley/Australia/85 min.
Program: Reel To Real
Headline: They caged their bodies but not their passions!
Noel’s Take: Much like Mark Hartley’s previous documentary Not Quite Hollywood, his Machete Maidens Unleashed covers a major chapter in the history of exploitation films: the stretch from roughly 1971 to 1982 when Roger Corman and other drive-in impresarios discovered that they could make their movies even more garish (and even cheaper) if they shot in the Philippines. Hartley talks to all the major players from New World (including Joe Dante and Allan Arkush, whose job it was to turn the shoddy-looking movies that came back from overseas into sexy trailers), historians of cult movies (including cult critic Danny Peary), and the surviving Filipino talent. Machete Maidens is sloppily organized, moving at first in chronological order and then just flitting from topic to topic—including a long stretch devoted to Francis Ford Coppola’s crazy shoot of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, which is meant to show how the mainstream co-opted trash cinema. It’s way too anecdotal, but the anecdotes—and the clips—are funny and exciting, and I appreciated that Hartley didn’t shy away from the debate over whether the countless women-in-prison movies shot in the Philippines were empowering to women or simply degrading. There’s a lot of valuable data here for film scholars; it’s just put together too haphazardly.
Grade: B

Director/Country/Time: James Gunn/USA/96 min.
Cast: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Holding out for a hero
Scott’s Take: The superhero genre has been so worked over that I can think of four movies off-hand—Kick-Ass, Defendor, Special, and the new SUPER—about ordinary people who decide to fight crime in silly homemade costumes. (And in each one, there’s inevitably a scene where the hero asks, “Why hasn’t anyone thought to do that before?!”) SUPER stands out from the pack for its brash, spiky, horrific real-world violence, which is a nice antidote to the more conventional, comic-book-y (and yet still grotesque) kind found in Kick-Ass. When Rainn Wilson, burned by the scummy drug dealer (Bacon) who steals his wife away, decides to reinvent himself as a crime-fighter called Crimson Bolt, a pipe wrench becomes his weapon of choice and he buries it in the skulls of all comers. The nature of the crime doesn’t matter: Purse-snatchers and murderous henchmen all get brained, and when he brings Page’s vindictive comic-bookstore clerk on as a sidekick, their brand of justice grows more conspicuously unjust. Gunn, who previously directed the clever horror-comedy Slither, loses that movie’s studio slickness and returns to the blunt-force trauma of his days writing scripts for Troma. Not surprisingly, SUPER is all over the place tonally, because it’s never clear how much we’re supposed to root for Wilson the underdog and how much we’re supposed to be queasy about his erratic brand of crime-fighting. But that same unsteadiness gives it a charge, too: Gunn delivers the indie quirk expected from the premise, but he isn’t afraid to lurch into raw exploitation, either, and the film is thrillingly off-balance. Expect a lot of moral hand-wringing once it makes its way to general release.
Grade: B

Tamara Drewe
Director/Country/Time: Stephen Frears/UK/111 min.
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Roger Allam, Bill Camp, Dominic Cooper
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: An aimless but engaging update of the English pastoral
Noel’s Take: Director Stephen Frears covers ground he knows well in Tamara Drewe, an adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name (with a screenplay by Moira Buffini), which brings together a cross-section of British society and keenly observes their interactions. Gemma Arterton stars as a breezy journalist who returns to her late mother’s estate in the country and proceeds to cause trouble for the people at a nearby writers’ retreat. Tamara Drewe is full of bed-hopping and erudite banter, and sticks to the “lies and misunderstandings” mode of classic English literature, even as it acknowledges that things have changed in an era of gossip magazines and weekend rock festivals in farmers’ fields. The movie is enjoyable throughout—right up to its loony, loony ending—but it’s more than a little scattered. It’s not from Arterton’s perspective, or from the perspective of her childhood sweetheart-turned-handyman, or her drummer boyfriend, or her adulterous celebrity novelist neighbor, or the neighbor’s much-put-upon wife, or the Thomas Hardy expert who’s falling in love with that wife. The focus is diffuse, which saps Tamara Drewe of a lot of its forward momentum. If Frears and company had zeroed in on one or two characters, I think I would’ve liked the movie a lot more. And I would’ve gone with my two favorites: a pair of local teenage girls who watch all the action from the periphery, giving the characters nicknames like “Plastic” and “D-List,” and showing why the adults in the story grow up the way they do, full of grudges and ennui.
Grade: B

Tomorrow: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take a trip, John Sayles goes to the Philippines, and Kevin Spacey plays Jack Abramoff.