TIFF '10: Day 4

The Trip
Director/Country/Time: Michael Winterbottom/UK/109 min.
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon hit the road
Noel’s Take: In theory, turning a camera on British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they eat their way across the north of England should be can’t-miss entertainment. Both men have been funny in various movies and TV series, and were hilarious together in Tristram Shanty: A Cock And Bull Story (directed by Michael Winterbottom, who also helmed The Trip). They’re frequently side-splitting in The Trip as well, as they do their dueling impressions of Michael Caine and Bond villains, or as they compare their respective careers: Coogan’s having stalled a bit while Brydon’s trucks along nicely. But while I liked the movie, there’s no reason why this couldn’t have been something I loved. Instead, I found myself wishing that Brydon weren’t doing quite so many impressions (even if that character trait is supposed to be irritating), and that Winterbottom didn’t keep cutting away from conversations just when they were starting to get interesting. I also wished there’d been more about the food the duo ate and the places they visited, and less fictionalized pathos involving Coogan’s wayward son and increasingly distant American girlfriend. (Even the jokes about Coogan’s up-and-down career are staring to feel old hat at this point, having been a running gag in Tristram Shandy as well.) I still liked spending time with these guys, and I loved The Trip’s well-earned poignancy as their journey comes to an end. But this is basically a good rough draft for a potentially great movie.
Scott’s Take: Can’t I just say “ditto” to Noel’s write-up and be done with it? No? Okay, then let me skip past all the things that make The Trip a delight—the often inspired Coogan/Brydon banter, the impressions (especially one where Brydon details the changes in Michael Caine’s voice over time), the honest (and for Coogan, painful) assessment of where these men are at in their personal and professional lives—and talk a little about why it falls needlessly short of greatness. Naturally, there has to be an improvisatory looseness to The Trip, and the film’s premise of two buddies mucking around the countryside of north England, eating well and visiting landmarks, gives them the space to do their best work. (Although the reflection on an actual literary work in Tristram Shandy added a layer beyond them merely dicking around.) But somebody has to give those improvisatory sessions some shape, and that somebody is Michael Winterbottom, a director who’s given to sloppiness, which may have something to do with his prolific nature (at least a film a year, maybe two). The choices he makes in the editing room (and perhaps on set, too) seem off here: As Noel mentioned, there are scenes where Winterbottom cuts away just as Coogan and Brydon are getting interesting, and there are scenes that are allowed to go on too long or repeat a scene earlier in the film. It’s part of the film’s design that the pair get on one another’s nerves—and the repetition is a part of that—but 109 minutes is far too flabby a running time for a movie this trifling. The Trip needs shape, and I suspect that if Winterbottom weren’t rushing off to the next project, he might have spent a month or two finding the diamond in all that rough.
Grades: Noel/Scott: B

Amigo
Director/Country/Time: John Sayles/USA/128 min.
Cast: Joel Torre, Garret Dillahunt, Chris Cooper, DJ Qualls, Rio Locsin, Ronnie Lazaro, Bembel Roco
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: American imperialism, 1900-style
Noel’s Take: I love that John Sayles is still out there, plugging away at dense, multi-character/multi-perspective sociopolitical history-films that play like big-screen novels. I just wish he were as good at turning these stories into compelling drama as he was during that stellar ‘90s run when nearly every new Sayles film was the event of the indie season. Amigo makes good use of its low budget and limited location, examining U.S. military intervention in the Philippines in the early 1900s through the filter of one village that a small American unit occupies while their compatriots are out squelching nearby rebel uprisings. The squad, let by Garret Dillahunt, tries keeping the peace by teaching the villagers about democracy and taking part in their celebrations, but as the insurgency intensifies, a tough-minded colonel played by Chris Cooper swoops in and changes the rules of engagement. Any comparison between this chapter in world history and recent U.S. invasions is wholly intentional—right down to the waterboarding scene—but the bold-facedness of the movie’s intent isn’t as problematic as the one-dimensionality of the characters, or the just-barely-functional dialogue. Sayles is still a master at tying a sprawling plot together with just the right note of irony, but getting to that point has become a real slog.
Grade: C+

Attenberg
Director/Country/Time: Athina Rachel Tsangari/Greece/95 min.
Cast: Ariana Labed, Evangelia Randou
Program: Discovery
Headline: To live like the hu-man… to love like the hu-man
Noel’s Take: Here’s another one of those arty European films in which the characters behave like alien beings, having conversations and exhibiting behavior that’s not just eccentric but downright freaky. The difference is that Attenberg has an explanation of sorts for why its lead is so bizarre. Ariana Labed plays an aloof 23-year-old who’s lived her whole life in a sterile apartment complex in a Greek factory town, raised by an intellectual father who engages her in rhyming games and marathon viewings of David Attenborough nature documentaries. The only other person she hangs out with is a girl roughly the same age, Evangelia Randou, who tries to teach her how to kiss and attract men (when she’s not joining Labed in impromptu impressions of animal strutting). But with her father dying of cancer, Labed has to learn how to be a normal person, which involves learning what separates us from animals, or from the dirt in the ground. Director Athina Rachel Tsangari models Attenberg’s style on a Suicide song: all spare, riffy, and intermittently eruptive. But Tsangari’s no Alan Vega. Attenberg is memorable and even stunning at times, but the material’s a little too thin for Tsangari’s weird-for-weird’s-sake moves.
Grade: B-

Casino Jack
Director/Country/Time: George Hickenlooper/USA/108 min.
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston
Program: Gala
Headline: Jack Abramoff gets the W. treatment
Scott’s Take: The list of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s dirty dealings on K Street is immense: He had a hand in the exploitative textile mills in the Marianas Islands, the shady extraction of outrageous fees from Indian tribes on casinos, and possibly some connection to the murder of Miami Subs and SunCruz Casino owner Gus Boulis, not to mention an open line to now-disgraced Majority Leader Tom DeLay and a producing credit on the anti-commie Dolph Lundgren vehicle Red Scorpion. Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack And The United States Of Money needed 125 minutes just for a basic overview, which leaves Casino Jack—a fictionalized account of Abramoff’s influence-peddling—in the difficult spot of establishing all that information. The solution? Just put it all right there in the dialogue. Instead of finding some clever means of introducing the whos and whats, the filmmakers give us lines like, “Hello Ben Bradley of the Washington Post. You wrote an unflattering article to which I took great offense!” (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one.) Hickenlooper and screenwriter Norman Snider are wise to stage Abramoff’s story as political satire, but Casino Jack gets so bogged down trying to explain everything that the jokes, when they come, have no snap to them. It’s like a lugubrious TV-movie version of Oliver Stone’s W.: Agonizingly paced, indifferently filmed, and choked with dialogue that comes straight from press conferences and newspaper articles. Spacey has made a career out of projecting the smarmy arrogance of the powerful, but Casino Jack is so painfully flat that he get dragged down along with it.
Grade: D+

Conviction
Director/Country/Time: Tony Goldwyn/USA/106 min.
Cast: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher, Juliette Lewis
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Like Rudy meets A Civil Action
Noel’s Take: There are times when clichés can be comforting and even profound in their familiarity. And there are times when they’re just, well, clichés. Conviction largely traffics in the latter. Based on a true story, Conviction stars Hilary Swank as a high school dropout who goes back, gets her degree and goes to law school, all so she can free her wrongly convicted brother Sam Rockwell from prison. The movie is well-acted—with a really nice supporting performance by Minnie Driver, playing Swank’s fellow non-traditional student chum—and I can’t deny that it feels good to see Swank use her wits and resources to fight for the only family member who ever cared for her. But do we need the scene of Swank fighting with her husband because he thinks she’s spending all her time on a lost cause? Do we need her forgetting her promised fishing trip with her sons because she has to participate in a mock trial that weekend? The only remotely imaginative element in Conviction is its opening flashback, which explains what happened to Rockwell in a series of free-flowing, not-strictly chronological moments. Other than that (and the acting), there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before, and likely done better.
Grade: C+

The Game Of Death
Director/Country/Time: Christophe Nick & Thomas Bornot
Documentary
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: How low will TV go?
Noel’s Take: I had a co-worker once who habitually told the most outrageous lies and then stood behind them for minutes on end, just so he could laugh and say, “Nah, I’m just kidding. Fooled you, though!” Except that he hadn’t fooled me really. I knew he was lying, and I was just playing along so I could get it over with. I always think about that when people cite The Milgram Experiment—that famous test of obedience in which people were ordered to keep administering electric shocks to an unseen victim, and in which over 60% of the subjects continued on even after the victim stopped screaming. Milgram often gets cited as an example of how susceptible we are to authority, but what rarely gets mentioned is that a number of the folks who went all the way in that experiment later said that they realized the whole scenario was a fake, but kept going because they wanted to see it through and get out of there. Something similar occurs in The Game Of Death, a French documentary about a fake game show designed along the same parameters as Milgram: there’s a dude in a box, pretending to be electro-shocked by an unsuspecting volunteer whenever he answers a question wrong. This time, over 80% of the participants follow the “game” through to the end, although an even larger number of them also say something to the effect of, “C’mon, it’s a TV show; I knew you weren’t really going to hurt anybody.” That documentarians Christophe Nick and Thomas Bornot consider this a further example of how easily people are controlled—as opposed to an example of how savvy they are—is just one of the ways that The Game Of Death is irritatingly presumptuous. Also annoying: the way the film spends more time with sociologists analyzing the reasons for the “contestant” behavior than it does showing the contestants’ actual explanations. The Game Of Death is shocking at times, and even thought-provoking. But it’s unlayered; the directors set out to prove a point and they do just that, without trying to push any further. Like, maybe they could’ve looked at why research assistants in Milgram-like scenarios are so inclined to keep ordering people to do something that’s against their moral code; or how documentarians sometimes disguise sensationalism as a comment on sensationalism.
Grade: C

Our Day Will Come
Director/Country/Time: Romain Gavras/France/88 min.
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Olivier Barthelemy
Program: Vanguard
Headline: There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us
Scott’s Take: Gavras, son of famed director Constantin Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing), made a splash earlier this year with his controversial video for M.I.A.’s “Born Free,” a violent nine-minute clip that featured a bunch of redheaded boys corralled by police and run through a gauntlet of landmines and gunfire. At the time, there was much speculation over what, if anything, the video was trying to say, with many assuming it was M.I.A. making some obscure political reference to Sri Lanka. Turns out the obsession-with-persecuted-“gingers” theme was pure Romain: His shockingly insipid debut feature, Our Day Will Come, follows a bullied redheaded teenager (Barthelemy) and an erratic redheaded guidance counselor (Cassel) as they flee a French village and amble towards Ireland, which a brochure posits as a paradise for their kind. It’s most likely intended as a metaphor for immigration, which would suit Cassel, who from his breakthrough movie (La Haine) has shown a preoccupation with France’s sharp ethnic divisions. And though Cassel seems to be having a good time, Our Day Will Come plays like an indie movie parody, with lot of inexplicably quirky behavior, pretentious detours, and a little unearned sentimentality for good measure. Gavras has an eye—the film’s blighted industrial landscape makes for a compelling backdrop—but if this is all he has to say, he might be better off sticking to music. At least there, pointlessness can be disguised as something more mysterious.

Grade: D


More Toronto International Film Festival