TIFF '10: Day 6

John Carpenter’s The Ward
Director/Country/Time: John Carpenter/USA/88 min.
Cast: Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Jared Harris, Lyndsy Fonseca
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: It’s a g-g-g-ghost!
Noel’s Take: I can’t undersell what a huge thrill it is to see the words “John Carpenter’s The Ward” come up over the opening credits of his first movie in almost a decade, rendered in his signature font. Too bad the rest of the movie’s so damned impersonal. Amber Heard stars as an amnesiac who gets picked up outside of a farmhouse she set ablaze, and taken to a mental institution where she bucks the rules, stirs up her fellow inmates, and tries to get to the bottom of some mysterious disappearances taking place on her ward. The truth of what’s happening to Heard is, I admit, pretty cool (if derivative of at least three other movies I can think of). But getting there requires 90 minutes of women bickering shrilly with each other, when they’re not being chased down corridors by a lurching, ghoulish figure. Nothing about The Ward has any special snap or stamp. The dialogue’s never witty; the characters are indistinct; the movie’s set in 1966 for no relevant reason; and the scares are strictly of the “thing jumps loudly out of the shadows” variety. I’ve seen many more disturbing and/or frightening movies at this festival so far—and lot of those weren’t even horror films. The main thing The Ward has going for it is an interesting take on conformity by screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who seem to be saying that if you acknowledge the monsters around you, people will think you’re crazy, but if you pretend they’re not there, they’ll fucking kill your ass.
Grade: C-

Kaboom
Director/Country/Time: Gregg Araki/USA/86 min.
Cast: Thomas Dekker, Haley Bennett, Juno Temple
Program: Vanguard
Headline: Just another polyamorous, supernatural college sex comedy/mystery
Noel’s Take: To my mind, Gregg Araki’s best film to date is Mysterious Skin, an aching melodrama that turns the lingering pains of youth into paranormal puzzles that the hero keeps trying to solve. Araki’s Kaboom does much the same, albeit with an entirely different tone and style. Kaboom is pure fantasy in every sense of the word: a riff on sexy, sassy teen movies and conspiracy movies that at times seems to exist only so Araki can get his beautiful young cast to strip off their clothes and pair off in every conceivable combination (just the way he used to do in his early films). Thomas Dekker stars as a mostly gay college freshman who has a crush on his surfer boy roommate, and a dreamlife full of ominous omens and warnings. As he approaches his 19th birthday, Dekker takes a few breaks from his studies—and his string of flings with various men and women—to look into the disappearance of a junkie he witnessed getting abducted and murdered by a gang of people in animal masks. Kaboom sports super-cool New Wave music and fashions, and dialogue that’s a degree or two too snappy, almost like a parody of other movies like this. (Not that there are any movies exactlylike this.) Mostly though, it’s an unhinged ride through the sensual pleasures of movies: naked bodies, booming music, bright colors, crazy twists and zippy action sequences. It’s both rich in mythology and sketchy in presentation, like a whole season of some freaky TV show compressed into 86 wonderful minutes.
Grade: B+

Leap Year
Director/Country/Time: Michael Rowe/Mexico/92 min.
Cast: Mónica del Carmen, Gustavo Sánchez Parra, Marco Zapata
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Bad fog of loneliness
Noel’s Take: Aside from an opening scene in a supermarket, nearly all of Leap Year takes place in one small Mexico City apartment that audiences will get to know intimately by the end of the film. We know the desk where Mónica del Carmen works as a freelance business journalist; the kitchen where she makes sad little instant dinners for herself; the window where she watches her neighbors and masturbates; the bathroom where she primps to go out and pick up men; the bedroom where she sleeps with those men and, if they’re game, lets them beat her up a little; and the calendar on her living room wall where she has the date February 29th marked in red. The reason for that marking is the mystery that Leap Year uses to tantalize the viewer, but it’s a pretty remarkable movie even without that plot-driver. Del Carmen conveys the unselfconsciousness of a woman alone brilliantly, while first-time feature director Michael Rowe (who won the Camera D’Or at Cannes for this film) fills the screen with wonderful little details about who del Carmen is. (Example: del Carmen’s pajamas, covered in cartoon sheep, a cutesy touch that no one’s around to appreciate.) I found some of Rowe’s notes of miserablism a bit overdone—especially when del Carmen’s self-loathing turns her rough sex sessions even rougher—but for the most part this is an absorbing, touching movie about a woman nursing wounds so deep that she can barely move.
Grade: B+

Oki’s Movie
Director/Country/Time: Hong Sang-soo/South Korea/80 min.
Cast: Lee Sun-kyun, Moon Sung-keun, Jung Yumi
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Meet the new Hong…
Scott’s Take: What if I were to tell you that the new Hong Sang-soo movie was about a filmmaker who drinks too much and has problems with women? And what if I were to tell you that it’s done via a series of structurally unconventional pieces? If you don’t know who Hong Sang-soo is, you may or may not be intrigued, but if you’re familiar, you will be unsurprised to learn that he’s doing another (very minor) variation on what he always does. But not unlike Gallo, Hong keeps paring down his style, which may be a budgetary necessity than an aesthetic choice; past films like Turning Gate and A Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors are luxuriant compared to the cruddy video of his new Oki’s Movie. Then again, Oki’s Movie delves into the world of academia and student filmmaking, so the lo-fi images seem apropos. Divided into four chapters, the film concerns a love triangle between a fetching film production student (Jung Yumi) and two men, one a struggling young director (Lee), the other an older professor (Moon). Just as Hong’s plots and structural feints are as reliable as a Brett Favre fake retirement, so too is the wit and playfulness with which he goes about his business. Two standout scenes—a tense Q&A where an audience member comes with a very personal question and a funny philosophical discussion in a snowed-in classroom—redeem a movie that mostly finds Hong spinning his wheels unproductively.
Grade: B-

Promises Written In Water
Director/Country/Time: Vincent Gallo/USA/75 min.
Cast: Vincent Gallo, Delfine Balfort
Program: Visions
Headline: The Browner Bunny
Scott’s Take: My friend Jim Ridley, a great critic for the Nashville Scene and other publications, once said of Brian De Palma: “I wish [he] weren’t so determined to turn fans into apologists.” The same could be said of increasingly lonely Vincent Gallo fans like myself, who have fought bruising battles over perceived indulgences of Buffalo ’66 and The Brown Bunny, and plugged our noses through embarrassing press blow-ups and million-dollar sperm offers. Bowing to toxic notices in this year’s Venice competition, Gallo’s latest film, Promises Written In Water, isn’t making it any easier, stripping still more varnish from the minimalism of The Brown Bunny, and giving the heave-ho to any semblance of a narrative. Though it didn’t do much for me, premiering the film to a general festival audience, even one sympathetic to what Gallo was doing with The Brown Bunny, is like throwing it to the wolves. Promises Written In Water belongs more to the avant-garde tradition than the narrative one, and TIFF has done right in putting in its Visions program, which covers more experimental work. I’m unschooled in Andy Warhol movies like Chelsea Girl, but the avant-garde experts in my circle (who by and large liked the film, incidentally) tell me that the film is working in that tradition. Gallo makes hash of story that casts him as an apprentice funeral director—would have loved to have seen that interview—and Balfort as the lovely, terminally ill woman with whom he kinda/sorta has a relationship. Shooting in gorgeous, low-contrast 16mm B&W, Gallo conducts various experiments in form, none better than a dinner scene in which he reads the same lines in different ways, circling back and repeating information we’ve already heard, with a few minor (and very funny) alterations. The majority of fragments have the feel of a sophisticated but derivative thesis project. Promises Written In Water makes me worry that Gallo’s noodling is less a sign of liberation than creative exhaustion.
Grade: C

Rabbit Hole
Director/Country/Time: John Cameron Mitchell/USA/92 min.
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Miles Teller
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: You’re gonna learn about loss
Scott’s Take: This morning’s screening of Rabbit Hole made me feel like the victim of some diabolical plot: Take a critic who’s operating on no sleep and hasn’t seen his two-year-old in a week, and plop him in front of a drama about parents coping with the loss of a child. In other words, I was utterly powerless to keep Rabbit Hole from doing a number on me. Yet my inner cold-blooded rationalist tells me that most of the choke-up moments were earned on the strength of across-the-board superb performances and a committed seriousness about grief and loss that largely avoids 21 Grams-type garment-rending. Shifting gears from the rowdier likes of Hedwig And The Angry Inch and Shortbus, Mitchell adapts David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play into a conservatively stylized drama that does just enough to cover up the staginess. The action takes place eight months after Kidman and Eckhart have lost their son in a car accident, though the screenplay very methodically sketches in the details over time, so each piece of information has its own subtle weight. (It’s the anti-Casino Jack in that respect.) The smaller moments pierce the most, like the now-bereft parents instinctively looking to the backseat after a sudden stop. Rabbit Hole is consistently wise about the wreckage a child’s death can leave in a marriage; husband and wife grieve in different ways, and their partnership can’t easily coalesce around a terrible new reality. Too bad about that final shot, though.
Grade: B+

The Sleeping Beauty
Director/Country/Time: Catherine Breillat/France/82 min.
Cast: Carla Besainou, Julia Artamonov, Kérian Mayan, David Chausse
Program: Masters
Headline: She felt a little prick
Noel’s Take: Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard is one of my favorite movies of 2010, so I had high hopes for her latest fairy tale re-do, The Sleeping Beauty (which also riffs on The Snow Queen, and other folklore). But while I found a lot to like here, I missed the directness of Bluebeard, which contrasts a simple, naturalistic retelling of Charles Perrault’s original tale with a framing device that speaks to the cruelty of stories. The Sleeping Beauty is much looser, starting with the basics of Perrault’s familiar Sleeping Beauty and then heading off on an odd tangent that turns the movie into a meditation on puberty, irrational romantic crushes, and the loss of virginity. I get what Breillat is trying to do here in the abstract—and the movie is never less than gorgeous to look at—but I wish the story hung together better. Instead Breillat follows her heroine from age 6 to age 16 as she travels the globe, meeting colorful princes and princes and having allusive conversations about growing up. The results are more soft and impressionistic than lingering.
Grade: B

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Director/Country/Time: Apitchatpong Weerasethakul/Thailand/114 min.
Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee
Program: Masters
Headline: The magical mystery tour is hoping to take you away
Scott’s Take: To the surprise of many, Uncle Boonmee—the latest enchantment from Thailand’s Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, Syndromes And A Century)—took the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with jury president Tim Burton likening it to “a beautiful strange dream.” But after seeing it today, the award surprises me less than I anticipated. Yes, it’s another one of Weerasethakul’s beguiling (and occasionally baffling) experimental narratives, but Uncle Boonmee is probably his most accessible work to date, a moving and gently reassuring tale that softens the boundaries between man and nature, life and the afterlife. (Consider this the likely “Possible Gateway” in any future Gateways To Geekery column on the director.) The relatively straightforward story follows a man suffering from acute kidney failure who spends his final days with close family and friends in the countryside. As a kind of bridge into the afterlife, he encounters the friendly ghost of his long-dead wife and a long-lost son who appears in non-human, hirsute form. I won’t spoil anything that happens on his journey from there, except to say that Weerasethakul quietly obliterates the gulf separating the material world from the spiritual one. As usual, I can’t explain remotely explain the significance of everything that happens in Uncle Boonmee—the final 15 minutes are particularly curious—but the film’s abstractions are not as intimidating as they sound, so long as you’ll willing to roll with it. He’s a master of sensual experience—real movie magic—and his new film rewards your faith and intuition.
Grade: A

You Are Here
Director/Country/Time: Daniel Cockburn/Canada/78 min.
Cast: Tracy Wright, R.D. Reid, Anand Rajaram, Nadia Litz
Program: Canada First
Headline: We are creatures of habit, except when we’re not
Noel’s Take: Beginning with a thought experiment about how we actually see what’s around us, You Are Here proceeds to toy with its audience by replicating the experiment in different contexts, but always with the same core elements: patterns of movement and unexpected distractions. From waves crashing on a lecture hall video-screen, to a group of different people living through exactly the same day, to an air-traffic-controller-like office that tracks human movement, to a room where a man tries to translate Chinese without understanding it—and so on—You Are Here keeps contemplating consciousness, wondering whether we’re defined by the part of ourselves that repeats actions over and over, or the part that would drop everything if a moving red dot suddenly appeared in front of our eyes. (And in following the dot, are we not also stuck in a mechanical loop, not really exhibiting free will?) You Are Here is a non-narrative film that plays like a string of short dreams—interspersed with heavy analysis of those dreams— but while it’s often highbrow, it’s never dry. Fans of Schizopolis and Waking Life in particular should appreciate what director Daniel Cockburn is up to here, mixing media and styles and scenarios, illustrating his ideas in ways that—like those damned red dots—keeps the audience on its toes by giving us something to follow.
Grade: B

Tomorrow: TIFF ends for our correspondents with Takashi Miike, Errol Morris, and Kelly Reichardt.