TIFF '10: Day 7

Meek’s Cutoff
Director/Country/Time: Kelly Reichardt/USA/104 min.
Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Chaos and destruction
Scott’s Take: Having just left this screening 20 minutes ago—I’m writing this mid-day—I’m trying very hard for hold back on the hyperbole for Reichardt’s brilliant Western, and where it might land in my best-of year/decade/all-time lists. Suffice to say, it represents a great leap forward from her very fine Wendy And Lucy and Old Joy while expanding beautifully on her themes of survival, man’s relationship with nature, and the terribly difficult choices people make when their options narrow. Mike D’Angelo has cleverly coined it “Gerry on the prairie,” which is a fine description of its deliberate pace, its arid landscapes, and the way it conveys the sheer ardor of traveling on foot to a water source that’s perpetually beyond the horizon. Unlike Gerry, however, Meek’s Cutoff isn’t a minimalist experiment, but advances a story full of tension and slow-burning suspense, as the fates of three families rests in the hands of two men of dubious intent. In 1845, these families have hired the grizzled beast of the title (played by Bruce Greenwood, all booming voice and bushy beard) to escort them through the Cascade Mountains via the Oregon Trail. As days become weeks without the progress they were promised, the travelers (Wendy And Lucy’s Michelle Williams most prominent among them) start to question whether their guide is either incompetent or evil. The stakes get even higher when they capture an Indian and decide to keep him alive—over the objections of some, including Greenwood—in the hope that he’ll lead them to water. Reichardt masterfully undercuts the urgency of their situation with the grim realities of it: Their water supply is dwindling, but getting over that next hill requires dragging three wagons’ worth of people and supplies over rough terrain, with zero margin for error. Meek’s Cutoff is excruciating in the best possible sense, adopting a pace that’s entirely appropriate to the endless expanse, but nonetheless suffused with suspicion and dread every step of the way. It also revels meaningfully in period detail, not just for authenticity’s sake, but as a way of conveying the physical hardships of prairie life. And oh, that ending.
Noel’s Take: We’ll have to chalk this one up to a sensibility split, Scott, because while I liked Meek’s Cutoff, I didn’t love it like you did. To me, it resembled a classic Anthony Mann western—like Bend Of The River or The Far Country—only rendered with the kind of arthouse austerity and ambiguity that I resist. I did see the purpose of it here; I get that we need to see how long it takes to fix a wagon axle in order to appreciate fully what it means when the travelers put an entire wagon at risk by lowering it down a hill. But to me there are other, more cinematic ways to indicate the passing of time than just holding the camera on people until they all walk slowly out of the frame. That’s just not to my taste, I admit. That said, I did dig the ending, and any scene in which the characters conversed around the campfire about their varying degrees of faith in the path they’d chosen. But I also felt like Reichardt was withholding some entertainment from her audience by keeping those scenes to a minimum. There’s a lot that’s impressive here, I’ll grant. But there’s a lot that’s impressive about Bend Of The River, too. If I find myself in the mood for this kind of story, I’ll take Mann.
Grades: Scott: A; Noel: B

13 Assassins
Director/Country/Time: Takashi Miike/Japan/126 min.
Cast: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya
Program: Masters
Headline: Not your grandfather’s samurai movie
Scott’s Take: Miike is primarily known as a prolific supplier of extreme Japanese horror films like Audition and Ichi The Killer, but he’s versatile, too, dabbling in Westerns (Sukiyaki Western Django), musicals (The Happiness Of The Katakuris), and avant-garde(ish) art movies (Big Bang Love, Juvenile A). But I wondered how might he handle the samurai picture, a genre (and an era) grounded in history both actual and cinematic, and featuring characters bound by code and tradition. The answer? By calling those codes and traditions into question at every opportunity. The other answer? Flaming rhinos! Adopting the stately form of the samurai movie to his own irreverent and outrageously entertaining ends, Miike patiently lays out a covert effort to cut down a sadistic young lord insolated by his political status. The 13 assassins of the title are assembled like a men-on-a-mission movie—call it The Dirty Baker’s Dozen—but that’s all prelude to an action-packed final hour where all hell breaks loose and the streets (and rooftops) flow with blood. The mayhem isn’t a surprise from a filmmaker of Miike’s reputation—though he handles it with more aplomb than usual—but what did surprise me about 13 Assassins was how far it goes in upending the classic samurai picture. In Miike’s mind, there’s nothing honorable about the thoughtless commitment to honor and code, especially if it means protecting dastardly men who don’t deserve that kind of loyalty. It’s a movie both punk and moral, and my favorite of his (that I’ve had access to, anyway) since Audition.
Grade: A-

Look, Stranger
Director/Country/Time: Arielle Javitch/USA/83 min.
Cast: Anamaria Marinca, Tom Burke
Program: Discovery
Headline: War, war, what is it good for?
Scott’s Take: Virtually dialogue-free for most of the way—the total amount would probably add up to about two pages of script—Look, Stranger seeks to convey one woman’s journey through a warzone as an almost purely visceral experience. The war goes unnamed, the context for it isn’t provided, and actions speak quite a bit louder than words. Anamaria Marinca, so brilliant in the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, scurries and scraps for survival like the eponymous heroine in Rosetta, dodging hostile soldiers and bargaining (through cash or by hauling bags as a “mule”) to get through the day and eventually make her way back home. Tom Burke plays the surly, erratic man who helps get her there. Despite a derivative style—and a little boy who appears and disappears for reasons we’ll regret finding out later—Look, Stranger sustains some interest in the first couple of reels, thanks to Marinca’s fine work and an overall feel that’s much more European than Amerindies tend to get. But all roads lead to a clunky monologue where Marinca finally finds a moment to express her feelings and they come tumbling out in a kind of strained poetry that belies the film’s previous commitment to hard realism. It’s better before question marks become periods.
Grade: C

Submarine
Director/Country/Time: Richard Ayoade/UK/94 min.
Cast: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: A Welsh Rushmore
Noel’s Take: One of the great ironies of adolescence is that during a time in their lives when people’s emotions are at their most intense, they’re surrounded by folks who regard any overt expression of feelings as an occasion for cruel mockery. That’s a fact of life that British comedian Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut Submarine understands well. Set in the early ‘80s in a small seaside town, Submarine (based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne) stars Craig Roberts as a smart, sensitive teenage kid who studies his peers, trying to figure out the best way to pass unnoticed through school while still getting what he wants. At the start of the movie, what he most wants is Yasmin Paige, an aloof, pretty girl whom he wins by demonstrating that he can be cruel to a fellow classmate. The two of them then spend their days smooching, teasing and pranking, but though Roberts often tries to impress Paige with what he knows and how he feels, she shuts him down with a smirk—until one day out of the blue, she finally confides in him. Meanwhile, Roberts is trying to figure out how to save his parents’ marriage, which is being threatened by Dad’s ennui and a creepy self-help guru who has the hots for Mom. Submarine is funny and stylish, shot in a way that gives the recent past an archaic glow, as though lit by candlelight and the setting sun. My one complaint about the movie—and it’s a pretty major one—is that it frequently ranges too far into indie-quirk, like a lot of similarly Wes Anderson-influenced films. The difference is that Ayoade also gets the painful awkwardness beneath Anderson’s stylization. And in a way, it’s appropriate to make a movie about immature emotions that uses its own poses to keep real feelings at bay.
Grade: B+

Tabloid
Director/Country/Time: Errol Morris/USA/87 min.
Documentary
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: Secrets of the Sex-In-Chains Girl revealed!
Noel’s Take: In a year filled with outstanding narrative documentaries, old master Errol Morris keeps pace with Tabloid, a film about a chatty, personable woman with multiple bizarre stories to tell. Her name is Joyce McKinney, and she’s best-known (for those who know her at all) for her involvement with a 1977 kidnapping/rape case that the British press dubbed “The Manacled Mormon.” Morris begins Tabloid by letting McKinney introduce herself and explain how she fell in love in Utah with a man whose mother (and church) didn’t want him to have anything to do with her. McKinney claims that she then flew to England, abducted her man, tied him to a bed and had sex with him repeatedly because she was trying to “deprogram” his Mormon brainwashing. The local police had a different take, and soon McKinney had been arrested and had become a tabloid sensation. The tale takes some even stranger turns from there, and Morris brings people with different angles to tell their piece of it—including reporters from competing British tabs, one of whom championed McKinney and one of whom trashed her—but he makes no real effort to investigate the real truth of what happened, because that’s not really the point of Tabloid. The film is more about how easy it is to skew a story for entertainment purposes, and thereby make celebrities of people who haven’t really done anything except be nutty. Case-in-point: Tabloid itself, which is as crazily entertaining as it is unpredictable.
Scott’s Take: Not much to add to Noel’s take, but I also found Tabloid a ripping yarn, full of stranger-than-fiction twists and turns that I didn’t anticipate. (His description above ain’t the half of it.) It’s like a more fleshed-out version of one of Morris’ First Person portraits, using different versions of McKinney’s life to animate his long-running theme about the elusive, subjective nature of the truth. McKinney is a madwoman, but Morris connects so deeply to her obsessions that the film’s tone never seems exploitative or mocking. Mostly, it’s just endlessly curious in the familiar Morris way: Curious about another in his career-long gallery of eccentrics, curious about British tabloid culture, and curious about how radically stories are distorted, by outlets looking for an angle and by individuals who reserve their greatest deceits for themselves. A nice change of pace for Morris after spending most of the last decade on political documentaries, and one hell of an entertaining way to close out the festival.
Grades: Scott/Noel: A-

Trigger
Director/Country/Time: Bruce McDonald/Canada/78 min.
Cast: Tracy Wright, Molly Parker, Callum Keith Rennie, Don McKellar, Sarah Polley
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Rock ‘n’ roll never forgets
Noel’s Take: The late Tracy Wright (in her final screen performance) and Molly Parker star in Trigger as the two main members of the defunct rock band of the same name, who broke up a decade ago under the influence of alcohol, drug abuse, and a mutual distrust. As the movie opens, the two are right back at each other’s throats at a dinner, intended as an attempt at a reconciliation before they appear together later that night at a benefit concert partly in their honor. The rest of the film plays as one long conversation over the course of about 12 hours, as the two old friends air old grievances, discuss the effects of their former lifestyles on their aging bodies, and try and recapture the spirit of what they shared together as kids growing up in the Toronto suburbs. I wish Daniel MacIvor’s screenplay were a little smarter and specific about the rock scene (the way director Bruce MacDonald’s punk-mockumentary classic Hard Core Logo was), and I wish Trigger’s dialogue didn’t descend so often into generic arguments and recovery-speak. But boy howdy are Wright and Parker ever good in this movie, especially as framed by McDonald against the twinkly lights of their hometown.
Grade: B