TIFF '11: Day Five 

Albert Nobbs
Director/Country/Time: Rodrigo Garcia/Ireland/114 min.
Cast: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Brendan Gleeson, Janet McTeer
Program: Gala
Headline: Close, but no cigar
Noel’s Take: I’ll say this for Albert Nobbs: It’s not your everyday “life lived in service” drama. Between Downton Abbey and the revival of Upstairs Downstairs, the market has pretty well been cornered on stories about men and women who spend their lives feeding and dressing the rich. But unlike Albert Nobbs, none of those TV shows features a character who’s a woman passing as a man. Albert Nobbs stars Glenn Close (who also co-wrote and co-produced) as a woman who disguises herself as a waiter at an upscale Irish hotel in the late 19th century. Over the course of the film she meets another woman in a similar situation (a housepainter played by Janet McTeer), she courts a flighty maid (played by Mia Wasikowska), and she hides away money she intends to use to buy a little shop. The premise here is unique, and prompts some striking scenes of Close and McTeer bonding over their abandoned womanhood, and Close struggling to hide any sign of illness or weakness, lest she be outed. The problem with Albert Nobbs though is that it’s hard to believe that the people around the heroine haven’t figured her out yet. Even with prosthetics, Close isn’t all that convincing as a man. Nor is McTeer for that matter, but at least her character has a personality that helps her pass, along with a whole lifestyle (which includes a wife). Close’s character on the other hand is a nearly complete blank, who dreams of being like McTeer, by settling down with Wasikowska. Does she love Wasikowska? Not really. Does she need Wasikowska in order to open the shop? Probably not. So why waste her time pursuing her? Albert Nobbs never satisfactorily explains that, which means that while Close’s aspirations toward normality are touching, they’re also frustratingly abstract.
Grade: C

ALPS
Director/Country/Time: Yorgos Lanthimos/Greece/93 min.
Cast: Aggeliki Papoulia, Aris Servetalis, Ariane Labed
Program: Visions
Headline: Good Grief
Scott’s Take: Two years ago, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth—a shocking, darkly funny, and completely original isolationist allegory—was my favorite film of the festival, and held on to be my #1 movie when it was released in 2010. Needless to say, his follow-up, ALPS, was among my most anticipated titles of the festival, and now it’s the biggest letdown. In many ways, it’s the mirror image of Dogtooth: Where the earlier film concerned young characters trying to break out of proscribed roles, ALPS is about a young woman (Aggeliki Papoulia) who’s hanging onto false identities, because her real one gives her no satisfaction. Papoulia plays a member of an underground organization that helps mourners get over their loss by standing in for their dearly departed. The idea is that they can ease the transition, though even as an abstract conceit on Lanthimos’ part, it isn’t easy to fathom how such a service would work. As with the grown children in Dogtooth, this life of mindless conformity is shattered by more complicated impulses to be independent, but Lanthimos doesn’t give ALPS the same internal logic or creative panache. His intelligence and ambition are still very much in evidence—and a few scenes, like those involving rhythmic gymnastics and its implements, are sharp—but in every way, ALPS feels like a pale shadow of its predecessor.
Grade: B-

Killer Joe
Noel’s Take: See Day Four
Scott’s Take: Playwright Tracey Letts and director William Friedkin seem both a natural pair and way the hell too much together: Letts’ work is overheated enough without Friedkin turning up the gas. As with Bug, Killer Joe pitches to the rafters, amping up a hicksploitation thriller with unnecessary jolts of savage violence and abuse. (If you’re having trouble resisting Colonel Sanders’ siren song, this movie will cure you of that. I’ll never be able to walk into a KFC—or “K Fried C,” as the characters calls it—without thinking of what Gina Gershon does to that drumstick.) But for as much as Killer Joe leans on dumb redneck behavior for comedy and plot twists, it’s often effective on both fronts, recalling the colorful vernacular of Raising Arizona while turning a simple hit job into a complicated web of family betrayals. This is the type of role I’ve been waiting for McConaughey to play: There’s been a predatory edge to his laconic Texas charm since Dazed & Confused, and Killer Joe brings that beast out into the open by infusing his natural confidence with electrifying menace. Lett’s trailer-trash dialogue gets a good airing from the rest of the cast, too, especially Thomas Haden Church as perhaps the dimmest of dim bulbs, sounding a little like a slowed-down, live-action version of Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. Too bad Friedkin makes you pay such a steep price for a good time.
Grade: B

Life Without Principle
Director/Country/Time: Johnnie To/Hong Kong/107 min.
Cast: Lau Ching Wan, Richie Jen, Denise Ho
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: They sure do take a bite, don’t they?
Noel’s Take: One of the things I enjoy most about the films of Hong Kong director Johnnie To is that he never makes the same kind of movie twice in a row. The last film I saw by him was Vengeance, an arty homage to French crime pictures, and now here’s Life Without Principle, To’s take on the “everything’s connected” genre, in which a cop, a gangster and a banker are all affected by the current financial crisis. The film hinges on a crime that takes place on the day that the Greek default crashes the market, and the plot circles back repeatedly to catch up with all three of its main characters in the weeks leading up to (and the day of) the meltdown. There’s scarcely a minute of Life Without Principle that isn’t obvious, with To directly comparing investing to gambling, and chastising the banks for making money while everyone else is sinking. But the movie is relentless and exciting, and expansive in its critique of the various ways institutions screw the individual. The banks take their fees; the mob bosses take their cuts; and in one sequence we see how a dumb-but-loyal crook busts his ass to raise money for a colleague’s bail, only to have the cops immediately re-arrest the guy, forcing the crook to start over. At one point, a fabulously rich loan shark consoles the banker, saying, “If money can solve it, it’s not a problem.” But those are far from reassuring words in Life Without Principle—not when that loan shark is robbed and killed less than ten minutes later.
Grade: B

Play
Director/Country/Time: Ruben Östlund/Sweden/110 min.
Cast: Anas Abdirahman, Sebastian Blyckert, Yannick Diakite
Program: Visions
Headline: People of color can be scary
Noel’s Take: What’s the line between a provocative, no-holds-barred drama about race relations and a straight-up racist film? Ruben Östlund’s Play—reportedly based on a true story—follows a gang of black teens and pre-teens as they hassle a group of white and Asian kids at the mall, and then pressure them into taking a train to the middle of nowhere and relinquishing everything of value. Play is shot in long static takes—often filmed from a distance—and is effectively unnerving as its exploration of the dynamics of social power play out, in extended scenes where the non-black children succumb to intimidation and mockery. But what's the point of all this? It’s bold, no doubt, and it’ll certainly get the viewer thinking about his or her own presumptions about race. But the deck here is way too stacked. Östlund and his superb young cast achieve an unforced naturalism, but the scenes follow more or less the same direction time after time, with the blacks bullying the non-blacks and the latter going along, even though there’s rarely any immediate threat. Is this meant to be a critique of political correctness run amok—as would seem to be implied by the periodic interludes involving a train conductor too wary of offending passengers to remove an obstacle in front of a door—or is Östlund just trying to push buttons? And in either case, wouldn’t it be more effective if there was some range to the way the characters behaved, beyond just conforming to the roles of antagonist and antagonized?
Grade: C+

Shame
Noel’s Take: See Day Four.
Scott’s Take: I’m more or less in lockstep with Noel over McQueen’s follow-up to his auspicious debut feature Hunger: As a chronicle of sex addiction, and the underlying traumas that instigate it, Shame isn’t terribly incisive or original. But that’s mostly forgiven by the filmmaking and the performance, which have the effect of revivifying and validating the moribund clichés of addiction dramas past. (When you’re managed to make being Michael Fassbender and bedding beautiful women nonstop seem like a waking nightmare, you’ve accomplished something.) Though McQueen is a showy director, those bravura long takes of his don’t call undue attention to themselves; their effect is a form of heightened attentiveness, allowing scenes to built in intensity without the relief of a cut. An extended close-up of Mulligan crooning a mesmerizingly sad rendition of “New York, New York” may be the centerpiece shot, but I was equally wowed by a pair of scenes where Fassbender dates a co-worker and slowly loses confidence at the prospect of intimacy. McQueen only needs a few shots, including an exquisitely choreographed take at a restaurant, but what comes through is not the lookie-me direction but a prevailing sense of Fassbender’s panic, distractedness, and intense self-loathing, all revealed through the camera’s unblinking eye. As a sideline, it’s also fascinating, as Noel suggested, to see how McQueen, a Brit, views New York City, which here has the high-gloss and internal/external loneliness of American Psycho.
Grade: B+

You’re Next
Director/Country/Time: Adam Wingard/USA/96 min.
Cast: Sharni Vinson, Joe Swanberg, A.J. Bowen , Nicholas Tucci, Barbara Crampton
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Home invaders, animal masks… you know the drill
Noel’s Take: By my count, Adam Wingard’s You’re Next is roughly the fifth or sixth home-invasion horror movie to be produced in the past half-decade, and I can’t say that it does enough different with the genre to move to the front of the pack. Sharni Vinson plays a resourceful Australian gal who joins her boyfriend on a trip to his parents’ country house, where his whole family is gathering for the folks’ anniversary. Almost as soon as everyone arrives, they’re under assault from blade-and-bow-wielding militia-men in creepy animal masks—which is good for us in the audience, because in the 20 minutes of movie before the massacrin’ starts, You’re Next is bogged down by generic family squabbling. (It’s almost as though Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett want us to root for the killers.) Once the action really ramps up, Wingard keeps the proceedings good and gruesome, with a tightly shot, handheld style designed to make the viewer feel confined and disoriented. But isn’t that the minimum that should be expected for a movie like this? Wingard and Barrett do pull out a couple of halfway decent twists down the stretch, but the effect of one of those is to turn the bad guys from faceless killing machines to just… bad guys, which reduces the terror level a few degrees. After the film was over, I spoke with several people who thought You’re Next was genuinely clever and exciting, so it’s possible I’m being too nitpicky here. Or, conversely, it’s possible they haven’t seen all the other recent movies in this increasingly crowded subgenre.
Grade: C

Your Sister’s Sister
Director/Country/Time: Lynn Shelton/USA/90 min.
Cast: Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass, Mike Birbiglia
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: The post-Humpday blues
Noel’s Take: Lynn Shelton’s follow-up to her hit indie comedy Humpday doesn’t have the strong hook of its predecessor. Humpday looked at young marriage, competitive male friendships and hipster self-identity through the prism of a story about two old friends daring each other to make a gay sex tape. Your Sister’s Sister is much wispier. Mark Duplass plays a sad sack whose friendship with his late brother’s ex-girlfriend Emily Blunt is threatened when he gets drunk and sleeps with Blunt’s sister Rosemarie DeWitt. There are further complications: DeWitt is a lesbian who just got out a long-term relationship; Duplass and Blunt have long-unacted-upon feelings for each other; and all three of them are stuck together in a house in the woods, on a remote Washington island. The location of Your Sister’s Sister is lovely, and the performances are top-notch, captured by Shelton in the same casually honest way that made Humpday such a delight. But the new movie isn’t as funny, perhaps because the situation is less unusual. Plus, Shelton imposes a third act plot-twist that feels like an afterthought. Your Sister’s Sister is enjoyable enough, thanks to its tone and its stars. But the characters seem a little old to be having “Do you like me? Check yes or no” kinds of relationships, and though Shelton and her cast excel at the in-the-moment material, they fail to flesh out the background of the characters enough to justify their immaturity.
Grade: B-

Tomorrow: Kill List! Moneyball! Intruders! Livid!