TIFF '11: Day Four

Damsels In Distress
Director/Country/Time: Whit Stillman/USA/97 min.
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The Rules Of Attraction
Noel’s Take: Good news: Long-absent indie writer-director Whit Stillman is back! Possibly less good news: He’s not really making Whit Stillman movies anymore. In his first film since 1998’s The Last Days Of Disco, Stillman is still showing a preoccupation with the manners of the young—in this case a group of well-dressed, sweet-smelling college girls who make it their mission to educate and elevate their slobby classmates. But where Metropolitan, Barcelona and Disco had an earnestness interlaced with mannered comedy, Damsels In Distress is outright loopy. Stillman positions his heroines as freaks, outsiders… and very possibly crazy. Because of that, even people partial to Stillman’s absurdly elevated language and deep concern with the trivial may find Damsels In Distress too much to take. As for me, even though I’m not sure I understand what Stillman was going for minute-to-minute, I was swept away by how original Damsels is, and how funny. It’s essentially an‘80s-style campus comedy (complete with cheesy faux-rock soundtrack), in which dopey fraternity boys and prissy girls clash with artsy types, activists and ruffians. The difference is that Stillman appears to be at least superficially on the side of the snobs. He paints the frat boys—who in this movie’s world are “Roman,” not Greek—as dim and helpless, in an overtly broad comic touch that doesn’t always work. And he paints their ladyfriends—led by Greta Gerwig—as staunch idealists, who helm a suicide prevention organization and try to lead their peers by setting good examples. Dig beneath the fast-paced chatter, bright colors and absurdist turns (there’s more than one dance number in the film) and you’ll find that this is still a movie about the way young people try to define themselves, and how they hide their petty hypocrisies behind convoluted modifications to their public identities. But this time, the method matches the meaning, as Stillman creates a thick-lined, screwball universe. This is less Jane Austen, more Little Lulu.
Grade: A-
Scott’s Take: Noel is right about the loopy tone: Damsels In Distress takes place on a campus so weirdly abstracted that I trouble understanding what Stillman was attempting to express. The common thread between it and Stillman’s other work are characters who long for a more orderly world and seem outwardly certain of themselves, even if the things they’re saying are often comically absurd (or perhaps outright crazy). Peel back the 15 layers of irony and I’m not convinced there’s much to Damsels In Distress, but funny is funny, and Stillman allows Gerwig’s daffy charm and blankly inflected line-readings to set the tone. Between the accumulation of droll one-liners and the bright, infectious song-and-dance numbers, the film overcomes its lumpy, episodic pace and a stiltedness that’s not wholly by design.
Grade: B


I Wish
Director/Country/Time: Hirokazu Kore-eda/Japan/128 min.
Cast: Koki Maeda, Ohshirô Maeda, Joe Odagiri
Program: Masters
Headline: No “wishing for more wishes” allowed
Noel’s Take: I Wish isn’t on the top tier of Hirozaku Kore-eda films; it’s not as imaginative as After Life, or as heartbreaking as Nobody Knows, or as keenly observed as Still Walking. It’s shallower, and cuter—a movie about kids that at times feels like it's more for kids. But I Wish is still amply Kore-eda-esque—full of life and heart. Ostensibly the story of two grade-school-aged brothers separated by their parents’ divorce, I Wish weaves in the story of those parents (one a shopgirl, one an indie-rocker), their grandparents (who are trying to come up with a new confection to sell when the bullet train begins stopping in their town) and their various friends. The title refers to the older brother’s fervent hope that a nearby volcano will erupt, forcing his family to reunite. To expedite this, he plans an excursion to a spot where two bullet trains pass each other at top speed, which the school rumor mill insists will generate such force that it’ll make wishes come true. The kids prep their trip and their wishes—one wants to be an actress, one a baseball player, et cetera—and Kore-eda follows them leisurely, at times structurelessly. But though they’re all fairly minor, the dozen little subplots and side trips of I Wish accumulate well, building to a touching climactic montage that reminds us of how we first decide what we really want in life, and how we spend the rest of our lives changing our minds.
Grade: B+


Killer Joe
Director/Country/Time: William Friedkin/USA/103 min.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: But what about Hazy Davy?
Noel’s Take: The last time director William Friedkin collaborated with playwright Tracey Letts, the result was Bug, a tense, insular and strange chamber-drama. Their new collaboration, Killer Joe, has its stagey stretches as well, as two characters sit in darkened rooms and talk at length. But there are more characters than in Bug, and more scenes, and more of a cinematic momentum. Matthew McConaughey plays the title character: a lawman willing to do hits on the side for money. He’s hired by low-level crook Emile Hirsch to assassinate his no-good mother, so that Hirsch and his dad Thomas Haden Church can collect the insurance money and pay off some debts to dangerous men. But they can’t pay in advance, so McConaughey takes collateral in the form of Hirsh’s dim, virginal sister Juno Temple, who’s the listed beneficiary of the potential victim’s insurance policy. As a fervent fan of Friedkin, I confess that I miss the director’s more action-oriented side, which isn’t really any more evident here than it was in Bug. Killer Joe does have its share of ass-kickings though, including a final scene so over-the-top repugnant that even I find it hard to defend. (And I tend not to be a moralist when it comes to such things.) The movie also has plenty of flavorful Letts dialogue, particularly in the scenes between McConaughey and Temple, who are terrific together as warped ideals of Texas manhood and womanhood. However nterested viewerswill have to have a high tolerance  for blackly comic hicksploitation, and be willing to sit through a scene in which a bloodied Gina Gershon is forced to fellate a KFC drumstick.
Grade: C+


The Loneliest Planet
Director/Country/Time: Julia Loktev/USA-Germany/113 min.
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, Bidzina Gujabidze
Program: Visions
Headline: A Hike Through Nature, Human And Otherwise
Scott’s Take: Writing about Julia Loktev’s stunning The Loneliest Planet is an exercise in abstraction: The film pivots on a single, instinctual gesture, but I wouldn’t dream of revealing anything about it. (Reviewing movies without spoiling them is frequently maddening, but this takes it to another level. Something happens. That’s all I can say.) What I can say about The Loneliest Planet is that it’s subtle, beautiful, and perfectly modulated, allowing feelings of uncertainty and dread to linger without rushing to easy resolutions. Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg are both superb as a young couple whose adventurous spirit has taken them to the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, where a mysterious guide (Bidzina Gujabidze) leads them on a backpacking tour. Loktev follows the trio as they trek through an ever-changing landscape, but her true sensitivity lies in how she gauges Bernal and Furstenberg’s relationship before and after THE THING THAT HAPPENS. A more overtly provocative director would have tried another tack—I know exactly how Bruno Dumont might have handled it, for example—but Loktev’s discipline here is remarkable. And that’s all I can say about the film for now: Go see it and we’ll talk. (It plays the New York Film Festival, but doesn’t yet have a distributor.)
Grade: A

Shame
Director/Country/Time: Steve McQueen/UK/99 min.
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Impressions of addiction
Noel’s Take: On one level, Shame is a companion piece to Steve McQueen’s debut feature Hunger, in that it too is a moody, textured piece, starring Michael Fassbender as a man pushing himself to his physical and emotional limits. This time out, Fassbender plays a high-powered businessman struggling with sex addiction. McQueen follows Fassbender as he watches porn, picks up strangers in bars, calls on prostitutes, and cruises the city. Just as Hunger was frequently about the spiritual space of an Irish jail cell, so Shame is about the New York City of McQueen’s dreams, with skyscrapers and jazz and drugs and disco and restaurants and offices and Madison Square Garden. But it’s also specifically about addiction, and on that second level, it at times resembles one of those old-fashioned movies about alcoholism, like Days Of Wine And Roses. Granted, Shame is too raw to be corny, but the arc of misbehavior (accompanied by screw-ups at work, lashing out at family, et cetera) feels very familiar. What elevates the material is McQueen’s impressionistic approach to depicting Fassbender’s life of inescapable need. Also, the lead’s nothing-held-back performance is matched by Carey Mulligan, playing the bruised sister who refuses to be kept at arms length. I’m a little dubious of a late-film explanation (merely hinted at, but strongly) for Fassbender’s behavior, but I have to admit that it recodes a lot of the movie's earlier scenes, including a Mulligan cabaret performance of “New York, New York” that on reflection plays like the saddest origin story ever told.
Grade: B+


Twixt
Director/Country/Time: Francis Ford Coppola/USA/90 min.
Cast: Val Kilmer, Bruce Dern, Elle Fanning, Ben Chaplin
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Dementia 2011
Noel’s Take: Francis Ford Coppola’s latest venture into indie-land also extends his late-career journey into his own head, and though Twixt is more overtly entertaining than Youth Without Youth or Tetro, it’s still not quite sharp enough to be satisfying. Val Kilmer stars as a horror writer who stops off in a creepy small town on a book tour, and discovers a murder-mystery that involves Edgar Allen Poe, a creepy preacher, a hotel full of dead girls, a grizzled sheriff, and a group of teenagers heavily into the occult. Kilmer sticks around, looking for inspiration for a book (and for the hefty advance such an idea could bring him). But as he works into the night, getting increasingly hammered, he has strange visions that relate both to the case and to a tragic incident from his past. Meanwhile, Coppola revisits his days making gothic horror and B-movies. (Twixt is in 3D, but only for two scenes, for which the audience is cued with a William Castle-like “put on your glasses now” effect.) And he riffs too on the difficulties of the creative process, by forcing himself to look back at the accidental death of his son a couple of decades ago. On the whole, the film is a curious trip down memory lane, anchored by a weird performance by a chubby Kilmer. It’s never dull—and it’s occasionally funny—but as with the films that preceded it, Twixt is strangely lacking in command. It’s Coppola trying things out (a split-screen here, a Lynchian interlude there), working from his gut but not quite enough from his head.
Grade: B-
Scott’s Take: Coppola’s latest doodle has bowed to a vitriolic reaction in some corners, but the anger seems misdirected. Of a piece with Youth Without Youth and Tetro, Twist isn’t a horror film so much as an experimental essay with allusions to literature, genre movies from Roger Corman to William Castle to Nosferatu, and to his own career and personal history. As such, it may be for auteurists only, but I’m enjoying this stage of Coppola’s creative life, when he’s fiddling with new technology and letting wild ideas flourish without any compulsion to reign it in. Twixt may not be satisfying as a ghost story or an old-fashioned mystery, but Coppola has tongue firmly planted in cheek—a montage where Kilmer spends most of the night working over the hackneyed first line of his new novel is particularly funny—and his radical use of color and superimposition suggest a home-movie reworking of his Dracula imagery. Taken in the right spirit—as a textured lark by a filmmaker still trying to reinvent himself—Twixt has its pleasures.
Grade: B


The Woman In The Fifth
Director/Country/Time: Pawel Pawlikowski/France-Poland-United Kingdom/83 min.
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The Life Of The Mind
Scott’s Take: Pawel Pawlikowski’s two previous features, the bleak British realist drama Last Resort and the delicately wrought My Summer Of Love, have nothing in common beyond their general excellence, and The Woman In The Fifth, his first misfire, doesn’t offer any further clues about his sensibility. Compelling mainly for exploring the seedier areas of Paris—the program description aptly likens it to an Eastern European metropolis—the film stars Ethan Hawke as an American novelist who moves to the city in an effort to gain access to his young daughter. When his startled ex-wife calls the cops on him, Hawke retreats to a bus, gets all of his stuff stolen from him, and winds up lodging in a crummy hotel above a bar/restaurant run by a dangerous proprietor. He embarks on two relationships: One with a Polish waitress (Joanna Kulig), the other with an arch woman (Kristin Scott Thomas) he meets at a literary soiree. Hawke’s occupation is the first indication that The Women In The Fifth will involve a literary conceit, and like most literary conceits, it has trouble gaining much traction on the screen. Pawlikowski does a fine enough job laying the groundwork for the twists to come, but when they arrive, they merely reinforce the artificiality of most of the relationships. An eye-roller.
Grade: C