TIFF '11: Day One 

The Ides Of March 
Director/Country/Time: George Clooney/USA/98 min.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood
Program: Gala
Headline: Newsflash… Politics is a dirty business
Noel’s Take: The Ides Of March isn’t quite The Candidate; more like The Campaign Manager. Director-star George Clooney’s adaptation of Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North features Ryan Gosling as an idealistic political consultant who believes he’s found a real “change candidate” (played by Clooney), but soon discovers that even doing what’s right in politics requires so much compromise that it’s impossible to stay ethically pure. Clooney has assembled a terrific cast here (including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gosling's mentor, Paul Giamatti as the manager of a rival campaign, Marisa Tomei as a pesky reporter, and Evan Rachel Wood as a sexy intern with a power fetish and a political pedigree of her own); and The Ides Of March goes down easily, with a sophisticated bustle and a strong third act twist to test the hero’s mettle. But it all feels a bit inconsequential—perhaps by design. This is a political drama that’s not about big issues (though Clooney's character gives a lot of stump speeches that seem designed to paint him as a Democrat’s dream candidate) but is instead about matters of trust, fidelity, and the perniciousness of rumor. And though that’s probably a lot closer to what real politics is like, as drama it’s pretty slight. Had The Ides Of March been more like the work David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin—two writers capable of turning the language of powerful men into a weird, catchy music—then the movie might’ve had some real pop. As it is, it’s slick and respectable, and delivering old news.
Grade: B-

Elena
Director/Country/Time: Andrey Zvyagintsev/Russia/109 min.
Cast: Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Elena Lyadova
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got The Will?
Scott’s Take: The eponymous character in Elena operates in an agonizing middle ground between the upper and lower classes, and between equal partner and live-in maid. Played by Nadezhda Markina in a performance suggests a woman both emotionally vulnerable and tough as a pack mule, she’s the second wife to a wealthy, paternalistic man (Andrey Smirnov), but they don’t share a bed and her devotion to him looks a lot like subservience. Meanwhile, she travels a great distance regularly to see her fuck-up son and his family, which includes a fuck-up teenage grandson who needs money to buy his way out of the army. When Elena’s husband has a heart attack, she encourages him to patch up his relationship with his estranged, manipulative daughter (Elena Lyadova), but the reunion goes so well that he decides to give her all his money. Andrey Zvyagintsev brought his auspicious debut The Return to the festival in ‘04—his follow-up, 2007’s The Banishment, was less kindly received—and he displays exceptional command over this brittle drama. His widescreen compositions are elegant and crisp, and through Elena’s torn allegiances, he digs deep into matters of family and inheritance and how much we owe to the people we love. Much like The Return, Elena plays out straightforwardly until taking a couple of sharp, surprising turns at the very end. The audience was baffled—the first question at the public screening I attended was basically, “WTF?!”—but the ambiguous note felt right.
Grade: B+

From Up On Poppy Hill
Director/Country/Time: Goro Miyazaki/Japan/91 min.
Animated
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: The son of an anime legend begins to live up to his legacy
Noel’s Take: With From Up On Poppy Hill, Goro Miyazaki makes a Ghibli film more in the tradition of Only Yesterday and Whisper Of The Heart than his fantasy-minded debut Tales Of Earthsea. Set at a seaside high school in 1963, From Up On Poppy Hill follows an earnest teenage girl named Umi as she develops a crush on a headstrong classmate, Shun, who’s fighting to save the clubhouse he loves (and that’s been a part of the school for decades). Adapting a graphic novel by Tetsuro Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, Miyazaki focuses on the ramifications of a country in transition from the ancient to the modern. Miyazaki evokes the charm of creaky old wooden floors and shows his hero and heroine standing up for longstanding cultural traditions in the face of a society eager to show a new face to the world for the 1964 Olympics. It’s all very lovely and sweet, and while this story would be just as engaging in live action, Miyazaki's animation clears away the extraneous detail, recreating the world of 50 years ago with the emotional richness of a family snapshot.
Grade: B+

Le Havre
Director/Country/Time: Aki Kaurismäki/France/93 min.
Cast: André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin
Program: Masters
Headline: The Port Of Being Earnest
Scott’s Take: With some exceptions—most notably, 1990’s The Match Factory Girl, an utterly chilling, Medea-like story of revenge (and not coincidentally my favorite of his by far)—Aki Kaurismäki has been making the same movie for three decades plus. (Lovable underclass characters, eclectic soundtrack, mild political overtones, crazy hair, etc.) When it premiered at Cannes, Le Havre won him more praise than anything of his since The Man Without A Past, but to my mind this is middle-of-the-road, feeding the hot-button topic of illegal immigration through the Kaurismäki-o-matic. The wisp of a plot involves a shoeshine man (André Wilms) in a French port city in Normandy who harbors an African boy illegally until he can secure him passage to England, where his mother awaits. Kaurismäki turns the portside setting into an enchanting place, humble in appearance but big in spirit, with the proprietors of the local bar, bakery, and fruit stand warmly supporting a common cause. He shows a less delicate touch in handling the politics of immigration, reducing the African boy to a mere totem among his usual cast of quirky eccentrics. Minor pleasures abound, but Kauismäki’s vision isn’t deep enough to survive so many variations.
Grade: B-

The Last Gladiators
Director/Country/Time: Alex Gibney/USA/94 min.
Documentary
Program: Real to Reel
Headline: The Goon Squad
Scott’s Take: At last year’s festival, I saw (and mostly liked) Alex Gibney’s Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer, a slickly packaged but compelling mix of sex, politics, and conspiracy theory. In the 12 months since, Gibney has completed the ESPN doc Catching Hell (about Steve Bartman), My Trip To Al Qaeda, Magic Trip, and now The Last Gladiators, a look at the last generation of NHL hockey enforcers. He should consider slowing down a bit. The Last Gladiators should be a much stronger documentary than it turns out to be: “Hockey goons” play a fascinating role in the game, dishing out (and absorbing) punishment for their teammates while leading relatively short and physically taxing careers. And Gibney has a terrific subject in Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, a former Montreal Canadiens bruiser whose violent, destructive tendencies were not limited to the ice. But the film is sloppy and diffuse, poorly servicing several other thinly sketched subjects while failing to provide context about the NHL’s position on enforcers and the rule changes that led to their demise. Using a troubled character like Nilan as a guide to the world of goonery is a smart move conceptually—and pays off whenever Nilan and his family testify about his triumphs and personal demons— but there’s too much rough around that diamond.
Grade: C+

Pina
Director/Country/Time: Wim Wenders/Germany & France/103 min.
Documentary
Program: Masters
Headline: Making the “D” in “3D” stand for “dance”
Noel’s Take: Prior to the death of choreographer Pina Bausch, she and director Wim Wenders had been collaborating on a performance film, to be shot in 3D. I wish they’d have had a chance to make that film, if only because I’m unfamiliar with Bausch’s work (and am largely dance-ignorant in general, outside of what I see on So You Think You Can Dance), and thus would’ve liked to have seen how her work looked under ordinary circumstances. As it is, Wenders, working in collaboration with Bausch’s troupe, breaks up the longer dance routines with interviews about the choreographer’s spiritual, aesthetic, and personal influence. The interviews are nice, but a little drippy, and they effectively prevent the dances from developing the way I’m sure they were intended. (Though again, I don’t know how they’re actually supposed to look.) All of that said, Pina is still a marvel, with Wenders making at-times-visionary use of the 3D technology, treating the frame like a stage with multiple planes of action. And Bausch’s work is as original as advertised, with staging that involves the addition of obstacles to the dancefloor: dirt, say, or a huge rock, or pouring water. One of Wenders’ best ideas in Pina is to engage in a bit of turnabout, staging some shorter dances outdoors, in locations where nature flows and it’s the dancers who are in the way.
Grade: B

Sons Of Norway
Director/Country/Time: Jens Lien/Norway/88 min.
Cast: Asmund Hoeg, Sven Nordin, Sonja Richter
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: You ain’t no punk you punk
Noel’s Take: Unlike his absurdist comedy The Bothersome Man, director Jens Lien’s Sons Of Norway is a relatively straightforward period piece, set in 1978 among a family of committed leftists. Unable to rebel in the usual way in a household where the grown-ups are inclined to chant “Smash The Patriarchy!” over Christmas dinner, young Asmund Hoeg cuts his hair short, rips up his clothes, and joins a punk band. Hoeg is prompted to act out by the death of his sainted mother, and the subsequent emotional breakdown of his architect father. But that impulse to tear apart everything begins to seem futile when he encounters the neatly attired right-wing things who beat up immigrants and other weird-looking people on a daily basis. Worse, his heartbroken dad keeps trying to horn in on this whole punk scene himself. Sons Of Norway is visually dynamic and full of vivid detail, and Lien does a fine job of tying what could've been an insular, personal story to the notion of a larger social responsibility, and the idea that (as Hoeg’s mother puts it) “Even if we sometimes do bad things, that doesn’t mean we’re evil.” But the movie is too episodic—there’s an interlude at a nudist camp for example that's thematically on-point but not all that key to the plot—and too short. A lot happens ton the hero in a short period of time, and then Sons Of Norway just… ends. It provides a good buzz while it lasts, though, propelled forward by a soundtrack full of Sex Pistols and a cameo appearance by the film’s producer, a Mr. Jonathan Rotten.
Grade: B

This Is Not A Film
Director/Country/Time: Jafar Panahi and Mojitaba Mirtahmasb/Iran/75 min.
Documentary
Program: Masters
Headline: The Letter of the Law
Scott’s Take: In late 2010, the great Iranian director Jafar Panahi (The Circle, Crimson Gold, Offside) was convicted of “assembly and colluding with the intention to com­mit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” The sentence handed down was severe: Six years in jail, and 20-year bans on making films and leaving the country. Smuggled to Cannes back in May, This Is Not A Film documents a day in the life of the director as he’s stuck in his apartment under house arrest, awaiting the outcome of his appeal. It’s a doodle of a (non)movie, with scenes of Panahi chatting his lawyer, feeding his daughter’s pet iguana, and talking about the filmmaking process with his cameraman/collaborator, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Some of this material dips into the mundane, but the film comes to life when Panahi acts out scenes from a rejected script using tape outlines on the rug, then shows clips from previous films like The Circle, The Mirror, and Crimson Gold to demonstrate how actors and the filmmaking process is what really brings screenplays to life. This Is Not A Film is pleasing mainly just as a message-in-a-bottle from a restless, persecuted artist—that is, until the amazing closing shot, which brings the volatility of post-Green Revolution Iran home with unforgettable force.
Grade: B

We Need To Talk About Kevin
Director/Country/Time: Lynne Ramsay/UK/112 min.
Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: A mother pays the price for the sins of her child
Noel’s Take: Early in Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton pushes a shopping cart through a grocery store while a Muzak version of “What Child Is This?” plays. It’s a poignant choice of music, both because the Christmas cheeriness is falling on deaf ears for Swinton—who’s suffering through a deep post-traumatic shock—and because the song is asking a question that Swinton has been asking herself for 16 years. In her first movie since 2002’s magnificent Morvern Callar, Ramsay continues her fascination with textures, at times reducing her lead character’s world to impressionistic fragments: her hands, a wall, splashes of paint, et cetera. Much of the first hour of Kevin consists of the heroine stumbling around her house and workplace in a stupor, thinking back over her life in flashes. Where did it all go wrong? Was it when she gave birth to her son: a little creep who’s treated her with obstinacy and disdain since he was a toddler? Or was it even earlier, when a romantic European adventure led her into the arms of the disengaged buffoon she’d marry (played by John C. Reilly)? So long as Ramsay sticks with Swinton and her frustration at being saddled with a monster through (maybe) no fault of her own, We Need To Talk About Kevin is genuinely gripping and disturbing. But the fact that Kevin is a monster—whose public act of violence sets the movie in motion—lets the audience off the hook to a large extent. Every parent knows how it feels to have a fleeting moment of disgust with their children, and every parent knows the worry that somehow their action (or inaction) will end up sticking society with a useless, possibly destructive beast. But not so many parents have an actual Kevin: so hateful, so obnoxious. Which means that We Need To Talk About Kevin feels kind of meaningless, aside from the masterful style—which, honestly, is meaning enough most of the time.
Grade: B
Scott’s Take: Written as a series of confessional letters from wife to late husband in the aftermath of their teenage son’s Columbine-like killing spree, Shriver’s novel is a masterpiece of maternal ambivalence—less shocking for its violence than for its narrator’s frank misgivings about being a parent. Rather than choke her movie with voiceover, Ramsay’s adaptation boldly takes the opposite tack, externalizing the mother’s anger and trauma in a red-spattered horrorshow that’s less subtle yet marvelously expressive, especially when she’s free-associating between different time periods, with one literally bleeding into another. Where We Need To Talk About Kevin goes awry is Kevin himself, whose domestic interactions with his mother mainly involve him giving the Kubrick glower from The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. It’s important to book and film that Kevin be a monster from the get-go, but seeing that actually realized on screen feels unnatural and reductive, and robs the film of a more nuanced understanding of how much responsibility the mother bears for her child’s rampage. Still, Ramsay nails the very real connection between the two of them: Kevin is only his true self around his mother, and his mother, in turn, shares to some degree his withering assessment of human life. I had a tentative reaction to Ramsay’s Morvern Callar at first before thinking it one of the last decade’s best films; I suspect this might play better over time, too.
Grade: B+

Tomorrow: Werner Herzog visits Death Row, Pedro Almodóvar dabbles in horror, and Marjane Satrapi ventures into live-action.