TIFF '11: Day Three

Wuthering Heights
Director/Country/Time: Andrea Arnold/United Kingdom/128 min.
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Shannon Beer
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Anti-Masterpiece Theater
Scott’s Take: Andrea Arnold’s radical upending of the frilly costume drama opens with a statement of purpose: Our introduction to Heathcliff, one-half of the doomed couple at the center of Emily Brontë’s novel, finds him alone in a dimly appointed farmhouse in mid-1800s Yorkshire, throwing himself against the wall masochistically and beating his forehead bloody. Outside in the arid, craggy, fog-choked landscape, the wind persistently howls and the sky remains persistently gray-black. There’s no relief from the physical and emotional brutality of Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, which thoroughly rejects the expected arthouse treatment in reducing the book to raw, primal emotion. Working without well-known actors, Arnold minimizes the dialogue to such an extent that the characters, Heathcliff in particular, react to each other simply and at times territorially. Flashing back to Heathcliff’s arrival at the farmhouse—where his mixed-race and brusque manner draws sharply contrasting reactions—Arnold builds his relationship with Catherine on an accumulation of non-verbal gestures, and the unsparing landscape itself tells much of the story. Though Wuthering Heights can get too precious in its Malickian visual style—ditto Arnold’s Fish Tank—and the severity of it obliterates nuance for the sake of unvarnished power. Yet the harshness allows those fleeting moments of tenderness to pop like a desert bloom.
Grade: A-

A Better Life
Director/Country/Time: Cédric Kahn/France/110 min.
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Leïla Bekhti, Slimane Khettabi
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Better can’t make your life better
Noel’s Take: I got excited about 10 minutes in to Cédric Kahn’s episodic melodrama A Better Life, right around the time that an irresponsible Paris chef played by Guillaume Canet and his Lebanese girlfriend Leila Bekhti sat down with a banker to discuss the details of Canet’s plan to open a restaurant next to a lake in the woods. I love occupational procedurals, so I was looking forward to a nuanced drama about what it takes to make it in the upscale foodie game these days. Alas, no. Kahn and his co-screenwriter Catherine Paillé have other plans. It doesn’t take long for the hero’s fast-and-loose approach to his finances to waylay his plans, and to send Bekhti on an extended trip to Canada to make some money, leaving Canet in charge of her pre-teen son. At that point, A Better Life becomes about a grueling case study in how dreams get modified as time and circumstance intervene. That’s a profound theme to explore—or would be, if Canet’s character weren’t such a screw-up and his misfortunes didn’t mount so ridiculously high. As it is, it’s hard to derive much from the movie beyond the moment-to-moment drama of the protagonist’s predicament. (Which, admittedly, is fairly gripping.) Ordinarily, a gritty, realistic film like this would indict society or fate for what goes awry, but in A Better Life, Canet could resolve most of his financial troubles if he weren’t so stubborn, impatient, and short-sighted. And while that’s a novel direction for a movie to take, it’s a stunted one so far as audience engagement and identification go.
Grade: C+

The Descendants
Director/Country/Time: Alexander Payne/USA/115 min.
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Aloha? Oy.
Noel’s Take: I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be more impressed with the visuals in an Alexander Payne film than in the writing or acting, but that’s exactly where I am with The Descendants, a muddled family drama that thrives primarily because of Payne’s staging. Always a master at using location, Payne takes a story set in Hawaii and largely avoids the “little slice of paradise” side of the islands (though he can’t avoid it entirely), instead showing the old family homes and office parks where Hawaiians actually spend their time. That fits with the plot of The Descendants, which has George Clooney playing a real estate lawyer and lifelong Hawaiian trying to resolve some family business while his wife spends her last few comatose days of life in a local hospital. Payne (adapting a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings with co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) aims to show how the outside perception of certain people as prosperous, fortunate, or even just happy is never as true as it may seem. And The Descendants does get that across, in scenes where people openly confront their families and their legacies, facing the messes they’ve made and the ones they just might leave behind if they’re not careful. (Really, the accumulation of family heirlooms and clutter in their respective homes tells a story all on its own.) But Clooney seems surprisingly at sea here, in a role that requires him to be more hurt and befuddled than suave. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn't know what to do with the dialogue, which is startlingly tin-eared at times, given the writerly gifts Payne has shown in movies like Election and Sideways. The movie suffers from backstory-heavy voice-over narration in its first half, followed by an excess of quirky laugh lines down the stretch, just when it seems to be finding a better rhythm. There’s a shameless crowd-pleasing element to The Descendants that holds it back from the truths about family relationship that it’s trying so hard to reach. Still, Clooney’s movielong journey from cousin-to-cousin and friend-to-friend—to deliver the news about his wife and to learn more about what she was up to before her accident—keeps the locations and tone shifting often enough to keep the story compelling, and the Hawaiian setting gives The Descendants a distinctive flavor that survives Payne’s efforts to bury it in schmalz.
Grade: B-


Extraterrestrial
Director/Country/Time: Nacho Vigalando/Spain/90 min.
Cast: Julián Villagrán, Michelle Jenner, Miguel Noguera
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: The invasion after the alien invasion
Noel’s Take: Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s debut feature Timecrimes made the most of tiny budget, using just a few locations and a few actors to tell a funny, exciting, and even poignant story set in an increasingly constricting time-loop. His second film tries to maintain that level of simplicity and tautness, but the outcome is less than stellar. Extraterrestrial begins with Julián Villagrán waking up in the apartment of Michelle Jenner, neither of them remembering how they ended up in bed together. Then Jenner’s boyfriend Miguel Noguera comes home. Also, there are huge spaceships hovering over Madrid, and the few people remaining in the city have scant information about what’s happening. Most of Extraterrestrial takes place in Jenner’s apartment, as Noguera makes plans to thwart the aliens, while the secret lovers try to hide their affair. I’m not sure whether Vigalondo intended to make a constrained alien invasion movie, and came up with the romantic triangle to add an extra layer of tension to Noguera’s efforts to ferret out aliens in disguise, or whether he’s using the invasion as a metaphor for Villagrán’s intrusion into another couple’s life. Either approach would’ve be fine, provided that it’d been supported by a script with lively dialogue, surprising plot twists, whatnot. Timecrimes had that; Extraterrestrial does not. Instead, it’s a lightly comic sci-fi movie in which not much happens and no one has much to say that’s all that amusing. As a fan of Timecrimes, I found this one to be a pretty crushing disappointment.
Grade: D+


Jeff, Who Lives At Home
Director/Country/Time: Jay and Mark Duplass/USA/83 min.
Cast: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Mumblecore Goes Hollywood
Scott’s Take: Since their no-budget debut The Puffy Chair, the Duplass Brothers have been inching closer to Hollywood—first with the faux/meta-horror movie Baghead, then with the mostly successful relationship comedy Cyrus, and now Jeff, Who Lives At Home, which puts them right in the whale’s belly. The good news about Jeff, Who Lives At Home is that Jason Segel and Ed Helms, playing screw-up brothers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are well-suited to the Duplass’ brand of shambling naturalism and offbeat comedy. The bad news is just about everything else, starting with the painfully quirky story about a basement-dwelling layabout (Segel) who turns a simple errand to buy wood glue for his mother (Susan Sarandon) into a date with destiny. Once Segel hooks up with Helms to follow the latter’s wife (Judy Greer), whom he suspects of cheating, the conflicts bear a closer resemblance to the real world. But then it’s back to fantasyland again when the all the storylines come together in a climactic deus ex machina more phony and ridiculous than the one mocked by Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation. The ending smacks either of tinkering by its major-studio distributor, Paramount Pictures, or a shameless effort to meet its expectations. Either way, it’s a laugher.
Grade: C

Keyhole
Director/Country/Time: Guy Maddin/Canada/105 min.
Cast: Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Putting The “Art” In Cuisinart
Scott’s Take: A theme is starting to develop in my reaction to certain rigid auteurists this year: Familiarity is breeding contempt. Aki Kaurismäki, Bruno Dumont, and now Guy Maddin have come to Toronto with films that are unmistakably theirs yet wearing in their grinding predictability and creative stasis. Okay, maybe “stasis” is the wrong word to describe Maddin’s Keyhole, a typically manic pastiche of ‘30s gangster movies, haunted house tales, and Homer’s The Odyssey. The mixing-and-matching of old-fashioned cinema and twisted, psychosexual melodrama has long been Maddin’s stock-in-trade, but Keyhole never remotely came together for me. All those disparate elements remained just that, disparate, and the only pleasure to be gleaned from the film arrives in flashes of oddball wit and invention: Unexpected turns of phrase in the dialogue (“You’re all froth and no beer”), say, or contraptions like a home-engineered electric chair powered by stationary bikes. Jason Patric seems to be enjoying himself as a gang leader whose men are holed up in his ghost-riddled house while the police have them surrounded outside. The gangster material plays best, partly because their predicament is the least abstracted, but the whole of Maddin’s experimental mélange of influences eluded me almost completely this time around.
Grade: C

Pearl Jam Twenty
Director/Country/Time: Cameron Crowe/USA/120 min.
Documentary
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Almost Famous 2: The Veddering
Noel’s Take: Cameron Crowe has known the guys in Pearl Jam since long before there was a Pearl Jam—from back when Crowe and the musicians who’d form the backbone of the Seattle scene were all young, idealistic, and enthusiastic. Crowe’s documentary Pearl Jam Twenty features footage as far back as the band’s Mother Love Bone and Mookie Blaylock days, tracking frontman Eddie Vedder’s replacement of MLB’s drug casualty Andrew Wood, and his evolution from a guy so shy that he’d only sing on stage with his hair in his face to a guy capable of holding a festival crowd rapt. And Crowe continues to follow the band’s story, as they become one of the biggest concert attractions in the world, and then later settle into a smaller and in some ways more comfortable level of success. Crowe knows this world, both from his personal interactions with the band and from his years on rock ‘n’ roll tour buses as a Rolling Stone journalist. What makes Pearl Jam Twenty a little better than the average fan-doc is that Crowe knows to focus on the more significant parts of the Pearl Jam story: not how they wrote “Alive,” but how they’ve struggled with maintaining artistic credibility while selling millions. Crowe gets into the band's fight with Ticketmaster (a turning point in their reputation among the alt-rock crowd) and the tragedy of some of their fans being crushed to death at a Danish rock festival (a turning point in the band’s sense of how big they’d like to be). Twenty is still first and foremost for Pearl Jam diehards, who’ll be the most likely to appreciate the bandmembers paying tribute to each other. But even people who don’t know Pearl Jam well—or who are outright skeptics should be able to appreciate what Crowe reveals about the band's longevity. Even as Vedder has disappeared further into a “soulful, activist weirdo” persona halfway between Johnny Depp and Michael Stipe, he’s maintained a certain level of fraternity with his bandmates, who’ve all bonded over their love of sports, their commitment to speaking their minds, and their faith in rock ‘n’ roll. How else could a band that’s wanted to be both The Who and Fugazi simultaneously have survived—and thrived—for so long?
Grade: B


A Separation
Director/Country/Time: Asghar Farhadi/Iran/123 min.
Cast: Leila Hatami, Payman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Everyone Has Their Reasons
Scott’s Take: Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation ultimately focuses on a single incident with devastating consequences for the two families involved. The “separation” of the title is like the loose thread on a sweater—that first yank that causes the whole thing to unravel. When a wife resolves to leave her husband over his refusal to emigrate elsewhere with their 11-year-old daughter, the husband needs someone to care for his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s. The wife hires a deeply religious woman who also happens to be pregnant; when the husband fires the caretaker for gross neglect, the scene gets heated and physical, and all parties convene in court to settle their dispute. I know that description sounds vague—the details are best discovered with masterful timing Farhadi reveals them—but A Separation is anything but, clarifying the massive stakes for everyone involved and the reasons they each have for not always being forthright. It’s a film about class, marriage, parenthood, honor, and justice—rich, prismatic, and beautifully performed, with one of the best original screenplays I can recall. In contemporary Iranian cinema, its closest antecedent may be Leila, Dariush Mehrjui’s excellent 1996 nod to A Doll’s House in middle-class Tehran (both star Leila Hatami), but that film has a single character at its center and the tragedy here envelopes at least five. Virtually flawless, right down to the perfect final shot.
Grade: A

The Silver Cliff
Director/Country/Time: Karim Aïnouz/Brazil/84 min.
Cast: Alessandra Negrini, Thiago Martins, Gabi Pereira
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Noel’s Take: Karim Aïnouz’s The Silver Cliff stars Alessandra Negrini as a Rio-based dentist whose husband leaves her, sending her on a journey into her city and into herself. That may sound a bit pretentious, but The Silver Cliff really isn’t as heady as its description. It’s more an urban tone-poem, which starts with Negrini’s desperate effort to find out why her husband left—a quest which takes her from her own sterile office to the dangerously jagged and noisy landscape of a construction site—and then becomes more of an eye-opening adventure as Negrini begins to bandage her wounds (literal and physical), take stock of her situation, and drink in what Rio has to offer. Aïnouz keeps The Silver Cliff brief, and doesn’t instill it with much urgency, instead alternating wordless scenes that emphasize the texture of the city with long conversations about how crappy life can be. And since we don’t spend much time with Negrini and her man before he splits, we don’t really know what she’s lost or what she’s trying to reclaim. But in a film festival that’s been full of movies like Martha Marcy May Marlene and We Need To Talk About Kevin, in which the heroines struggle to recover from life-or-death kinds of stresses, it was refreshing to see a movie in which a woman just has to recover from ordinary heartbreak. She masturbates in a hotel shower, she dances to kitschy ‘80s pop in a nightclub, she helps out a homeless family, and she takes the advice she gives to her post-surgery dental patients: Eat ice cream, because it dulls the pain, and it’s delicious.
Grade: B

Whores’ Glory
Director/Country/Time: Michael Glawogger/Austria-Germany/119 min.
Documentary
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: It’s Harder Out There For A Prostitute
Scott’s Take: Michael Glawogger’s follow-up to Workingman’s Death embarks on a global tour of poverty-ravaged prostitution sites, spending equal time in Bangkok brothel, the red-light district in Bangladesh, and complex of bars and single-room barracks called “The Zone” in Reynosa, Mexico. Documentary purists will find plenty to take issue with in Whores’ Glory: The gorgeously stylized photography, which captures each setting with a color-saturated vividness; the eclectic soundtrack, with songs by P.J. Harvey, Antony And The Johnsons, and others; and an observational style that’s free of predigested conclusions. But the film’s break from the usual earnest, stat-filled exposé is a large part of its appeal, and Glawogger’s attention to color and composition don’t diminish the quality of the testimony or dip into porn-y exploitation. (In fact, he mostly refrains from showing any nudity until the Mexico segment, when he finally opts to reveal exactly what 200 pesos will buy you. The audience in my screening seemed to recoil en masse.) The insights into a prostitute’s life are expected—the concerns about debt, about growing older, about the absence of any other option—but they’re devastating nonetheless, like a clearly underage girl in Bangladesh who articulates her suffering or a Mexican hooker who turns tricks to buy the crack that makes turning tricks endurable. (There’s also occasional comic relief, like a retired woman who claims to have served 40 johns a day at her peak and has the graphic stories to prove it.) Visually indifferent advocacy docs on sex trafficking are commonplace; here Glawogger stands out as a real filmmaker.
Grade: B+


Tomorrow: Kore-Eda! Stillman! Coppola! McQueen! Friedkin!


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