Toronto Film Festival '09: Day 0 

Toronto Film Festival '09: Day 0 

Jennifer’s Body
Director/Country/Time: Karyn Kusama, USA, 102 min.
Cast: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, J.K. Simmons
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Honest to dog
Scott’s Take: I’m on record as liking Juno, and that opinion hasn’t budged much amid the massive groundswell of support for the movie and the equally powerful backlash. (On her Twitter feed, the screenwriter Diablo Cody quipped, “Some guy in Idaho tweeted that I’ve ruined cinema. Already? Had no idea I was so hugely influential. Suck it, Truffaut!”) But as I wrote in the festival blog back when it premiered here in 2007, even I wanted to bolt the theater after the first 10 minutes. It was only after Ellen Page’s character revealed her pregnancy to her parents that the film started to emerge from IndieQuirkistan and address the very real choices that she would have to make. Though having an actress of Page’s verbal dexterity helped substantially, Cody’s ornately snarky one-liners worked, in part, because Juno deployed them as a kind of defense mechanism; as the film progresses and she grows up a little, her defenses are lowered and we can appreciate her as just another mixed-up kid trying to do the right thing.

In other words, Juno wasn’t built on a foundation of “homeskillets” and “honest to blogs.” With the dismal horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body, her second screenplay, Cody has taken all the wrong lessons from the earlier film’s success, doubling down on the irritating Cody-isms while getting lazy on the fundamentals. Though the film’s femme-centered, horrors-of-high-school scenario is well-covered territory—think Ginger Snaps and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but with the cruelty and invented language of Heathers—there’s still some metaphorical potential in the premise of a hot young thing (Megan Fox) literally devouring her pimple-faced suitors. But Cody doesn’t make sense of the friendship between odd couple Fox and Amanda Seyfried, and she stop scenes cold just so her characters can trade overwritten barbs. If you’ve been dying to hear “move on dot org” used in a sentence, this is the movie for you. Otherwise, beware. Grade: D+

Bright Star
Director/Country/Time: Jane Campion, UK/Australia, 119 min.
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Don’t call it a comeback
Scott's Take: Why can’t I join the chorus of critics hailing Campion’s period piece about the chaste romance between the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and girl-next-door Fanny Brawne? That’s not a rhetorical question; it’s one I’ve been struggling with ever since seeing the film a few weeks ago. There’s no question the film puts Campion back on terra firma after a series of bold-but-failed experiments of the literary (A Portrait Of A Lady), idiosyncratic (Holy Smoke!), and genre (In The Cut) kind. And there’s much to recommend here: A tactile approach to period that was also one of The Piano’s greatest strengths; a refusal to succumb to birth-to-death biopic conventions by focusing exclusively on the last couple years of Keats’ life and telling the story from Fanny’s perspective; the incorporation of poetry into everyday language (like the Simpsons-quoting of yesteryear!); an elliptical storytelling style that honors Keats’ enduring concept of “negative capability” (of man being comfortable with “being in uncertainties”); and Paul Schneider’s lively performance as Keats’ closest friend, a fellow poet who’s both protective and possessive of him. Back in his fine Cannes coverage for us, Mike D’Angelo complained that in the wake of Campion’s bugfuck experiments post-Piano, Bright Star is surprising in “how BBC-conventional it is.” I obviously think it’s more daring and unconventional than Mike does, but the Keats-Brawne relationship does have an arc to it that isn’t that far removed from the ossified costume romances that clog up arthouses all year ‘round. A second viewing beckons, but for now, I’m more intrigued by the film’s rich peripheral details than the young, swooning would-be lovers they’re supporting. Grade: B

Cairo Time
Director/Country/Time: Ruba Nadda/Canada/88 min.
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Bored diplomat’s wife contemplates affair with gentle Egyptian
Noel’s Take: Patricia Clarkson can be a comforting, cool presence in otherwise ragtag indie movies, but in Ruba Nadda’s slick romantic melodrama Cairo Time Clarkson’s too sedate by half. As a Canadian journalist stuck in Egypt without her diplomat husband, Clarkson remains so persistently unruffled that nothing she sees, says or does has any emotional impact—not even when she begins flirting with local Muslim Alexander Siddig, who’s one of her husband’s oldest friends. Clarkson doesn’t seem especially committed by any of the men in her life, and though Cairo Time features lovely location footage and lived-in detail about what it’s like to be a well-connected tourist in a Middle Eastern country, neither the culture-clash scenes nor the subtle dance of seduction between Clarkson and Siddig has any real resonance—not even when the movie builds to an ending reminscent of David Lean’s early “forbidden love” dramas. All the trappings are in place for a genteel travelogue graced with poignant heartbreak, but when the music swells and the camera swoops in, Clarkson doesn’t rise to the occasion. From start to finish, she seems to be waiting for her cue.
Grade: C-

Deliver Us From Evil
Director/Country/Time: Ole Bornedal/Denmark/93 min.
Cast: Lasse Rimmer, Lene Nystrom, Jens Andersen, Pernille Valentin, Mogens Pedersen
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Bleeding-heart pacifists learn the true meaning of bloodlust
Noel’s Take: Ole Bornedal is a genre technician of rare skill, able to pinpoint the very real unease beneath outlandish situations. Bornedal has ambition, too—and that’s where he often gets himself into trouble. Ostensibly a suspense picture about a suburban family under siege by an angry mob of bigots, Bornedal’s Deliver Us From Evil presents itself as nothing less than a meditation on evil itself, and its all-too-explicable human origins. The movie opens with a ponderous narration, delivered directly into the camera by a wandering stranger, followed immediately by a conversation between a mother and her kids about Osama Bin Laden and why it’s bad to fight even the worst people in the world. The plot gradually unwinds from there: A lowlife trucker accidentally runs over a kindly old woman, and pins the crime on a shell-shocked immigrant. The trucker’s brother—a successful lawyer with a wife and two kids—shelters the immigrant and subsequently finds his house surrounded by a local militia, egged on by a wrathful preacher. The emotions and issues that Bornedal plays with here are undeniably provocative, and add a bit of juice to what’s essentially a primal thriller. But they leave a sour aftertaste too, as audiences are left to wonder whether such a contrived situation has any real application outside the confines of a movie. Best not to think about it too hard; instead, just enjoy the sharp staging of tense sequences. Like the one where a guilty man scrambles to clear the road of the debris he caused, and the corpse he left behind.
Grade: B

Good Hair
Director/Country/Time: Jeff Stilson/USA/95 min.
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Chris Rock leads a globe-trotting expedition to get at the roots—ha ha!—of why black women obsess over their hair
Noel’s Take (from Sundance): I don’t have a heck of a lot to say about this free-ranging survey of trends in African-American hairstyles, except to say that I learned a lot I didn’t know—like the fact that the average weave costs a thousand bucks, and that black women don’t like their men to touch their hair during sex. I was also impressed that Rock and Stilson broached some touchy political subjects. (Did you know that most of the hair for weaves comes from India, where hair-thievery has become common?) But a large chunk of Good Hair is given over to an Atlanta hairdressing competition that I never fully understood, and for all Rock’s hand-wringing over whether he’s going to let his daughters use relaxers or get weaves, he and Stilson hardly spend any time at all on natural hairstyles. Rock tends to cock an eye at the ridiculous expense and fuss that goes into black hair, but he’s never actively critical. This movie could use a bit more of his bite, though his bark is entertaining and informative enough.
Grade: B


The Informant!
Director/Country/Time: Steven Soderbergh, USA, 108 min.
Cast: Matt Damon, Scott Bacula, Melanie Lynskey
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The funniest biochemical price-fixing thriller of the year!
Scott’s Take: The miracle of Kurt Eichenwald’s book The Informant is how it took a seemingly mundane price-fixing case involving lysine—which, for those not schooled in biochemical food additives, is a chicken-fattening chemical manufactured in giant fermenters by "feeding" dextrose to tiny microbes—and turned it into a thriller as wild and compulsively readable as any John Grisham or Crichton novel. The exclamation point on writer Scott Burns and director Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation is just the first indication that it goes one step further, into the realm of high comedy. It’s an original interpretation of the material, but not an outlandish one: Mark Whitacre, the corporate whistleblower played by Matt Damon (with appropriate Midwestern pudge and ‘stache), is a slippery character, someone who literally imagines himself as a hero from Grisham or Crichton yarn. He initially alerts the FBI to evidence of sabotage from a competing company, but then opens the door to the much larger change of price-fixing within the lysine trade. Whitacre proves an unreliable (and often reckless and flat stupid) mole for the FBI, but he thinks he’s playing one side against the other, with an underlying motivation that’s both hard to fathom and ultimately naïve in the extreme. Soderbergh and Burns deftly manage the complexities and dense bio-terminology in Eichenwald’s book while finding endless laughs in the way Whitacre’s twisted mind works. Through inspired use of voiceover narration, they access his hilariously discursive stream-of-consciousness, and Damon, who specializes in characters with a uncertain sense of self (e.g. The Talented Mr. Ripley, the Bourne movies), finds himself right at home here. My only complaint is that the comic tone is a little wackier than it needs to be: The Marvin Hamlisch score, with shades of Woody Allen’s Bananas, is maybe the biggest culprit, but the volume could stand to be a bit lower all around. But as a companion to his fine digital feature The Girlfriend Experience earlier this year, the film reenforces Soderbergh’s sly commentary on corporate culture and how it infects those who participate in it. Grade: B+


Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives On The Alberta Tar Sands
Director/Country/Time: Peter Mettler/Canada/43 min.
Documentary
Program: Real To Real
Headline: The rape of the Earth is at once terrible and beautiful
Noel’s Take: Acclaimed filmmaker Peter Mettler—who served as a cinematographer on the documentary Manufactured Landscapes—takes to the skies to observe the environmental impact of bitumen-mining in Alberta. Other than an ambient techno soundtrack (sounding a lot like the ominous hum of a low-hovering flying saucer), and the occasional on-screen text (like the tidbit that one mining operation has displaced more earth than the Great Wall Of China, the Suez Canal, the Great Pyramid Of Cheops and the ten largest dams of the world combined), Mettler keeps the film semi-neutral. It’s obvious he’s no fan of what mining does to the environment, but his slow-moving overhead shots of open pits and grubby dump trucks have an eerie beauty. Like Manufactured Landscapes, Petropolis is largely about how man inadvertently shapes nature as a byproduct of industry, and while this revelation is hardly new, Petropolis is still haunting. It’s designed to put audiences in a meditative state, and then to push us to consider just what we’re finding so lovely and peaceful.
Grade: B

Phantom Pain
Director/Country/Time: Matthias Emcke/Germany/92 min.
Cast: Til Schweiger, Tom Zickler, Dietmar Güntsche
Program: Gala Presentations
Headline: Self-absorbed fabulist reconnects with real life after horrific accident
Noel’s Take: A lot about Matthias Emcke’s drama Phantom Pain feels more like an American independent film than a European one, right down to the gentle acoustic soundtrack, interspersed with the songs of Nick Drake. Til Schweiger (an actor as familiar from American movies as German ones) plays a classic idle Eurotrash dude, shaggy-haired, work-averse, and perpetually late on child support. He's the kind of guy who once wrote poetic travelogues, but quit, and now uses his gift for tale-spinning to impress bar mates and willing young ladies. Phantom Pain sports some evocative, poetic narration; and some gorgeous cinematography, full of golden light diffused through foliage. But once it slams headlong into its own plot—which has Schweiger reevaluating his life after an accident leaves him physically impaired—the movie slows to a crawl, a turn of events made all the more unfortunate since it's so easy to see where the story is headed. All that's left is for Schweiger to participate in some lyrical montages of autumnal bike rides, and maybe take a break to fly remote control planes near a nuclear reactor with his free-spirited semi-girlfriend. Cue credits.
Grade: C+


Precious: Based On The Novel “Push” By Sapphire
Director/Country/Time: Lee Daniels/USA/109 min.
Cast: Gabourey Sidibe, Paula Patton, Mo’Nique
Program: Gala Presentations
Headline: Abused, overweight, twice-pregnant Harlem high-schooler learns self-worth
Noel’s Take (from Sundance): There’s a lot about Precious that makes me uncomfortable, from its straight-out-of-Rush-Limbaugh’s-nightmares vision of lazy welfare queens to the fact that it’s essentially one long wallow in human misery. It’s not enough that the lead character is morbidly obese and functionally illiterate; she's also a victim of sexual and physical abuse, with a mentally retarded daughter and a serious health crisis looming. And yet Precious really worked for me, for a couple of reasons. First off, Daniels maintains a fairly light touch throughout, allowing space for some interior reveries from the heroine, showing how distant (yet so omnipresent) the TV-approved vision of a better life is for her. Second off, the performances are simply astounding. Sidibe finesses sympathy and repugnance remarkably well, and grows as an actress as her character grows as a person. Patton is calm and strong as Sidibe’s new teacher, who treats her students like people, not cattle. And Mo’Nique… holy crap, Mo’Nique! As Sidibe’s monstrous mother, Mo’Nique delivers profane, terrifying tirades, yet at the end of the movie she delivers a monologue as painful and heartbreaking as any I’ve ever seen in a movie. If it weren’t for the stars, Precious would be fairly mundane. But if you’re a believer in the power of great acting to transform a film, you've got to see what happens to Precious.
Grade: B+


A Prophet
Director/Country/Time: Jacques Audiard, France, 149 min.
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bensharif
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: France presents Oz
Scott’s Take: The latest from Audiard, the French genre stylist responsible for Read My Lips and the Fingers remake The Beat That My Heart Skipped, was the consensus critical favorite at Cannes and picked up the Grand Prize (second place, basically) in competition. For the first third of the movie, at least, I could certainly see why: The hero, a 19-year-old Muslim (played brilliantly by newcomer Tahar Rahim) entering prison with a moderate sentence, quickly discovers that he won’t be allowed to keep his head down and serve his time in peace. As a Corsican kingpin works his considerable leverage on the new inmate, Audiard slowly and masterfully tightens the noose, making it clear that Rahim has no control over his terrible destiny—at least in the short term. I doubt I will witness a better scene this year than the one where Rahim is forced to act in shocking violation of his conscience. However, as riveting as the film remains from beginning to end, I think it’s been overpraised a little, mainly because while this sort of gritty prison drama may be uncommon in France, it’s something we do often and well in America. The trajectory of Rahim’s life in the slammer follows a predictable three-act arc, and while A Prophet is riveting at every turn, I found myself spending much of the second half waiting for all the requisite pieces to fall into place. That doesn’t take away from Audiard’s achievement, but the film ultimately goes through the genre paces well rather than reinvents them. If this was the best Cannes had to offer in ’09, maybe it was an off year after all.
Noel's Take: I think what distinguishes A Prophet is Audiard's attention to detail: the way the machines in the prison laundry work; the daily baguettes each prisoner receives; the reaction of Rahim when he takes his first plane ride and sees his first ocean, and so on. This is a well-told pulp story, packed with memorable characters and incidents, and while it may be a little familiar, I think there's always a place (for me anyway) for a crime saga that deals smartly with the reality of large- and small-scale lawbreaking as opposed to the broader, generic version. A Prophet is like a Gallic Goodfellas, and I found it thoroughly absorbing, exciting, even poetic. My idea of a full evening's entertainment.
Scott's Grade: B+; Noel's Grade: A-


Videocracy
Director/Country/Time: Erik Gandini/Sweden/80 min.
Documentary
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: In Italy, political power is one reality TV show away
Noel’s Take: If you wanted to script a cautionary tale about the politics of fame (and the fame of politics), you couldn't come up with anything more apt and odd than Erik Gandini's documentary Videocracy, a submersion into the weirdness of Italian television by a filmmaker trying to explain his homeland to his new neighbors in Sweden. Ostensibly a critique of inordinately popular prime minister Silvio Berlusconi—who owns 80% of the TV stations in Italy, and owes much of his political success to his understanding of what TV audiences want—Videocracy follows a deliberate, book-ended structure with Berlusconi squarely in the middle. On either end, Gandini returns to the same trio of characters: a wannabe star who intends to combine pop music and martial arts; a super-agent who keeps a video of Mussolini on his cell phone; and a paparazzo who emerges from a prison stint as a celebrity and tries to maintain his heat by volunteering to be interviewed at crime scenes. Videocracy is at times overly conventional in approach, with Gandini’s narration saying what could just as easily be shown. But when the imagery is slowed-down and brightly lit—as it nearly always is—Gandini gives his footage of half-naked dancing girls and hunkered-down TV crews a dreamy quality that feels less like journalism than impressionism. “You have to grow up inside it to grasp it,” he contends at one point. With Videocracy, he lets the audience stand in his shoes, so that we can marvel at the absurdity exactly as he perceives it.
Grade: A-


Note: Videocracy trailer contains brief nudity. Perhaps NSFW.

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