Toronto Film Festival '09: Day 1

Toronto Film Festival '09: Day 1

Antichrist
Director/Country/Time: Lars Von Trier/Denmark/104 min.
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Program: Masters
Headline: A grieving couple takes a literal trip through their personal Hell (and Lars Von Trier's).
Noel’s Take: The Dogme rule of taking no credit has long-since been tossed out the window for Lars Von Trier, who opens his new movie with his name scrawled on a huge title card. And appropriately so. Antichrist is a boldly personal film, tossing all Von Trier's oft-repeated ideas about faith and fear and human nature into an unfettered phantasmagoria, full of repulsive visions and fierce scorn. Willem Dafoe plays a touchy-feely therapist who tries to help his wife deal with her grief over the accidental death of their toddler son by having her confront her fears in a series of increasingly corny exercises. Cinema's leading Brechtian wouldn't seem to be the best choice for a visceral examination of real emotional pain, but Von Trier makes Antichrist about how aesthetic control is as useless as therapeutic control when it comes to dealing with nature at its wildest. He does this first satirically, by subtly mocking Dafoe's platitudes. (Where would you place your fears on a pyramid chart?) Then Von Trier turns on the audience, subjecting us to disgusting sexual violence as Dafoe descends into his wife's nightmares. The shift is triggered when a fox announces "Chaos reigns!," and anyone who rolls their eyes at that moment may have trouble stomaching Antichrist. Truth be told, the movie is filled with a lot of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. But the images stick. It may be full of shit, but it's Von Trier's shit.
Scott’s Take: Festival coverage involves making a lot of snap judgments, but coming out of Antichrist, I was just too dumbfounded to process the experience. I imagine Von Trier haters will have no trouble rejecting it outright (and many have), but the film presents a much tougher proposition to those who are more open to his work—partly because it’s such an unhinged clearinghouse of Big Themes and partly because it’s so completely sick and unnerving. (I haven’t been as anxious watching a movie since seeing Irreversible here at the late, lamented Uptown 1 in 2002.) Now that it’s had time to settle a bit, I’m feeling pretty charitable toward it: As out-of-control as Antichrist feels at times, Von Trier striking some very tricky balances between serious psychodrama and coal-black comedy, and between prankster provocation and a complex exploration of the power games and masochism that poison this marriage. I’m also thrilled to see Von Trier shed the arbitrary restrictions he’s been placing on himself the past decade and start using all the cinematic tools in the box. The use of super (super-super) slo-mo is magnificently agonizing and creepy and the frame-edge distortions in the forest scenes make the locale come alive with all-consuming menace. It would seem impossible for a film to be both fully in command and wholly deranged, but that’s Von Trier magic in a nutshell. 
Noel’s Grade: B+; Scott’s Grade: B+

Broken Embraces
Director/Country/Time: Pedro Almodovar/Spain/128 min.
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo, José Luis Gómez
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: A blind screenwriter tells the story of the woman he loved and lost
Noel’s Take: The first hour of Pedro Almodovar’s latest melodrama/noir/comedy is about as good as the venerable Spanish director gets, mixing wit and worldliness into a well-told, economical story about betrayals and long-held secrets among a circle of aristocrats and artists. As always, Penélope Cruz is in top form working with Almodovar, here playing an ex-prostitute who marries a rich man, gets him to finance her acting career, and then falls in love with her director. Broken Embraces is told largely in flashback, with the older principals—now much-changed—explaining to the next generation exactly how they came to be so damaged. There’s a lot in Broken Embraces about how people put on one face to strangers and another to family, and a lot about how people sift through records of the people they love—photographs, documents, home movies—in order to piece together a story that makes sense. But as the time-jumping structure of Broken Embraces’ first hour gives way to something less kinky, the movie comes down with a near-terminal case of connect-the-dot-itis. What seemed so assured and tantalizingly mysterious in the early going becomes labored and predictable towards the end. Almodovar rallies late with an ebullient scene from his movie-within-a-movie, followed by a sweet final line. But there’s a bit too much of Almodovar coasting on craft here, and though his craft’s some of the best in the business, it’s disappointing that he couldn’t come up with a script as wholly perfect as his direction.
Scott’s Take: A confession: As much as I’ve liked Almodovar’s work in the past and admired his consistency and flair for high-toned melodrama, I rarely look forward to his movies like I would another world cinema maestro with his quality track record. Broken Embraces, his weakest effort since Kika, crystallizes why: There’s a complacency that has been creeping in this films of late, a sense that he’s perhaps too securely perched as the darling of the festival circuit. (His easily digestible style has long been used as a cudgel with which to beat more miserablist, high-fiber Cannes competition entries over the head.) As usual, Almodovar crafts an engrossingly florid yarn—forever remaining just one stop short of soap opera—and there are some fun moments, like Cruz’s priceless reaction to the possibility that her ancient husband might have died post-coitus. (Her movie-star luminescence blows away the other actors here.) But this is boilerplate Almodovar, with movie-within-a-movie references that were more personal and better realized in Bad Education and a general lackadaisicalness that recalls Woody Allen’s movie-a-year habit. When longtime fans were lamenting the “maturity” ushered in by All About Your Mother in 1999, Broken Embraces was the result they were fearing.
Noel’s Grade: B; Scott’s Grade: C+


Creation
Director/Country/Time: Jon Amiel/UK/108 min.
Cast: Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones
Program: Gala
Headline: Even Charles Darwin had to evolve.
Noel’s Take: In a way, Creation is the perfect movie to see after Antichrist, since it's also a meditation on the nature of nature. Is it inherently cruel? Can it be controlled? (There's even a fox that shows up in the woods halfway through the film to teach the characters a lesson, though it stops short of turning to the camera and growling, "Chaos reigns!" A missed opportunity, really.) As Charles Darwin, Paul Bettany semi-reprises his role as Master And Commander’s inquisitive naturalist, only without the joie de vivre. And as Darwin's wife, Jennifer Connelly recalls her and Bettany's work in A Beautiful Mind—a comparison Creation encourages with some similar special effects trickery and narrative devices. Though there are some vivid illustrations here of evolutionary theory, and some intriguing consideration of what Darwin had to overcome to achieve greatness—primarily a fear of disappointing his family—for the most part Creation is Biopic 101, earnest and over-explained. It’s the kind of movie in which characters have to tell each other how important what’s happening is, just in case we in the audience have never heard of The Origin Of The Species. It’s also the kind of movie that takes the life and work of a major historical figure and reduces it to something pathetically small—in this case Darwin’s relationship with his wife and kids. It resembles Antichrist yet again in that grief over a dead child plays a significant role in what happens. But honestly, when you’re dealing with the man who helped change the way mankind sees its place in the universe, do you really want to watch him weeping over his sick daughter for an hour? I get what Creation’s trying to say in applying theories of adaptation on a personal level, but it still seems like a too-narrow lens through which to view an intellectual giant.
Grade: C


Dogtooth
Director/Country/Time: Yorgos Lanthimos/Greece/96 min.
Cast: Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Hristos Passalis
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: The Village without the twist (but awesome)
Scott’s Take: “We accept the reality of the world which we are presented,” says Ed Harris’s reality-TV puppetmaster in The Truman Show, and just as his star comes to accept the narrow parameters of his surroundings, so too do the three grown children of Lanthimo’s brilliant isolationist parable Dogtooth. Cooped up in a country estate, surrounded on all sides by a large fence, their knowledge of the world is dictated entirely by their parents, who feed them false information and find various ways to instill anxiety about the terrors that lurk outside their property. Some lies are small and hilariously improvisational, like a made-up language that defines “zombies” as little yellow flowers, and others are more insidious, like a made-up fourth sibling who was kicked out of the house for disobedience. But as with The Truman Show and The Village, fabrications this comprehensive are difficult to sustain as people get older and start poking around; the father’s efforts at suppressing the truth grow increasingly desperate and shocking. Dogtooth echoes Antichrist in its gnawing tension between chaos and control—and its unsimulated sex, but hey, c’est TIFF—but the alternate reality it carves out is also funny as hell. And in the Glenn Beck era, when people are living in paranoid bubbles of their own making, the film’s political resonances are unmistakable. (And yet no U.S. distributor yet. What gives?) Grade: A

L'Enfer De Henri-Georges Clouzot
Director/Country/Time: Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea/France/94 min.
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: A French cinema master’s unfinished film gets its story told at last (sort of)
Noel’s Take: In 1964, while French New Wave directors were tossing out the rulebook for quality cinema and filmmakers like Bergman and Fellini were redefining the ways that movies could be an artform, Diabolique/Wages Of Fear helmer Henri-Georges Clouzot tried to rise to the challenge of the whippersnappers around him with his own wildly experimental, deeply personal, bracingly psychological thriller, Inferno. Given a blank check by Columbia Pictures in the U.S., Clouzot spent months shooting test footage and location footage, but grew frustrated with what he perceived as his actors’ and crew’s inability to replicate in the ordinary day-to-day filmmaking the kind of energy and oddity he achieved when they were all just playing around. Eventually his star quit on him, Clouzot had a heart attack, and the movie was shut down, never to be completed and never to be seen again. That is, until cinema archivist Serge Bromberg convinced Clouzot’s widow to let him have a crack at the 300-odd cans of Inferno footage that had been stuck in a vault for 40 years. The material Bromberg found is truly stunning; Inferno’s story of jealous husband Serge Regianni and the wild fantasies he has about the extramarital activities of his sexbomb wife Romy Schneider might not have been a ground-breaker from a narrative point of view, but the imagery and audio trickery Clouzot came up with to dramatize Regianni’s mental breakdown constitutes some of the most eerily beautiful and visually jarring stuff put on film outside the avant-garde. Too bad then Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s documentary L’Enfer De Henri-Georges Clouzot doesn’t even come close to doing justice to the film it’s honoring. Though Bromberg and Medrea have conducted interviews with people who participated in the original shoot, mere anecdotes don’t really tell the full story of what this movie was supposed to be or why it went off the rails; nor does Bromberg ever get around to telling his own story of how he convinced Mrs. Clouzot to turn loose of the film she’d vowed never to let anyone see. Worse, the documentary is cluttered up with re-enactments of unfilmed scenes from Inferno’s script, which only serve to underscore the main problem with L’Enfer De Henri-Georges Clouzot: these filmmakers may be skilled at finding movies, but they’re not so good at making them.
Scott’s Take: Noel and I saw this at a public screening, and Blomberg’s infectious introduction to his film had us primed: Blomberg told us the fascinating story behind Clouzot’s lost movie, detailing how he was able to find the missing canisters of footage (via a quick five-minute phone call) and sweet-talk Clouzot’s widow into relinquishing the rights for his documentary (a much, much harder proposition). And he’s right to be enthusiastic about his discovery: The vibrant, funhouse beauty of Inferno’s test footage bears no relation to the more conventional (albeit meticulous and underappreciated) style of Clouzot’s suspense masterpieces like Le Corbeau, The Wages Of Fear, and Diabolique. What he was attempting with Inferno was no less than a radical alteration of his style in response to a rapidly changing medium, and it’s a shame that he drove himself, his cast, and his crew to madness long before bringing his vision to fruition. Given this footage and these extraordinary circumstances—and some cast and crew members willing to talk about their trauma for the first time—Blomberg and Medrea have no excuse for making a documentary this DVD-featurette pedestrian. The mix of reconstructed footage and behind-the-scenes storytelling is muddled and repetitive, though Clouzot’s tortured psyche and trippy images are enough to recommend for the curious. I’ll say this: Romy Schneider knows how to work a Slinky.
Noel’s Grade: C-; Scott’s Grade: C+


The Men Who Stare At Goats
Director/Country/Time: Grant Heslov/USA/93 min.
Cast: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Root
Program: Gala
Headline: Reporter learns the secret history of Army psychics
Noel’s Take: There's a gag early in the eccentric military comedy The Men Who Stare At Goats that pretty much sums up what the movie's about. George Clooney, playing one of a secret cadre of American super-soldiers, is driving into Iraq with hapless reporter Ewan McGregor by his side, and is demonstrating his ability to disperse clouds with his mind. Then, while staring at the sky, he drives into a boulder. If you think that's funny, you're in luck, because The Men Who Stare At Goats offers about two dozen variations on the idea of an idealistic know-it-all either missing what's right in front of him or insisting he's doing something unusual when he's actually just using fists and weapons like any other grunt. For the most part this shtick made me laugh pretty consistently, largely due to Clooney's sincere line deliveries and crack screwball timing. (And it doesn’t hurt Goats’ satirical edge that the “warrior for peace” attitude is all too real, as weird as it may sometimes seem.) But the movie’s tone goes too broad too often, and while it’s amusing to see uniformed men talk earnestly about embracing the code of the Jedi (especially when they’re sharing this code with McGregor, who knows a thing or two about Jedis), the relentless whimsicality and boisterous “are we having fun yet?” score works much harder than it needs to. After all, this is a story about a “New Earth Army” full of misfit military men yearning for a chance to be non-conformists with a cause. It’s already two-thirds of the way to being awesome; if it had eased back on the throttle a bit, Goats might not have stalled out before it made it the rest of the way.
Scott’s Take: As Noel says, this is a one-joke comedy, and one that wore thin for me about a third of the way through, when the details behind a secret military psych-ops unit are revealed and the witty back-and-forth between McGregor and a very sharp Clooney gives way to a more sprawling set of characters and complications. But in his debut feature (he and Clooney are longtime producing partners), Heslov makes a lot of bad decisions: Noel already mentioned the score, and to that I’d add the voiceover narration and his inability to harness the hippy-dippy notion of a “warrior for peace” into a coherent political statement. By the time Heslov finally breaks out the LSD and lets the mugging go completely unchecked, I had long since tuned out.
Noel's Grade: B; Scott's Grade: C


Coming Tomorrow: New films by the Coen Brothers, Jason Reitman, Nicholas Winding Refn, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont, and more. 

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