Toronto Film Festival '09: Day 2

Toronto Film Festival '09: Day 2

A Serious Man
Director/Country/Time: Joel & Ethan Coen/USA/105 min.
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Adam Arkin
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: In a late '60s Minnesota suburb, a stressed-out physics professor tries to ascertain the will of God
Noel’s Take: A Serious Man finds the Coen brothers off in their own headspace more than usual, making another of their era-pastiches—the late '60s this time—mixed with their version of profound philosophical inquiry. Unlike most Coen films in this mold, A Serious Man isn’t bound to any particular genre. Reportedly based on the brothers' own Jewish suburban upbringing, A Serious Man follows a few weeks in the life of upstanding family man Michael Stuhlbarg, whose troubles are mounting so quickly that they’re almost hard to track. His wife wants a divorce, his tenure application has been threatened by anonymous letters questioning his morals, his son's a pothead, his brother's crashing on his couch, his next door neighbor's encroaching on his property line, and on and on and on. But there’s some good in Stuhlbarg’s life too. His son's preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, for one; and his foxy next-door neighbor has gotten into the habit of sunbathing naked, which helps brighten any day. The problem is that everything happening to Stuhlbarg, good and bad, either ends up costing him money or putting his mortal soul at risk. And when he turns to God for answers, the signals are as fuzzy as the reception on his TV. A Serious Man is wholly a Coen brothers movie, in that it's full of exaggerated characters and comic cruelty, anchored to a way of looking at the world that seems to posit a fundamental absence of real meaning. And yet there's something sweet and even a little heartening about the movie too. Maybe it's because the lead character is arguably the most sympathetic Coens protagonist since Nic Cage in Raising Arizona. Maybe it's the rich detail of middle-class Jewish life, as it coexists with heartland Americana. Or maybe it's just that even if they honestly believe there's no point to it all, the Coens are still curious enough to consider the deeper meaning in a Jefferson Airplane song, or the Columbia Record Club. (You know, even when you do nothing, the record keep coming and coming….)
Scott’s Take: My reaction to A Serious Man echoes my response to Burn After Reading last year: It seems like a trifle, but upon reflection (and conferral with Noel and other smart critic friends), there’s more under the surface. As the ultimate in put-upon Coen heroes, Stuhlberg is beset on all sides by crises that underline his weakness and ineffectuality, from his wife’s affair to an anonymous threat to his tenure to bullying from students and neighbors alike. The Coens play these elements for screwball laughs—many of them predicated on a cartoon Judaism that will likely put off Coen haters—but throughout A Serious Man, they also allow for Stuhlberg’s situation to be considered as a genuine crisis of faith. Stuhlberg never once doubts the existence of God, but His presence is something else entirely, and the rabbis he consuls are no help. (One asks him to marvel at the wonders of the synagogue parking lot.) My one reservation about A Serious Man is that I didn’t find it as funny as it should have been, but a second viewing is looking essential; lack of sleep may already been dulling my senses a bit. 
Noel’s Grade: A-; Scott's Grade: B+

Up In The Air
Director/Country/Time: Jason Reitman/USA/108 min.
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Successful corporate lackey eschews attachments, finds meaning in luxury and efficiency
Noel’s Take: George Clooney is an absolutely perfect a choice to play the protagonist in Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel Up In The Air. In real life, Clooney's well-known for his jet-setting playboy lifestyle, and here he's playing a guy who avoids his family and avoids long-term romantic entanglements by spending most of his time moving from airport to airport and hotel to hotel, racking up frequent flyer miles and preferred customer points. By profession the Up In The Air Clooney's a firer-for-hire, paid by corporations to explain termination packages to downsized employees. But he's also a self-help guru, giving seminars on how people can "empty their backpacks"—both literally and metaphorically. The hero's dilemma/philosophy is best illustrated when his sister mails him a cardboard cutout of a family member that Clooney can’t quite fit into his suitcase. This is a guy who has shrunk his world to such a degree that even a little change sticks out. And yet the cutout joke illustrates the main problem with Up In The Air  too. As funny and true as the movie often is, it’s also very telegraphed in terms of what it wants the audience to understand about Clooney’s character and the life he leads. There’s nothing especially challenging about what Reitman wants to put across (unless the ideas that unemployment sucks and that people need people have fallen out of favor). Even Reitman’s use of Sharon Jones’s cover of “This Land Is Your Land” over the opening credits seems to miss the point, because Clooney’s character doesn’t fly across the country in order to reclaim America for himself; he does it so he can stay nestled in the bosom of his favorite airport lounges. Still, even though Up In The Air is a small, easy pill to swallow, it does produce the desired effect. It’s amusing, and moving. And Reitman does subvert expectations here and there. There are some elements of the story that are so obvious that Reitman’s willing to let them go unexplained; and some big sentimental moments that Reitman keeps as small as he can. Plus, it’s impossible to overrate how good Reitman is with actors. Vera Farmiga is sexy and wise as Clooney’s frequent bedmate, while Anna Kendrick is a revelation as a Clooney protégée who resists his worldview while acknowledging its attractions. And of course Clooney strikes just the right tone—halfway between super-cool and sad-sack. Up In The Air may be as comforting and predictable as a hotel suite, but at least with Clooney, you know you'll be traveling first class.
Scott’s Take: Ladies and gentleman, your Best Picture winner. (Or temporary frontrunner, anyway.) I’m completely in lockstep with Noel on this movie, too: Reitman may be guilty of putting everything out on the surface—Clooney’s “single-serving” lifestyle, to frame it in Fight Club terms, will obviously not be judged as a healthy alternative to the comforts of home and hearth—but he makes smart choices, has a great sense of comic timing, and is a wizard with actors. As Noel mentioned, Clooney’s own perpetual bachelorhood makes him the only man for the role, but his casting throughout is impeccable: Vera Farmiga’s sexual chemistry with Clooney at least rates somewhere near J-Lo’s in Out Of Sight, Anna Kendrick deepens the high-strung persona she perfected as a debate champ in Rocket Science, and a parade of first-rate character actors turn up for cameo appearances. Up In The Air also benefits from timeliness: Here’s a movie about a man who fires people for a living—the list in Detroit is especially long—but one that also affirms family and personal connection as the bedrock in tough times. It’s too slick by half (and an overabundance of music montages bog down the third act), but it’s also earnest as a puppydog and an even smoother ride than Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking and Juno. Clooney’s dry wit and world-weary face give the movie its soul: Few stars that glamorous have the courage to be this self-effacing.
Noel’s Grade: B+; Scott's Grade: B+


Father Of My Children
Director/Country/Time: Mia Hansen-Love/France/110 min.
Cast: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Chiara Caselli, Alice de Lencquesaing
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Seemingly happy film producer has difficulty facing the reality of his company’s debt and his family’s need
Noel’s Take: One of the best and worst things about film festivals is the way they encourage festgoers to compare and contrast, and let the plots, style and themes of one film inform (and perhaps unduly dampen) their reaction to another. Watching Father Of My Children at the end of a long TIFF day, I couldn’t help but think about Up In The Air. Both films are to some extent about financial woes. (In Father Of My Children, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing plays a French movie producer trying to preserve his legacy by holding onto the rights to his back catalog, despite debts that may force him to sell it off.) But where Jason Reitman turns the common details of modern life into audience-friendly dramedy, complete with punchlines and big beats, Father director Mia Hansen-Love remains an intimate but non-judgmental observer of her characters, and doesn’t treat any one moment in her film with any special emphasis. For the most part the advantage here goes to Hansen-Love, if only because it’s nice not to be led along or coddled. But given the almost-novelistic structure of Father Of My Children—which juggles a half-dozen or so major characters and follows their reaction to a crisis in obsessive detail—it would be nice if it were a little more dynamic. Similarly, I thought often during the movie about A Serious Man, which is also about a guy whose problems pile up like a traffic jam. Where the Coen brothers are aggressive stylists, Hansen-Love doesn’t do much remarkable with her camera, and again, this is by design. Father Of My Children is largely about how life drifts by, and how we don’t always leave the mark in the world that we’d hoped, and so Hansen-Love resists the urge to over-dramatize or over-stress. Yet without a little brio, there’s a lingering feeling of “hmm, nothing’s really happening here” to the movie. Hansen-Love ends Father Of My Children with the song “Que Sera Sera,” intending to leave her story with a Zen-like expression of acceptance. But all I kept hearing from the director--fairly or not--was, “Whatever.”
Grade: B-

Fish Tank
Director/Country/Time: Andrea Arnold/U.K./124 min.
Cast: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing
Program: Vanguard
Headline: Everything but the kitchen sink (which is full of dirty dishes)
Scott’s Take: Though it was my first exposure to Arnold’s work—I haven’t seen her acclaimed short films or her kindly received debut feature Red RoadFish Tank struck me as a little late to the kitchen-sink realist party. Like a cross between the foul-mouthed humanity of Ken Loach’s underclass slices-of-life and the fussed-over rednecksploitation of Harmony Korine, Fish Tank stakes out a sliver of its own territory by focusing on female toughness and aggression. The performances are all first-rate, leading with young Katie Jarvis, who plays a hard-drinking, 15-year-old troublemaker who dreams of being a street-style dancer, but in the meantime crushes on her mother’s boyfriend, played by the excellent Michael Fassbender of Hunger and Inglourious Basterds fame. Jarvis’ relentless pursuit of her passions, however dangerous they might be, keeps the intensity high, but it’s Fassbender’s enigmatic character that holds the most intrigue. At times, he seems almost fatherly in his treatment of Jarvis—a scene where he gives her a mock-spanking is oddly heartbreaking in the way it embarrasses her desire for him—but at others it’s a little harder to tell what lines he’s capable of crossing. Too bad Fish Tank botches the ending so badly. Arnold excels at minute observation—the sign of a great short filmmaker—but when it comes time to bring the film to a close, she forces Jarvis into a decision that’s preposterous even by the standards of a morally wayward 15-year-old.
Grade: B-


Hadewijch
Director/Country/Time: Bruno Dumont/France/120 min.
Cast: Julie Sokolowski, David Dewaele, Yassine Salim
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The limits and rewards of devotion
Scott’s Take: After taking a break from his early religious allegories (The Life Of Jesus, L’Humanité) to do his take on the road (the notorious Twentynine Palms) and war (Flanders) movie, Dumont returns to religion again in Hadewijch, but drops the allegory part and addresses it head-on. Sure, Dumont loves his simpleton heroes—in this case Celiné (Julie Sokolowski), a young woman whose devotion to Christ is intense enough to get her kicked out of a nunnery. Told by a Mother Superior that she needs to get out and discover how her faith might apply to the real world, Celiné initially struggles to feel God’s presence—shades of A Serious Man here—but finds purpose once she connects with a pair of fundamentalist Muslims. It’s at this point that Hadewijch takes a turn for the obvious, throwing away the mysteries of Celiné’s psyche for the sake of ham-handed sociopolitical commentary. Her bullheaded piety in the face of doubt and numerous setbacks holds some fascination, but Dumont loses his way once she turns her faith into action. At this point, his work getting awfully predictable: The only big surprise in Hadewijch is that Celiné’s staunch abstinence doesn’t immediate result in a non-stop (unsimulated) rape-a-thon. This is what counts for growth, I suppose.
Grade: C+

Solomon Kane
Director/Country/Time:
Michael J. Bassett/United Kingdom/104 min.
Cast: James Purefoy, Pete Postlethwaite, Max Von Sydow
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Hellbound warrior seeks redemption through ass-kicking
Noel’s Take: As Robert E. Howard’s second-most famous pulp hero (after Conan The Barbarian), James Purefoy is oddly mercurial, looking nondescript in one scene of Michael Bassett’s swordslinging adventure Solomon Kane and then ferocious in the next. At times Purefoy seems to lack the necessary charisma to play a man who’s hounded by literal and metaphorical demons, yet even with a near-blank at the center, Solomon Kane is still very good B-movie fare, rendered with imaginative creature designs and a crisp, clear narrative (if maybe not enough moments of wit). Reminiscent at times of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven—or a Shaolin monk kung fu movie redressed in chainmail—Solomon Kane is, first and foremost, a ripping good yarn. And there have been too few of those lately in this particular movie genre.
Grade: B

The White Ribbon
Director/Country/Time: Michael Haneke, Germany/Austria/France/Italy, 145 min.
Cast: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur
Program: Masters
Headline: Village Of The Damned
Scott’s Take: How was Generation Nazi born? Though the N-word never surfaces explicitly, Haneke’s Palme D’Or winner suggests the culture of moral hypocrisy, oppression, depravity, and violence that gave rise to it. Shot in black-and-white—the first indication of a movie that’s at times stifled by its schoolmarm austerity—The White Ribbon takes place in a remote German village on the cusp of World War I. Starting with a doctor and his horse felled by tripwire, this peaceful, God-fearing town is gripped by a series of violent and disturbing acts of unknown origin. Haneke patiently surveys a society where nearly everyone’s a suspect, from stern absolutists with a mile-wide sadistic streak to spooky, conspiratorial children who are decidedly “of the corn” (or of the cabbages anyway). The “white ribbon” of the title is tied on kids to remind them of their innocence, but Haneke bluntly reminds us that innocence only exists in this village as a sacred lie. There’s much to admire in Haneke’s typically dim treatise on human nature; the ever-present threat of something random and terrible happening lends the film a queasy tension that stretches over even its most tedious moments. But it’s nonetheless a disappointment by his high standards, carried by a view of humanity’s fundamental debasement that cries out for more, well, color. Grade: B

Valhalla Rising
Director/Country/Time: Nicolas Winding Refn/Denmark/90 min.
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson, Gary Lewis, Ewan Stewart
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Ultimate Badass (Medieval Division) cracks skulls whenever he feels like it… which isn’t quite often enough
Noel’s Take: Mads Mikkelsen plays a mute, one-eyed warrior caught between Vikings and crusading Christians in Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising, an exercise in historical immersion that resembles Werner Herzog in its emphasis on sweat, toil, mud and blood. Mikkelsen kills pretty much at will, but his will is hard to read—which is partly what Valhalla Rising is about. Surrounded by men seeking The Holy Land, Mikkelsen carries within him the real wrath of God, which he wields periodically in frenzies of bone-crushing and squishy disembowelments. Refn has shown himself to be something of a poet of violence in movies like Bronson and the Pusher trilogy, but he takes himself and his reputation too seriously in Valhalla Rising, and makes a movie that looks gorgeous but lacks drive. The action—such as it is—is scored to a slow, pounding drumbeat, and that funereal tone extends to the pacing. It’s an admirable slog, but a slog nonetheless.
Grade: C+

Tomorrow: The Road, George Romero's Survival Of The Dead, plus new films by Terry Gilliam, Tsai Ming-Liang, Alain Resnais and more

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