Toronto Film Festival '09: Day 3

Toronto Film Festival '09: Day 3

The Road
Director/Country/Time: John Hillcoat/ USA/ 119 min.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron
Program: Gala
Headline: Apocalypse soon
Scott’s Take: The good news first: Despite getting pushed back a full year for retooling, Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic odyssey isn’t a disaster by an measure; indeed, several of my critic friends were moved to tears by it. The bad news: Alas, I’m not one of them. Translating McCarthy’s unrelentingly bleak vision into a palatable feature film couldn’t have been easy—and was probably not a good idea from the start—but Hillcoat and cinematographer Javier Aguirresrobe supply some haunting images of an American landscape shrouded in ash and littered with the artifacts of an unthinkable human tragedy. And Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee also acquit themselves as a father and son who trudge across a barren country where nothing grows and the scant survivors are often reduced to desperate marauders and cannibals. Yet the really bleak part is the realization that father and son are not surviving so much as staving off death; human life will eventually be extinguished no matter what they do, so “the road” of the title basically leads to nowhere. Someone like Michael Haneke would have no trouble embracing this material’s uncompromising dreariness—in fact, Haneke already did his own post-apocalypse film in Time Of The Wolf—but Hillcoat’s version is a little soft and, in the closing minutes, regrettably sentimental. The constant threat of death, whether through an extended period of starvation or an attack from zombified savages, should sustain a low-level tension throughout, but The Road is mysteriously flat, hobbling from scene to scene without giving them much individual life. Points off also for the surprisingly cloying Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score, which damages a film that needs to earn its hard-won emotions.
Grade: C+


The Ape
Director/Country/Time: Jesper Ganslandt/Sweden/81 min.
Cast: Olle Sarri, Francoise Joyce, Niclas Gillis
Program: Vanguard
Headline: Man wakes up the morning after a tragic event and tries to figure out what to do with his day
Noel’s Take: Dardennes-style follow-shots abound in this short, punchy drama about the evolving day of a man still reeling from something awful that happened the night before. Revealing that something awful in this review would sort of spoil the movie—which is precisely what's wrong with The Ape. Writer-director Jesper Ganslandt leans too heavy in his central mystery, hoping we won't notice that without it, The Ape is more or less just another European "guy walks around" movie, low on dialogue and incident. Reportedly Ganslandt didn't give his star Olle Sarri his script pages until shortly before shooting each scene, and while that's a neat idea for an acting exercise, Sarri's cluelessness doesn't really add anything to the film. Like the audience, Sarri doesn't know whether a scene is meant to be laced with irony, or pathos, or suspense. It all just sort of is. Yet despite Ganslandt’s misguided M.O., The Ape is still fairly haunting, if only because after spending so much time trying to piece together the clues of what's happening, we're left with lots of disturbing questions when the movie ends abruptly. That’s the effect I'm sure Ganslandt was trying to achieve. But he takes a rough road to get there.
Grade: C+

Cleanflix
Director/Country/Time: Andrew James & Joshua Ligari/USA/85 min.
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: Mormon video stores fight for the right to not party
Noel’s Take: No doubt many of you recall the hubbub that ensued several years back when a group of Mormon businessmen and video retailers began selling "sanitized" versions of big Hollywood movies like Titanic. The Directors Guild Of America first protested then sued, arguing that no one’s allowed to bowdlerize their work without permission. The Cleanflixers argued back that what they're selling is essentially what the studios themselves offer to airlines and television; and anyway, they're altering copies of movies that were legally purchased, so the studios and creators are duly compensated. Doesn't a consumer have a right to do whatever he or she wants with his or her property? The documentary Cleanflix deals with these thorny ethical and aesthetic questions, and adds another wrinkle to the story when it follows Daniel Thompson, a video store owner rumored to be involved with illegal duplication, fraud and sexual indiscretion. Cleanflix can be a little one-note as it rehashes its central issues over and over; and the film's style falls too much into the breezy, bouncy modern doc mold. But Daniel's story deepens what Cleanflix is about. The real story isn't just about intellectual property; it's about the daily difficulties that the devoutly religious have in trying to participate in mainstream American culture while retaining as much of the purity of their own beliefs as they can. To some extent, the filmmakers fighting the clean-up business are contending that their work grapples with the ugly, messy, sexy world that some Mormons would rather not confront, and that the PG versions actually do their viewers a disservice. Certainly what ultimately happens to Daniel (in turns of events loaded with irony upon irony) proves that avoiding R-rated movies may not mean that you avoid an R-rated life.
Grade: B

Face
Director/Country/Time: Tsai Ming-liang/ France-Taiwan/ 141 min.
Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Laetitia Casta, Fanny Ardant
Program: Visions
Headline: A master of deadpan alienation produces his opus
Scott’s Take: The latest from Tsai Ming-liang, the fine Taiwanese director responsible for such exquisitely melancholic (and often hilariously deadpan) films as The River and What Time Is It There?, plays like a greatest hits of auteur tropes, but this one’s for fans only. The Cannes crowd reportedly hated it, and I can see why to a degree: Here’s a film so determinedly confounding that we don’t find out that what the movie-within-a-movie is dramatizing until 110 minutes into it. Instead, there’s an assemblage of conceits that have found their way into Tsai films past: An obsession with water (which leads to what might be the funniest setpiece he’s ever done), sexual aberration and grief within a family, the strange and referential use of iconic movie stars (in this case, Fanny Ardant and Jean-Pierre Léaud, though others turn in cameos), colorful musical sequences that pop up out of nowhere, et al. Though elusive as a whole, Face is always gorgeous to watch and intermittently astounding in bits and pieces. The aforementioned water setpiece, involving a busted sink, reasserts Tsai’s (and muse Lee Kang-sheng’s) allegiance to Buster Keaton, and the musical interludes are all strikingly conceived, especially a lovely number in a river tunnel and another that’s all dance, no music. And if you’ve ever wanted to watch Fanny Ardant haul a stag head down a spiral staircase, this is your chance.
Grade: B

George A. Romero's Survival Of The Dead
Director/Country/Time: George Romero/USA/90 min.
Cast: Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Devon Bostick
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: How will the dead survive?
Noel’s Take: I'm a pretty big fan of George Romero's zombie movies, to the extent that I'd put the original Dawn Of The Dead in my personal Top Ten Favorite Movies Of All Time, but even I was underwhelmed by Romero’s recent "reboot" zombie effort Diary Of The Dead, which struck me as largely witless and strained. The sequel Survival Of The Dead follows one of Diary’s minor characters—a rogue soldier, leading a band of scavengers—as he heads toward an island rumored to be safe haven. There he and his crew discover two long-feuding families who have conflicting ideas of how to handle the coming plague. One group wants to kill all zombies on sight; the other says that since these zombies are family, they need to be caged and preserved until a cure for zombie-ism is one day found. Unlike Diary, Survival is an honest-to-goodness movie, shot with decent locations and actors and effects, and with a script that’s classically Romero-ian in its emphasis on how people solve their problems in stages. (Got to head to the thing in order to get the thing that allows you to do the other thing, etc.) But while it’s a more likeable movie overall, Survival lacks the kind of grand theme that gives the best Romero zombie movies their oomph. There’s a little here about family values and religious indoctrination, but not enough to generate any satirical heat. Plus, Romero’s increasingly begun to play to a core base of fans who like to dress up as zombies and cheer on every clever kill in the movie. Survival has lots of those clever kills; it just doesn’t provide much of a reason for them to exist.
Grade: B-


The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
Director/Country/Time: Terry Gilliam/ Canada-U.K./ 122 min.
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Tom Waits
Program: Gala
Headline: Mr. Gilliam’s Wonder Emporium
Scott’s Take: I’m normally of the opinion that artists should free rein to express themselves; any outside interference from The Man will only cloud the purity of their vision. That’s not the case with Terry Gilliam: Someone very large needs to sit on him, or else he’s going to continue to make unmoored fantastical calamities like Tideland or this dull, confusing repository of visual ideas. The story, such as it goes, follows the ageless Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his three-person performance troupe as they put on a traveling roadshow that’s met with apathy or derision in contemporary London. Meanwhile, Parnassus and a devilish adversary (Tom Wait) are locked in a centuries-long pact that gives him immortality and imaginative powers, but with his daughter as collateral. Heath Ledger appears as a mysterious stranger who joins the gang, and it says something about the film’s loose conception that Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law were brought in to complete the late actor’s performance, and it’s not in the least bit jarring. The “imaginarium” of the title gives Gilliam carte blanche to fiddle with wild digital effects, but for lack of a better word, the film could stand to be more conventional, if only to provide some much-needed contrast. Doctor Parnassus is all flights of fancy, and the manic tone gets exhausting fast. As for Ledger, Gilliam and company have sweetly refashioned the film as tribute within a fantasy, but The Dark Knight will be the more lasting monument to his talent.
Grade: D+



The Loved Ones
Director/Country/Time: Sean Byrne/Australia/84 min.
Cast: Xavier Samuel, Victoria Thaine, Robin McLeavy
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: High school is torture, even in Australia
Noel’s Take: Maybe it's because everyone in The Loved Ones has shaggy retro hair and listens to heavy metal, but this Aussie high school horror flick feels a lot closer to classic drive-in fare than the recent spate of slicked-up American exploitation remakes. I can't say there's much original here. Writer-director Sean Byrne inverts some horror stereotypes by making the movie about a misfit teen who kidnaps the boy she loves on prom night (and proceeds to torture him). But mainly Byrne just throws together a bunch of familiar characters, scenes and images: pot-smoking, sex in cars, backwoods freak families, dudes strapped to chairs, CHUDs, whatnot. And there's no real social message here either, outside of the usual Australian movie mockery of common folks' questionable taste. (And maybe something about non-traditional families too, though it’s pretty vague.) What sets the movie apart is the tightness of its plotting and the relative depth of its characterization. Byrne uses every part of the buffalo, so to speak. He turns each plot point into an extra scare or gag, and he gives each character an additional twist. (One would-be victim recently lost her brother; another's a suicidal metalhead, and so on.) In the end all this extra care only makes The Loved Ones an especially efficient cheap thrill machine, and nothing more. But that’s a throwback kind of thing too.
Grade: B

The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers
Director/Country/Time: Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmith/USA/93 min.
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: A bureaucrat who leaked state secrets tells his story
Noel’s Take: The existence of the documentaries The Fog Of War and Secrecy reduces some of the relevance of this film about noted traitor/patriot Daniel Ellsberg. But only some. When it comes to a discussion of how we blundered in Vietnam and how sometimes our government hides too much from we the people then yes, The Most Dangerous Man covers well-trod ground. But Ellsberg's journey from being a Marine and a war-planner to risking prison for stealing classified documents is one rich with meaningful detail. It's a story about the arrogance of brilliant men, the days when newspapers had means and relevance, and the ways secrets can become sort of self-protecting, binding world leaders in an exclusive club of silence. This documentary doesn't do anything special with the material it's presenting, but the material itself is strong, and the filmmakers stay out of its way. Smart move, and smart movie.
Grade: B+


Trash Humpers
Director/Country/Time: Harmony Korine/ USA/ 78 min.
Cast: Rachel Korine, Brian Kotzur, Harmony Korine
Program: Visions
Headline: Jackass 3 or the reinvention of cinema itself?
Scott’s Take: At this point, I feel like anything bad I have to say about a Harmony Korine film is just taking the bait; he’s a provocateur, after all, and what good is a provocateur without stuffy critics to game? Trash Humpers reduces the Korine aesthetic to its bare essentials: He’s still interested in the random destruction and raw pathology of backwater grotesques, but even the thin narrative tissue of movies like Gummo has been cut away, as has such bourgeois concerns as composition, pacing, and the meaningful relationship between one scene and the next. At 78 minutes, it’s easily the longest film I’ve seen at the festival, following the misadventures of three trash (and tree and fire hydrant) humpers who look like crippled castaways from The Hills Have Eyes. Captured via surveillance-quality video that look like unearthed ‘80s home movies, they do the sort of things that Korine characters tend to do: Smash stuff, tap dance on broken glass, and launch into inane ramblings that speak to the “American Nightmare” (or whatever such lame pressbook platitudes that are commonly employed to lend importance to indie film’s reigning poseur). A monologue about the benefits of living headless offers a flicker of comedic life, but Trash Humpers is mostly Korine pushing buttons and calling it art. When the abused plastic dolls—a cliché of lost innocence that needs immediate retirement—are replaced by an actual infant later in the film, I was ready to call Child Protective Services.
Grade: D


Waking Sleeping Beauty
Director/Country/Time: Don Hahn/USA/86 min.
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: Once upon a time, a group of young animation buffs and corporate stooges accidentally saved Disney
Noel’s Take: The Disney smash The Little Mermaid is a delightful movie in and of itself, but at the time of its release it was just as exciting for what it represented. Disney animation had been in a prolonged creative and commercial slump prior to Mermaid, such that there'd been talk of the studio getting out of the cartoon biz altogether. Don Hahn's documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty tells the story of how Disney animation regained its luster. Hahn was there at the time, working in the animation department in the early '80s, right when Walt's Nine Old Men were dying and the young bucks from Cal Arts (like Tim Burton and John Lasseter) were starting to strain against the shrinking budgets and institutional indifference. Waking Sleeping Beauty has the sensibility you might expect from a doc by Disney lifer: it's slick and light, dressed up with cutesy drawings and a lush, wall-to-wall score. But Waking Sleeping Beauty isn't some fancied-up DVD featurette. Hahn has a rich store of home movies and Disney promotional materials—which don't always tell the same story—and he has close relationships with all the principals, who go beneath the usual myth of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg as the saviors of the Disney brand and tell the real story of the infighting, financial considerations, and technical advancements that really sparked the renaissance. It's a fascinating tale (especially for aficionados), well-relayed by Hahn.
Grade: B+

Wild Grass
Director/Country/Time: Alain Resnais/France/104 min.
Cast: André Dussollier, Sabine Azéma, Mathieu Almaric, Emmanuelle Devos, Anne Cosigny
Program: Masters
Headline: Late-middle-aged man and woman take turns being enchanted and irritated with each other
Noel’s Take: I confess I haven't kept up with late period Alain Resnais, primarily because I've always been more a grudging admirer than a fervent fan of the director's '50s/'60s classics. It's my understanding that Resnais has taken a turn toward the frothy in the last decade or so, and I can certainly see that in Wild Grass, a movie so good-natured and ebullient that it's impossible to tell how much of it is a put-on. André Dussollier plays a 50ish gentleman who finds a wallet on the ground, admires the pictures he finds inside, and tries to come up with the best way to get its owner to meet with him. The owner, Sabine Azéma, isn't at all interested... until, inexplicably, halfway through the film, she is. And it's here where a beguilingly mysterious romantic comedy goes utterly bugnuts. What seemed initially like charming character eccentricities (he's got a wife and a shady past; she's a dentist and part-time pilot) becomes more obviously random as the plot begins to zig and zag, as though Resnais were spinning a wheel to determine the direction of each scene. Wild Grass might be some kind of dream-narrative, or it might be Resnais commenting on the infinite possibilities of stories. Whatever it is, it's bright and funny and frequently enchanting. The music is sweet even if the words are nonsense.
Grade: B+


Tomorrow: New films by Michael Moore, Ricky Gervais, Hong Sang-soo, as well as the top prize-winner in Venice and the latest critical darling from Romania.