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Toronto Film Festival '09: Day 6

The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights
Director/Country/Time: Emmett Malloy/USA/93 min.
Program: Vanguard
Headline: “I can tell that we are going to be friends.”
Noel’s Take: It makes sense that the first full song in The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights would be “Let's Shake Hands.” Emmett Malloy’s unusually stylish rock-doc is about the garage-rock duo's 2007 Canadian tour, during which they played remote towns and provinces, while finding time at each tour stop to make an unusual promotional appearance. They played on city buses, boats, bowling alleys (where they rolled a full game while rocking), and they even did one free daytime show in which they only played a single note. Malloy mixes gorgeously grainy black-and-white and color footage of Jack and Meg White onstage and off; there's scarcely a shot in the movie that doesn't look like it couldn’t be blown up to a wall-sized poster. But there's nothing especially candid or unexpected in the interviews or travel scenes, which is a problem only because there's so much of that stuff in the movie. (The best Q&A segment is the one where Jack talks about keeping his extra picks as far away from his mic as possible during a show, in part because he likes to work a little harder and in part because he believes limitations breed creativity.) And Malloy often strings together fragments of performances at various venues, only occasionally letting a song play out from start to finish. But those full songs are—as White Stripes fans might expect—thoroughly electrifying. There’s a lot of talk in Great White Northern Lights about how Jack White tightly controls the band’s image yet creates environments in the studio and onstage where spontaneity can breed. That philosophy spills over into the way he conducts his business. There’s admittedly a major element of contrivance to the Stripes’ Icky Thump promotions in Canada, but that didn’t make them any less exciting for the fans who turned out and got some up-close time with a great band. Even the people who waited for hours for The One-Note Show will have a story to tell for years to come, of how they joined their neighbors in thrusting their fists into the air and pleading, “One more note! One more note!” Grade: B+


Enter The Void
Director/Country/Time: Gaspar Noé/ France/ 155 min.
Cast: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy
Program: Vanguard
Headline: “Dying is the ultimate trip”
Scott’s Take: If you’ve seen Noé’s Irreversible and you’re not jaded beyond all human comprehension, you’ll remember the sick feeling of that long opening descent in “Le Rectum,” as a swirling camera follows two men down, down, down into a pit of depravity. It’s physically one of the toughest sequences I’ve ever had to sit through, and the Cannes audience at its notorious premiere screening started filing out en masse. With that in mind, who could have guessed that the “Le Rectum” sequence would be mere prelude to Noé’s follow-up feature, an acid-soaked phantasmagoria that employs the same first-person, tilt-a-whirl camera technique for a full 155 minutes? As a formal achievement, Enter The Void goes further out on a limb than anything I’ve seen at this festival, and even Noé-haters (and they are legion) have to admire the go-for-broke audacity of such a relentless assault on the senses. Yet while the film is disorienting and intense—and at our screening, was explicitly not recommended to epileptics—it’s also hypnotic and immersive, a trance-like experience that feeds the shimmering neons of Tokyo at night into a hallucinogenic headtrip. (No distributor has stepped up for a whole host of reasons, but I could see the drug-addled midnight audiences of today embracing it in the same way cult audiences of yesteryear embraced El Topo or Liquid Sky.) Sadly, Noé’s technical wizardry far outpaces his oft-inane scenario, which concerns a fucked-up drug dealer (Nathaniel Brown) who tries to reconnect with his equally fucked-up sister (Paz de la Huerta), but his stupidity gets in the way. Noé cribs from sources as varied as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tibetan Book Of The Dead to lend significance to the lives of young people cast adrift, but they’re fundamentally unworthy of it. (Important note: I’m not writing off the film as a vacuous stylistic exercise just yet, however. It’s really hard to process on a single viewing.) There’s no question that many people will be (and have been) repulsed by Enter The Void, but I pray that Noé converts (or the adventurous in general) will have a chance to experience the film on the largest possible screen. It’s the ne plus ultra of arthouse spectacle. Grade: B+

The Hole
Director/Country/Time: Joe Dante/USA/98 min.
Cast: Chris Massoglia, Haley Bennett, Nathan Gamble, Teri Polo, Bruce Dern
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Latchkey kids discover portal to dimension of fear
Noel’s Take: Given director Joe Dante’s career-long preoccupation with corny old B-movies (and how they comfort and entertain small-town oddballs), he would seem to be the ideal person to direct a good-spirited 3D horror movie about a haunted pit in the basement of a respectable exurban home. But while Dante provides The Hole with a coat of polish and a handful of good fright gags (the best one involving a persistent clown puppet), on the whole the movie is too controlled and too touch-feely, with little of the anarchic charm of a Gremlins 2 or the well-earned sentimentality of Matinee. And until a climactic sequence that takes place in a supernatural realm, Dante doesn’t do a lot with the 3D either. Still, there’s an ease to The Hole that makes it pretty likeable even when it’s not doing very much. Leaving aside the “confronting your darkest fear” premise (and the geyser of backstory it unearths), The Hole contains the essence of a Dante film: a kid, his brother, a girl next door, and some bad, bad juju.
Scott’s Take: There are many levels to a great Dante movie—clever movie-movie references, sly political commentary, an anarchic, Warner Brothers cartoon sensibility—that the minor pleasures of The Hole were not enough to suppress my disappointment. Dante wanted to make a horror movie that could be accessible to the whole family (or the older kids, anyway), and he succeeds by that modest standard; there are some nice shocks here and the 3D effects are spare, but good when they matter. Also good are some of the small comic touches, like kids who are grateful that this bottomless, fear-exploiting hellpit is helping them stave off small-town boredom, or a sequence when they lower various items (including a talking Eric Cartman doll) down the abyss. But the film loses steam once the mysteries of the hole are revealed, and the baroque, German Expressionist-inspired finale looks like a cheap rendering of a Tim Burton set. There’s nothing especially wrong with The Hole overall, but Dante is better than passable time-wasters. 
Noel’s Grade: B-; Scott's Grade: B-

I Killed My Mother (J’ai Tué Ma Mère)
Director/Country/Time: Xavier Dolan/ Canada/ 100 min.
Cast: Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: High-schooler comes to terms with the mother he resents
Scott’s Take: With his raw, precocious debut feature, 19-year-old Québécois writer-director-star Xavier Dolan crushed the Director’s Fortnight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. And he easily won over the partisan crowd at tonight’s public screening, which exploded in applause not just after the movie, but during it. Though sometimes ill-judged and extremely rough-around-the-edges, Dolan’s coming-of-age tale is also piercing, artful, humorous, and true, as nakedly personal as the scribblings of an adolescent’s diary. Dolan stars as a gay teenager and Anne Dorval plays his mother, who answers his constant aggravation at her with plenty of browbeating of her own. Things get so bad that she’s forced to send her son to a faraway boarding school, which of course deepens his resentment. Dolan handles this relationship with an abundance of compassion; it’s one thing for him to be in touch with his own character’s feelings, but he also recognizes his youthful narcissism may be the most toxic element of this relationship. Though I Killed My Mother has its share of problems—the confrontations are often overheated and shout-y, and most of the scenes are framed in awkward two-shots—Dolan is an expressive, boundlessly energetic figure on both sides of the camera. This is one of those surprising, formative works that could announce a major new filmmaker or lead to a Tenenbaums-style burnout; either way, the film makes you feel optimistic about the next generation. Grade: B

Life During Wartime
Director/Country/Time: Todd Solondz/ USA/ 96 min.
Cast: Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Ciarán Hinds
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Happiness 2: Still Unhappy
Scott’s Take: The plus side to the auteur-driven fare that populates international film festivals? Directors with a clear, unmistakable vision and a rigorous set of motifs and stylistic signatures they employ over the arc of their careers. The down side? Same damned thing. Throughout TIFF ’09, at least during films that have disappointed me, I’ve found myself mumbling, “Yeah, that’s what you’re all about [Dumont, Almodovar, Gilliam, et al.].” Take Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’s semi-sequel/companion piece to his 1998 opus Happiness: It’s being heralded as the dawning of a more “mature” Solondz—and granted, the funereal tone of many scenes and Ed Lachman’s elegant photography would seem to indicate that. But make no mistake, this is still the same filmmaker, a blunt (and often funny) provocateur who picks the scabs of emotionally vulnerable outcasts and losers. With ample callbacks to Happiness—most explicitly in the very first scene—Life During Wartime considers the aftermath, when sins have already been committed and characters ponder whether forgiveness and redemption are even possible. They include Shirley Henderson (a Jane Adams type), who retreats to her family in Florida after her ex-con husband (Michael Kenneth Williams, a.k.a. “Omar” in The Wire); Allison Janney, who’s seeing someone new (Michael Lerner) after her own ex-husband was sent up the river on pedophilia charges; and Ciarán Hinds as the pedophile in question, trying to reconnect with his Bar Mitzvah-age son after his release. Cruelty is the lifeblood of any Solondz film, and Life During Wartime is no exception, though his newfound austerity makes the brittle gags crack a little harder and gives the forgiveness theme some weight. But really, how you feel about Solondz movies in general will probably determine how you’ll feel about this one. He’s not winning any converts. Grade: B-

Solitary Man
Director/Country/Time: Brian Koppelman & David Levien/USA/90 min.
Cast: Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Jenna Fischer, Danny DeVito, Jesse Eisenberg, Mary-Louise Parker, Imogen Poots
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Old age in revolt
Noel’s Take: There are three movies happening simultaneously in Solitary Man, only two of which are good. The not-so-good one—the one that dominates, unfortunately—is the story of a rogue shooting for a renaissance. Michael Douglas plays a disgraced, divorced car dealer, trying to get his business back in order in between trying to score with every lady between 18 and 35 in the immediate vicinity. This is the fussy, script-driven Solitary Man, an overwritten drama stuffed with too many stars and structured so that almost every scene is about trying to reveal Douglas’ backstory as obliquely as possible. Handled well, this approach to motion picture storytelling can be effective—more show than tell, as the scriptwriting seminars preach—but when it’s obvious that’s what the screenwriters are doing, the gears do grind loudly. The second movie nested in Solitary Man—the one that doesn't show up often enough, in my opinion—is about a man of rare eloquence and honesty, sharing his views on salesmanship and sex with anyone who'll listen. The film opens with Douglas being told about an irregularity on his EKG, which he decides not to follow up on, choosing instead to live his life as though he could die at any moment. He speaks his mind and wields his expertise, and he’s fun to watch even as he's driving away everyone he ever loved. Which brings us to the third movie—the one that balances the problems of the first. This is Solitary Man the star vehicle, offering Douglas in layered charmer mode, fully aware that his constant wooing of young girls is putting both his attempts at a business comeback (meant to be financed by his girlfriend) and his shaky family ties at risk, yet unable to stop himself from seizing every available opportunity. For the most part A Solitary Man is a needlessly sly movie about the kind of things that Hollywood screenwriters are too preoccupied with (infidelity, becoming sexually undesirable, losing touch with the kids) but Douglas makes all the contrivances feel like the important, soul-testing dilemmas that confront us all. He encourages the audience to lean in and watch him close, to pick up a few tips on how to look cool while melting your own world down. Grade: B

Tales From The Golden Age
Director/Country/Time: Cristian Mungiu, Ioana Uricaru, Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu & Constantin Popescu/Romania/138 min.
Cast: Alexandru Potocean, Teo Corban, Emanuel Pirvu, Vlad Ivanov, Tania Popa
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Iubesc the ‘80s
Noel’s Take: For Tales From The Golden Age, 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days writer-director Cristian Mungiu invites four young Romanian filmmakers to join him in helming five mostly comic short films (all scripted by Mungiu) about the quirks and absurdities of life in the Ceausescu era. I’ve enjoyed the recent wave of Romanian films for their wit, tension, and clever plotting, all of which are present in Tales From The Golden Age as well. Yet I couldn’t help but feel like this anthology film was more of a notebook-clearing exercise for Mungiu than something with a clear purpose. The stories are all fairly engaging and amusing in their detail, whether they’re relaying an anecdote about a policeman who tried to kill a pig by gassing it in his kitchen or they’re showing the sad lot of a horny deliveryman. I liked them all enough that I wish they’d been worked into a single, unified film (or maybe used as scenes in several future films) rather than in this patchwork way. Arguably only two of these tales (one about a state visit to a remote village, and one about a high school girl who meets a charismatic grifter) are strong enough to stand alone as short films, or even as short stories. In its disconnected way, Tales From The Golden Age mostly plays like a series of pointed satires aimed at a sociopolitical system that no longer exists. They’re fairly keen satires; just a little late to the party. Grade: B

A Town Called Panic
Director/Country/Time: Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar/Belgium/75 min.
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Le Toy Story
Noel’s Take: It took me a while to get on the wavelength of this wacky Belgian claymation comedy, mainly because I assumed—perhaps because it's being featured in the festival's Midnight Madness program—that A Town Called Panic was intended to be subversive and/or smartass, like Team America or Robot Chicken. But while this movie about a community of plastic children’s toys isn't strictly for kids—it's too rough-and-tumble for the really wee ones—it's more fanciful and light than it is sarcastic. It's all about a serious-minded Horse who lives with a not-too-bright Cowboy and Indian, in a town with Farmer, Policeman, Postman, etc. Over the course of an hour-plus, Horse and friends have their house crushed by 50 million bricks, journey to the center of the Earth, foil a plot by arctic scientists to hurl long-range snowballs with a penguin robot... y'know, the usual stuff that a preteen with an overactive imagination might come up with if left alone with a farm playset for an afternoon. It's all more clever than funny, but it's very clever. This is the kind of movie where if you wait around long enough, you will see a horse in a Santa Claus suit, riding on a manta ray in order to dupe a race of wall-stealing fish people. Adjust your expectations accordingly. Grade: B+

Tomorrow: Big finish, with the latest from Faith Akin and Bong Joon-Ho