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Toronto Film Festival '09: Day 7

Director/Country/Time: Bong Joon-ho/South Korea/129 min.
Cast: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: When a woman’s mentally handicapped son is accused of murder, she investigates what really happened
Noel’s Take: The best murder mystery stories start small and build out, becoming more about the community where the crime took place, as well as the changing character of the detectives who look deep into the hearts of killers. In that sense, Bong Joon-ho’s Mother is a superior murder mystery. It starts with an almost pathetic crime—a mildly retarded adult accused of killing a promiscuous teenage girl—and eventually expands to take the measure of the small South Korean town where the murder took place, and of the woman who sifts through clues in order to learn the truth. The woman (played by the remarkable Kim Hye-ja) is the mother of the accused, and is seeking more than vindication for her boy. She brought this kid into the world, and taught him how to conduct himself, and if he actually killed somebody, one could argue that he’s merely the murder weapon and she’s the culprit. Like Bong’s previous films Memories Of Murder and The Host, Mother could stand a little tightening; but also like those films, Mother is a genre film that both honors conventions and weaves around them whenever possible. Bong makes Mother a classic gumshoe tale, with red herrings and interrogations and moments of sublime suspense. (Bong is way into scenes where puddles of spreading liquid cause deep anxiety.) But he has a habit of investing even minor characters with intriguing personalities, and he’s often willing to spend a little more time with them than necessary. And boy does ever he have an eye. Mother is rarely splashy with its style, but the shots are well-chosen—especially the many close-ups of Kim, as various revelations dawn on her—and when Bong builds to a dreamy, impressionistic finale, he’s earned every bleary frame.
Scott’s Take: More Memories Of Murder than The Host, Mother finds Bong returning to the small-town whodunit, but where the earlier film dealt with a community grappling with the unthinkable, this one operates on a more intimate scale. Kim’s maternal instinct to protect her son, intensified by his child-like deficiencies, takes Mother to increasingly nervy places, as she takes it upon herself to exonerate the boy. Like Noel, I think the film could be a bit tighter, but the third act pays off big time, with a pile-up of revelations that suggest both the breadth and the limits of her devotion. And Bong becomes a more confident stylist with each successive effort: He knows how to draw out suspense—some sequences here are almost Hitchcockian in their elegance—and he’s not afraid to cut the somber proceedings with quick hits of slapstick and black comedy. South Korean films are known for their tonal schizophrenia, but Bong has more control than most; the mix of comedy, drama, and suspense in his work is not jarring, but responsive to the complexity of human life. It’s a supreme compliment to say that at the end of Mother, you appreciate the many sides of the eponymous character while still finding her mysterious. 
Noel’s Grade: A-; Scott's Grade: A-

Schmatta: Rags To Riches To Rags
Director/Country/Time: Marc Levin/USA/75 min.
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: The clothes-making business in the USA ain’t what it used to be
Noel’s Take: The rise and fall of New York’s garment district gets a brisk overview in Schmatta, an HBO doc that tells an interesting story in a straightforward way. Beginning with the early 20th century sweatshops—and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that raised public awareness of the horrific conditions—Schmatta traces how the rise of the unions and the influx of Jewish, Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants helped transform NYC into the fashion capital of the world, in terms of design and manufacture. Early union leaders had housing built, and the most powerful garmentos played hardball with every link in the distribution chain, setting prices that assured everyone could make a good living. Then a succession of U.S. presidents (starting with Kennedy) began relaxing regulations on imports and exports, such that foreign manufacturers began competing in ways that the American labor unions couldn’t match. And despite appeals to the public conscience—remember those “Look For The Union Label” ads in the ‘70s?—low prices carried the day. Director Marc Levin holds to the conventional documentary approach of stock footage and talking heads, and he zips through a century of change so fast that a lot gets shortchanged. (When Levin just touches on the rise of designers as celebrities and the decline of the American department store, he seems to undersell key elements of what this story is really about.) But there’s something affecting about the way Levin begins with sweatshops in New York and then comes full circle with sweatshops (and a tragic fire) overseas. And it's moving when his interview subjects recall the glory years, and how the industry was a ticket to the middle class for immigrants fresh off the boat. Schmatta makes a persuasive case—more persuasive than Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, really—that when any business stops caring if all its workers are taken care of, even the people at the top will eventually start to fail. Grade: B

Soul Kitchen
Director/Country/Time: Fatih Akin/Germany/99 min.
Cast: Adam Bousdoukos, Moritz Bleibtreu, Birol Ünel, Anna Bederke, Udo Kier
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Struggling restaurateur has a series of lucky breaks, followed by a series of unlucky ones
Noel’s Take: Sometimes “broad” has its advantages. Fatih Akin’s rollicking, beat-crazy foodie comedy Soul Kitchen traffics in outsized characters and predictable plot turns, and yet it’s one of the most purely entertaining movies I’ve seen at this festival. Adam Bousdoukos plays the chef/owner of a not-so-successful restaurant, known for its fried food, well-stocked bar and policy of spinning vintage R&B over its sound system. When the movie opens, Bousdoukos’ journalist girlfriend is about to head to China for an extended stint as a correspondent, his burglar brother is asking for a fake job so that he can take part in a work-release program, and both the tax department and the health department are demanding significant outlays of cash lest they close his place down (a turn of events that would please one of Bousdoukos’ old friends, who wants to buy the property). But then Bousdoukos meets a hotshot chef who needs a job; and one of his waiters starts using the restaurant as a practice space for his rock band, which draws an unexpected crowd. Using the talent at hand, Bousdoukos starts to make a go of things—that is, until that same talent starts to turn on him. There’s scarcely an incident in Soul Kitchen that audiences won’t see coming a mile away, but Akin doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence either; at a certain point he just stops telling us things, assuming we’ll be able to fill in the blanks ourselves. And unlike too many movies I saw at this year’s fest, Soul Kitchen isn’t lousy with backstory. We know all we need to know about these characters within the first 10 minutes, and then we’re off to the races. And race we do. More than anything, the reason I liked Soul Kitchen is that it moves quickly and jovially from point to point, never taking itself too seriously. It has all the energy of Akin’s Head On, but none of the angst. And though it’s not as substantial a meal as Head On, it is a tasty snack.
Scott’s Take: After the austere, multi-tiered puzzle picture The Edge Of Heaven, Akin returns to the rambunctious spirit of his breakthrough (and best) feature Head-On, but the surprise—and not an unhappy one, believe it or not—is how conventional Soul Kitchen turns out to be. This isn’t the nervy l’amour fou of Head-On, but an open-hearted and cheerfully wacky crowd-pleaser with great music and a shaggy, catastrophe-prone hero who gets put through the ringer for his modest dreams. Akin goes broad, as Noel says, but the formulaic aspects of Soul Kitchen are countered by its invigorating energy and the quirky particularities of his cast. (I especially like Birol Ünel as a chef with a temperament that lies somewhere between Tony Shalhoub in Big Night and Gordon Ramsey on Hell’s Kitchen. Then again, most chefs probably wouldn’t take kindly to requests to “heat up” the gazpacho.) As of this writing, the film still hadn’t found a distributor, which tells you something about the timidity of the market right now; if you can’t make a hit out of this thing, give it up. 
Noel’s Grade: B+; Scott's Grade: B+

Whip It
Director/Country/Time: Drew Barrymore/ USA/ 111 min.
Cast: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Juliette Lewis
Program: Special Presentation
Headline: A neglected sport finally gets its own movie
Scott’s Take: Barrymore’s directorial debut is almost exactly the movie you’d expect from her, based on her performances and the films backed by her production company, Flower Films: A light, ingratiating, femme-centered ensemble piece with a positive message and even a romantic comedy element, because she certainly knows her way around those, too. Ellen Page stars as a restless small-town type who falls into the underground roller derby scene, despite mother Marcia Gay Harden’s fixation on raising a beauty pageant queen. As the scrappy, up-and-coming star of a losing squad—flanked by Kristen Wiig, Eve, Zoe Bell, and Barrymore—Page (derby name: “Babe Ruthless”) becomes a sensation in her secret gig, setting up a confrontation with Juliette Lewis’ fearsome “Iron Maven.” And oh yeah, there’s also a hunky young rocker crushing on her, but that could have been excised from the film without anyone telling the difference. (Having a romantic element must be a reflex for Barrymore at this point.) Whip It generates a lot of good will—and the mostly kind reviews here reflect that—but Barrymore, like many actors, isn’t necessarily a naturally born director. Given the speed and violence (and yes, sexsploitation) that define the sport, the roller derby scenes should really pop, but they have a workmanlike quality that isn’t helped by a lack of clarity over the rules and scoring. Whip It always seems a beat or two behind the action on every front—the jokes, the drama, and even the brutal stiff-armed takedowns all fall a little flat. Grade: C+

Noel's Final TIFF Grades (in rough order of preference)

A-: A Serious Man; MotherA Prophet; Videocracy
B+: Antichrist; Up In The Air; Wild Grass; Vincere; Youth In Revolt; The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights; Soul Kitchen; A Town Called Panic; Precious; The Most Dangerous Man In America; Waking Sleeping Beauty
B: The Disappearance Of Alice Creed; Tales From The Golden Age; Broken Embraces; The Loved Ones; Good Hair; Cleanflix; Schmatta: Rags To Riches To Rags; The Joneses; Solitary ManPetropolisThe Men Who Stare At GoatsSolomon KaneGet LowDeliver Us From Evil
B-: Father Of My Children; The Hole; Neil Young Trunk Show; Survival Of The Dead
C+: Capitalism: A Love Story; Valhalla Rising; The Ape; The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee; Phantom Pain
C: Creation
C-: L'Enfer De Henri-Georges ClouzotCairo Time 

Scott’s Final TIFF Grades (in rough order of preference)

A: Dogtooth; Collapse
A-: Mother
B+: A Prophet; Antichrist; A Serious Man; Police, Adjective; Enter The Void; Up In The Air; The Informant!; White Material; Soul Kitchen
B: The Bad Lieutenant; Face; The White Ribbon; The Invention Of Lying; Bright Star; I Killed My Mother; The Art Of The Steal
B-: Fish Tank; The Hole; Life During Wartime
C+: The Road; Hadewijch; Broken Embraces; Like You Know It All; L’Enfer De H.G. Clouzot; Whip It
C: Chloe; The Men Who Stare At Goats
D+: The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus; Jennifer’s Body
D: Trash Humpers