The A.V. Club At TIFF '08: Day 0
Hey, remember the 2007 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival? When—love them or hate them—the program was filled with gotta-see films like No Country For Old Men, 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, Juno, Into The Wild, I'm Not There, The Orphanage and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead? Well, judging by the pre-fest buzz, the 2008 TIFF is proceeding under a caution flag. Whether because of the writers' strike, the steep decline in the indie-film business, or just a general malaise among filmmakers, the number of hot titles going into tomorrow's first day of screenings is surprisingly low.
Yes, there's a new Spike Lee film (the World War II adventure Miracle At St. Anna), and potential returns to form for Amerindie stalwarts Jonathan Demme and Richard Linklater (the domestic dramedy Rachel Getting Married and the period sketch Me And Orson Welles, respectively), as well as the usual assortment of world-cinema heavy-hitters like Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Arnaud Desplechin, and the Dardennes brothers. But a lot of those known quantities have already screened at Cannes to less-than-rapturous response, and the rest of this year's slate seems to be lacking much of the prospective Oscar-bait that usually props TIFF up.
So what does that mean for your two intrepid A.V. Club correspondents—and for you, our faithful readers? In short: opportunity. With less on the schedule that we have to see, we're planning to take more chances, and cover more ground than we have in years past. Generally speaking, Scott will be on the auteur beat, keeping you informed about the latest work from the world's finest, while Noel will be jumping between the fall prestige fare and the more culty titles (meaning animation, documentaries, and any foreign-language film with lots of guns). Due to some frustrating scheduling quirks, we already know we're going to miss a lot of movies that we'd like to see (and that we're sure you'll want to hear about), but we're going to make every effort to see at least five movies a day each, with very little overlap, so by the time we leave next Thursday morning, we'll have written up over 60 movies. Some will be in theaters in a few weeks, some will be competing for Oscars later this fall, some will be winning converts at arthouses next spring, and some you'll likely never hear about again.
Our daily coverage will go up every morning, and we've made a few changes to the format this year. No more separate posts; we'll now be sharing a byline. And we've come up with a streamlined capsule format, so you can get the skinny on these films quickly and easily. We'll also be including pictures—and even trailers when available—with each review, so that maybe a movie you've never heard of will have a chance to catch your eye. (Plus, if Noel can get his Flip camera to upload properly, we might even have some video to share from the press throng.)
And what better time to start than the present? Between advance screenings and screener DVDs, Scott and Noel have had the opportunity to see nine TIFF films already, and we've written them up, posting in descending order from highest-rated to lowest-rated. Enjoy, and see you tomorrow.
The Good, The Bad & The Weird
Director/Country/Time: Kim Jee-woon, South Korea, 130 min.
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung
Program: Gala Presentations
Headline: Korean bandits fight the Japanese, the Russians, the Chinese, and each other in '30s Manchuria.
Noel's Take: It's hard to knock any movie that opens with an eye-popping train-robbery sequence, followed by a balls-out siege, and then a neat heist—especially when all that action has such a keen thematic purpose. I've read complaints that The Good, The Bad & The Weird is hard to follow, but it's not really the kind of movie where the plot is paramount anyway. Here's about all you need to know: a bunch of people want to get their hands on a map that may or may not lead to a fortune. Guns blaze, horses and trains get hijacked, and tentative deals are struck in dark rooms—though those deals go out the window once trouble starts. Director Kim—who previously made the deeply creepy horror flick A Tale Of Two Sisters—nods to Peckinpah and Leone, but also to Eastwood, Boetticher, Walsh, and Mann. This is a Western homage that knows its stuff. (And arguably rides in the same pack with some of its influences in a climactic 20-minute horse-vs.-motorcycle chase through the desert.) But what I like most about The Good, The Bad & The Weird is how well it establishes what it's about from the start, in that train-robbery sequence, where the various factions and their competing interests converge all at once—each with their own well-thought-out plans. The Good, The Bad & The Weird has a likeable tone, and inventive action sequences that develop like little short films, with their own plots and props. If a character comes across a diving helmet in the middle of a gunfight, he puts it on; if another tries to chop off a finger, he needs to be certain his blade is sharp. Each action determines the next action, and each counter-action affects the whole. It's like the history of Pacific Rim politics, in oater form.
Director/Country/Time: Olivier Assayas, France, 98 min.
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Rich, happy family loses their beloved matriarch, discovers they don't really like each other that much
Noel's Take: Anyone who's ever lost touch with a whole branch of their family after an elder relative died should identify with this low-boil drama by Assayas (a director better-identified with flashier efforts like Irma Vep, Demonlover and Boarding Gate). Summer Hours is book-ended by two gatherings at a sprawling country estate: the first has the grown children of a wispy, elegant dowager enjoying what turns out to be their last group visit with their status-obsessed mom; the second has the dowager's granddaughter hosting a blow-out for her rowdy teenage friends before the place gets sold off. In between, the family members bicker passive-aggressively about what to do with the rooms full of expensive arts and crafts that their mother collected, as well as who will take charge of managing the money that selling off all this stuff will bring. Summer Hours has an appealingly soft look, and is well-acted by a cast of French cinema vets, but it does runs towards the chatty, and Assayas sometimes oversells the idea that these brothers and sisters have their own lives to live, with little to bring them together now that mom is gone. Still, the film is dotted with thoughtful conversations about what gives objects—and people—their meaning to us, and whether they can hold that meaning once they're stuck behind glass, in a museum of a photo frame. And the final scene is almost overpoweringly tender and beautiful, giving the whole movie a raison d'etre.
Director/Country/Time: So Yong Kim, South Korea, 89 min.
Cast: Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim, Mi Hyang Kim
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Abandoned elementary school sisters hone their valuable hoping skills
Noel's Take: Kim's debut feature In Between Days considered adolescent romance among Korean immigrants in Canada, and was notable for the way Kim kept her frame tight on the faces of her protagonists, shutting out any people, places or objects that were extraneous to their intensely self-absorbed experience. For Treeless Mountain, Kim employs a similar-strategy, keeping her camera low-to-the-ground and trained on extreme close-ups of mundane objects, in order to replicate the point-of-view of a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old whose mother leaves abruptly, sticking them in a home with an indifferent relative. "Big Auntie" drinks herself into a stupor and often fails to feed the kids—"Why waste my money?" she grumbles—so the youngsters survive by roasting crickets and scrounging snacks from sympathetic neighbors. But because no one's really in charge of them, they're getting by on pure caprice, and even their plan to wish their mother back by earning enough coins to fill their piggy bank is, to put it mildly, not that well thought-through. Treeless Mountain suffers some in comparison to Hirokazu Kore-Eda's poetic, heartbreaking Nobody Knows (which has a similar premise), but it's still hard to watch these sad, cute little faces as their world falls apart and not get a little torn up about it. And Kim's aesthetic is arguably more effective here than it was in her debut, as she makes plastic toys look like talismans and adult faces look almost mythical in their kindness or indifference. At times, Treeless Mountain feels like a fairy tale without the magic.
Director/Country/Time: Jan Troell, Sweden, 125 min.
Cast: Maria Heiskanen, Mikael Perbrandt, Jesper Christensen
Headline: Husband and wife in early 20th century Sweden enter rocky waters when he gets involved with the labor movement and she takes an interest in photography
Noel's Take: This era-spanning history-play starts strong, with a string of luminously lit scenes showing a poor young family dealing with financial woes and the demon drink. But while the movie stays beautiful throughout—at times it looks like a store window at Christmas—the ups and downs of the long-suffering Heiskanen and her alcoholic, womanizing husband become a little repetitive and one-dimensional. He's a lout, she persevere—apparently believing that some day it will all worth it. The movie's big hook is Heiskanen's camera, which she wins in a lottery and uses to make money during tough times, by developing portraits of her neighbors. Troell constructs some nice images around the heroine's wonder at how she can freeze time with a machine, and the camera carries the movie's theme of what people "know" (that their husbands are brutes, for example) and what they can show. But the melodrama runs way too thick and bland, no matter how pretty the bottle.
Medicine For Melancholy
Director/Country/Time: Barry Jenkins, USA, 88 min.
Cast: Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins
Headline: Awkward, drunken one-night stand between two black SF hipsters turns into daylong conversation about modern urban life and race
Noel's Take: The first 20 minutes or so of this already-pretty-short movie are slow and halting in the worst mumblecore tradition, and if it weren't for the strikingly desaturated color palette and the presence of two black faces—a relative novelty in this kind of no-budget American independent film—there wouldn't be much reason to keep watching. But once the two leads get past the fumbly naturalistic bits and start actually talking (and going places), Medicine For Melancholy becomes a lot more interesting. As the two visit a museum of African-American culture, dance at an indie-rock club, and chat casually about what they've seen as minorities—both within San Francisco bohemia and within the larger black community—they come to realize how nice it is to meet someone with whom they share an instant shorthand. (After all, they're a vanishing breed—both in the city, and in independent cinema.) Medicine For Melancholy is a more artful spin on the "two would-be lovers walk around a city" genre (seen most recently in the hit-and-miss In Search Of A Midnight Kiss), and if nothing else, it's one of the best looking films I've seen this year. It's also one of the few where the cultural signifiers—from two people getting to know each other by checking out each others' MySpace pages to them asking about romantic histories—don't just feel like Amerindie clichés. There's something at stake here: Cenac is sure that if he lets Heggins go, he'll lose his chance to grow old and raise a family alongside someone who shares his values and his heritage. (All of which makes the concluding scenes of the film especially moving.) Still, there's no denying that long stretches of the movie are way too sparse. Interludes about gentrification aside, there's not quite enough of people speaking directly about what's important to them, which somewhat squanders two performers as engaging as Cenac and Heggins.
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation
Director/Country/Time: Mark Hartley, Australia, 102 min.
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Aussie exploitation films are awesome, underrated
Noel's Take: At the same time that the Australian New Wave was wowing art-house audiences worldwide, the drive-ins and grindhouses were showing the likes of Razorback, Roadgames, Alvin Purple, Mad Dog Morgan, and still more of the gamiest, most lurid exploitation films ever made. Hartley talks to all the principals—plus devoted genre fan Quentin Tarantino—and cuts their reminiscences together into the fast-becoming-too-conventional flash-doc style, with lots of short sound bites, jokey animation and frenetically edited archival footage. The downside? The flurry of images and anecdotes is more than little exhausting, and ultimately a little shallow. There's another story here about national identity that Hartley only hints at, having to do with the way the Aussie B-movie industry often trafficked in the worst kind of self-stereotypes, while simultaneously courting American actors to come over and "class up" their slasher flicks and shoot-'em-ups. Nevertheless, Not Quite Hollywood offers some amusing and eye-opening tales about what happens to a film culture when government censorship relents and government grants are ripe for the plucking. Suddenly an army of opportunists—some artists, some con men—grabs the money and runs. (A similar movie could be made about the Canadian exploitation industry and should be.) If nothing else, Not Quite Hollywood offers plenty of evidence of what made these movies special: bad puns, pubic hair and buckets of gore. And with all the dull bits gone, a lot of these movies look like neglected pulp masterpieces, ripe for rediscovery on DVD. Think of this as a vividly illustrated catalogue of astonishing smut.
Director/Country/Time: Ed Harris, U.S.A., 114 min.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Reneé Zellweger
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Ed Harris stars in a Western (yay!); Ed Harris also directs (boo!)
Scott's Take: The Western as a genre has been long dead—or at least, it's dead in the sense that the old stories of bringing order to lawlessness (with a dame in the middle) have been played out in countless iterations, and it's not easy to make a memorable impression. Harris' directorial follow-up to his flabby, over-the-top biopic Pollock—here at A.V. Club central, we still quote the line, "You've done it, Pollock! You've cracked it wide open!" when someone has a "eureka" moment—Appaloosa is a perfectly respectable oater: It features fine performances, as you might expect, by Mortensen and Harris as police-for-hire in a small town and by Jeremy Irons as their murderous adversary. The love triangle that forms around a mysterious widow (Zellweger), while predictable, is reasonably well-handled. But the trouble with Appaloosa is Harris' work behind the camera, which like a lot of actors-turned-directors, takes a nuts-and-bolts, actor-oriented approach at the expense of real vision. The Western since Peckinpah has been a director's genre—think The Wild Bunch, McCabe And Mrs. Miller, anything by Sergio Leone, Unforgiven, etc.—and Harris doesn't have the chops.
Director/Country/Time: Amos Kollek, Israel, 100 min.
Cast: Moshe Ivgy, Ran Danker, Karen Young
Headline: Poetry-spouting New York street vendor deals with ancient grudges, new romance
Noel's Take: Early on in this hard-to-categorize tough-guy drama, the protagonist explains why he left Israel to the woman he's banging from behind, reaching the pinnacle of his litany of disgust with his home country right as he reaches orgasm. That's the point at which some viewers will roll their eyes with incredulity, some will laugh at the outlandishness, and some will say, "Well, it's atypical, I'll give it that." My reaction was a mixture of all three. Right about the time that the droopy-faced, irascible Ivgy becomes an unlikely sensation by taking to the stage at a Jewish bar and reciting his raunchy rhyming verse and shrill political monologues, I realized that if Kollek expects the audience to take this premise at face-value, then this is one howler of a movie. But if he means us to see past the ludicrousness—if he's aiming for a kind of Abel Ferrara-like hyperbole—then I have to give him credit for sheer ballsiness. Restless has a lot of energy, which keeps the momentum up while Kollek explores the parallels between Ivgy and the son he abandoned, who's now a top-flight Israeli sniper. The movie builds to their big meeting, and the long conversation they have about duty and heritage, and it reaches a point where there's really no way to end it that won't seem either dopily sentimental or gratuitously bleak. But the simmering jazz saxophone on the soundtrack throughout the film adds a nice noir-ish flavor, and the supporting turn by veteran character actress Young—playing a bartending single mother whom Ivgy sees as a substitute for the woman he left behind—is always welcome. In a way, Kollek critiques himself when he has one of Ivgy's audience members shout, "All you think about is sex and being provocative!" But you know, if you're going to make a fest-bound film that people will remember, those two elements aren't bad starting points.
Waltz With Bashir
Director/Country/Time: Ari Folman, Israel, 87 min.
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Waking Life meets the War in Lebanon, 1982
Scott's Take: The concept of an animated documentary is pretty audacious and original, and it was enough to get Waltz With Bashir a lot of attention when it debuted in Cannes back in May. At the times, most critics lapped up the film's political seriousness and unconventional employment of animation (and, in one bracing moment, the absence thereof). The most immediate comparison that comes to mind is Richard Linklater's Waking Life, not just for its parade of animated talking heads, but for its dreamy, meditative rhythms, which are mesmerizing enough to carry along segments that aren't always that compelling on their own. For me, the litmus test is this: Would anyone care about Waltz With Bashir if it were live-action? I'm think not, though the fact that it is animated makes a difference, particularly in the haunting dream sequences that far eclipse the interview segments. The very premise of Folman's movie—about a filmmaker who seeks to recover the blanks in his memory of being an Israeli solider in Lebanon in 1982—strikes me as woefully contrived.
Tomorrow: Ricky Gervais, Guy Ritchie, Rian Johnson and more!