The A.V. Club At TIFF '08: Day 1
The Brothers Bloom
Director/Country/Time: Rian Johnson, USA, 109 min.
Cast: Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Con men grow up, cease to be fictional constructs
Noel's Take: It's hard to make a movie about the existential trials of a man who feels like a character in a story without getting pretty meta and even a little cutesy-poo, so if you're not up for a movie that features a woman who "collects hobbies" (for example, juggling chainsaws on stilts), an Asian sidekick who only knows three words of English (apparently "campari," "fuck" and "me") and an opening Ricky Jay narration in rhyming verse, then The Brothers Bloom is definitely not for you. Me, I found it involving and occasionally dazzling, if too self-serious at times, and too airless throughout. For his follow-up to Brick, Johnson wanders through lands well-colonized by both major filmmaking Andersons (that would be Wes and P.T.), though in a way The Brothers Bloom is also the next generation of Brick as well, in that the characters in Johnson's debut film were interpreting high school through noir archetypes, and the characters in The Brothers Bloom are aware that they're living storybook lives, and are trying to find ways to change. Brody is a bit too hangdog as Ruffalo's younger brother, ever stuck in the role of the believable straight man in their labyrinthine cons, and Ruffalo is a shade too ruthless. (I kept wishing they'd switch roles.) But Weisz is delightful throughout as a ridiculously rich and lonely woman who signs on with the Blooms because she craves adventure—and doesn't much care that she's their latest mark. Weisz also gets to deliver the line of dialogue that explains Johnson's style, when she describes the manipulations of photography by saying, "It's not reproduction; it's storytelling." Nothing in The Brothers Bloom is drawn from real life, and very little about it is applicable to real life. But that's not necessarily a deal-breaker. Brody responds to Weisz's speech about photography by saying, "It's a lie that tells the truth," and though that line may only be resonant with him—as a guy who believes so deeply in the roles he plays for Ruffalo that it pains him to see the cons end—he remains a pretty heartbreaking character. (But only if you care about him in the first place.)
Scott's Take: Noel does a better job than I could in explicating all of the things that The Brothers Bloom has going for it: As with Brick, Johnson has a flair for exceedingly stylized, movie-movie dialogue and an ability to work out the kinks of a labyrinthine plot, all while tying these character constructs to very real emotions, in this case the desire of a lifelong con man (Brody) to achieve the innocence and happiness of a mark. The film asks, quite poignantly at times, how do you live a fulfilling life when you see the strings and know all the angles? And yet The Brothers Bloom works more in theory than it does in practice. After the whiz-bang pre-credits sequence—which, admittedly, owes something to Magnolia, right down to the Ricky Jay narration—and a fine introduction to Rachel Weisz (who's terrific), the film grows steadily more labored, bowing from the overstuffed plotting (which, credit to Johnson, at least seems well worked-out) and a mannered style that keeps these characters at arm's length. Films can have a strange alchemy sometimes: All the elements can be in place and the whole thing can still blow up in your face.
Noel's Grade: B+; Scott's Grade: B-
35 Shots Of Rum
Director/Country/Time: Claire Denis, France, 100 min.
Cast: Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Grégoire Colin
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Denis does Ozu
Scott's Take: Claire Denis is one of the most magical filmmakers in the world, a moody and intuitive artist whose best work—Beau Travail and Friday Night among them —has a pure, elliptical quality that transcends the page, as if she's flying without a screenplay. Denis' last feature, The Intruder, pushed that elliptical style into out-and-out incoherence, but she finds her footing beautifully with 35 Shots Of Rum, which is grounded a bit more in nuts-and-bolts character work than usual. The story is right out of Yasujiro Ozu (Late Spring, Tokyo Story): A widowed father (Alex Descas) has a close relationship with his grown-up daughter (Mati Diop), but she's getting older, too, and it's time for her to find a life (and love) independent of him. Denis and her ace cinematographer, Agnès Godard, take an indirect route to the heart of this relationship, first establishing little things like the father's workaday job as a train conductor and the warm, quirky cast of characters that populate their apartment building. Then she lowers the boom in the final stretch, when the devotion between father and daughter yields an intensely bittersweet end. Kudos, too, to the typically impeccable soundtrack, with a score by frequent Denis collaborators Tindersticks. Grade: A-
Director/Country/Time: Brillante Mendoza, The Philippines, 94 min.
Cast: Gina Pareño, Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz
Headline: Goodbye, Blowjob Inn
Scott's Take: Only two films into the festival and already an unsimulated sex scene involving a transsexual. Welcome to Toronto! When this film premiered at Cannes in May, several critics likened it to a Tsai Ming-liang (The River, What Time Is There?) film, specifically Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Tsai's ode to a dilapidated old movie house populated mainly by men cruising for other men in the dark. But in all other ways, Serbis (Service) is its own movie, a vibrant slice-of-life about family three-generations deep that both runs the theater and resides in it. (Mendoza's oft-frenetic handheld camera style is also worlds away from Tsai's single-take, static master shots.) Mendoza juggles many different subplots—principally, a matriarch's bitter bigamy suit against her husband—and he doesn't really care to resolve them; instead, he steadily and confidently establishes this theater as a living organism, screening softcore movies (with hardcore extracurriculars) to society of outcasts. It's like Ship Of Fools with blowjobs and boil-lancings. Grade: B+
Director/Country/Time: David Koepp, USA, 103 min.
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Tea Leoni, Greg Kinnear
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Misanthropic dentist deals withs demanding ghosts, romantic stirrings
Noel's Take: There's pretty much nothing about this afterlife comedy that's not straight-from-the-shelf, right down to the all-too-common holycrapthatguyjustgothitbyabus! scene. Still, Ghost Town makes decent use of its premise—which involves Gervais having to deal with the last requests of city full of troubled ghosts—by pushing it onto the back-burner for most of its running time, so that Gervais can work on one request in particular. Dead lout Kinnear wants Gervais to break up his surviving wife Leoni's imminent marriage, which Gervais decides to do by making her fall in love with him. (Tough task, given that he's a total asshole.) Once Gervais falls in love, the movie loses a lot of his acerbic edge, but Gervais and Leoni have a nice chemistry, and while Gervais doesn't get quite enough opportunities to display his facility for verbal fumbling, he doesn't botch the few chances he gets. Ghost Town should be funnier than it is, and less predictable, but it's undeniably sweet, and even moving towards the end. It's a likable time-waster, so long as you don't get too annoyed that it doesn't live up to its potential.
Director/Country/Time: Guy Ritchie, UK, 114 min.
Cast: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Clever rogue scrambles for crumbs left behind when bosses feed each other
Noel's Take: I haven't liked a Guy Ritchie film since… wait, have I ever liked a Guy Ritchie film? Anyway, whether because Ritchie has improved as a filmmaker or I'm inclined to grade on a curve following the execrable Revolver, I actually thought RocknRolla was just a shade or two away from being legitimately good. It starts strong, focusing on Wilkinson as a shrewd criminal mastermind who thrives by pitting his minions against each other—including Butler, who's forced to fend for himself even if it means inadvertently working at cross-purposes from his boss. As usual, Ritchie is preoccupied with the various strata of colorful characters in the underworld, but this time there's an element of social criticism in his vision of a world where the leaders proceed out of a combination of ignorance and arrogance, and wind up spiting themselves. But in typical Ritchie fashion, Rocknrolla is also too long, too coolly violent, and too populated by characters who all talk like the same pulp novelist. The movie contains a few exciting, visceral sequences (set to pounding rock ‘n' roll, naturally), but the "whatever happened to the old school"/"honor among thieves" thing is pretty played out, and Ritchie doesn't really add any new moves.
Director/Country/Time: Andreas Dresen, Germany, 98 min.
Cast: Ursula Werner, Horst Westphal, Horst Rehberg
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Bizarre love triangle—senior citizen edition
Noel's Take: The level of sensuality and sexuality in this simple slice-of-life drama either elevates it or ruins it—depending on how bothered you are by the sight of the 60-plus set getting it on. Repeatedly. In close-up. Myself, I found the fleshy sex scenes touching and tender, and was intrigued by the dilemma faced by the heroine, a happily married seamstress who falls hard for one of her clients, then struggles with whether to confess to her husband or not. There's definitely a few added wrinkles—ha ha!—in the way this story takes place among people towards the end of their lives, cursed with the knowledge of just how damaging this affair will be. And Dresen employs a simple, purposeful style, with a lot of repeated shots that emphasize how the day-to-day routine changes, for better or worse, once Werner starts messing around. In the end though, if you take away the ages of the protagonists, Cloud 9 is a pretty standard-issue infidelity story, complete with lines like "I didn't want this, it just happened!" Granted, that line sums up a lot about the heroine's life, but those repercussions come too late to elevate this movie beyond "quiet, spare, bittersweet foreign film"-dom.
Director/Country/Time: Lisandro Alonso, Argentina, 87 min.
Cast: Juan Fernandez, Giselle Irrazabal, Nieves Cabrera
Headline: An Argentinean shipworker takes the sloooow route home
Scott's Take: Back in 2004, when Alonso's Los Muertos played at the festival, I had this to say about it: "[Alonso] isn't really interested in anything but naturalism for its own sake, which means dull, endless takes of a man eating or paddling downriver and a lot of maddeningly oblique suggestion, including a final shot that still has
me scratching my head." Watching his new movie Liverpool, I'm not sure if Alsonso has changed or I have, since it bears all the stylistic hallmarks of his previous film, yet I liked it considerably more. True, I could barely tolerate the longeurs of the first half, as an alcoholic shipworker (Juan Fernandez) works his way from Argentina's southernmost port to the remote logging village where his family resides. But once he gets there—and receives a cool welcome from all but his developmentally disabled daughter—the film evolves into a subtle, surprisingly touching tale of (attempted and kinda half-hearted) redemption, with a wholly unexpected third act. A critic friend felt that Alonso went too "sentimental" in the end; in a world where Patch Adams exists, never has that word seemed so relative. Grade: B
Tomorrow: The Coen brothers! Michael Cera! Jonathan Demme! Long-forgotten football games! Jean-Claude Van Damme!