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Day One at TIFF kicks off with Looper, Anna Karenina, a Palme D'Or-winner, and a killer whale

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Director/Country/Time: Rian Johnson, USA, 118 min.
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Piper Perabo, Paul Dano
Program: Gala
Headline: Brains, soul, and heart with thriller travel time a time travel thriller with heart, soul and brains.
Noel’s Take: Here’s what’s so awesome about Looper: It’s a futuristic time-travel movie in which more or less the entire last hour takes place on a farm. And that’s just one of the many ways that writer-director Rian Johnson (of Brick and The Brothers Bloom fame) subverts expectations. Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a lifelong ne’er-do-well who takes a job as a specialized kind of assassin, who kills and disposes of people sent back through time by the gangsters of the future. When he and the other “loopers” notice that they’re being asked to kill their older selves—which “closes the loop” and ends their contracts—they become wary of what’ll happen in the decades to come, though ultimately they’re too busy spending their bonus money to fret over it. Then Gordon-Levitt’s older self (played by Bruce Willis) comes back, and proclaims that he’s going to fix everything, via extraordinary measures that the hero is determined to stop. People may bicker about whether the time-travel in Looper has been thought-through—a criticism that Johnson attempts to defuse via a comment by Willis that the whole process is “cloudy”—but undoubtedly the world of the movie has been carefully planned. Johnson doesn’t just throw in cultural, societal or fashion trends into the movie for weirdness’ sake; he makes the characters’ retro clothing central to the movie’s “everything recurs” theme, and he works the existence of telekinesis and roving vagrant mobs subtly into the background of the action, so that he can bring those elements back as needed. Looper is reminiscent of The Matrix—not in style or plot, but in the sense of being fully realized, and populated with delightful little character turns. (Jeff Daniels, playing a jaded mob boss from the future gives one of his most entertaining performances in years.) And like The Matrix, Looper has a strong emotional core, as its two protagonists—young and old—embody both the cycle of selfishness they see all around them, and the potential for one bold person to break it.
Grade: A-
Scott’s Take: Beyond an evident mastery of genre, and a special affection for noir in particular, the three films of writer-director Rian Johnson—Brick, The Brothers Bloom and now Looper—share a talent for obscuring intense emotion (even a certain sentimentality) within ornate plotting architecture. It’ll take me several viewings to catch up with the developments of this sci-fi/action puzzler, which stirs time travel, telekinesis, and metaphysics into a soup so thick you could eat it with a fork. And to an extent, I wonder if Johnson’s admirable trust in his audience to keep up might fairly be viewed as a failure to communicate on his part. Nevertheless, there’s surprising power to the premise of a person literally confronting the man he’s become 30 years later, and getting to those revelations takes some doing. When it comes time for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to confront his future self, well, as Nancy Meyers might say, it’s complicated. But that’s just the beginning of a story that itself loops into elaborate curlicues, while meaningfully pondering our capacity to change the future, and, more personally, our capacity to change ourselves and see the world a little differently.
Grade: B+

Director/Country/Time: Michael Haneke/Austria-France-Germany/127 min.
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
Program: Masters
Headline: Going Not-So-Gently Into That Goodnight
Scott's Take: Michael Haneke’s Palme D’Or winner deals with a circumstance common to virtually everyone on the planet: the decline and death of a loved one. It’s his most straightforward film since his debut feature The Seventh Continent—another death march, albeit of the meticulously planned variety—and his trademark pitilessness serves the material exceptionally well. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play a couple whose golden years are thrown into turmoil after Riva suffers a debilitating stroke that leaves her partially paralyzed and increasingly dependent on her husband for care. Riva makes Trintignant promise never to bring her back to the hospital—and later, as her quality of life sinks, simply laments being alive—but it puts tremendous strain on him mentally and physically, and the battle for dignity is often a losing one. It’s a prickly little movie, to be sure, as Trintignant lashes out at his daughter (Isabelle Huppert) and a nurse for their inadequate support and deals with the utterly thankless task of sustaining a life that’s no longer worth living. But that title, Amour, really isn’t ironic: There are subtle kindnesses exchanged while Riva is still lucid and a steadfastness to Trintignant’s care that honors his wife’s wishes no matter the hardships that result. Even moving Riva out of her wheelchair is an act of intimacy that could, in healthier times, be mistaken for a lover’s embrace. It’s a bracingly unsentimental film, but it isn’t heartless.
Grade: A-

Anna Karenina
Director/Country/Time: Joe Wright, UK, 130 min.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson
Program: Special Presentation
Headline: Can’t stop a train
Noel’s Take:  Director Joe Wright first came to cineastes’ attention a few years back with his stylish adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, which made an over-filmed novel seem unexpectedly fresh. But Wright’s been very hit-and-miss since, often letting his visual flourishes get in the way of his storytelling. Wright attempts to recapture some of that Pride & Prejudice magic with his new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which reunites him with his P&P/Atonement star Keira Knightley. But Wright also takes a more florid approach to the material than he ever has before (which is saying something, given Wright’s résumé). Opening on a theater stage, Wright tells the story of the adulterous Anna and her long-suffering husband (played by Jude Law) in a way that’s overtly theatrical, often letting the props look like props, and having the actors dance around each other as though they’re in a musical, while the set-dressing flies in and out. The technique should heighten the melodrama inherent in Tolstoy’s story; instead, it often makes the emotions seem more abstract. And that’s a problem, because if the audience can’t understand why Anna would throw away her marriage and her social position for what amounts to a schoolgirl crush on an army officer (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), then it’s hard to feel the tragedy of the story deeply. That said, Tom Stoppard’s script skillfully illuminates Tolstoy’s themes, giving each of the minor characters their due so that they can play out the questions of what forgiveness means, and whether the head can overrule the heart. And though Wright’s style gets in the way at times, give the man credit: He’s really trying something here, working to push aside the usually dry approach to literary adaptation in order to make something exciting and beautiful. Sometimes the result is mere kitsch. More often, this Anna Karenina is a triumph of cinematic choreography.
Grade: B+

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story
Director/Country/Time: Brad Bernstein, USA, 98 min.
Program: TIFF Docs
Headline: Artist faces fascism, at home and abroad
Noel’s Take: Outside of its animated interludes, Brad Bernstein’s documentary Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story doesn’t deviate much from the talking-heads-and-archival-clips norm. But Bernstein relies mainly on one head: Ungerer himself, an artist who survived the Nazi occupation of Alsace in the ‘30s, the came to America, where he helped lead a revolution in commercial illustration and children’s books, away from rosy, Rockwellian realism and toward colorful, playful abstraction. And Ungerer has an fascinating and thought-provoking story to tell, too—not just about jackbooted stormtroopers, and New York during the creative flourish of the ‘60s, but about what happened when he started doing political and erotic drawings as well as work for the kiddies. Ungerer had always had a reputation for being an oddball, given that he had made children’s book heroes out of snakes and ogres. But his shockingly crude anti-Vietnam War posters, coupled with his flair for the pornographic, raised eyebrows among the parents and publishers who used to love him, effectively derailing his career. Well, one pathway of his career, anyway. As Ungerer himself says, every time a person makes a mark on a page, “You start a new life.” And as someone who had several lives, and stared down real fascists, the displeasure of prudes was hardly going to slow him down. Though ordinary in its stylistic approach, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is full of Ungerer drawings that are far from ordinary, and as such the movie works as an exhibition—in every sense of the word.
Grade: B

Like Someone In Love
Director/Country/Time: Abbas Kiarostami/France-Japan/109 min.
Cast: Rin Takanishi, Tadashi Okuno, Ryo Kase
Program: Masters
Headline: Kiarostami Goes To Japan, Where There Are Also Cars
Scott’s Take: Abbas Kiarostami’s companion piece (of sorts) to Certified Copy again plays with the shifting identities and perceptions of a contentious couple—in this case, a college student (Rin Takanishi) who moonlights as an escort and keeps her erratic boyfriend (Ryo Kase) in the dark—but I find myself lacking the interpretive framework to make much sense of it. Though entirely in Japanese, it’s recognizably a Kiarostami film, from the emphasis on reflective surfaces to the long (long, long) exchanges that unfold in automobiles. It may improve in my memory—I was similarly baffled by Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us in 1999, but have since come around—but my immediate impression is that while it shares Certified Copy’s formal sophistication and themes, I wasn't nearly as interested in what its characters were saying to each other. Granted, Takanishi and Kase are not intellects like Juliette Binoche and William Shimell in the earlier film, and they can’t draw from a much greater breadth of life experience, but neither suggests much depth, only the raw emotions of youth. (Tadashi Okuno, terrific as an aging professor/platonic “client” who councils both, brings some of that wisdom to the table.) The ending is something else, a head-scratcher even by the standards of the man behind A Taste Of Cherry. Consider me baffled but intrigued.
Grade: B-

Director/Country/Time: Soi Cheang, Hong Kong, 89 min.
Cast: Shawn Yue, Anthony Wong, Xiaodong Guo
Program: Vanguard
Headline: 2-4-6-8… policier!
Noel’s Take: Sort of a Gone In 60 Seconds or The Italian Job from the cops’ perspective, Soi Cheang’s car chase thriller Motorway is first and foremost an exercise in style, exuding cool even when the engines are running hot. Shawn Yue stars a young policeman with a car fetish, who works with a covert force trained to vroom past the bad guys. Yue comes up short when he encounters Xiaodong Guo and Haitao Li, two master criminals whose own driving skills once flummoxed Yue’s partner, the retiring Anthony Wong. Motorway also comes up short, when faced with the task of delivering a plot of a character that hasn’t been seen a hundred times before. (Wong fills the role of the curmudgeonly mentor so precisely that it’s surprising he never says, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”) But Cheang, who previously directed the excellent and unusual Accident, knows how to craft—and polish—an image. Motorway may be all surface, but those surfaces sure do shine, aided by the burbling electronica on the soundtrack and the crisply edited action sequences. And while the story’s a loaner, Cheang doesn’t construct the chases conventionally at all. Motorway isn’t about cars trying to out-muscle each other; it’s about maneuvering around tight turns and tight corners, and escaping narrowly. It’s hard not to appreciate a car chase movie that respects the steering wheel as much as the accelerator.
Grade: B

Director/Country/Time: Kim Ki-duk/South Korea/104 min.
Cast: Lee Jung-jin, Cho Min-soo
Program: Masters
Headline: Sympathy For Lady Vengeance
Scott’s Take: For a stretch in the mid-‘00s, Kim Ki-duk rattled off a few great or near-great films—Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring, 3-Iron, and Time, specifically—that signaled a maturing style, a willingness to temper the sexual provocation of earlier efforts like The Isle and Bad Guy with a more measured and curious take on human relationships. But Pieta feels like a step backwards, a crude tale of revenge that plays like A Christmas Carol if Scrooge was a young debt collector who crippled deadbeat machinists for the insurance money and a mysterious older woman claiming to be his mother was The Ghost Of Beatings Past. Lee Jung-jin stars as the collector, an orphaned sadist who initially greets his “mother” (Cho Min-soo) with hostility and brutality until he’s worn down by her commitment to him. (She even gives one of his debtors a few extra kicks in the ribs, just to build that sense of esprit d’corps.) The film gains some momentum once Lee starts to warm to her a little and, in doing so, gets a new perspective on the poor folks whose lives he’d ruined over a couple thousand bucks. But there’s significantly less to this scenario that meets the eye—and what meets the eye, incidentally, is the kind of muddy digital photography that died with Dogme 95. Somebody fetch Kim a decent camera, please.
Grade: C

Rust And Bone
Director/Country/Time: Jacques Audiard/France/120 min.
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: A Whale Of A Good Time
Scott’s Take: Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to A Prophet got dinged at Cannes mainly for not being A Prophet, but accepted on its quirkier terms, it’s an equally deft and sidewinding drama about two people overcoming disabilities in body and soul. The details admittedly sound a bit silly: Marion Cotilliard loses her legs to a Marineworld orca whale, Matthias Schoenaerts uses his MMA skills for illegal street brawls, songs from Bon Iver and Katy Perry are prominently featured on the soundtrack. Cotilliard and Schoenaerts meet at a club where he serves as a bouncer, but they don’t really connect until after the killer whale strikes and she calls on him to coax her out of despair. His animal simplicity—very similar to the character Schoenaerts played in Bullhead—meets her needs better than a more sensitive person might; Cotilliard wants to feel like a woman again and he obliges without pity. Schoenaerts’ wounds are less evident but, if anything, more significant, from a family he constantly disappoints to the abuse he invites upon himself as much as he dishes out. Their love story is surprisingly persuasive and moving, especially in the scenes during and immediately after her stint in rehabilitation, when something as simple as a dip in the ocean becomes a vivid, sun-kissed, restorative paradise. Rust And Bone stumbles a bit with a deus ex machina ending that contrives to bring the pieces of the narrative back in order, but Audiard continues to be a bold, confident stylist who’s not afraid to take a hard left.
Grade: B

Director/Country/Time: Aleksander L. Nordaas, Norway, 77 min.
Cast: Silje Reinåmo, Erlend Nervold, Jon Sigve Skard, Morten Andresen
Program: Vanguard
Headline: Two working stiffs open a door and… herein lies a Thale
Noel’s Take: A couple of scraggly industrial cleaners are called out to scoop up the strewn remains of a hermit in the wilderness, and when they arrive on the scene, they discover an underground bunker, containing notes, tapes, and a naked woman submerged in milky water. Further investigation uncovers a long, furry tail, which once belonged to the woman. With that as a starting point—and with a 77-minute running time—there’s no reason why Aleksander L. Nordaas’ debut feature Thale shouldn’t be, at the least, solid B-movie fare, if not a nifty little shocker. Instead, Nordaas drags his feet, putting the audience through the usual SUDDEN NOISE AND MOVEMENT scares before he gets around to parceling out the backstory of who this woman is and where she came from. The movie livens up in the last 20 minutes, when a nefarious research agency swoops in, and our nymph kicks their ass, while still unclad; and Nordaas attains some small measure of poignancy when he reveals the connection between the dead hermit and his captive. But Thale takes over an hour to get to where it should be by the end of the first reel. And then it ends.
Grade: C-

Tomorrow: The Master redux, Harmony Korine does spring break, and a 3D animated Monty Python biopic.