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On TIFF Day 4, Joss Whedon does Shakespeare and Brian De Palma does his thing

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Much Ado About Nothing
Director/Country/Time: Joss Whedon, USA, 107 min.
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Tom Lenk, Jillian Morgese
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: A giddy thing
Noel’s Take: The best part of Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is probably when Fred and Wesley finally get to be happy together, despite the villainous machinations of Simon Tam. Or wait, maybe the best part is when Topher, Dominic and Agent Coulson conspire to play matchmaker. Or when Andrew and Captain Mal show up as bumbling cops. The point is this: There’s a very strong possibility that a viewer’s enjoyment of Whedon’s take on William Shakespeare will be affected by how much of a Whedon fan he or she already is. It’s not a requirement, mind. This Ado does tell Shakespeare’s story, with Shakespeare’s dialogue, with the only overt twists being that the film is in modern dress, shot in black-and-white in Whedon’s own sunny Southern California home. But it was done quickly, with a cast of Whedon regulars and youngsters who aren’t, overall, the strongest Shakesperean actors ever assembled. Some, like Amy Acker—as the sharp-tongued anti-romantic Beatrice—find exactly the right balance between 21st century casualness and poetic classicism. (Seriously, why isn’t Acker a huge star yet?) Others seem more like they’re reciting. So some measure of forgiveness for the process by which Much Ado About Nothing came to be may be helpful, as would some preexisting affection for these actors and the roles they’ve played for Whedon in the past. But at the same time, Whedon is smart enough to make the “hey kids let’s put on a show” aspect of this project work for him. Few writer-directors in TV or movies are as skilled as Whedon at luring an audience with agreeable actors and an an ebullient tone before yanking out the rug, which is exactly what happens in Shakespeare’s play, where days and nights of revelry and playful teasing turns grave when a visiting rogue besmirches a young lady’s reputation. And Whedon has also always been fascinated by the roles people feel obliged to play, which another big part of Much Ado About Nothing: characters pretending things ostentatiously, to influence others’ behavior. The meta elements of Whedon’s Much Ado do serve a purpose. Shakespeare’s play, like Whedon’s movie, is about people goofing their way to something serious.
Grade: A-

The Act Of Killing
Director/Country/Time: Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn, UK, 116 min.
Program: TIFF Docs
Headline: “Justice,” via movie camera
Noel’s Take: It’s not every documentary that opens with brightly attired actors moving into place for a musical number, but then not every documentary is as audacious as Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn’s The Act Of Killing. The film tells the story of what happened in Indonesia in the mid-‘60s, when the country went though a western-backed military coup. Within a year, a million citizens had been slaughtered by paramilitary organizations staffed with gangsters and teenagers, under orders to “kill communists,” as defined by the people in charge. A half-century later, many of the people who committed those murders are still in positions of leadership in the government, or at the least are allowed to roam freely, to enjoy the fruits of their crimes in their old age. These former death squad leaders aren’t just tolerated, but in some quarters lionized, so they have no apparent compunction about boasting to Oppenheimer about what they did and how they did it. And because one of the main executioners—a frail old man named Anwar Congo—is a movie buff, The Act Of Killing even gives him the chance to re-stage the highlights of his glory years, with make-up, special effects, costumes, and a pool of not-always-willing extras drawn from the populace. Congo and his accomplishes dress up as gangsters, or cowboys, or soldiers, and encourage the women and children to wail realistically, as they show Oppenheimer the best way to slash and strangle people without making too much of a mess. The Act Of Killing feels a little too structureless at times, as it moves from one restaging to another, linked by footage of these men going about their fairly prosperous daily lives. But the movie is frequently jaw-dropping, as Oppenheimer and Cynn sit back and let their subjects talk themselves into recognizing their guilt. At first they’re full of justifications, talking about how “gangster” just means “free man” in English, and citing the story of Cain and Abel and the atrocities of others as a way of providing perspective. Yet as they pay attention for the first time to the weeping, terrified “actors,” the goons wonder if the footage will change the public perception of that they did. The Act Of Killing raises all kinds of questions about the sins of nations in transition, and acknowledges that these thugs are paying no real price, even as they’re convicted by art. But this is better than nothing.
Grade: B+

At Any Price
Director/Country/Time: Ramin Bahrani, USA, 105 min.
Cast: Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown, Kim Dickens
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Rain on the scarecrow, whatnot
Noel’s Take: Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo all belong on the top shelf of recent American independent film, but ye gods is his At Any Price ever a misfire. Dennis Quaid stars as a prosperous Iowa farmer and seed salesman who worries a lot. He worries about losing territory to the more successful salesman Clancy Brown, and he worries that his father is ashamed of him because his sons have shown no interest in carrying on the family business, and he worries that some of his financial improprieties and sexual indiscretions will be found out. And while Quaid worries, At Any Price delivers what amounts to a State Of The American Farm address, embedded in a narrative about how the drive for success leads people to make choices that compromise their integrity and, perversely, their happiness. Bahrani’s intentions here are good, and the movie’s plot (co-written with Hallie Elizabeth Newton) is suitably complex, thanks in large part to the parallel story of Quaid’s son Zac Efron, who’s a rising but volatile star on the NASCAR circuit. The racing scenes in At Any Price are beautifully shot; in fact, the whole movie looks as good as Bahrani’s previous films, which were all quite handsome. But the dialogue and performances in At Any Price are about at the level of a Founder’s Day pageant. To some extent, this is intentional, in that Bahrani seems to want to make a mainstream melodrama, in which he can embed some serious consideration of contemporary farm policy. But the result is like the corniest aspects of Hollywood storytelling mixed with bullet points. And given the potential of this subject matter and what Bahrani is capable of, At Any Price is an especially painful whiff.
Grade: C

The Company You Keep
Director/Country/Time: Robert Redford/USA/125 min.
Cast: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie 
Program: Gala
Headline: Free Radicals
Scott’s Take: One thought occurred to me while watching Robert Redford’s latest political drama: “I’ve underrated the Assayas.” For all the now petty-seeming grousing I did a couple of days ago about Something In The Air, Assayas’ semi-autobiographical film about his experiences as a young leftist radical post-1968, it has about 1,000 times the vitality of The Company You Keep, which distills the twilight of Vietnam-era radicals into a warm cup of sleepytime tea. Granted, Redford wants the film to be a sober reflection on the political upheaval of 40 years earlier, when the escalation of the war in Vietnam gave rise to the Weather Underground, a terrorist operation that vowed to “bring the war home.” Redford stars as a former Weatherman who leaves his job as a New York attorney and goes back on the run when a fellow radical (Susan Sarandon) gets arrested for a decades-old crime and an enterprising young journalist (Shia LaBeouf) uncovers his identity. An absurdly loaded cast—Nick Nolte, Julie Christie (the rumors are true), Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Stephen Root, and Sam Elliott among them—is wasted on a journalist procedural that unfolds at quarter-speed. Redford nobly attempts to account for how the Weather Underground could justify its actions, but at a time when names like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn are campaign rallying cries, it’s mystifying that he could make a film that’s so doggedly resistant to provocation. In typical Baby Boomer style, he also lands a few broadsides against millennials, who are too busy “updating their Facebook statuses” to take to the streets. If the film even had a barest flicker of that revolutionary spirit, it might have owned its condescension.
Grade: C-

Eat Sleep Die
Director/Country/Time: Gabriela Pichler, Sweden, 107 min.
Cast: Nermina Lukac, Merlina Dragisic, Peter Falt
Program: Discovery
Headline: No shit?
Noel’s Take: The dire-sounding title of Gabriela Pichler’s debut feature Eat Sleep Die doesn’t really prepare the viewer for how joyful this movie often is, and how much better-drawn its heroine is than similar characters in similar films. In the broadest sense, Eat Sleep Die is another miserablist European slice-of-life, starring Nermina Lukač as an undereducated, Montenegro-born twentysomething who’s been living in a Swedish small town with her disabled father since she was a baby, and has been packaging vegetables in a factory since she was 16—that is, until she suddenly got laid off. Now Lukač has to attempt a job search with no car, no driver’s license, no training, and no freedom to move to a city because of her dad. Pichler makes some familiar moves (Dardennes-style follow-shot inclusive), and as Lukač bikes around looking for work, Pichler somewhat awkwardly shoehorns in her points about the sorry state of social services in Sweden. But there’s never been a movie character quite like Lukač. She’s no saint—she’s impulsive, and doesn’t always plan ahead—but she’s not the beaten-down, desperate fuck-up that so often anchors these kinds of stories. She busts her ass, and is well-liked by her neighbors, even though few of them can help her long-term. There’s no inherent edge in “importance” to a film about a poor woman in her 20s struggling to make ends meet versus a film about an upper-class New Yorker in a similar situation. (Eat Sleep Die isn’t automatically better than Frances Ha, that is, just because Lukač doesn’t have as many choices as a Greta Gerwig character would.) That said, watching Lukač hustle and persevere and make the best of a bad situation gives more of an emotional kick to Eat Sleep Die’s final scene: a neighborhood gathering in which a drunken kind of  “for she’s a jolly good fellow” chant becomes like a defiant anthem for the underclass.
Grade: B+

Director/Country/Time: Brian De Palma, USA, 98 min.
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace, Karoline Herfurth, Paul Anderson
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Love crime, De Palma-style
Noel’s Take: There’s a great bit in a Seinfeld episode where Elaine tries to get a New Yorker editor to explain a cartoon that she doesn’t get, and after pontificating pretentiously for a moment or two, the editor finally admits, “I like the kitty.” That’s the way I often feel when I try to defend Brian De Palma to skeptics. I could wax on about how De Palma’s new erotic thriller Passion is about the difficulty of maintaining a sterling public identity in an age when security cameras and cell phones are capturing our every move, waiting for us to slip. But that doesn’t really explain why the first half-hour of the movie is so flat, or why so much of the plot (taken almost verbatim from Alain Corneau’s recent Love Crime) is so preposterous, or why the last 10 minutes (wholly a De Palma invention) makes no damn sense. I’d be more honest if I just said, “There’s a scene where a character gets stalked and killed on one half of a split-screen, while the other half shows a fourth-wall-breaking performance of Afternoon Of A Faun, and it is awesome.” Ultimately, I have to admit that when it comes to De Palma, I mostly just like the kitty. Which isn’t to say that I’d be blowing smoke if I defended Passion on thematic grounds. It really is about what I said it’s about. Noomi Rapace stars as a rising junior executive at an international marketing/PR firm, who has a close relationship with her friendly-but-aggressive mentor Rachel McAdams. As the two play a game of spy-vs.-spy, using corporate and personal secrets against each other, De Palma (via Corneau) comments on business ethics, cronyism, gender roles, and technology—in the latter case returning to some of the techniques of the multimedia experiment Redacted, but more fruitfully. But as always with De Palma, he’s more riffing on these ideas than making coherent, illuminating statements. What De Palma fans will be more interested to know is that there comes a point about a third of the way into Passion where a switch is flipped—signaled by an over-the-top music cue, aptly—and the movie becomes a De Palma film, with all the operatic moves and excess that implies. I may never be able to explain to non-fans why that’s so satisfying to me, any more than I could explain the magnificence of Van Morrison to someone who finds his voice grating. I can only tell you that what I feel is real and true, and that once it got rolling, Passion delighted.
Grade: B+
Scott’s Take: In brief: What Noel said. Long answer: As a De Palma acolyte—Noel and I did this recent Primer on him—Passion was my most anticipated movie of the festival, and for a time, well on its way to being my biggest disappointment. I’ve always liked the idea of remaking flawed films with great premises, and Love Crime struck me as a prime candidate, a potentially juicy bit of intrigue about feminine power and corporate politics that was deflated by Corneau’s pedestrian direction. De Palma has style to spare, of course, but the first half of Passion suffers from poor casting—Rapace is particularly awful, and De Palma errs by making master and protégé too close in age—and a portrait of office life that’s woefully silly. (The “brilliant” smartphone ad that the women use as their ticket up the corporate hierarchy would be no one’s idea of brilliant.) De Palma’s vision of an office constructed of glass and screens is a witty play on transparency—no secrets can be obscured when every surface is a window. But as Noel suggests, Passion doesn’t kick into gear until the second half, when De Palma’s labored plotting ends and he can finally uncork one dazzling setpiece after another. The film has the for-fans-only quality of other little-loved De Palma exercises like Femme Fatale, Raising Cain, or Body Double, but, you know, I like the kitty, too. 
Grade: B

Silver Linings Playbook
Director/Country/Time: David O. Russell/USA/120 min.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro
Program: Gala
Headline: Off The Meds, Crazy In Love
Scott’s Take: There’s real crazy and there’s movie crazy, and in Silver Linings Playbook, the broadly pleasing new David O. Russell comedy, the symptoms of the former are channeled into the latter, giving it an edge that Russell can buff out whenever the story demands it. Bradley Cooper plays a bipolar ward of the state released from an institution eight months after landing there on assault charges. Once home with his parents, his commitment to positivity—hence the “silver linings” of the title—frequently gives way to tantrums (he chucks A Farewell To Arms out the window for its downer ending) and violent outbursts. Jennifer Lawrence co-stars as his partner in anti-psychotics, a dark young widow who tries to help him set his life back in order. This all sounds terribly unpromising by description, but Russell, working from Matthew Quick’s novel, harnesses Cooper and Lawrence’s mutual quirks into a screwball delirium that plays like a more mainstream Flirting With Disaster or I [Heart] Huckabees. As someone pointed out to be today, Russell has yet to make a bad movie—Flirting, Huckabees, Spanking The Monkey, Three Kings, and The Fighter are all winners—and he has talent for writing generously across a large ensemble. Cooper and Lawrence are an improbably great couple, but the film works up and down the cast list, from Robert De Niro as Cooper’s Eagles-obsessed father (shades of Anjelica Huston in Buffalo ’66) to pop-ins by Chris Tucker as a fellow head case who keeps escaping from the ward. It’s a crowd-pleaser in only a slightly pejorative sense: Russell ultimately isn’t making a film about mental health, or even respecting its long-term effects. He’s making a romantic comedy, and an enormously funny and affecting one at that. 
Grade: B+

Next: Martin McDonagh follows up In Bruges, Spike Lee documents Michael Jackson’s Bad, and Neil Jordan makes a vampire movie