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TIFF '11: Day Six

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Director/Country/Time: Bennett Miller/USA/126 min.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Program: Gala
Headline: Weak “wins above replacement” value, but does get on base a lot
Noel’s Take: There’s seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the message of the big screen adaptation of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction bestseller Moneyball—which argues that statistical modeling is a more fiscally sound method of assembling baseball teams than searching for “intangibles” and “guys who can play”—and the way the movie is put together. Though Michael Lewis’ book is full of colorful individuals, anchored by Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (played here by Brad Pitt), it ultimately advances a theory that holds that individuals and moments matter less than numbers and aggregates. And yet here’s Moneyball: The Movie, giving us flashbacks to Beane’s disappointing pro baseball career, and inserting humanizing scenes of him hanging out with his pre-teen daughter. Even the way conversations are shot in this movie, with a lot of close-ups and over-the-shoulder, emphasizes people standing on their own, not sharing space with others. (In fact at a certain point I began to wonder if Pitt and Jonah Hill, who plays stat-freak assistant GM Peter Brand, were ever even on set together.) Granted, the fascination with Beane was present in Lewis’ book as well, and I do believe that director Bennett Miller—working from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin—always intended to raise some questions about whether the magic of the game can be reduced to a spreadsheet. But the movie is also structured in a way to give Beane’s A’s some measure of triumph, even though they flopped in the playoffs (which most old-school baseball folks would register as failure). All of that said, Moneyball is still highly entertaining, especially for ballfans. Miller uses a lot of real (or at least real-looking) people, and gets the businesslike atmosphere of modern sports in a way that doesn’t disregard the fun of it all. It’s also a treat to remember the MLB of the early ‘00s: the big and small names, the top teams, etc. I wish Pitt brought a little more swagger to his role, but when he and Hill are preaching the doctrine of OBP over “fundamentals,” Moneyball gives new meaning to the term “inside baseball.”
Grade: B

Alois Nebel
Director/Country/Time: Tomáš Lunák/Czech Republic/84 min.
Cast: Miroslav Krobot, Marie Ludvíková, Karel Roden
Program: Discovery
Headline: From the people who brought you Worker & Parasite
Noel’s Take: Set in Czechoslovakia at the end of the Cold War, Tomáš Lunák’s Alois Nebel uses black-and-white rotoscoped animation to evoke the grim, dreamlike feel of the Soviet Bloc era. Frankly, I”m not sure that particular stylistic choice was necessary. The rotoscope stiffens and flattens-out the characters, without giving much in return in terms of animated effects. It doesn’t help either that the title character is so quiet and passive. Haunted by memories of tragedies from WWII onward, Alois wanders slowly and morosely from his job at a train depot to his gray little home, taking pleasure only from obsessively reading and reciting the train schedules. That’s a poignant image—a man coping with drastic change by clinging to the steady and familiar—but it’s not enough to give Alois Nebel a center.
Grade: C-

The Descendants
Noel’s Take: See Day Three
Scott’s Take: Though The Descendants has been, by and large, very warmly received here and in Venice, there’s some loud dissent among many of my friends and they fall along these lines: We miss the brilliant satirist who did Citizen Ruth and Election, and resent the heartstring-plucker Alexander Payne has become. And while I understand this wish—and share it to an extent, albeit a much smaller one—I think it prevents a thoughtful, funny, and flavorful comedy-drama like The Descendants from being appreciated on its terms. I share some of Noel’s reservations about the movie, which I consider Payne’s weakest to date: The voiceover in the early scenes is exceedingly clumsy, serving no real purpose other than setting up Clooney’s character as the trustee of a large family-owned property in Kauai; and there are times when Payne goes for a laugh to relieve a serious situation. But the deleterious effects are overstated, especially on the latter front—there’s one important scene near the end that’s severely misjudged, but the film immediately recovers with an enormously affecting one that’s played completely straight. Mostly, The Descendants deals wisely with the complexities of coming to terms with the death of a loved one who leaves a mess behind. Anger and grief are tough feelings to reconcile, and Payne keys into Clooney’s difficulty in breaking the news to family, dealing properly with his wife’s betrayal, and learning how to be a more active parent. And, as ever, Payne has a wonderful sense of place: It’s hard to make paradise seem lived-in, and his Hawaii infuses the day-to-day with just the right amount of exoticism. Bonus points for casting Robert Forster, who hasn’t gotten quite the career boost he deserved post-Jackie Brown, and for giving Judy Greer a role of more depth and humanity than she’s generally allotted.
Grade: B

The Forgiveness Of Blood
Director/Country/Time: Joshua Marston/USA-Albania-Germany-Italy/108 min.
Cast: Tristan Halilaj, Sindi Laçej, Refet Abazi
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Old Values In A New World
Scott’s Take: Joshua Marston made a minor splash with his debut feature, Maria Full Of Grace, and with The Forgiveness Of Blood, he again travels to a foreign land where his young hero is forced into a life-or-death situation. But just as Marston’s scrupulous attention to local custom and devotion to social realism recall John Sayles, his occasionally enervating style also recalls Sayles. Maria Full Of Grace had a tension inherent in its premise of a pregnant Columbian teenager working as a drug mule, but The Forgiveness Of Blood labors to generate tension in a situation where it should be a-cracklin’. Still, Marston and a fine cast of mostly non-professionals get some mileage out of the tension between families and generations in Albania, an Old World place where horse-drawn carriages share the road with modern cars and the kids are into PlayStation and smart phones. Tristan Halilaj plays a teenager whose future is cast into doubt when long-simmering conflict between his family and a rival family boils over into violence. When his father and uncle stab a male member of the opposing family, Halilaj and his family are confined to their home indefinitely, lest they risk a bloody retaliation that may be coming their way anyway. The independent-minded Halilaj feels hung up in a pointless war that’s not of his making, but wriggling free comes with huge risks and potentially compounded tragedy. It’s a strong premise, and Marston has clearly worked hard to get the traditions of Old World Albanian culture right. There are only intermittent stretches where the tension holds—one long shot of Halilaj in front of a big kitchen window, clear sniper-bait, springs to mind—but The Forgiveness Of Blood could use a lot more zip.
Grade: B-

From The Sky Down
Director/Country/Time: Davis Guggenheim/USA/90 min.
Program: Gala
Headline: Even better than the real thing
Noel’s Take: For the 20th anniversary of U2’s album Achtung Baby, the band returned to the Berlin studio where they recorded the record, to rehearse the Achtung Baby songs and to talk to documentarian Davis Guggenheim about how the history of U2 led to the turning point of 1991. From The Sky Down is a different kind of rock-doc. The story is told through interviews in the usual way, but Guggenheim largely eschews talking heads, preferring to illustrate with archival footage (mainly outtakes of earlier U2 docs like Rattle & Hum), animation, and those new rehearsals. Guggenheim is clearly fascinated by the process, as he shows the band working through the dynamics and texture of a song, while Bono scats and waits for inspiration. That extends to the overarching narrative From The Sky Down constructs, about a band who’d explored their way into a creative dead end with the widely reviled Rattle & Hum and fled to Berlin to start from scratch, with club music and avant-garde industrial as their inspiration. The challenge then was to bring some U2-ishness back to their experiments with groove and electronica. Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of Achtung Baby, which has a few songs I like a lot but that I feel overall is more conventional than it was meant to be. (I’m more a Zooropa man myself.) But I have to say, I think I appreciate Achtung Baby more after seeing this film—or at least understand it more. I wish Guggenheim had shown more of the new footage of the band re-learning their own songs, but as someone perpetually fascinated by how rock bands work—especially multi-platinum rock bands—I was right there every step of the way with From The Sky Down’s explication of U2’s mysterious ways.
Grade: B

Director/Country/Time: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo/Spain/100 min.
Cast: Clive Owen, Carice Van Houten, Daniel Brühl
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Horror Doesn’t Have A New Face
Scott’s Take: By way of getting into the disappointing horror movie Intruders, I wanted to quote this line from the programme description: “Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s latest film transcends the confines of the horror genre through an emotional engagement with childhood fears, human frailty and the threat of the unknown.” Let me say this emphatically: The horror genre is neither confining nor in need of transcending, and it’s that kind of attitude that leads to mediocrities like Intruders, which concern themselves far too much with classing up the joint. Fresnadillo is a talented director: His 2001 debut feature Intacto had a handful of indelible sequences and I think his sharp, metaphor-rich 28 Weeks Later is an advance on Danny Boyle’s original. Fresnadillo’s technical chops are still apparent, but his attempt to marry a monster movie with high-toned themes of storytelling and memory yields something more generic than it sounds. Clive Owen stars as a father who has trouble protecting his 13-year-old daughter from “Hollow Face,” a faceless specter who lives in the shadows and may or may not be imaginary. The film also flashes back 30 years earlier, when the same beastie is threatening a little boy and his mother. A creature that lurks in dark places and steals little children’s faces for his own is a solid enough piece of mythmaking, and Fresnadillo orchestrates a few scary sequences, most notably one on a rickety, rain-soaked scaffolding. But the big twist is obvious from the first reel and there’s nothing here that hasn’t been in countless other horror movies before—ones that weren’t embarrassed by the classification.
Grade: C

Kill List
Director/Country/Time: Ben Wheatley/UK/95 min.
Cast: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Emma Fryer
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: But will it synch with Toodledo?
Noel’s Take: Writer-director Ben Wheatley’s follow up to his impressive debut Down Terrace again takes place among dangerous men with volatile domestic situations, and it’s similarly more interested in naturalistic interactions than in “action,” per se. Or at least that’s the case at first. Kill List opens with a few days in the life of Neil Maskell, an out-of-work ex-military man with weak impulse control and a hair-trigger temper. Then his former business partner Michael Smiley persuades him to take on a new assignment: assassinating three men for a mysterious client. Once Maskell and Smiley start their work, Kill List does get exciting—and brutally violent. But Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump never lose what drives the movie: the winding, profane conversations about religion and responsibility, and what they reveal about Maskell’s character. Kill List needs that grounding too, because it takes some strange turns. I don’t want to give too much away, except to say that the movie is really a hybrid of the British crime thriller and another genre entirely. The plot weaves unpredictably, getting more shocking and tense in its final third, before ending with a scene that… well, I’m still not sure what to think about it. I’ve read some theories on-line about what the ending literally means, whereas I saw it as more metaphorical, and as such felt it was unearned. Either way, any time a genre movie keeps the audience guessing, has them averting their eyes frequently, and leaves them arguing in the lobby, I’d call that a success. This is one movie people are going to flinching at and talking about for some time to come.
Grade: B+

Director/Country/Time: Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo/France/88 min.
Cast: Chloé Coulioud, Jeremy Kapone, Catherine Jacob
Program: Midnight Madness
Headline: Plié! Jeté! Relevé! Bloodé!
Scott’s Take: Part of the feisty wave of French extreme horror directors, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo brought their striking debut feature Inside to the festival four years ago, and the film has lingered for its resourcefulness and intensity. (And for sonogram-cam effects that I found distasteful, only to learn recently that they were imposed on the filmmakers.) Maury and Bustillo go bigger with Livid, which keeps the action similarly confined to a single setting (mostly), but otherwise expands into the supernatural gothic of a haunted house movie. Chloé Coulioud stars as a young woman who takes a job as an assistant at a home care service for bedridden seniors. When she informs her boyfriend that one client is a rich old woman rumored to have treasure tucked away in his creepy old mansion, he ropes her into a robbery scheme. After all, the woman is over 100 years old and in a coma—what could possibly go wrong? Premised on the old woman’s history as both a sadistic dance teacher and mother to a once-mute girl who died young, the mythology in Livid can be difficult to parse, enough to make me long for the slasher-movie simplicity of Inside. But Maury and Bustillo conjure up a dreamlike space that mingles taxidermy and old-fashioned haunted house tropes with the ballet and witchcraft of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Its internal logic eluded me on first viewing, but Maury and Bustillo compensate with the go-for-broke savagery and viscera that’s come to define new French horror.
Grade: B+


Tomorrow: TIFF ends for our correspondents with Sion Sono, Todd Solondz, Alexander Sokurov, and the last entry in the Paradise Lost trilogy.