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TIFF '11: Day Two

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Into The Abyss
Director/Country/Time: Werner Herzog/USA/106 min.
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: In Rick Perry’s Texas, A Culture Of Death
Scott’s Take: Werner Herzog is against the death penalty. He makes that explicit upfront in Into The Abyss, his latest documentary, and he questions the necessity of it whenever the occasion arises. However, his film isn’t about the death penalty so much as it is a moving disquisition on violent death itself, and how it transforms anyone connected to it—victims, perpetrators, and those who work in the Death House. The two young men convicted in a 10-year-old triple murder in small-town Texas—one serving a life sentence, the other a week away from execution—have conflicting stories about who did what, and both protest their innocence. Though Herzog gives them room to make their case, Into The Abyss isn’t a Paradise Lost-style documentary about wrongful conviction. Instead, it collects testimony from a range of different people, including the victims’ families, the locals, and, most poignantly, a chaplain who accompanies inmates on the gurney and a Death House team leader whose pro-death penalty convictions withered away after escorting dozens of men (and the first woman) to their deaths. Herzog’s queries are typically odd at times, but his frankness and gentle curiosity gets his subjects talking and he seems to get the most out of every one of them. (If he weren’t so busy making films, Herzog would be the ideal host of a Marc Maron-like podcast.)
Grade: B+

Among Us
Director/Country/Time: Marco van Geffen/The Netherlands/84 min.
Cast: Dagmara Bak, Natalia Rybicka, Rifka Lodeizen
Program: Discovery
Headline: The hand that rocks the cradle is most likely from another country
Noel’s Take: In Marco van Geffen’s puzzle-drama Among Us, a Dutch couple hires a young Polish woman, played by Dagmara Bak, to be the nanny to their toddler, but quickly get creeped-out and later exasperated by how quiet she is, and how uninterested she seems to be in socializing or leaving the house. When the couple reaches their limit, they sack Bak, and then Among Us doubles back to retell the story from the perspective of another Polish nanny, who fills in some of the details of Bak’s strange behavior. Then it doubles back one more time, to tell the story from Bak’s perspective, and thus complete the picture… sort of. Among Us is precisely paced and framed—always making sure to record the relationships between the adult characters, the children, and the various status objects they arrange around themselves—in ways that recall Michael Haneke at his most mysterious. But my major hesitation with the film is that I’m honestly not sure I “got it.” I thought I knew what Bak’s big secret was going to be, but van Geffen never expressly states it, and the last shot of Among Us reveals something wholly unexpected, casting what’s gone before in a new light. I’d have to see the movie again to figure out how it all fits together. But to van Geffen’s credit, a re-watch wouldn’t be a chore, since Among Us’ depiction of everyday cultural misunderstandings and assumptions is well-sketched and gripping even when it’s oblique.
Grade: B

The Artist
Director/Country/Time: Michel Hazanavicius/France/100 min.
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Hooray for Hollywood!
Noel’s Take: Though it’s set in the late ‘20s and intended as a black-and-white silent movie homage, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist doesn’t much resemble the movies it’s paying tribute to. It’s closer to Singin’ In The Rain and A Star Is Born—two tales of unlikely romance in Old Hollywood—than it is to Chaplin or Griffith. Jean Dujardin  plays a dashing movie star who falls in love with ambitious extra Bérénice Bejo and helps her launch her own career. Then talking pictures arrive, and the Bejo’s star rises while Dujardin’s falls. The Artist’s arc is way too predictable, and on the whole it’s nowhere near as emotionally impactful as the movies it nods to. (It doesn’t help that Hazanavicius drags out the “on the skids” section far longer than he needs to.) But throughout, Hazanavicius finds clever, poetic ways to illustrate the allure of Golden Age Hollywood stardom, whether it’s Bejo dancing with Dujardin’s empty tuxedo or the couple falling in love while doing multiple takes of a scene. And the ending is boffo. Without giving too much away, when the question “One more?” gets answered “With pleasure,” it’s not just the characters talking, but Hazanavicius himself standing up for this magical era of cinema. One more? Why not?
Grade: B+

Chicken With Plums
Director/Country/Time: Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud/France/91 min.
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Edouard Baer, Maria De Medeiros
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: A recipe for heartbreak
Noel’s Take: Unlike Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parranoud’s animated adaptation of Satrapi’s graphic autobiography Persepolis, their big-screen take on Satrapi’s comic Chicken With Plums was shot with actors on sets. And yet in some ways it's even cartoonier than Persepolis. Mathieu Almaric stars as a melancholy violinist who decides that life has lost all potential for pleasure, and so he decides to take to his bed and wait for death. Chicken With Plums goes day-by-day with the deathwatch, and on each day explores a piece of the hero’s history, or examines the past and future of a member of his family, or digresses into outright folklore. Just as the story combines the fantastical with the biographical (based on Satrapi family legends), so does the filmmaking veer from straightforward drama to something more outsized. The tonal shifts don't always work—there’s a fake sitcom sequence that bombs badly, for example—but the nested narrative structure gives the movie a sense of inevitability that makes it all the more powerful when Almaric’s wife and kids try to figure out what could make him happy. What they don’t realize is that his depression only has a little to do with them, and a lot to do with living for decades under the heavy boot of fate.
Grade: B+

Goodbye First Love
Director/Country/Time: Mia Hansen-Løve/France/110 min.
Cast: Lola Créton, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Magne Brekke
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Young hearts beat free, then they go on to do other stuff
Noel’s Take: At one point in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love, an architecture professor lectures his students about “glimmer,” which he defines as that quality of light that can turn an ordinary structure into something special. Goodbye First Love has that glimmer in spades. In telling the story of a teenage romance that ends in heartbreak—and then following the decade-long aftermath—Goodbye First Love is covering dramatic ground so well-trod that it may as well be paved. But the details of the piece are wholly Hansen-Løve. Beginning with the last weeks of a passionate romance—which ends when the dreamy Sebastian Urzendowsky leaves the moody Lola Créton to go on a 10-month trip and then gradually slacks off on letters and phone calls— Hansen-Løve evokes the burning intensity of young love, and how it can be so painful for the participants that being together is more miserable than breaking up. We then see Créton struggle to get her head straight in the ensuing years, until she finally settles in with an older man (that professor from above, played by Magne Brekke) and launches a promising architecture career of her own. Inevitably, Urzendowsky returns and the exes fall back into old patterns, only now it’s Urzendowsky who seems like the clingy, immature one. Goodbye First Love sometimes tells when it should show; and there’s a heavy measure of predictability to its plot. But that’s only because the situation is so common in real life: the devotion that borders on suffocation, the hurt that feels like it'll never go away, and the maturation that leads to a different set of priorities. Hansen-Løve both romanticizes the fervor of adolescent relationships—particularly the way that young lovers feel prematurely like grown-ups—and illustrates why they’re untenable. The result is a movie that’s poignant, bittersweet, and true.
Grade: A-

The House Of Tolerance
Director/Country/Time: Bertrand Bonello/France/125 min.
Cast: Noémie Lvovsky, Hafsia Herzi, Jasmine Trinca
Program: Visions
Headline: Bordello Of Blood
Scott’s Take: So it turns out the world’s oldest profession is a pretty shitty job, whether you’re a 21st century streetwalker in Paris or housed in an elegantly appointed brothel at the turns of the 20th. The House Of Tolerance makes that connection clear enough by inserting anachronistic music on the soundtrack—the use of a certain late-‘60s parent-rock favorite by the Moody Blues is particularly inspired—and later makes it perhaps clearer than necessary. Stretching out over an appealingly hazy 125 minutes, Bertrand Bonello’s film follows the slow decline of a country brothel and the uncertainty shared by women who already have no rights and no sense of financial security. Despite the expensive dresses, the champagne baths, and the illusion of upper-crust politesse, the realities of the job are often the same then as now: Hookers carry debts that only deepen over time; moneyed clients are no less prone to shocking violence and abuse; and those who are victimized by disease or other physical ailments or scars are essentially doomed. Though few of the characters stand out, the brothel itself takes on the qualities of an organism—one that’s mostly bonded in feminine solidarity, but nonetheless subject to forces beyond its control. Without soft-pedaling it—the story of “The Girl Who Laughs” alone will brush away that line of criticism—Bonello nonetheless mourns the extinction of the brothel, where the women at least had each other.
Grade: A-

Miss Bala
Director/Country/Time: Gerardo Naranjo/Mexico/108 min.
Cast: Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, James Russo
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: The Tiara Of Terror
Scott’s Take: A nice festival companion to Drive, Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala is also a formally dazzling thriller about a lead character forced—here by fate, rather than choice—into a dangerous situation with precious little room to maneuver. Here, Stephanie Sigman stars as a Tijuana teenager who dreams of becoming the next Miss Baja California. Be careful what you wish for. At the wrong place at the wrong time, she witnesses a nightclub ambush by a drug gang; when she tries to go to the police to inquire about a missing friend, a corrupt cop delivers her right to the gang’s vicious leader, played by Noe Hernandez. In a plot rife with dark ironies, Naranjo posits Sigman as the stand-in for ordinary Mexican citizens left powerless by drug cartels on one side and a compromised police force on the other. Though her options are far more limited than Ryan Gosling’s in Drive, she’s not an entirely passive victim, either, trying desperately to wriggle free from the role the gang has cast her to play. Naranjo renders her harrowing ordeal in spectacular style, with lots of long, dynamic takes shot from unconventional vantage points, and a relentless pace that shuttles his heroine from one tense situation to another without pausing for breath. Though it toes a delicate line between exploitation movie and movie about exploitation, that’s part of what gives the film its charge.
Grade: A-

Outside Satan
Director/Country/Time: Bruno Dumont/France/109 min.
Cast: David Dewaele, Alexandra Lematre
Program: Masters
Headline: In The Craggy Hills Of Coastal France, An Auteurist Trap
Scott’s Take: When miracles are commonplace, they cease to be miracles. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Bruno Dumont, an auteur whose transcendentalism has become just one in a predictable rotation of recurring elements. The others? A rural savant with divine gifts, a murder “mystery,” animalistic sex scenes, lots of grunting and screaming, shocking bursts of violence, and third-act moments of grace. Though I wasn’t entirely sold on Dumont’s last film, 2009’s Hadewijch, its story of the diverted faith seemed to signal a newfound willingness to break form. Outside Satan takes Dumont a full step backward, as he retreats to yet another tedious variation on themes that would seem too specific to repeat. David Dewaele plays a drifter who skulks around a coastal village and shares an unusual relationship with a teenage girl, for whom he kills a couple of a couple of people, including her father. The stranger and more inexplicable Outside Satan gets, the better—the drifter’s encounter with a female hiker is, well, something to discuss—but mostly the film treads on a familiar landscape, mixing-and-matching motifs from L’Humanite, Flanders, Twentynine Palms, and The Life Of Jesus without standing on its own. His impeccable style has never been in question; it’s his purpose that seems in doubt.
Grade: C-

Oslo, August 31st
Director/Country/Time: Joachim Trier/Norway/96 min.
Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olar Brenner, Ingrid Olava
Program: Vanguard
Headline: When I Put A Spike Into My Vein
Scott’s Take: Scaling back the flash of his promising debut feature Reprise, Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st deals honestly and unsentimentally with a recovering addict trying to puzzle out life after rehab. Beautifully scripted—and no less literate than Reprise, which took place in the world of publishing—the film begins with Anders Danielsen Lie, a 34-year-old of means and talent, attempting to commit suicide. Still in a fragile state despite being 10 months sober, Lie is allowed to leave rehab for a late-summer day in Oslo, where he’s squeezed a job interview at a magazine between visiting his old friend (Hans Olar Brenner) and his sister. Despite his admitted temptation to score heroin at the first opportunity, Lie’s biggest problem isn’t staying sober, but finding some kind of life that’s going to be meaningful for him. The scenes between Lie and Brenner crystallize his deep existential dread, which his friend can’t dispel with half-hearted endorsements of family life and bourgeois normalcy. As day turns to night, the film shifts into a more perilous odyssey, fueled by Lie’s doubts about the purpose of recovery. Trier writes his hero into a very tight corner, but finds a simultaneously graceful and uncompromising way out of it. Neat trick, that.
Grade: B+

The Skin I Live In
Director/Country/Time: Pedro Almodovar/Spain/117 min.
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Dig the new flesh
Noel’s Take: The Skin I Live In marks Pedro Almodovar’s take on the body-horror and kinky thriller genres—like David Cronenberg crossed with Brian De Palma—but Almodovar’s a little too clinical in his visual approach to deliver real shocks. Antonio Banderas stars as a plastic surgeon who experiments on new kinds of skin and face transplants, using an abductee as his test subject. In an extended mid-film flashback, we learn the story of the abductee, a supple-looking young woman played by Elena Anaya. The biggest problem with The Skin I Live In is that the flashback does in an hour what could’ve easily have been done in 15 minutes, especially given that most of the revelations are telegraphed long before they arrive. Another problem is that Almodovar reverts too easily to his stock melodrama mode, with glossy surfaces covering up the characters’ deep hurt and loss. Had he embraced the genre more, and changed his style to suit a story in which human beings get hacked-up and transformed, he might’ve naturally found his way into a more potent and satisfying narrative, rather than one that dawdles and dead-ends. Nevertheless, there’s something fitting about a movie concerned with the cosmetic being so pristine. Thematically it works, even when it falls short dramatically.
Grade: B

Tomorrow: A big day with new films by Alexander Payne and Guy Maddin, and a fresh take on Wuthering Heights.