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Toronto Film Festival '09: Day 5

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The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans
Director/Country/Time: Werner Herzog/ USA/ 121 min.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Pass my lucky crackpipe
Scott’s Take: When it was first announced that Werner Herzog’s next project was a remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage in the lead role, I think many of us thought, “What kind of crazy trainwreck is this gonna be?” Then the wondrous trailer came out, and it was, “Oh, that kind of crazy trainwreck.” So what about the movie? It’s everything the trailer promised and so much more, a batty policier that’s fueled by a sublimely deranged lead performance that recalls Herzog’s work with the wild-eyed Klaus Kinski. Herzog claims never to have seen Ferrara’s movie, and there’s little evidence here that he has: Other than Cage’s rank and some of his vices (gambling, stealing, cocaine and heroin abuse, sexual shakedowns, et al.), the two films have little in common. The Catholic themes central to Ferrara’s version are excised entirely, replaced by a largely by-the-numbers investigation into the drug-related murder of a Senegalese family. Herzog’s apathy towards the nuts-and-bolts of genre storytelling gives the film’s worst scenes a perfunctory, straight-to-DVD quality. But his Bad Lieutenant comes to life whenever Cage gets to holler and strut (which is often), and Herzog adds some distinctive touches on the margins, from snapshots of post-Katrina New Orleans to a bizarre flourish that I will refer to obliquely as “iguana-cam.” After the screening, my colleagues and I were trading favorite scenes and there was very little overlap; mine involves an electric shaver, an old woman with an oxygen tank, and a coked-up lieutenant who hasn’t slept in three days. And there’s oh so much more where that came from. Grade: B

Director/Country/Time: Atom Egoyan/ Canada/ 99 min.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson
Program: Gala
Headline: Suspicious housewife hires call girl to seduce husband
Scott’s Take: There was a time in the mid-to-late ‘90s when Atom Egoyan would have ranked among my favorite contemporary filmmakers, having followed up a series of beguiling early films with the one-two punch of Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. But lately he seems lost. While I’ve defended the likes of Ararat and Adoration from critical derision—not so much Where The Truth Lies though—the vitality and originality of Egoyan’s earlier films has given way to a lot of adaptations and stilted chin-scratchers. For all its flaws, Adoration suggested the Egoyan of old may be due for a comeback, but Chloe cruelly dashes those hopes. A slick reworking of Anne Fontaine’s not-so-beloved 2003 film Nathalie…—and scripted by Erin Cressida Wilson, who wrote the similarly overcooked Secretary—the film drew a chuckle from me when I realized the story is a dramatic version of an Extract subplot. Playing another in a long succession of suffering housewives, Julianne Moore thinks her husband (Liam Neeson) has been unfaithful, so she hires a prostitute (Amanda Seyfried) to seduce him in order to confirm her suspicions. The prostitute then gives Moore the florid details of their encounters—a ritual that’s complicated in very Egoyan-y ways, with elements of sadness, voyeurism, and an unexpected erotic charge between the two women. Egoyan classes up the material as best he can, but it’s basically lipstick on a pig; when Chloe inevitably careens into “sexy thriller” territory, Egoyan’s austerity only serves to make it more ridiculous. The biggest disappointment of the festival for me so far. Grade: C

The Joneses
Director/Country/Time: Derrick Borte/USA/93 min.
Cast: David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Amber Heard, Ben Hollingsworth, Gary Cole, Glenne Headly, Lauren Hutton
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Have you seen my new flat screen TV?
Noel’s Take: Derrick Borte's debut feature The Joneses has such a good premise that it almost—almost—doesn't matter how clunkily he renders it. David Duchovny and Demi Moore play the fake heads of a fake family, strategically placed in an affluent suburban neighborhood and supplied with cutting-edge luxury items. They throw parties, go golfing, make friends at school, and subtly sell, sell, sell. There's so much story potential in this idea that I found myself wishing it were a TV series (sort of like The Riches, but working from the top instead of the bottom). If nothing else, a TV series could adjust with the times and let the narrative develop more organically—dealing more thoroughly with the recent economic downturn, and showing the long-term effects of being an actor 24-7, and examining whether icons of excellence might secretly enjoy shabby things in their leisure time. As it is, Borte has to rely on a lot of fast-track structural conceits, like montages of shopping sprees, blunt "have you forgotten our mission?" conversations, and the introduction of next door neighbors whose lives are transformed by their proximity to manufactured perfection. Inevitably, it all culminates in A Traumatic Event followed by A Big Speech. Disappointing, to be sure. But there's still a lot to like about The Joneses, including a keen Duchovny performance and a depiction of upper-class comfort that's damnably seductive. And the movie is really onto something when it's exploring the various ways we're all selling to each other, all of the time. Grade: B


Neil Young Trunk Show
Director/Country/Time: Jonathan Demme/USA/120 min.
Cast: Neil Young
Program: Yonge & Dundas
Headline: Hey hey my my, etc.
Noel’s Take: Unlike Jonathan Demme's last Neil Young concert film (the soft, dreamy Heart Of Gold), his latest effort is more lo-fi and gritty, shot from the footlights, balcony and sidestage of a show where Young mixed classic hits from his catalogue with a few too many… well, non-classics. The emphasis is more on electric material than acoustic, which is fine when Young and his band are storming through "Cinnamon Girl" and Demme's lingering on a close-up of the grizzled rocker savoring the low hum of the final, prolonged note. But when Young's in the 20th minute (not an exaggeration) of the middling '00s anthem "No Hidden Path," it doesn't really matter how entranced Young looks; all but his most hardcore fans will have checked out. Heck, I consider myself a devotee and I got a little impatient. (Then again I was watching the movie at an outdoor screening, while standing up, probably didn't help.) There are some wonderful performances here, but given that Demme's filmmaking is nothing special, this one has to be filed under "fans only." Grade: B-

The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee
Director/Country/Time: Rebecca Miller/USA/100 min.
Cast: Robin Wright Penn, Alan Arkin, Keanu Reeves, Maria Bello, Winona Ryder, Julianne Moore, Monica Bellucci
Program: Gala
Headline: A sleepwalking free spirit looks back at how and why she settled down
Noel’s Take: I'm quite taken with the theme of Rebecca Lee Miller's latest melodrama, which is all about the nagging inconsistencies of human beings. Robin Wright Penn plays the wife of aging book editor Alan Arkin, and as he eases awkwardly into semi-retirement, she looks back on her turbulent childhood, from growing up in the suburbs with a pill-popping mother to becoming a druggie wastrel herself, prior to meeting Arkin. The flashback sequences in The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee are reasonably strong, capturing how a young woman learns that adults don't always make sense. But the modern-day material—which revolves around Penn's weird nighttime blackout spells, during which she gorges on cake—strains for relevance. Penn and Arkin's circle of literary pals drip with bon mots, which Miller pointedly contrasts with their grunting, no bullshit next-door neighbor Keanu Reeves. The movie tries to play both sides, at once criticizing the sterility of Penn's upper-middle-class existence (especially in contrast to the "realness" of Reeves, and of her younger self) while taking seriously Penn's near-paralyzing anxiety. The end result is a movie that all-but-squanders its poignant consideration of how people change (sometimes from moment-to-moment) by delivering a fussy, contrived indie drama, with a recognizable face in every role. For a movie about the unpredictability of life, Pippa Lee plays it awfully safe. Grade: C+

White Material
Director/Country/Time: Claire Denis/ France/ 102 min.
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Issach De Bankolé
Program: Masters
Headline: Claire Denis returns to Africa
Scott’s Take: Readers of these virtual pages know that I like to stump for Claire Denis at every occasion, most recently in a New Cult Canon piece on Beau Travail and later this week on 35 Shots Of Rum, which opens in New York on Friday. There’s just something about her glancing, elliptical style that connects with me virtually every time; the way she engages the viewer in piecing together images and subtle little strands of narrative is magical in its best instances. Denis’ White Material brings her back to the Africa of Beau Travail and Chocolat, but here it’s a more hostile place, swept up by a civil war that spreads not only violence but madness to the populace. Set in an unspecified country, the film stars the great Isabelle Huppert as a coffee grower whose determination to stay through the harvest, despite signs of imminent danger to herself and her family, is less courageous than stubborn and foolhardy. Denis also follows a rebel icon (Issach De Bankolé) whose fate intertwines with Huppert’s. As usual, Denis assembles the big picture from a series of very small moments—some of the striking landscape, others of the child-warriors recruited into war, and still more that hint at Huppert’s psychosis and countless other ideas and images at play. The middle section of White Material could stand to be more purposeful—and Huppert’s son’s radical transformation in response to personal violence is too abrupt—but Denis brings it all together for a genuinely shocking finale. Grade: B+


Youth In Revolt
Director/Country/Time: Miguel Arteta/USA/90 min.
Cast: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Justin Long, Steve Buscemi, Jean Smart, Ray Liotta, Zach Galifianakis, Fred Willard
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Nebbishy teen taps into his inner anarchist to win the heart of a young lady
Noel’s Take: The persistent (and largely accurate) criticism of actor Michael Cera is that he's bound by his shtick: the slack expression, the mumbled asides, the self-doubt, etc. In the quirky teen comedy Youth In Revolt, Cera gets to stretch a bit, playing both a sensitive, bookish boy (a fan of foreign films and Frank Sinatra) and his ice-cool "let's fuck shit up" alter-ego. Cera lets the bad boy out in order to set in motion a chain of events that he hopes will land him and his girlfriend in the same place at the same time, and perhaps put an end to his stubborn virginity. But he overshoots the target, and ends up on the run from the police. Youth In Revolt is based on a beloved novel that I haven't read, and I get the feeling that a lot's missing from the movie, which is choppy and a little underfed. But it's also very funny—largely because of Cera. It's a kick to see him playing a rogue, doing random damage while speaking in deep, controlled tones. And it's still—after all these years—a kick to see Cera heartsick and bumbling, always at arm's length from what he wants. The wild plot of Youth In Revolt belongs to novelist C.D. Payne, but the mounting comic angst is extra-Cera-y.
Grade: B+

Tomorrow: The White Stripes, Belgian claymation, and the latest from Joe Dante, Todd Solondz and Gaspar Noe (for real this time)