Toronto International Film Festival
6-15 September, 2007


For the benefit of those of you who may eventually be directed here from someone's TIFF rundown, and who may assume that 57/100 amounts to an F.

100-90: Masterpiece, or damn close. Very rare.
89-80: Fanthefucktastic. Near-lock for my year-end top 10 list.
79-70: Definitely something special. Do not miss. Likely list contender.
69-60: Very good, but also flawed or missing some crucial element.
59-50: Didn't quite work for me, but has many redeeming qualities.
49-40: Demerits clearly outweigh merits.
39-30: I really did not enjoy this picture, but talent was involved.
29-20: When will this fucking picture end. When.
19-10: Outright fiasco and/or unwatchably boring.
9-0: One of the worst movies I've ever seen. Very rare.
W/O: I don't know the director and the first two reels (about 35 to 40 minutes) didn't convince me that (s)he has it going on.


This year, for the first time ever so far as I know, TIFF is holding a limited number of advance press screenings here in NYC. None of the dozen titles in question is especially high-profile, but I'm planning to see at least the first two reels of all of them, by way of revvin' the ol' motor.

A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan): 67
[Definitely a zephyr of a movie, and yet much livelier than what I saw of Linda Linda Linda, thanks in large part to Yamashita's expert use of his bucolic locale. And if the characters initially seem somewhat familiar -- I kept flashing back to Blue Gate Crossing, though that's hardly a bad thing -- know that much of what you're seeing turns out to be misdirection. In the end, this is something fairly unique: an anti-hormonal teen romance, and one of few films I can recall that's fundamentally about the nature of kindness. That it pulls this off with hardly a trace of overt pathos compensates for the sense that it might've been even more impressive at well under two hours.]

Very Young Girls (David Schisgall, USA): 55
[Didn't really appreciate the bait-and-switch on this one. Schisgall's a former Errol Morris associate, and his doc opens with some sterling Interrotron-ish narratives from amazingly articulate survivors of the NYC sex trade, interspersed with chilling camcorder footage shot by a couple of truly brain-dead pimps hoping to nab some kind of television deal. (They got 10 years in the joint instead.) But once we meet Rachel Lloyd, founder of GEMS (Girls Education & Mentoring Services), Very Young Girls loses all pretense of journalistic objectivity and turns into a meandering paean to one adult woman's dedication and fortitude. Still undeniably potent, particularly in its heartbreaking exploration of the degree to which these poor kids still cherish their former abusers; they adopt various aliases, but they might as well all be called Tania. I retroactively realize what was missing from Lilya 4-ever.]

Buddha Collapsed out of Shame (Hana Makhmalbaf, Iran): W/O
[And I fled out of boredom. Evidently the Makhmalbaf Film House screens nothing but homegrown classics for its student body, since this looks like every Kiaropanahi moppet-on-a-quest picture ever made, except that dialogue scenes tend to be shot in functional screen-filling close-ups. Precious little girl, whose dark bangs and impish grin make her resemble a miniature Björk, decides she must attend school, has no money for a notebook, travels across picturesque landscape to marketplace in the hope of selling eggs, can only find a buyer who wants bread, travels across picturesque landscape to bakery in the hope of swapping her eggs for a tasty loaf, etc. etc. Plight-of-the-Islamic-woman allegory kicks in when a group of young boys playing Taliban rip up her newly acquired prize, at which point I motored to find out when Offside is coming out on DVD.]

Sous les toits de Paris (Hiner Saleem, France): 42
[Toits are rooftops, for those who ne parle pas. And underneath these we find a motley yet uniformly morose gaggle of shoulder slumpers, staring pensively into space in what amounts to a Tsai ripoff utterly devoid of wit or imagination -- the best Saleem can manage is to have Michel Piccoli flap his arms like a bird at moments of emotional liberation. (I kid you not. Twice.) Shame, too, because the dude does have an eye; the first three shots post-title are so perfectly composed, both in and of themselves and in relation one to another, that I briefly wondered why I'd hated his first two films so. The behavioral monotony quickly jogged my memory, though, and before long I yearned to give everyone onscreen a good dose of lithium. Also, note to self: "avec la participation de" + omnipresent in early scenes = guaranteed goner.]

Reservation Road (Terry George, USA): 48
[Saw this at an unrelated press screening, but since it's playing at the festival I may as well include it here. In the Bedroom redux, as you already know if you've so much as glanced at a logline, but George, for better (sheer intensity) and worse (embarrassing histrionics), will have no truck with Field's lugubrious artiness. Phoenix stews, Ruffalo squirms, and every thuddingly literal scene is just one more tension-building step en route to their climactic confrontation. Which might have been fine, in a flagrantly melodramatic, all-bluster-no-mustard kind of way, if only the whole thing weren't so laughably contrived -- Ruffalo's ex-wife turning out to be the dead kid's music teacher was bad enough, but I had to stifle a guffaw when...well, I guess I shouldn't spoil it, though the trailer probably will. Holds your attention, no doubt about that, but for all its anguish it's ultimately as weightless and disposable as the blockbuster fare it's meant to replace.]

Obscene (Neil Ortenberg & Daniel O'Connor, USA): W/O
[What's truly obscene is the prevailing belief that all you need to make a good documentary is a notable subject (in this case Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, who fought in court to give us landmark works by H. Miller, W.S. Burroughs, et al.), a gaggle of talking heads, and some archival and/or home-movie footage for that "cinematic" veneer. This one's a deadly cradle-to-grave saga, and the directors are so determined to lay everything out in strict chronological order that they use whatever snippet of any given Rosset interview best illustrates the next event in his life, so that he often jumps from middle age to ancient and back again multiple times in the course of a single lengthy anecdote. If I wanted the damn History Channel, I would have basic cable.]

Night (Lawrence Johnston, Australia): W/O
[Opens with a truly spectacular time-lapse symphony of nighttime thunderstorms -- worth seeing, press folk, if the theater is half-empty and you can just duck in for five minutes between other films -- but quickly devolves into rat-a-tat sub-Reggio montage, complete with faux-Glass score. Worse still are the "philosophical" musings of everyday Aussies, one of which was so gobsmackingly inane I had to pull out a pen and jot it down verbatim: "Light. Without it there's nothing visually. That's one of the most interesting things about it." Isn't it though.]

Summit Circle (Bernard Émond, Canada): 44
[At first I was prepared to file this squarely in my victim-cinema blind spot, but upon further reflection I've decided it's just kinda lame -- When Bad (Corporate) Things Happen to Good (Impassive) People. What rankles isn't so much the litany of misfortune that befalls our loving couple -- debilitating strokes for him, sudden layoff for her, loss of dream cottage for both -- as Émond's deliberately misleading structure, which flashes back from an apparent bloodbath and encourages us to assume the sordid worst, when it's really just banal lefty outrage. And while the previous Émond I'd seen, 8:17pm, Darling Street, was fairly exacting in its behavioral verisimilitude, this time he indulges such patently phony (but ostensibly blood-boiling) moments as the one in which the wife, reduced to catering a party held in honor of the tycoon who ruined her life, informs Mr. Bad Man that she was once one of his employees at Canaworld Telecom...whereupon he simply walks out of the room with saying a word in response. Evil! Impolite and evil!]

Operation Filmmaker (Nina Davenport, USA): W/O
[Kind of remarkable, really: A bunch of folks set out to make a potentially tedious documentary -- all about the experiences of an Iraqi film student invited by Liev Schreiber to work as a P.A. on the set of Everything Is Illuminated -- but their subject turns out to be a chronic fuckup who alienates everyone in sight, and so they wind up with something completely unexpected...and yet every bit as tedious. Speaking as a recovering chronic fuckup (who's probably founded Fuckups Anonymous in some parallel universe), I think I can assert, without fear of contradiction from anyone who knew me in the late '80s, that responsibility evaders are the most tiresome and frustrating species of loser on the planet. Here, it's evident right from the get-go that our alleged hero has his head firmly up his ass -- and not as a result of being traumatized by American bombs, either, though Davenport duly attempts the knee-jerk contextualization. So you're invited to watch him squander a golden opportunity, over and over and over and over and over, while he simultaneously enjoys the glamour of being followed hither and yon by a camera crew. Please, just boot the kid in the ass and walk away. That's what both he and the audience needs.]

Corroboree (Ben Hackworth, Australia): 58
[Not quite as bizarre as it initially looks, but still a singular vision -- sort of a cross between Egoyan (thematically) and Haneke (formally), except more aggressively alienating than both of them put together. Once you've worked out what's going on, however, there's precious little left to engage you apart from Hackworth's unerringly sharp compositions -- the film idles rather than builds, and while its tone becomes more overtly comic in the last half hour or so, the shift smacks of desperation. Hard to say much more than that without ruining the experience -- you really want to avoid reviews and synopses on this one, if at all possible. But I will note, obliquely, that the lead "actor" is absolutely perfect in his impassive bewilderment. Hitchcock would be jealous; "cattle" would be kind.]

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, USA): 44
["Well, I'll just suspend my disbelief," thought I when it was revealed that the characters played by Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman are supposed to be brothers. Turns out that's far more plausible than anything else in this gimmicky exercise in cheap nihilism, which leaps frantically back and forth in time, from one cardboard character to another, hoping these machinations will distract us from the emptiness at its core. From the dumbass Fargo-esque scheme that sets the clockwork plot in motion to the effeminate dealer sashaying around in his kimono to Andy the accountant complaining aloud that nothing in his own life adds up, every element rings false; it's a first-year writing student's callow notion of bleak and hard-hitting, decorated with Tarantino-lite structural fillips. Thank god for Michael Shannon, who (as always) injects his few scenes with a much-needed dose of off-kilter zeal.]

Four Women (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, India): W/O
[Only saw two, "The Prostitute" and part of "The Virgin," but that was enough stilted, laborious feminism for one morning. Didn't help that the dialogue sounded as if it had been overdubbed by different actors, all of whom were reading their lines after having merely heard the scene in question described to them over the phone.]

Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani, USA): 69
[One of those films -- Bahrani's debut, Man Push Cart, was another -- in which simply watching the protagonist hustle to and fro at his/her menial vocation delivers all the narrative urgency you could require, so that the plot, once it rears its formulaic head, feels like a clunky distraction. Fortunately, this time Bahrani mostly squelches his melodramatic instincts, so that the whole my-sister's-a-hooker thing (spoiler!) never quite overwhelms the movie's studiously naturalistic tone. I wish he'd found slightly better actors for the leads -- the main kid looks great but sometimes gets a tad overemphatic with the dialogue, and his best pal seems to have wandered into Willets Point straight from a Mouseketeer audition -- but the ramshackle milieu picks up the slack; the movie only falters when its scrambling, grifting, finagling little dynamo slows down, which isn't often. Bonus points for a perfectly judged ending, as unexpected as it is immensely satisfying.]

Thu 6

Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (Wang Bing, Hong Kong/China): W/O
[Exactly as described: An old lady sitting in an easy chair telling the story of her predictably harrowing life under Mao. Wang never speaks -- his occasional questions appear to have been elided via quick dissolves -- and his camera never moves; when Fengming has to use the bathroom at one point, we just gaze at her empty chair until she returns. If that sounds exciting to you, knock yourself out. Me, I'd rather endure one of the "struggle sessions" (lengthy interrogations) she talks about.]

The Brave One (Neil Jordan, USA/Australia): 21
[You know, I've lived in New York for 15 years -- six of those years in Bushwick, back before it had even started to gentrify -- and to this day am constantly on subway cars and in bodegas between the hours of midnight and 4am, usually with a visible iPod. Total number of violent or even vaguely criminal episodes I have personally witnessed in that time: 0. (Actually, one night on the Lower East Side a homeless guy grabbed a bag of chips out of my hand, but I choose to consider that an involuntary donation.) So I'm not sure whether I'm more offended by this film's blatant and wholly uncomplicated endorsement of vigilante justice or by the fact that it treats the audience like complete fucking idiots. Brutally mugged in the park and in the store when some crazed lunatic murders his ex-wife and terrorized on the (improbably deserted) C train à la Bernhard Goetz, all within a few months? The happy, carefree person I was before being assaulted by this atrocious movie is gone forever; Jordan had better watch his back.]

Captain Mike Across America (Michael Moore, USA): 33
[Rivals Ten on 10 as the longest DVD supplement ever projected in a theater to a paying audience. I guess the fact that Bush was ultimately re-elected is supposed to make this vanity project seem marginally less self-congratulatory, but it's still just 97 minutes of gung-ho pep-rally bullshit, liberally peppered with rock-star endorsements (can't remember now whether it was Steve Earle or Eddie Vedder who gushed "Patriot Act my ass. Michael Moore is a patriot who acts") and fawning inserts of average Americans cracking up and/or wildly cheering at Our Hero's latest joke and/or exhortation. I mean jesus, he even shows himself being presented with someone's dead father's Bronze Star! ("Are you really sure you want to give me that?" he unconvincingly demurs for two seconds.) The Slacker Uprising tour itself was a noble idea, and I admire the hell out of Moore for doing it. But that doesn't mean I want to sit through the tedious highlight reel.]

The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, France/Italy): 75
[Superlative, expertly calibrated battle of wills -- nobody understood the maddening allure of the almost attainable better than Balzac, and Rivette matches the author's emotional precision with one subtly stunning composition after another, buttressed by a handful of short yet heartbreaking lateral pans that move us from master to close-up without the violence of a cut. (It's the cut afterward that draws blood.) He also makes much more effective and perverse use of textual intertitles than did Chéreau in Gabrielle, a film that now looks even more overwrought and mannered by comparison. Balibar's wily, impassioned performance was a given, but I hadn't expected such muted volcanic ardor from Depardieu fils, who practically broods a hole in the floor of every room he enters. And while I'm weary of the structural device in which we open with the penultimate scene and then flash back to see the events that led to this crisis/impasse -- see also Lust, Caution, below -- here it's absolutely crucial, tainting every bit of gamesmanship that follows (which is to say precedes) it. In fact, I desperately hoped the film would end without returning to the convent, and was somewhat disappointed when there turned out to be an epilogue of sorts. But even that perfunctory flourish slices clean.]

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, Taiwan): 68
[Okay, so it's not as fun and trashy as Black Book. It's still the better movie -- quite satisfying in its resolutely old-fashioned way; only the erotic calisthenics (which seem a tad forced, though I'm generally in favor of realistic sex onscreen) and one shockingly brutal act of violence distinguish it from something that Merchant/Ivory might have produced on one of their better days. (Sorry, not an insult coming from me, or even damning with faint praise.) Nobody's world's gonna be shaken or anything -- it's a familiar, even predictable espionage tale -- but holding my full attention for 157 minutes at the end of a five-film day is no small accomplishment...and if there's nothing here as glorious as the finest moments in the Verhoeven (though Tony's delayed reaction and subsequent 100-yard dash comes close), there's also nothing as flat-out stupid as that film's entire third act.]

Fri 7

[NOTE: I was afraid this would happen. Today was almost entirely Cannes clean-up, and my hopes weren't high for any of these Fortnight leftovers, all of which lived down to expectations. Things pick up again with a vengeance tomorrow, thankfully.]

Caramel (Nadine Labaki, Lebanon/France): W/O
[Didn't they only just announce the Sex and the City movie a month or so ago? And yet here it is already, except SJP and the gang have been replaced by a gaggle of Lebanese beauticians and the Miranda character is out of the closet. Bubbly, schematic, faintly dull.]

Mutum (Sandra Kogut, Brazil): W/O
[Impoverished Brazilian rural life as seen through the massive Margaret Keane eyes of a wounded little boy. Just plods along in festival mode; I could detect no sign of a distinctive sensibility, much less a story.]

Garage (Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland): W/O
[Am I dubious about films featuring mentally deficient protagonists? I am. Did this one strike me as somehow simultaneously cutesy and maudlin? It did. Was I soon weary of hearing one statement after another affirmed in a thick Irish brogue? I was. Did I get some much-needed sleep during the last three reels? Ah, grand that.]

Silent Resident (Christian Frosch, Austria/Germany/Luxembourg/Hungary): W/O
["Festival sci-fi: generally not a good idea," warned Theo just as I was about to cross the threshold. He was right, of course: This is one of those deadly earnest low-budget dystopic thrillers, with all manner of monotonous weirdness going on in some high-tech luxury apartment building. Basic premise still fuzzy at the point where I left -- an apparent doppelgänger had only just been introduced -- but I'm afraid I wasn't even the slightest bit curious.]

Juno (Jason Reitman, USA): 59
[Super-stylized dialogue seems to be putting many people off, but for every "Yes, I'm calling to procure a hasty abortion," there's a corresponding moment of sheer anarchic giddiness -- perhaps no moment in any movie this year has given me such a quick hit of pure joy as the one in which Juno (a quicksilver Ellen Page) is introduced to the adoptive parents' attorney, Gerta Rauss, and immediately repeats the name at the top of her lungs in an obnoxious Hogan's Heroes accent: "Gerrrta RRRRAUSSS!" As with so many recent comedies, though, an ambitious shift from yuks to pathos proves semi-disastrous -- especially frustrating here because Diablo Cody's script heads in a genuinely troubling direction for the duration of one scene, only to quickly retreat to sitcom safety. Still funny as hell, though, and Page is clearly a legend in the making.]

Sat 8

XXY (Lucía Puenzo, Argentina/Spain/France): 56
[Kind of a dancing-bear movie, in that it impresses mostly by virtue of all the obvious mistakes Puenzo deftly avoids. In other words, it's the best I Was a Teenage Hermaphrodite picture you could possibly imagine -- sensitive, low-key, relatively subtle, and buoyed by an excellent (and suitably androgynous) lead performance. Still, the underlying Free To Be You And Me exhortation isn't really that much tastier just because it's gently spoon-fed to us rather than rammed down our collective throat.]

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada): 72
["I must leave. I must leave here now." Hilariously sardonic-affectionate tribute to Manitoba's finest melds with playfully tortured autobiography -- parts of it play like Cowards Bend the Knee reconceived as meta-melodrama instead of silent horror -- and random goofy vignettes. Truth is, the titular subject is entirely ostensible, which is both the film's charm and its greatest limitation; unlike the overly plotty Brand Upon the Brain!, My Winnipeg never wears out its welcome, but it also never quite achieves the galvanizing force of Maddin's best work, as we're forever off to the next tangentially related anecdote. Kind of a doodle, in other words -- but a magnificent doodle, with parts so individually flavorful you don't so much care about pulling out your calculator and working out their sum.]

Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway, Canada/UK/Poland/The Netherlands): 64
[Amazingly conventional by Greenaway's standards -- indeed, this comes pretty close to qualifying as an honest-to-goodness biopic, albeit the sort of heavily aestheticized, chronologically compressed and historically dubious biopic that I actually have a chance of enjoying. Most notable is the presence of a bona fide human being at the film's center, and a concomitant first-rate performance: Martin Freeman's lusty, tender, marvelously noble and ignoble Rembrandt is perhaps the first Greenaway character since The Thief and His Wife to come across as a collection of impulses and appetites rather than a repository of arcana. Which is not to say that the expected art-history lesson doesn't exist -- only that Greenaway's nimble deconstruction of The Night Watch and its creation doesn't run roughshod over such petty-bourgeois contrivances as narrative and emotion. The result is the director's least daring feature in ages...and also, perhaps not coincidentally, his most satisfying.]

The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin, Israel): W/O
[Did you know that the image of seven or eight uptight Arab men standing around in starched baby-blue uniforms and/or dragging enormous instrument cases is a fount of endless hilarity? Me neither. Sad to see Ronit Elkabetz shoehorned into this kind of flimsy, patronizing culture-clash comedy; you half expect her to eat that poor bandleader for dinner.]

Glory to the Filmmaker! (Takeshi Kitano, Japan): 30
[Utterly, jaw-droppingly insane, though you have to endure a lot of dismally unfunny sketch comedy -- feeble parodies of J-horror, wuxia, Ozu, etc. -- before the movie finally settles on a "story" and turns into the Japanese equivalent of Pootie Tang. By that time, most of the audience at my screening had long since fled, but the hardy band of us who remained started laughing more and more raucously, albeit always in sheer goggle-eyed disbelief rather than conventional amusement. Make no mistake: This is a terrible film. But there's the kind of terrible film in which Robin Williams runs for President, and then there's the kind of terrible film in which one of the female leads wears a duck sock puppet on her left hand in every scene for no apparent reason, and the duck quacks in alarm every time something unexpected or violent happens. Or in which the terrible film's star is replaced by a life-sized cartoon mannequin whenever his character is beat up or even mildly insulted. And I was going to give a third example, but most of the "comedy" is so Dada-bizarre that my poor beleaguered brain couldn't even retain it. (I assume Japanese cultural references a-plenty, many of them inspired by Kitano's other career as a TV variety-show personality, sailed over my head, which is probably the most desirable altitude for them.) Awful, but also kind of unmissable. Glory to the masochist!]

Sun 9

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, USA): 66
[Pretty much what you'd expect, and as much as I enjoyed watching Herzog commune with the loner-obsessives drawn to such an inhospitable clime, I can't help but wonder whether more trenchant observations might emerge if he and his camera were thrust into, I dunno, some giant midwestern shopping mall. (You get an acid taste of that notion when he first arrives in Antarctica and discovers not the glistening, pristine tundra but a muddy industrial wasteland that resembles Pittsburgh at its ugliest.) Still, Herzog's wheelhouse remains a thoroughly engaging place to be, and the festival has offered few images as surreally amusing as a group of trainees wandering blindly through an artificial blizzard simulated by the placement of a big white bucket -- complete with custom-designed cartoon face -- on each person's head.]

Man From Plains (Jonathan Demme, USA): 48
[As hagiographic as I'd feared -- indeed, this is basically Former Captain Jimmy Across America, with Carter's book tour offering a similar cavalcade of softball sound bites. What makes Demme's film somewhat less tiresome than Moore's, in addition to the fact that the former is celebrating someone else's awesomeness rather than his own, is the relative unpopularity (in the U.S.) of Carter's thesis, leading to overblown but nonetheless dramatic accusations of everything from plagiarism to anti-Semitism. Carter tends to deflect rather than defend, however, and it's a shame that he refused to accept Alan Dershowitz's invitation to a public debate -- the film's most compelling scene sees Dershowitz, who's discovered that Carter once referred to "the so-called Holocaust," track down the interview in question so that he can hear the remark in context, ultimately concluding (correctly, I believe) that Carter was guilty only of a very unfortunate choice of words. Man From Plains needed more of that sort of accessible intellectual gamesmanship, and fewer shots of Carter shaking hands on commercial airliners.]

M (Lee Myung-se, South Korea): 22
[Completely devoid of Lee's awe-inspiring visual pyrotechnics, which means that it's completely devoid of anything at all. When I was reviewing direct-to-vid thrillers for Entertainment Weekly I saw movies like this one almost every week, except they generally made a bit more sense.]

George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, USA): 49
[Turns out there was a reason Romero only made one of these per decade -- it apparently takes him a good ten years to think up a worthy idea. Here, with no time to incubate, he just serves up a feeble rehash of The Blair Witch Project, hammering the ubiquity of consumer video into the dirt -- two different characters say something along the didactic lines of "But then if it's not on camera I guess it doesn't really happen" -- and reducing his lurching undead symbols to mere boogeymen. Never scary or disturbing, rarely insightful (I'm not convinced that Romero even knows what YouTube is); it is often rather funny, which is its saving grave, but how much of the comedy is intentional is open to debate. Memorable images: 1 (the pool). Tolerable actors: 0.]

Atonement (Joe Wright, UK): 54
[First half is beautifully directed, if dramatically contrived -- why doesn't he crumple and toss the offending letter, as he does an earlier abortive draft? would the girls really be permitted to roam around by themselves during the search? etc. Once it jumps forward to the war, however, the absence of the novel's interior monologue becomes a serious liability for which no epic Steadicam survey of the battlefield can possibly compensate. (I officially never want to see one of these fucking shots again -- not in a film with pretensions to seriousness, anyway. If it took you all week to choreograph, it's an empty distraction.) And is the twist ending (SPOLIER!) in McEwan's novel? 'Cause it's really cheap, and cathartic only for the character, not for the audience. Or at least not for me.]

Mon 10

The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen, China): 57
[Unintentionally ironic choice of title, since Jiang's style this time out is as frenetic as Hemingway's was terse. Given the increasing calcification of the "festival art movie" (see next entry), it's somewhat refreshing to see rural China depicted so hyperactively; I never did succeed in working out the connection between the various stories, though, even after they were explicitly linked in part three. (To put it another way, I don't understand why Anthony Wong is in this movie, entertaining though his ass-grabbing saga may be.) Lively enough, but you expect more from someone who steps behind the camera only once every seven years or so.]

Water Lilies (Céline Sciamma, France): W/O
[As close to a purely generic art film as I've seen in some time, though of course I can't say whether it veers in some less hackneyed direction after reel two. What I saw was practically machine-tooled, as oppressive in its own judiciously restrained way as any Hollywood romcom; the dynamic between insecure, watchful Skinny Girl, experiencing her first pangs of unbidden desire, and the haughty, secretly fearful Beauty Queen who initially uses her couldn't possibly be more blunt or familiar. Didn't help that none of the three leads can manage more than one emotion.]

Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-Sheng, Taiwan): 42
[In which Lee serves up precisely the pseudo-Tsai anomiefest that he so deftly avoided with The Missing. That the film isn't remotely erotic is no surprise -- nor is that per se problematic -- but the sheer lifelessness on view seems like it must have required deliberate and pointless effort to achieve, and Lee's own non-performance only demonstrates how dependent he's always been on Tsai's vivid compositions. Occasional attempts at visual expressionism -- colorful patterns projected onto naked, fucking bodies; a snowstorm of lottery tickets -- come across as mere gimmicks. Also, read up about betel-nut girls somewhere beforehand, or you'll be totally lost -- I had the press kit, thankfully.]

Cochochi (Israel Cárdenas & Laura Amelia Guzmán, Mexico/UK/Canada): W/O
[I was half-awake at best for most of the 45 minutes I "saw," so feel free to ignore me. But it sure looked like middling ethnography.]

Déficit (Garl García Bernal, Mexico): 60
[Clonks you over the head with its Message about the callous hedonism of the Mexican bourgeoisie, but García Bernal knows his way around a summer house party -- the strenuous effort to make everything casual, the exasperated sibling rivalry (which here involves two separate-but-equal posses co-existing in a single backyard), the instant crushes and long-simmering resentments that flare up without warning. And it's a nice change of pace to see his puppy-dog routine (as an actor) employed in the service of a flat-out heel. Clumsy, but promising.]

Tue 11

And Along Come Tourists (Robert Thalheim, Germany): 63
[So-so film redeemed by magnificent subject -- or, if you're feeling less charitable, magnificent subject squandered by so-so film. If nothing else, though, it's the first fresh angle on the Holocaust anyone's come up with in decades. Working from memories of a civil-service stint at Auschwitz in his youth, Thalheim fashions a vivid, disturbingly mundane portrait of those people who inhabit the world's weightiest memorial on a daily basis, from volunteers who conduct tours of the camp to Polish villagers born and raised in its shadow. As one who looks with deep suspicion (you could justifiably call it cynicism) on institutional forms of grieving, I'm probably this movie's ideal viewer; still, the lonely survivor who isn't allowed to finish his speech is a bit much, and in general Thalheim seems to coast on his milieu rather then develop ideas. The ending, in particular, is just too pat to satisfy.]

Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung, USA): W/O
[Guess who's coming to dinner? One of those Tutsi cockroaches! "They are our enemies, my son. Don't you know that?"]

Honeydripper (John Sayles, USA): 52
[Well, it's not as righteously embalmed as Silver City, anyway. Opening-reel setup is laborious beyond belief, informing us over and over again that Danny Glover's old-school roadhouse and its octogenarian blues singer can't compete with the newfangled juke joint across the road. (It's 1950.) But once Keb' Mo' turns up as a grinning blind Chorus plucking a steel guitar -- he's like Robert Johnson crossed with the devil -- Sayles loosens up a bit, giving terrific actors like Charles Dutton and Sean Patrick Thomas room to breathe and allowing lazy atmosphere equal time with his usual sociological point-scoring. It all seems a bit inconsequential, even lackluster at times, but for this filmmaker that's a step in the right direction.]

Stuck (Stuart Gordon, Canada/USA): 70
[For some reason -- maybe because Gordon has a long history in the theater -- I assumed this would be a tortured, two-handed psychodrama set almost entirely in the woman's garage. Instead, Stuck uses the Chante Mallard case as a springboard for goofy, exploitative fun, making the victim (Stephen Rea, hilariously put-upon) much more resilient and the perp (a deliciously demented Mena Suvari) a textbook study in transference. (There are few funnier moments to be found in this year's festival than her aggrieved cry of "Why are you doing this to me?!?") Execution isn't everything it might be -- camerawork perfunctory (which is odd given how gorgeously expressive Gordon's work on Edmond was), bit players straight out of summer stock, etc. -- but I'll forgive a lot of clumsiness for moments like the one in which our "heroine" suddenly realizes that she left her cell phone in her car.]

Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen, UK): 53
[Further proof that his failed dramas are much less painful than his failed comedies, although a few scenes inspired far more (clearly derisive) laughter than did the entirety of Jade Scorpion. Farrell is the greatest liability here, twitching up a stylized storm that bears no relation to the more controlled performances of McGregor and Sally Hawkins; his work really needed Guy Maddin intertitles. Story, meanwhile, is yet another anguished crime-and-punishment melodrama, retilling ground that Allen tore up only two years ago with Match Point. Still, individual moments -- the seduction, the murder -- work beautifully, and the movie as a whole has a pleasing shape and rhythm.]

Wed 12

Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan): 50
[Concept of a washed-up superhero loathed by the populace he's sworn to protect is reasonably amusing -- biggest laughs come from the graffiti adorning his crummy house and the banners (STOP WASTING ELECTRICITY!) hung along the route to the power plant where he juices up -- but it's mostly Matsumoto's hangdog, perpetually distracted performance in the title role that gives this sporadically funny spoof a little bite. (I can easily believe that he's a Kitano-level comedy star in Japan; any attempt to dub the film into another language would likely kill it dead.) F/X battle sequences are mostly just dopey, though, and of course there's no excuse for a movie like this to run anywhere near two hours.]

Frozen (Shivajee Chandrabhushan, India): W/O
[Press screening of L'Ora di punta was cancelled for some reason, so I wandered into this on a whim. Nice cinematography, but could somebody please kill that teen girl actor for me? Thanks.]

Angel (François Ozon, France/UK/Belgium): 54
[Is it because I saw Dabney Coleman in "Buffalo Bill" at a formative age that I so enjoy movies with thoroughly dislikable protagonists? Romola Garai makes a splendid rhymes-with-blunt in Ozon's overripe parody of the Golden Age "women's picture" (see Jezebel, Old Acquaintance, etc.), and when Angel swooned into the arms of an officious rhymes-with-mickwad I got positively giddy at the prospect of the bad behavior to come. But it just plods on too long (as do many of its antecedents), and when the saga goes mock-tragic in the second half a lot of the nasty fun ebbs away. Still, this is the kind of film Ozon should be making, as opposed to actual weepies about the fatally ill.]

Ping Pong Playa (Jessica Yu, USA): W/O
[At last, Chinese-Americans have a feeble mainstream comedy of their very own. Might be marginally funnier than Balls of Fury, I suppose, but it can't even come close to touching the gold standard.]

Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike, Japan): 55
[Might've liked this even more had its template been something other than Yojimbo, which has already been exhaustively reinterpreted. Still, the alienation effect of a Japanese cast speaking phonetic English -- as if Kurosawa's film had been translated into Leone's and then that film had been translated back into Kurosawa's -- lends the film an oddly discordant quality that counterbalances the general sense of overfamiliarity. (Incredibly, the Japanese actors still sound more natural than Tarantino does in the brief bit where he's speaking normally.) On the evidence here, Miike could direct a slam-bang straightforward action film if he wanted to; the climactic shootout is shot with such kinetic precision that it transcends parody.]

Thu 13

Days and Clouds (Silvio Soldini, Italy/Switzerland): 73
[Stupid title -- you could call it Hours and Winds with equal justification, and wasn't that some recent Turkish picture? -- but the film itself is almost relentlessly intelligent, observing the gradual financial/emotional dissolution of a marriage with meticulous care, infinite patience and boundless empathy. Unlike the superficially similar Summit Circle (see way above), this isn't a jerryrigged tract; Soldini has no interest in blame or villains, preferring simply to acknowledge the fissures that appear in any relationship once the bedrock of security gives way. He also manages to walk a filament-thin line between dispassion and melodrama, with the help of perfectly judged and vanity-free work from Margherita Buy and Antonio Albanese. Granted, nothing here is terribly exciting -- least of all the filmmaking, which is utterly conventional (by which I mean script/performance-driven) from start to finish -- but it's rare to see a movie that gets absolutely everything right, to the point where its authenticity almost makes your presence in the theater feel intrusive. Pulling that off dramatically rather than formally, via accumulated detail instead of the standard pseudo-doc aesthetic, is a real coup. Soldini's Bread & Tulips, which I saw here seven years ago, is likewise an uncommonly smart middlebrow drama; I may have to start taking this guy seriously.]

Weirdsville (Allan Moyle, Canada): 54
[At its best, good dumb fun; at its worst, just plain dumb. At first I was afraid the whole movie would consist of Speedman and Bentley's Bill-and-Ted-on-smack routine, but once they were being pursued by a band of preppie Satanists, who themselves were being pursued by a troupe of pissed-off dwarves in medieval costume, I pretty much surrendered to the film's sheer goofiness. Trouble is, it isn't goofy enough -- Moyle, whose previous films include the fairly grounded New Waterford Girl, seems leery of committing wholly to the ridonkulousness, and so the movie keeps lurching into giddy incoherence only to retreat to less anarchic Sandler/Ferrell/Stiller/Whoever territory. Also, if you're gonna hire a comic talent like Taryn Manning, let her be conscious.]

Before I Forget (Jacques Nolot, France): W/O
[Second attempt at Nolot, second time I fled the theater in boredom and disgust. Client: "What do I owe you?" Professional: "Nothing. I want you." Client: [silently stands, unbuckles pants]. Professional: [silently kneels, commences sucking]. Is this really what gay sex is like, or is Nolot just one exceptionally bitter and pragmatic old queen?]

Fri 14

A Stray Girlfriend (Ana Katz, Argentina): 61
[Here's another completely unsympathetic heroine (see Angel, above), albeit pathetic rather than arrogant this time. With Katz herself in the lead, the film plays like a remarkably, even courageously unflattering self-portrait; it's as if she's been plonked down in one of those Miramax-y feel-good pictures -- Under the Tuscan Sun, say -- about women of a certain age who recover from heartbreak by finding themselves again in some pastoral paradise...except that this sorry creature steadfastly refuses to accept that she's been dumped, spending the entire vacation placing increasingly plaintive calls to her chickenshit, maddeningly dispassionate ex-beau. Imagine an Albert Brooks film minus the laughs, and then think pretty hard about whether you could tolerate such an endeavor. This emotional masochist found it memorably uncomfortable viewing, and was quite disappointed when Katz wimped out in the final scene.]

Happiness (Hur Jin-ho, South Korea): W/O
[I gather from Ryan's breakdown that this nauseating weepie redeems itself in the late going via an unexpected reversal of some kind. If you want to know why I didn't make it that far, he lays it out better than I possibly could.]

Eat, for This Is My Body (Michelange Quay, Haiti/France): 58
[Granted, I can't possibly be objective about a movie that includes a two-minute shot of Sylvie Testud walking stark naked down a long hallway. (Dear Mr. Quay: Send me all of your footage from this scene and I'll pimp the movie on my site for an entire year.) Even when my beloved was offscreen, however, I frequently found myself mesmerized by the way the film's incantatory rhythms inform its deliberately incendiary imagery. The content is sheer anger (and perhaps too blunt for its own good); the form curious and somnambulistic; it's as if Sembène's Black Girl had been shot in the style of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I won't pretend that I wasn't often baffled and sometimes bored, but a handful of sequences -- the grandma DJs, the walk through the river, and especially those endless "merci"s -- will haunt me for years to come.]

Sat 15

Me (Rafa Cortés, Spain): W/O
[Dramatically tepid, visually cruddy take on the classic existential scenario wherein some affectless loser shows up in a new locale, is mistaken for/said to resemble/fascinated by some absent figure, and proceeds to gradually adopt that person's characteristics. Neither mysterious enough nor formally assured enough to stick with...especially after Cortés had gone to the trouble of denigrating his own work in his introduction, talking mostly about the minuscule budget and the impossibility of getting the cast he'd wanted. It shows, sir.]

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, Canada/UK): 47
[Sorry, but a novel demimonde plus one allegedly spectacular fight sequence (ooo, he's naked!) just doesn't cut it. What we have here is a fairly routine thriller shot as portentously as possible, apparently on the presumption that deliberation makes the banal more interesting. Worse, it abruptly ends at the precise moment when it finally achieves a real sense of urgency -- the entire film would play on a much richer level had the Big Plot Twist been revealed halfway through rather than reserved until just before the (ludicrous) riverside climax. I haven't been a fan of Cronenberg's post-Ringers work, but Spider and Crash, for all their stultifying idiocy, at least felt wholly his, despite having been adapted from novels. This one, by contrast, is so generic, milieu and nude dude aside, that it might as well have been directed by Stephen Frears.]

It's a Free World... (Ken Loach, UK/Italy/Germany/Spain): 51
[Quite absorbing so long as it sticks to the humdrum details of managing an immigrant-labor workforce, with occasional astringent detours into the chaotic home life of the ambitious, foul-mouthed bottle blonde in charge. Alas, Loach's agenda steamrolls its way through the second half, transforming Angie from well-meaning opportunist to evil, self-serving Exploiter of Human Misery, then turning the tables via one of the least convincing criminal acts ever dramatized, complete with a socioeconomic lecture from one of the masked thugs. I rather like the notion of gradually revealing our ostensible heroine to be the film's villain, but Loach pushes the conceit into truly risible territory, then underlines the error by having Angie's business partner Rose do a Jiminy Cricket. Shame, really -- it starts off so well.]

Inside (Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury, France): 62
[So smart and uncompromising much of the time that I wanted to cry whenever Maury & Bustillo played to the cheap seats with stupid gore tricks. Ideally, this should have been a two-hander from start to finish, with maybe the mom plus one deflected revisit from the cops for variety's sake. But that wouldn't supply the genre's quota of impalements and eviscerations, so we get a parade of clueless morons whose only function is to serve as human pincushions, when the true horror derives from the intruder's singleminded fury -- there's a reason they cast a genuine actor in the boogeychick role -- and the victim's alarmingly credible fear and pain. (I don't know whether Paradis can act, but she sure can scream and tremble.) The finale is daring not merely for its graphic fulfillment of the audience's worst fear, but for the way that it upends our identification, or at least complicates it significantly. But it's tough to pull off that kind of eerie fadeout when the previous scene provoked guffaws of disbelief at the sight of a resurrected corpse who's decided that his first order of business should be restoring the power.]


A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol)
I'm Not There (Todd Haynes)
In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín)
Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach)
Married Life (Ira Sachs)
Redacted (Brian De Palma)
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer)
Useless (Jia Zhang-ke)


Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov): 32
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik): 61
The Banishment (Andrei Zvyagintsev): 31
California Dreamin' (Endless) (Cristian Nemescu): W/O
Control (Anton Corbijn): W/O
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel): 52
The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin): 64
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien): 53
4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu): 70
Import Export (Ulrich Seidl): 61
Love Songs (Christophe Honoré): 42
The Man From London (Béla Tarr): 47
The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase): 41
My Brother Is an Only Child (Daniele Luchetti): 57
My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev): 87
No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen): 77
An Old Mistress (Catherine Breillat): 64
The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona): W/O
Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant): 84
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud): 54
The Savages (Tamara Jenkins): 60
Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong): 49
Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas): 91
Sleuth (Kenneth Branagh): 18
[Smiley Face] (Gregg Araki): 49
Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings): 64
To Each His Own Cinema ([Various]): 58
You the Living (Roy Andersson): 66