Toronto International Film Festival
4-13 September, 2008


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.


Actually, at this writing (9 Aug) I still don't know for sure whether I'll be attending TIFF this year. I'd say it's still 85% likely, though, and several major Cannes titles are screening locally over the next few weeks, so I'll go ahead and crank this up now, just in case. [UPDATE, 19 Aug: Yah Mo B There.]

Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, USA/South Korea): 41
[For fuck's sake plant something. In Between Days didn't exactly feel sui generis, but Kim's take on adolescent fumbling and dislocated yearning was nonetheless distinct and nuanced, predicated upon characters and situations that were both archetypal and slightly off-kilter. Without puberty to confuse various issues, however, she goes on autopilot -- this is just Child's-Eye 101, a bland rehash of Nobody Knows (though here the kids are dumped with a mean aunt rather than wholly abandoned) that dutifully hits every sad-little-moppet trope known to world cinema. Representative maudlin touch: Before she bails, Mom gives her two daughters a piggy bank (literally in the shape of a pig! when did you last see that?) and tells them that every time they obey Mean Aunt, they'll receive a coin; when the bank is full, Mommy will return. If you can't fill in the next half hour of the movie, you haven't been watching many Iranian films over the last decade or so. Kim certainly has.]

Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, Italy): 54
[Remarkably similar to The Wire in its method, slowly and patiently assembling a vast, dizzying mosaic that examines the Camorra's effect on every aspect of Neapolitan life, as seen from every rung on the region's socioeconomic ladder. Thing is, though, The Wire, for all its undeniable brilliance, took a good five or six episodes just to get rolling in its first season, and that's twice as much time as Garrone has to work with here. Consequently, a lot of this material feels sketchy, skeletal, undernourished; of the five individual stories that eventually emerge, only one -- the proud tailor who sells out to the Chinese -- manages to transcend its schematic function and grab you on a visceral level, thanks largely to that actor's exceptional performance. Furthermore, Garrone's stubborn refusal to contextualize anything, while theoretically admirable, results in serious confusion for the determined tabula rasa viewer (viz. moi), who won't have the slightest clue what the hell is going on with these apparent turf wars (I had to look it up on Wikipedia afterwards), and who may not even fully understand, until the expository closing titles, how the haute-couture and waste-management strands are related to all the criminal activity, since we're never explicitly told that these are Camorra-backed businesses. Plenty of memorable images, including a housing project that rivals the one in Import Export for frightening dilapidation, but the entomological approach and general absence of humanity -- no Bunk or Bubbles here -- makes Gomorrah something of a grim slog. Really, the title and the first few minutes tell you everything you'll ever know.]

Lorna's Silence (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy): 81
[Oh my, a plot. How terribly vulgar. Never mind that the Dardennes have been masterful storytellers from the jump; or that Lorna's Silence differs from La Promesse only in very slight degree; or that few other filmmakers are as skilled at withholding narrative detail and then abruptly revealing it, almost as an afterthought. We can't have our spiritual journey sullied by melodramatic twists, now can we? Oddly, it doesn't seem to have entirely escaped the folks bitching about the unprecedented amount of "incident" here that the film also diverges from the brothers' established trajectory at roughly the midpoint (immediately following the most disorienting wtf elision since Assayas' A New Life), and of course everyone dutifully notes for the record that we're not in Seraing anymore, Toto. And yet few seem to recognize -- or at least appreciate -- what a genuinely radical break Lorna's Silence represents in the Dardennes' gallery of tortured consciences. Unfortunately, I can't say much more than that without potentially ruining the experience for others -- if you've managed to avoid the logline thus far, do yourself a huge favor and remain as tabula rasa as possible, the better to be blindsided. But here's a hint. Think of the final scene in any previous Dardennes movie. Count the number of people you see in it. That number has changed. But only we know that. Devastating.

Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, Israel/France/Germany): 40
[Man, where to begin? At the end, I suppose, since that's where my creeping unease with this extraordinarily misguided project turned to outright distaste. It's not just that suddenly introducing actual footage of moldering Sabra/Shatila corpses amounts to the same cheap ploy De Palma used last year in Redacted, though I did in fact have more or less the same conflicted response: horror at the images undermined by anger at their baldly exploitative function as a dramatic trump card. But seeing these grisly live-action tableaux also retroactively confirms, in a nauseatingly powerful way, what an obtuse idea animating an atrocity was in the first place*. Understand, I decidedly do not belong to the school of thought that believes certain terrible events defy representation (e.g. the folks who think Schindler's List is somehow obscene). I am now convinced, however, that if you are going to represent such events onscreen, the very last fucking thing you want to do is aestheticize them, especially via crappy Flash animation that makes everything look like Homestar Runner Goes to Beirut. Folman's approach works beautifully for the opening-title nightmare sequence, and holds its own in isolated moments of pure subjectivity -- the furlough flashback, the Beirut airport. But his talking heads are just talking heads, only distractingly ugly and inexpressive, and those wartime flashbacks based on memories that aren't suspect (which is most of them) inevitably turn into set pieces. Show me an animated Phalangist gunning down four animated Palestinian civilians in an animated landscape artfully filled with animated rubble, and no matter how aware I am that this actually happened in 1982, I'm observing it from a great distance -- it might as well be the tentacle-rape bullshit in demonlover. Furthermore, I really don't think that a non-animated Waltz With Bashir would distinguish itself in any way from hundreds of similar docs involving post-traumatic testimony, or from hundreds of similar dramas involving wartime atrocity. It's the hybrid aspect that's got so many people convinced this is a masterpiece -- you've never seen a movie quite like this before. And you know what? There's a good reason.]

* But what about Dogville?, you may be wondering. Didn't I respond to that film's abrupt, climactic shift from the abstract to the specific with great convulsive sobs? Indeed I did, but that's because Von Trier has no use for half-measures. His Brechtian bare stage and allegorical narrative is several orders of magnitude more alienating than Folman's animation, which merely adds a superficial veneer of unreality to what would otherwise be photorealism. The latter has the worst of both worlds, essentially, and as a result its shift to palpability is its undoing.

Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, USA): 46
[Watching this dour exercise in solipsism is like taking up permanent residence in the Malkovich Malkovich feedback loop, except none of the Malkoviches are midgets or torch singers or anything remotely amusing -- it's just one dumpy dude whining, multiplied a hundredfold. As a diehard Primer fan, I suppose I have no right to complain about Synecdoche's migraine-inducing recursiveness, but in Carruth's hands that degree of impenetrability worked as a projection of the characters' fatally limited understanding, whereas here it just comes across as so much sub-Borgesian wankery. In point of fact, the film itself seems just as gargantuanly misguided as Caden's epic theatrical workshop, which may be intentional -- probably is, knowing Kaufman -- but doesn't make the result any less enervating to watch. Impossible not to admire its insane ambition and uncompromising Kaufman-ness, and isolated moments and ideas are as brilliant as you'd expect; among other virtues, this film has the most unexpected and jarring chronology leaps ever, so casual that you're never entirely sure whether they're real or not. But even the ostensibly light, playful touches, like Hazel's house being perpetually on fire, feel weirdly labored and oppressive. You can actually imagine Synecdoche having been made by Nicolas Cage's depressive "Charlie Kaufman" from Adaptation., and by the second morosely surreal hour you can't help but long for a dash of Donald.]

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, USA): 76
[It's almost touching, really, to see a scarily talented young filmmaker who's still struggling to overcome the tyranny of influence and develop his own voice. Brick, with its hyperkinetic camerawork and floridly stylized dialogue, was an unapologetic (and first-rate) Coen Bros. pastiche, though you could catch glimpses of Johnson's own personality reflected in his banal yet evocative San Clemente locations. This time around, it's Mr. Wes Anderson who should feel sincerely flattered, which would be disheartening (given all the other Wes-lite pictures we've seen in Rushmore's wake) were Johnson not such a remarkable and inventive mimic. Unlike other imitators, he mixes the jaunty tone and melancholic undercurrent in just the right proportion, lending the film a sort of effervescent gravity; he also knows his way around a terrific sight gag and a casually tossed-off punchline. Best of all, he actually has something to say: This is the first con-man picture I've ever seen that not only recognizes our inherent distrust in everything we're seeing but takes the resulting feeling of detachment as its subject. (You could almost read it as a rebuke to Mamet.) Enormously entertaining and ultimately quite poignant; apart from the lack of formal originality (which I believe and hope Johnson will soon overcome), my biggest quibble is Mark Ruffalo, who's just too naturally diffident to convince as the brash, flippant, überconfident showman Stephen is evidently meant to be. Why cast such a thoughtful actor as the glib, scheming brother? After his final scene, though, I understood.]

/Ashes of Time/ (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/China): 59
[Jesus, I've been doing this so long now that I can refer you back to the original review I wrote twelve freakin' years ago (in an earnest prose style I find almost unrecognizable). How much reconstructive work Wanker has performed I'll leave to others, but the film seemed far more comprehensible this time around, basically just a series of tangentially related encounters between Leslie Cheung's brooding loner and the various folks who wander by seeking succor and/or revenge. Brigitte Lin's impassioned segment, with its omnipresent cross-hatched birdcage shadows, works gorgeously as a self-contained short, and Wong's patented step-print process lends the later fight sequences a smeary grandeur; frame for frame, this is probably the most visually ravishing film he's ever made. But as a Westerner who totes in no cultural baggage regarding these iconic characters and their eventual fates (which I gather the average Chinese viewer would know like we know Batman and Superman), I still found myself tuning out whenever formal élan gave way to dramatic longueur. (Maggie Cheung's guest appearance, which is evidently intended as the film's emotional fulcrum, had me studying the art direction during her entire lengthy monologue.) Anecdote follows anecdote with little apparent rhyme or reason, apart from a rather wan throughline about the perils of memory; when the concluding titles gravely inform us that Cheung's character would become "Lord of the West" and The Other Tony Leung's character "Lord of the East," I more or less shrugged and said, "Okay." Which I don't think is the desired response.]

Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK): 58
[Certainly there's no denying the blunt (tour de) force of Sally Hawkins' soon-to-be-legendary performance, which essentially amounts to a photonegative of David Thewlis' caustic misanthropy in Naked. But this is the first of Leigh's movies (or at least of his post-'87 theatrical features -- I still haven't caught up with most of the TV stuff) that seems expressly designed to demonstrate a predetermined thesis rather than simply to explore various offbeat facets of human behavior. There's something almost dictatorial about the film's evident desire to make us reconsider our initial, most likely distasteful reaction to Poppy's relentless chipperness; in its own quirky way, Happy-Go-Lucky plays like Leigh's humanist version of Funny Games, implicitly scolding the viewer for his/her shallow assumptions. Consequently, I found the dichotomy between our heroine and her bitter driving instructor (an over-the-top Eddie Marsan) too neat by half, and certain other scenes -- most notably Poppy's late-night encounter with a homeless "crazy" -- come across as weirdly passive-didactic. And yet I'd happily spend another couple of hours in Poppy's dithery company, which only goes to show that Leigh's unique method (and his ability to sniff out unknown but tremendously gifted actors) transcends any possible agenda.]

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France): 72
[Let's hear it for clarity and focus. Arguably even more sprawling than Kings & Queen -- larger cast of characters; multiple complicated backstories that require lengthy explication via kickass puppet show; a brand-new visual and/or narrative strategy introduced roughly every other scene -- Desplechin's follow-up nonetheless coheres quite admirably about a poignant central theme of family ghosts, with nearly every choice perfectly judged. It helps a great deal, I think, that this is a true ensemble piece, and quite a balanced one at that. Characters occasionally take the spotlight for a brief aria, but nobody remotely predominates -- even the brother-sister rivalry, which seems central at the outset, vanishes for long stretches. The all-of-human-life-is-here approach works much better applied to a wide swath of humanity, even as embodied by a single extended family. I must say that I still don't quite grok Desplechin's weirdly personal fixation on open enmity between blood relations -- some of the conversations here are casually hostile to the point of absurdity -- and the movie runs out of steam perhaps 20 or 25 minutes before it actually ends. But its unapologetic immersion into a hermetic yet recognizable world captivated me like nothing this director has done before. I knew I was a goner when a slow track into a photograph of a deceased character we've literally never even heard about prior to this scene had me blinking back tears.]

Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, UK): 52
[Davies' intimately sardonic (or is it sardonically intimate?) voiceover narration casts such an enveloping aural spell that I half-wished for no visual content whatsoever, or perhaps just an unvarying void à la Derek Jarman's Blue (a film, you might be surprised to learn, that I rather enjoyed). Instead, we get a panoply of archival footage that only rarely transcends PBS-doc obviousness, employed by Davies in service of a cranky fall-and-decline narrative that reminded me of the loaded nature vs. Western Civ dichotomy in Koyaanisqatsi. Uncertain why I wasn't being transported, I finally realized what was missing during a brief, thrilling sequence in which images and soundtrack memorably collide: The defiantly anti-modern Davies proclaims his love for classical music (and the unpronounceable names of its European composers) over shots of teenagers twisting and shouting in the bowels of the Cavern Club. But that's an anomaly -- mostly, it's e.g. random Korean War footage set to "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," which anybody could proffer. I can see why people were gushing at Cannes -- this is the kind of deeply personal, intensely uncommercial project that cinephiles love to champion, and it certainly sounds awesome on paper. But creating stunning images isn't the same thing as assembling them from a variety of sources, just as a great sculptor isn't necessarily going to kick ass at found-object mosaics. Watching Of Time and the City, it's abundantly clear where Davies' gift lies.]

[NOTE: Unfortunately, the ridiculously cheap Internet place I used to frequent, conveniently located right around the corner from the Varsity, is no more, which is making it difficult for me to write much. So this year's rundown will be even more drive-by than usual -- probably just a sentence or two per film. I'm already three days behind.]

Thu 4

Snow (Aida Begic, Bosnia & Herzegovina/Germany/France/Iran): 55
[Incantatory visual/rhythmic sense compensates for banal Cherry Orchard narrative -- will these Bosnian war widows sell their poor but picturesque village to Serbian developers? -- and a certain thudding inevitability. Yes, it snows at the end.]

Adhen (Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, France/Algeria): W/O
[Briefly got excited when I thought this otherwise painfully lethargic Marx-meets-Allah trifle was about to turn into an insane black comedy about an aspiring Muslim struggling to get worker's comp for an act of self-circumcision. But no, it was just that one scene.]

Delta (Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary/Germany): 35
[She: "Once I didn't eat for a whole year." He: "Why?" She (stone cold serious): "I wasn't hungry." Almost a parody of the Somber Eastern European Art Movie, and so lugubrious that even its pro-incest stance fails to rouse you from your stupor.]

In the Shadow of Naga (Phawat Panangkasiri, Thailand): W/O
[Uh, Joe this ain't. Spent some time trying to figure out which bad comedians would star in the American remake. David Spade and Rob Schneider? Dane Cook and Ray Romano? Turns out we've already made this movie, and it was in fact Mr. Martin Lawrence. Substitute monks for cops, but the degree of ineptitude remains constant.]

Ocean Flame (Liu Fendou, Hong Kong): W/O
[Abusive-sexual-relationship movie. Check, please.]

JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, France): 50
[No idea why people are raving about this -- it's really just a mediocre hostage drama with a few wan "meta" musings clumsily grafted on. Kickass opening shot is everything you've heard, but I nearly nodded off during Van Damme's allegedly mindblowing direct-to-camera monologue, which merely confirms him as a terrible actor.]

Fri 5

Burn After Reading (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, USA): 82
[Partisans and detractors alike are dismissing this misanthropic marvel as a slight, meaningless comedy, when in fact it's far more probing and trenchant, in its defiantly goofy way, than No Country for Old Men. Basically it's Blood Simple played for laughs, but with a nasty post-9/11 sting -- I intuitively sense that there's a brilliant reading to be made along those lines, but at the same time I don't really want to think too hard about it, for fear of winding up with a dead frog pinned to the table. Gasping for breath for 90+ minutes more than sufficed.]

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Kim Jee-woon, South Korea): 57
[The good: Terrific action set pieces (albeit without much of a discernable Leone influence) at fairly regular intervals. The bad: Runs 128 minutes, feels like 150. The weird: Song Kang-ho in a shootout wearing a diving helmet.]

Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, USA): 84
[Demme goes Dogme! Easily the most emotionally wrenching family melodrama since The Celebration, which it heavily resembles (except in that the Big Secret is unknown at first only to the audience); Anne Hathaway's heartbreakingly credible concerto of neediness and self-absorption is merely the most unexpected performance in a never-miss ensemble. I was not remotely prepared for this picture in my opinion, and spent fully half of it on the verge of tears.]

Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy/France): 46
[I'm a defender of Sorrentino's hyperactive style, and it's certainly bracing to see it applied to that most staid of subgenres, the political biopic. But this film is nearly impossible to follow if you aren't well versed in the last several decades of Italian-government scandal -- the names and allegations just keep flying, and you can only shrug. Toni Servillo's performance, as always, is good for some odd pathos.]

The Rest of the Night (Francesco Munzi, Italy): 66
[Solid, well-wrought, pleasingly subtle take on The Immigrant Underclass (this week's special guests: Romanians in Italy!) plays sort of like a less chilly Chabrol film that doesn't actually want to see the bourgeoisie burn. Fine performances all around, except that it's distracting to see Aurélien Recoing dubbed into Italian.]

Sat 6

Adoration (Atom Egoyan, Canada): 60
[In which our hero, after a decade's worth of laudable but never quite satisfying attempts to stretch 'n' grow, finally gives up and retreats to his signature style: chilly, stilted, intricately fragmented, solemnly ludicrous. For this rabid fan of old-school Egoyan, it felt like a homecoming, which perhaps makes it easier to forgive the way that Atom's potentially rich ideas about terrorism and technology ultimately wind up in the service of his usual bizarro-world take on grief management. Plus he somehow gives Scott Speedman gravity, which should be some special Genie award right there.]

It's Not Me, I Swear! (Philippe Falardeau, Canada): 48
[Something about this unusually dark kidpic felt tonally off to me, and after consulting the press kit I discovered exactly what it was: In the two much-loved novels that inspired the film, the protagonist is schizophrenic. Whereas here he mostly just comes across as Dennis Le Menace, wreaking constant havoc as a standard-issue means of lashing out at a world he finds incomprehensible. (His mom ran off to Greece to start a new life.) Falardeau, working in a much broader register than he did in Congorama, finds a few inspired moments among the books' various incidents, but it's pretty clear that their appeal must lie almost exclusively in the kid's demented interior monologue. Unadaptable, in other words.]

Knitting (Yin Lichuan, China): W/O
[This film has three main characters: an infuriatingly impassive lump, a haughty bitch whose only purpose in life is to torment the infuriatingly impassive lump, and some colorless dude who's all like whatever. Hopefully they're all impaled on giant knitting needles by the time the closing credits roll.]

Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins, USA): W/O
[Phony from the outset, in ways both small (there is no possible way the cab driver could see Jo's conveniently forgotten wallet on the floor of the back seat -- lamest script device of the year) and gigantic (note to pushy annoying guys: picking up a guitar and singing "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" will not make the girl's face light up in real life, especially if you do it when she's just asked you to leave). I was trying to cut Jenkins some slack, if only because I wanted to like these underrepresented characters...but then he took us on an extended tour of the Museum of the African Diaspora, shoving our noses in their underrepresentation, and I didn't just walk out. I kind of fled.]

Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan): 64
[Perfectly lovely, but also the kind of movie that gets all the little details right and is content to do nothing more, save for some overly blunt summation right at the end, e.g., "Crud, I just remembered that sumo wrestler's name, oh well it's too late to tell Mom." (Just close your eyes and relax, Mr. Kore-eda. Is there anything else you wish you had remembered to tell your mother?) But bear in mind that I feel much the same way about Yi Yi and most of late Ozu. Some audacity, if you please.]

Sun 7

Blindness (Fernando Meirelles, Canada/Brazil/Japan): 23
[For now, I'm gonna go ahead and trust that people who speak highly of the source novel -- including, indirectly, the '98 Nobel committee -- aren't completely insane. But the book's genius must reside almost entirely in Saramago's prose style, because boiled down to its narrative essence, this story could scarcely be more ludicrous and risible. Basically it's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," except that here society turns insta-cruel after citizens lose their vision rather than their appliances and such. (Alternative reductive logline: Lord of the Flies with blind people instead of kids.) "And hey, you know what we could do to suggest blindness? Visually? We could shoot stuff out of focus!" Utterly cringeworthy; I mostly just felt sorry for the actors.]

[ANCILLARY NOTE: Most of the (vicious) Cannes reviews refer to extensive pseudo-philosophical voice-over narration by Danny Glover -- "I don't think we went blind; I think we were always blind," the film apparently once began. (Egad.) This has been excised completely, which means that you now kind of wonder why Glover's character is even in the movie.]

Winds of September (Tom Shu-Yu Lin, Taiwan): W/O
[I'd like to call this shallow, insipid high-school melodrama the cinematic equivalent of a Young Adult Novel, but that's a tad problematic given that one of my favorite films of the last couple years, Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, actually is an adaptation of a Young Adult Novel. So I guess I'll just call it shallow and insipid.]

Sugar (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, USA): 56
[Lots of good stuff here, but the film as a whole felt a little earnest and Sayles-y to me, especially compared to Half Nelson -- overly committed to balance and fairness at the expense of dramatic juice. Still, I admired the ways in which it deliberately diverges from the journey-to-the-big-game trajectory of the traditional sports flick, and few scenarios are as reliably funny as the fish out of water.]

Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/France/Italy): 49
[Though I don't entirely trust my reaction, since a big part of my disappointment stems from the film's dingy, pixelated videography -- close-ups often looked to me like they'd been shot through a screen door -- whereas the other reviews I've found, both pro and con, uniformly rave about the film's hi-def majesty. (Climates is the most visually stunning vid-shot feature I've seen to date, and Ceylan apparently used the same camera here, though I would never have guessed that.) All the same, this is at bottom a tediously threadbare tale that spins its wheels for well over an hour, only picking up steam once Dad is released from prison and the recriminations can begin in earnest...which only amounts to brooding and sweating, for the most part, but that's way more dynamic than what we'd been subjected to previously. Final third is fairly magnificent, but even then I was distracted by how muddy everything looked. Did they use the wrong projector or something?]

The Burning Plain (Guillermo Arriaga, USA): W/O
[Even the lame-ass Arriaga scripts -- which is most of them -- usually hold my attention for well over half the film, right up to the point at which various hidden connections begin to emerge and you start to get a sense of how contrived and stupid the movie actually is. (See: Babel.) This one, however, never even grabbed me to begin with, either because González Iñárritu wasn't around to distract me with superfluous flash or because (as I suspect) Arriaga has wrung the guess-how-A-relates-to-B-relates-to-Q approach bone-the-fuck-dry. In any case, didn't care and wasn't curious.]

Mon 8

Adam Resurrected (Paul Schrader, Germany/Israel/USA): 50
[Jeff Goldblum was the wrong choice for the title role, I think -- not just because his distinctive stop-start cadence sounds weird underneath a German accent, but because his general air of perpetual amusement is fundamentally at odds with Adam Stein's deep-rooted sense of self-loathing. (Dafoe, on the other hand, is almost blandly comfortable as the sadistic Nazi.) And while Schrader has never been remotely skittish about repulsing the audience -- I'm still in the process of scrubbing Auto Focus's mildew stains from the shower curtain of my psyche -- he seems a bit hamstrung by the grave sense of responsibility any non-psychopath feels concerning the Holocaust. A genuinely great film dealing with subject matter this combustible would be borderline unwatchable, whereas Adam Resurrected is just sort of...interesting. We need more like "Holy crap, dude!"*]

* (Inside joke for the people who are here.)

Birdsong (Albert Serra, Spain): 61
[Even the positive reviews of Quixotic created an impression of something austere and humorless, so I was wholly unprepared for this droll stealth comedy, which for its first half plays something like a remake of Gerry starring The Three Fat Geriatric Stooges. (I spent almost half an hour stifling my chuckles, for fear of annoying the rest of the tiny VIP 3 screening room; eventually, as Serra's comedic intentions became unmistakable, others started openly laughing as well.) Second half is less directly engaging but still often quite lovely, and it's curious how much power Serra derives from his (I gather) trademark juxtaposition of the iconic and the mundane. As for the main question on the mind of certain parties: Peranson looks the part, which is all that's really required of him. "Acting" isn't an issue here.]

Revanche (Götz Spielmann, Austria): 79
[I hereby nominate Spielmann -- see also The Stranger, which played here in 2000, and Antares, class of TIFF '04 -- as the most interesting filmmaker to whom nobody's paying any attention whatsoever. Revanche admittedly sounds pretty banal in broad outline, which is why I've spent the last 24 hours ducking questions from friends about what makes it so awesome. In execution, however, it's a thing of sheer beauty, the kind of film in which the details of each individual scene -- composition, rhythm, performances, stray bits of business -- are all so perfectly judged that their cumulative force kind of sneaks up on you. "Protagonist sublimates rage by chopping firewood," for example, isn't an idea that's gonna wow anybody on paper, but in Spielmann's expert hands this recurring motif takes a giant buzzsaw to your nervous system, just by virtue of the way each scene is shot and how it's placed relative to the events that precede and follow it. In short, Revanche is extremely well-constructed...and if that doesn't sound like a compliment to you, then this might not be your kind of movie. Which would be a shame.]

Edison & Leo (Neil Burns, Canada): 59
[Stop-motion work is almost Rankin/Bass shoddy -- most of the character's mouths can't even form certain major vowel sounds (most prominently "ooo"), which makes them all look as if they've been dubbed into English from some other language. Nor did I much like the character design. But the insane script, written by George Toles, really does seem like it could have been a Guy Maddin picture -- I'm prepared to cut a lot of slack to an animated film in which our hero (or so we imagine at that point) semi-accidentally cuts off his beloved wife's lower lip and then rides across town with the severed lip in a jar, hoping to reattach it. Except he also needs the shamanic-type help of a tribe of...Native Canadians, I guess they'd be called. (Are they?) Anyway, it's that kind of movie.]

Detroit Metal City (Toshio Lee, Japan): W/O
[This alleged comedy has precisely one joke: lead singer of costumed, face-painted death-metal band is actually a simpering nancy boy who just wants to write and sing sappy pop tunes. And that single joke is played so barn-broad that it makes Burn After Reading look like Noel Coward. I chuckled once or twice, but I'd also clearly gotten the gist.]

Tue 9

What Doesn't Kill You (Brian Goodman, USA): W/O
[...will evidently convince you that the world needs yet another wholly derivative movie about the downward spiral of two petty criminals. Didn't Ethan Hawke ever stop for a moment and say, "Wait a minute, I just fucking made this movie last year"? And Mark Ruffalo: Please, stop trying to play badasses. You don't have it in you.]

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, USA): 65
[Absolutely riveting so long as it remains at ground-level, plunging us into one crisis after another sans preamble and defining its characters only by the ways in which they function under extreme pressure. That's a good hour or more, during which I was convinced I was seeing one of the greatest war movies ever made + easily the film of the year. But no, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal felt the need to "humanize" Jeremy Renner's almost psychopathically reckless cowboy, giving him a cute Iraqi kid to bond with and ultimately shifting the entire movie to his perspective, to its severe detriment. There are still scattered moments of excellence in the last 40 minutes or so, but just think e.g. how much more powerful Will's "too many locks" apology would have been had he not already been carefully softened via the whole dumbass Beckham subplot. A fine movie, but I mourn what might have been. Also, Anthony Mackie is clearly one of the greatest actors of his generation -- would somebody (other than Spike Lee, I guess) give the guy a juicy lead role?]

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, UK): 42
[Plays in (endless) flashback like a hyperactive Mira Nair picture, which I suppose might appeal to people who like Boyle and/or Nair. Present-tense game-show material is a bit more lively, thanks to Anil Kapoor's hilariously unctuous turn as the host, but even that minor pleasure is undermined by idiot-plot nonsense -- I doubt any nation's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? lets contestants take a bathroom break between hearing the question and answering it.]

Jerichow (Christian Petzold, Germany): 63
[Precise, intelligent rendition of a tale you've likely seen many times before, both in its original '40s incarnation and in the umpteen remakes and glosses and updates said landmark noir has inspired over the years. All Petzold really does is make one massively subversive change (fully evident only in the final moments) that prompts us to question certain built-in assumptions and prejudices we unknowingly toted into the theater. Which is certainly productive, but doesn't in itself make this a great movie -- more of a fascinating curio. Petzold's "project" (for lack of a better word) here necessarily privileges a retroactive intellectual response at the expense of the immediate and emotional one offered by the "dominant" scenario; just the fact that I'm using all these stupid "scare quotes" says a lot about why I didn't respond all that ardently. That's Ed, I actually like it a good deal more than the deliberately unnamed classic it's riffing on, which I only gave a 52.]

Acné (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay/Argentina/Spain/Mexico): W/O
[One unfunny vignette after another, each stridently affectless but without the leavening dry wit of e.g. Stranger Than Paradise. Veiroj apparently finds this kid adorable, or at least interesting; all I saw was a spotty, mildly quizzical lump.]

Wed 10

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, France): 69
[Claire Denis movies tend to be glancing, allusive affairs, and there are moments here -- most notably the titular ritual and the nature of the celebration taking place in the final scene -- that strike me as more willfully obscure than productively ambiguous. All in all, however, 35 Shots of Rum is easily the most direct and transparent film she's made in ages, Victor's cranky confusion notwithstanding. (Apparently Theo didn't get it either.) It must be the way Denis declines to fully define certain key relationships, asking us to infer their history, that's causing the interpretive logjam, because to me the film's theme seemed almost shockingly blunt, albeit kaleidoscopically so: It's about the necessity, and the painful difficulty, of achieving closure and moving on. The grown daughter still living with her dad; the ex-girlfriend and surrogate mom who clearly can't accept that her presence in their lives is now vestigial; the co-worker depressed about what I gather was forced retirement; the ex-lover -- again, you have to infer a lot of this -- who also still lives in the same building and carries the world's most blatantly unextinguished torch (think about how unnatural this whole situation is given the old saw about how nobody in big cities knows their neighbors anymore); the goddamn cat's fate serving as almost comically callous counterpoint (and inspiring its owner's sudden decision, which in turn implicitly inspires the daughter's)...seriously, how many more variations do people require? It's a lyrical mood piece in a very minor key, exemplified by a moment so real and touching and true it nearly wrecked me: ex-couple dancing in a bar after being stranded during a rainstorm; he impulsively kisses her; she briefly responds but then pulls away; he starts to walk off, crestfallen; and she grabs him by the hand and pulls him over to sit beside her -- not intending to renew their passion, or even really to comfort him, but simply because she still wants him near her. It's a movie about irresolution, of knowing what you need to do but lacking the strength to actually do it. And as I write this, I'm starting to think I may have underrated it.]

Gigantic (Matt Aselton, USA): W/O
[I have a noun to follow that adjective: "Quirk-o-rama." Paul Dano's mannered impotence continues to mightily annoy me, and Zooey's wide-eyed pixie shtick is finally beginning to feel a bit stale -- although not even Carole Lombard in her prime could have pulled off the waiting-room scene, in which "Happy" describes the advertisement she's perusing in her magazine before abruptly leaning over and asking "Would you be interested at all in having sex with me?" Not anymore. Get a better writer and we'll talk.]

Linha de passe (Walter Salles & Daniela Thomas, Brazil): 47
[Salles may be the only narrative filmmaker in the world who I'd rather see making shorts than features. His single-digit contributions to Paris, je t'aime and To Each His Own Cinema are outstanding, putting adjoining efforts by far greater talents to shame; he seems to intuitively understand the essence of the short sharp shock. (That these two shorts are diametrically opposed in tone and effect -- one a piercing mini-drama, the other a boisterous musical comedy -- only makes the accomplishment more impressive.) All by way of saying that Linha de passe is yet another plodding, eminently worthy social-realist slog along the lines of Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries, Behind the Sun, etc. That it so closely resembles Rocco and His Brothers doesn't help matters, since you're constantly reminded of how much more primally powerful this material could be in the hands of someone with an eye for the epic. Maybe he can chop it up into two dozen first-rate pieces.]

/Revanche/ (Götz Spielmann, Austria): 79
[No change in rating -- it's ultimately just a bit too neat and tidy (even for me) to be truly great, especially w/r/t the policeman's wife and her empty nursery. (I also noticed this time how much it echoes The Son, though I think it improves upon that film in several key ways -- tragedy much more recent, potential victim himself nearly prostrate with grief.) However, a second viewing ensured that Johannes Krisch, Ursula Strauss and Irina Potapenko (whose work is deceptively simple; btw, kudos to whoever did the English subtitles for her mangled German) will be dominating my Skandies ballot in the unlikely event that Revanche gets a New York release sometime in the next two years. Krisch in particular is just tremendous -- volcanically expressive when the moment demands it, but also capable of heartbreaking stoicism. And the dude can chop a motherfucking log.]

Thu 11

Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, Canada): 63
[Alas, all the best lines have already been taken (mostly by Lee Walker, who saw it first), from "the first semiotics horror movie" to "Laurie Anderson was right." I just dearly wish Burgess had figured out somewhere to take his genius premise -- as it is, the movie just sort of stops once our surviving heroes figure out a cure, leaving numerous head-spinning implications out to dry. Still, if you're an inveterate wordhound, or perhaps have a useless undergraduate degree in philosophy, this film is absolutely unmissable. (James Callan, Leslie Ann Kent, Matt Knoth, this means you.) Funniest line of the year (in context, and aided immeasurably by Stephen McHattie's suddenly halting delivery as its implication becomes clear): "Please do not translate this message."]

Better Things (Duane Hopkins, UK): W/O
[Worst. Zombie movie. Ever.]

[p.s. As much as I'd love to leave it at that -- and those who've seen the film will really require nothing more -- I guess I should elaborate a little. Basically Hopkins has made an ultra-arty, narrative-free, and to my mind painfully somnolent tone poem about junkies and depressives. This demands that his "actors" barely bestir themselves, so as (a) to truly encapsulate emotional lassitude, but also (b) not to distract us from the mosaic of overly precious compositions that is the movie's true raison d'être. To be fair, Hopkins has some terrific ideas -- I perked up when he abruptly cut the ambient sound in one driving sequence, thereby lending uncommon force to the otherwise mundane dialogue -- but the thought of spending another hour with these living corpses was ultimately just too much to bear.]

Deadgirl (Marcel Sarmiento & Gadi Harel, USA): 45
[Not remotely a good film, even in the sick-puppy sense, but I decided to stick with it anyway just because it's so ludicrously offensive that I figured it must be satirical. And I was right: Deadgirl turns out to be a genuinely disturbing disquisition on the madonna/whore complex, a film that feminists who don't flee the theater in disgust at once can ultimately applaud. (Let's stipulate that these hypothetical feminists also appreciate In the Company of Men.) Thing is, though, that doesn't make the movie any less unpleasant to sit through...or, more crucially, any less shoddy from moment to moment. The acting is weak, the dialogue atrocious, the story unconvincing, the attempts at humor feeble. But you'll have something to talk about afterwards.]

The Stoning of Soraya M. (Cyrus Nowrasteh, USA): W/O
[Brutal patriarchy is bad. Innocent women should not be buried waist-deep in the sand and pelted with rocks until they are dead. The end.]

Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, UK): 51
[Sure, Christian McKay does a remarkable Welles impression (though to be honest I was more bowled over by the dead ringer for Cotten they found), but he's trapped in one of those largely useless exercises in imaginative nostalgia -- and he's playing second banana to freakin' Zac Efron to boot. Cute enough, but it really has no urgent reason to exist, and in some ways feels even more impersonal than Linklater's Bad News Bears remake. Small Favors Dept.: No rib-nudging references to War of the Worlds or Kane (save for a generic, unfunny "How will I ever top this?"), though I do seem to recall an Ambersons citation somewhere.]

Fri 12

[Kill me now. I almost went to see Burn After Reading again, just to cleanse myself of all this art-film torpor, but it's playing at the Scotiabank and I'm there most of tomorrow anyway, so I'll wait a day.]

Salamandra (Pablo Agüero, France/Germany): W/O
[Agüero was apparently homeless for a number of years in his twenties, and this bizarrely jittery character study feels like the work of someone without a permanent address, or indeed moorings of any kind. Something like a less self-consciously "transgressive" version of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things -- semi-crazy mom toting around severely fucked-up kid, in this case to a commune run by John Cale that's like Eric Cartman's worst nightmare -- it's singular enough that I'd recommend it without reservation to the adventurous, but I mostly found it exasperating. Plus I was really hungry. But this is probably the one walkout I would take back.

Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/France/The Netherlands/Germany/Spain): 29
[I think I can safely declare Alonso to be my least favorite working director, given that this is the highest rating he's gotten from me in three at-bats. (Seriously.) Liverpool at least achieves a certain degree of (mostly theoretical) poignance in its final scenes, after the protagonist unexpectedly trudges out of the movie altogether, but you still have to sit through an hour of studied nothingness to get there -- endless and wholly uninteresting shots of e.g. Farrel packing his things in preparation for the trip or eating a solitary meal, shots that just go on and on and on without employing duration or stasis to any productive end that I can discern. (By contrast, consider the five-minute shot of two people silently eating noodles in Wang Chao's The Orphan of Anyang, which works precisely because it functions as absurdist counterpoint rather than as some kind of demented Statement of Aesthetic Principles. Or consider pretty much any shot in Gerry -- Van Sant understands how to make "just walking" a drama, not merely a record.) Michael Sicinski was much impressed by the film's "spatial rearrangement," but Revanche demonstrates that you can achieve that sort of textural bifurcation -- sorry, I seem to have caught the A-Hack virus -- without chucking everything else out the window and forcing viewers to rationalize as follows: "Well, I'm bored, but I'm bored for a good reason." Granted, I'm projecting, and no doubt Waz and others take genuine pleasure from the quality of the light reflecting off of the metal hull and whatnot. For me, such pleasures are incidental at best, and I may just be better off filing Alonso under "avant-garde" (subcategory: "the kind I can't abide") and ignoring him in future.]

Vacation (Hajime Kadio, Japan): W/O
[Walked into this Discovery title on a whim, mostly because I didn't feel like heading all the way to Dundas or the Scotiabank to find something more promising, and was treated to Dead Man Walking from the POV of a weak-kneed prison guard, who volunteers to assist the condemned at the execution in order to earn a week off for his honeymoon. Clearly a tract. Next!]

Süt (Semih Kaplanoglu, Turkey): W/O
[Well, it certainly gets your attention right away -- pre-credits sequence sees a young woman dangled upside-down over a cauldron of boiling milk while some dude pulls a live snake from her mouth. Alas, what follows is considerably less arresting: just another tale of angst-filled adolescence, replete with heavy silences ("I submitted my poems to that journal you suggested," the kid tells his prof, and there's a freakin' time-has-passed dissolve before the older man finally asks "Which journal?") and portentous camera tricks. My favorite was the shot in which two people -- one in the foreground, one in the background -- kneel down, disappearing from the frame, Kaplanoglu holding for a good minute on the out-of-focus room that had been behind them...and then they both rise, one at a time, very slowly, except they've switched places and now the one who was in the background is in the foreground and vice versa. "Whatever that means," muttered the guy next to me. Right on, brother.]

Sat 13

[No films seen, mostly because it poured rain all day long and I would have been obligated to wait in outdoor rush lines. I did have a ticket for Chocolate, but then I heard about David Foster Wallace and I wasn't in the mood for dumb fun anymore.]


Che (Steven Soderbergh)
Four Nights With Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski)
Hunger (Steve McQueen)
I'm Going to Explode (Gerardo Naranjo)
Serbis (Brillante Mendoza)
Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain)
Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy)
24 City (Jia Zhang-ke)
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)