Friday, September 23, 2011

Day 5: September 12

The Loneliest Planet

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about Miss Bala, apparently Gerardo Naranjo’s breakout work, and to my mind, his weakest by a mile. Tentative boy-girl interplay infused the violence of Naranjo’s previous effort, I’m Gonna Explode, with gentle irony; here, Naranjo maintains an amorphous, all-encompassing dread. Virtuoso tracking shots, technically as remarkable as anything Naranjo has done, serve to reinforce identification with Laura’s (Stephanie Sigman) bitter endurance and bear witness to creative acts of violence. Little more than a receptacle for abuse, she appears saintly alongside a procession of brutal criminals and corrupt policemen. Naranjo is skilled, but Miss Bala is not what I’d hoped to win him mainstream recognition. D

The opening of Joseph Cedar’s Footnote recalls Certified Copy, as Uriel Shkolnik’s (Lior Ashkenazi) tribute to father Eleizer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is set against a protracted scowl from the latter. Doubts of Uriel’s sincerity are quickly rewarded: his private account of Eleizer differs sharply from the public. That’s all the better for Cedar’s Cannes award-winning screenplay to remain mysterious about Uriel’s martyr-like commitment to his father, and refrain from resolving the big dilemmas it tackles.
But so much academic filibustering is a bad fit for Cedar’s TV-style direction and talking head setups, substituting broad strokes for much immediacy. It doesn’t help that Professor Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), Eleizer’s rival, is an irrational monster, making Uriel, vain from the outset, a hero whenever convenient for the movie’s game plan. C

If TIFF promises one constant, it is a plethora of unusable notes. During Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, I’d scribbled on my notepad, somewhat embarrassingly, “Pure cinema—one can just as easily imagine a literary equivalent as a cinematic equivalent to Eliot or Joyce.” Which I’d have been prepared to stand by, prior to discovering that Planet adapts a short story by Tom Bissell, a young author originating from my hometown, Portland, Oregon. (According to Willamette Week’s current cover story, Bissell “[spends] his time on video games and bad movies.” I bristled before I grokked their meaning.) I haven’t read Bissell’s work, but Loktev’s film suggests inner turmoil like few films can or do: it spoils nothing to tell that much of the second half consists, essentially, of watching young engaged couple Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal) listen to the sound of their own voices. Their hike guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), alternately sinister, incomprehensible and pathetic, is made to feel unwelcome in the subtlest of ways, especially by Nica, who initiates sex with Alex in their tent, with Dato presumably right outside. We’re fully prepared for Dato’s comeuppance, but under the tutelage of movies where sadistic jokes and a whiff of racism translate to villainy, could never guess how unexpectedly it arrives. But then Loktev’s understanding of the complex cycles through which people process guilt, love and fear is never less than acute or surprising. A-

Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene has ambition in spades, but I seem to be nearly alone in finding it squandered. The premise, which recalls my friend Dan Sallitt’s far superior All the Ships at Sea, hinges on the indoctrination process of a violent cult led by Patrick (John Hawkes) and its effects on Martha / Marcy May / etc. (Elizabeth Olsen). Martha’s post-cult behavior, which freely mixes trauma and social retardation, doesn’t sit well with Martha’s sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who loses it when Martha punctures their bubble of upper-middle-class respectability, or her boyfriend Ted (Hugh Dancy), totally resistant to Martha’s presence and inclined to lecture her being normal. The movie’s problems start with Lucy and Ted’s unmediated ostracism and continue with Patrick, whose formal manner, contrasted with his hangdog subjects, has a certain appeal, but is never properly emphasized: Durkin’s style, albeit sometimes low-key, betrays a preference for sensationalism and weirdness over character observation. C

Day 4: September 11

A Separation

In the opening scene of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi elucidates, in one long take of rapidfire dialogue, what some sources purport to be the entirety of the film’s plot. Simin (Leila Hatami), determined to send daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to a good school, demands and is refused a separation from her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi), who must tend to his ailing father. What follows, although staged with stunning clarity, is so complex I couldn’t spoil it if I tried: the intrusion of another, more financially vulnerable couple into Nader and Simin’s lives spurs a whirlwind of accusations, pushing Simin’s concerns to the sidelines. (A legal aide’s reference to Simin’s ambitions as a “small issue” is cruel, but the film proceeds to treat them exactly so so.) The film suffers slightly only for deferring Simin and Termeh’s roles for so long; still, the threads are interwoven brilliantly, as when a deftly staged showdown between Nader and Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), the volatile husband of the separating couple’s caretaker Razieh (Sareh Bayat), draws attention so fully to the men’s underhanded dealings that their seismic effects on both relationships are altogether eclipsed. Farhadi’s greatest achievement is a near-complete obfuscation of where his own feelings lie: I defy anyone to identify any of these characters, albeit deeply sympathetic, as aligned with the filmmaker. B+

Nixing his pet subjects of rape and pedophilia, Dark Horse has been touted as tame by Todd Solondz’s rather lax standards. But this freeform outpour of misanthropy is as bountifully negative as ever. Taken as a character study, it’s bold but unpersuasive. Richard (Justin Bartha) is simple-minded dork of the fanboy genus, cynical but skilled at appearing otherwise; when he proposes to artsy, depressive Miranda (Selma Blair), it’s his dreams vs. her self-respect. While Richard and Miranda are a blatantly bad fit, Richard’s therapist’s way of putting it is “She’s too good for you”; while Richard compulsively buys action figures at work, he prides himself on being not that nerdy. But Solondz somehow lacks the nuance required to make these contradictions important. He instead shunts Richard and Miranda’s sacrifices aside in favor of an oneiric tailspin into self-loathing, his anything-to-get-a-laugh side reigning supreme. C+

Karim Ainouz is in top form with The Silver Cliff before much of anything happens. Djalma (Otto Jr.) languidly hangs out in downtown, fucks wife Violeta (Alessandra Negrini), and performs mundane parental tasks; Ainouz has no default setup, utilizing a variety of visual approaches, but tends to shift emphasis or phase it out entirely in the course of a shot. Then something big happens, Violeta becomes the true protagonist, and Silver Cliff begins to resemble a Radu Muntean movie in focus if not style, especially Tuesday After Christmas. The middle section’s highlights are Violeta’s slyest forms of emotional masochism: prioritizing rechecking her cell over her dentistry job, allowing herself indifference following a gory bike accident, replaying a traumatic voicemail before hitting the club. There’s only so much the movie can do, however, after blanketing her misery in oblivion. When Violeta listens to a cabbie recite a comparable story and vaguely discloses bits of her own, the movie hits a mundane spot between openness and dissimulation. But things pick up a bit as she ambles with single dad Nassir (Thiago Martins), whose awkwardness has a true, lovely ring. B-

Previous entries in Alexander Sokurov’s “Tetralogy of Power” didn’t exactly locate what was human in Hitler, Hirohito and Lenin so much as behavior so eccentric that good and evil were no longer applicable. Faust proves Sokurov incapable of a conventional emotion, or, I fear, a fully comprehensible one. Much of the film juxtaposes Faust’s (Johannes Zeiler) despair and bad health with sexual and sadistic pleasure, like an ascetic philosopher making sense of a Fellini cavalcade. Sokurov assigns even minor characters a madness that makes direct communication impossible, rendering Faust riveting moment-to-moment and inert across any given scene. Throughout, Satan (Anton Adasinskiy), here embodying converse extremes of human ugliness, both lanky and dense with flab, pursues Faust, and Faust pursues Margarete (Isolde Dychauk), the pretty sister of a slain soldier who still allows herself pleasure in the wake of her brother’s death. In an extraordinary display of Sokurov’s control over the 4:3 frame, Margarete’s grieving, although effusive, comically pales next to her mother’s—a gesture that, like many in Faust, undoes its own meaning. B

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Day 3: September 10

Goodbye First Love

Mr. Tree (Han Jie) W/O

Gave this rigor-free study of a misfit around 30 minutes, around which point
Shu (Baoqiang Wang) had waxed moody about his traumatic past, made violently awkward advances towards the cold mute Xiaomei (Zhuo Tan), fallen into reveries and roughed up kids, to our presumed mild chuckles and mild pity. I didn’t detect a through-line or coherent style, apart from approximating Shu’s mania and wooziness as innocuously as possible.

The Ides of March (George Clooney) B

If Clooney the director loses focus now and then, he still succeeds at giving Clooney the actor an opportunity to riff on moral contradictions—his Governor Morris's interview segment on the death penalty outdoes all of Into the Abyss as an audaciously liberal appeal—and, though he’s no Otto Preminger, and Ides no Advise and Consent, to call out idealistic campaigner Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) on his every weakness. It’s a light, sharply written and acted movie, conceding to some conventions (Evan Rachel Wood is good in quieter moments and a distraction when called upon to provide tears) and disdaining others, particularly the expectation not to adopt double standards in a competitive realm. Morris and Myers are infused with a balanced dose of demagoguery and self-aware charm; other characters, like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s speechifying Paul Zara, present similarly. Anyone who’s watched a Clooney interview won’t marvel at the mixture: the film resonates as autocritique as much as satire.

This Side of Resurrection (Joaquim Sapinho) W/O

Opening titles, in which DV-shot sylvan and Christian imagery is scored to loud clanking, promise something like a Straub short hijacked by Gaspar Noe; I wasn’t frothing at the mouth. What follows includes listless amateur surfing footage, a well-written and acted breakup, general restraint from Sapinho and his actors, but all the shapeless ennui is so much noodling, and the characters are as sketchily defined as the interior scenes are underlit.

Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve) A

A number of split-second moments from Hansen-Løve’s masterpiece outclass entire films at this year’s TIFF: Camille (Lola Créton, so fine in Bluebeard but so much better here) dropping Sullivan’s hand when he renounces dependency as an excuse for not seeing her—a gesture that secures her guilty affection and denies her long-term power; Breillat-like, offhand deployment of everything from nudity (Camille pulling back her yanked sheets from Sullivan, in an early scene, has the filmmaker delicately keeping truth and exploitation in check) to tears (without a trace of mockery, their wetness is more prominent on Camille’s face than her emotions). Her autobiographical love story is like a kindhearted variation on Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together, where sensitivity represents its author’s downfall. Camille’s goodness and intelligence make her romantic nature all the more intractable. But just as the film’s saddest images follow bliss, such as Camille’s shyly disconsolate spasm in Sullivan’s arms following a fine outing, hesitant steps towards intellectual discipline and mutual romantic fulfillment, and the reflection they provide, save Hansen-Løve from committing Camille to doom.

Last Winter (John Shank) W/O

With its Shank's camera following Jacques’s (Carlo Brandt) tedious existence, while spelling out the terms and lineage of his existence in voiceover, Last Winter immediately struck me as what might occur if Lisandro Alonso adapted a Per Patterson novel. Not unappealing, in my book. But as soon Johann began to righteously stand up for preserving local farming policy, its fair-minded but flavorless consideration of complicated issues started to resemble Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men, another well-intentioned, proficiently made movie I bailed on.

Free Men (Ismaël Ferrouki) C+

Ferroukhi’s Le grand voyage was an eccentric animal, dishing out dime-store homilies with one hand, incisively picking apart ideological excess and immaturity with the other. I approached Free Men, a bigger-budget project hewing to real-life heroism, with equal parts hope and trepidation, assuming that one side of Ferroukhi would fully emerge. But the new movie produces precisely the same unwieldy mix as the last one. Like Le grand voyage’s Reda, Younes (Tahar Rahim) is a lazy, childish protag capable of doing good, but frequently embarrassing himself. If anything, it’s awkward how little Ferroukhi’s men get away with on charm alone: the conventionally handsome Rahim seems miscast as a man-child. Though Younes’s transparent wretchedness is a little misplaced, without it the film would have little to work with, and it lends a certain ambiguous power to his heroic acts, which Rahim’s deer-in-headlights look effectively drains of righteousness. I can’t vouch passionately for Free Men or Le grand voyage, but I do fear Ferroukhi’s unusual virtues will be misunderstood. He’s a good director who happens to value pat moral lessons and visual anonymity; more power to anyone who can actually pull that off.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Day 2: September 9


Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki) C-

Apparently ”pure pleasure” translates to utterly nonthreatening. Like a sitcom with the punchlines troweled over by unemphatic readings, except the gags are still predicated on characters’ bizarre lack of self-awareness. (Sample exchange: Marcel—“It’s good you’re thin; that way more people can fit into the car.” Marcel’s Wife (unironically)—“So you want more wives?”) Marcel may lack outright innocence, but bumbling good-heartedness does not complexity make. His is a redemption story with no weight, and as a result, obligatory crises like the Little Bob concert pop up, because, apparently, Kaurismäki likes him. (Why?) Monet’s moral trajectory, meanwhile, is telegraphed in his very first scene. Admittedly, I did enjoy Arletty’s hypersensitive, albeit low-key reaction to Marcel’s brief absence, a lovely, human moment that feels rather out of place here. An expertly paced and shot movie, Le Havre is punctuated by silences and spaces that, due to Kaurismäki’s insipid characterizations, express nothing. Slowness is there to distract us from how perfunctory everything is.

This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) B

At times defiant, at others resigned, and for a long stretch the loosest kind of home movie, This Is Not a Film had yet to get to me until its final moments. The gorgeous last 20 seconds or so provide both Panahi with a singular jolt of the documentary immediacy he craves, and the viewer with a most powerful reminder of Panahi’s condition. That said, it’s interesting to hear about his project in development, a loose adaptation of Chekhov’s “A Girl’s Notes,” and relevant that the screenplay, about a suppressed young female artist, observes its protagonist renounce art for a relationship. From the scenes read, the story emotions clash profoundly with Panahi’s own struggles. But he seems as aware as we are of the inherent sadness in talking up an unfilmed screenplay for festivals, and in fact his frustration is so pronounced and sudden that it appears a put-on for the camera, in contrast to his usual relaxed manner. But it still lends the not-film some much-needed reflexivity.

Porfirio (Alejandro Landes) B

The abjectness of Porfirio Ramirez’s performance rivals Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, key difference being that the former is a real person. For much of the film, Landes doesn’t depict so much as assume Porfirio’s humiliation: he has a mistress, job, and faithful caretaker, so what’s the deal? The stunningly expressive camerawork has rightfully earned Bresson comparisons: Porfirio breaking and retreading china recalls the Balthazar party smashup. It also creates a delicate dialogue with the screenplay, avoiding, like Porfirio himself, looking at the dog he says is the “only one who hasn’t betrayed me,” fearing the truth of that statement may change. The very nature of Porfirio’s movement makes him out of sync with his lover, but the movie can also be fearlessly sexy. (And even borderline sexist, although this is a striking context for booty shots.) The jolt of an ending has unfortunately become a staple for this sort of movie, but the epilogue is nicely abstract, bringing us back to our hero’s quiet, marginalized pain.

Chicken With Plums (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud) B-

Walked out of Persepolis, and almost did the same here, until the film’s center emerged as deeply intelligent; it’s a shame the details are shrill and bland. I’d now like to read Satrapi and Paronnaud’s graphic novels: their cinematic style, altogether too omnivorous in its range of influences, may benefit from a medium where things like the tone and rhythm with which actors speak are less important. This much is moving about Chicken With Plums: its ability to both understand and hold proper contempt for an unforgiving nature. But while there is a smidgen of Coens-like, winking exaggeration in the directors’ manner of overstatement, sometimes it is simple redundancy. Case in point: the lunch introducing Faranguisse to Parvine, in which we can only see the back of Nasser’s head. As expressive as Von Stroheim’s in Grand Illusion, Amalric’s neck alone says “I don’t love her”; we don’t need to hear it. Nasser’s music guru may tell him, “It’s not about technique! It’s about art!”—but it’s also about technique, guys.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Day 1: September 8


Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog) C+

Elevated only slightly above your average true crime doc, alternately, by Herzog’s fundamental respect for human life and his sly, blunt manner with interview subjects. The latter goes hand in hand with insensitivity: although his deadpan banter is sometimes hilarious (as when he winkingly suggests that killer Jason Burkett’s wife smuggled his sperm for purposes of artificial insemination) and sometimes penetrating (he declines to correct Burkett’s dad when he names 1941, instead of 2041, as his son’s parole date, apparently on the hunt for Freudian slips), it’s hard to commend on ethical grounds. Plus, this murder is banal stuff, and unlike, say, Timothy Treadwell, Burkett and Michael Perry are no match for Herzog’s own quirks: although we’re initially led to believe murder was an anomaly in the Conroe gated community, tragedy gradually seems so commonplace that audience members could be seen stifling befuddled laughter when victim Susan Stotler’s daughter mentioned in passing a preacher getting hit by a train.

Play (Ruben Östlund) B

Ruben Ostlund is no more or less than Michael Haneke armed with a Psychology textbook and a book of matches, but is that a bad thing? In Involuntary, a teacher recreates Asch’s conformity experiments, only to fall victim to ostracism herself; his new film examines both the strength and futility of Sherif’s Robber’s Cave, by subjecting two opposing groups to shared pressure, then dismantling it. (Witness the phenomenal pushups scene, in which the participant and audience members alike have exactly the same chances of human warmth as they do falling prey to manipulation.) The result is often stomach-churning discomfort, sometimes perplexity: okay, I get the cradle, but the Native American band? And the closing dance number? What? Östlund’s films are worthy of serious consideration—this, his previous feature and Incident by a Bank are essential viewing—but I have to give his latest my Uncle Boonmee Award for unsatisfying brilliance.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

TIFF '11 Schedule

Looks like it's time to boot this up again.

Until less than 10 days ago, I was sure I'd be missing TIFF for the second consecutive year. In fact, by the time I sat down to order a pass, they were sold out; luckily, I'd previously attempted to order when low on cash, and when that order was declined, my place in line remained intact. So I happily owe this year's trip to a technical blunder.

As for reneging on my vow to stop going, this year's lineup was simply too good--on paper, in any case--to pass up. And as several fellow attendees have already remarked, the difficulty of narrowing a schedule down to 50 titles was as vexing as the program was enticing. Here's what I'm counting on seeing:

Sep 8 Thu
Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog) C+
Play (Ruben Ostlund) B

Sep 9 Fri
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki) C-
This Is Not a Film (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi) B
Porfirio (Alejandro Landes) B
Chicken With Plums (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud) B-

Sep 10 Sat
Mr. Tree (Han Jie) W/O
The Ides of March (George Clooney) B
This Side of Resurrection (Joaquim Sapinho) W/O
Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Love) A
Last Winter (John Shank) W/O
Free Men (Ismael Ferroukhi) C+

Sep 11 Sun
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi) B+
Dark Horse (Todd Solondz) C+
The Silver Cliff (Karim Ainouz) B-
Faust (Alexander Sokurov) B

Sep 12 Mon
Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo) D
Footnote (Joseph Cedar) C
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev) A-
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin) C

Sep 13 Tue
Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman) C
Back to Stay (Milagros Mumenthaler) B-
The Kid With the Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) B
ALPS (Yorgos Lanthimos) C

Sep 14 Wed
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman) C
Cafe de flore (Jean-Marc Valée) B-
The Invader (Nicolas Provost) W/O
Swirl (Helvecio Marins Jr. and Clarissa Campolina) D+
Michael (Markus Schleinzer) D
Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh) C+
Lovely Molly (Eduardo Sánchez) W/O

Sep 15 Thu
That Summer (Philippe Garrel) C-
Breathing (Karl Markovics) C-
Generation P (Victor Ginzburg) C+
Mushrooms (Vimukthi Jayasundara) C

Sep 16 Fri
Outside Satan (Bruno Dumont) B-
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols) B-
Twilight Portrait (Angelina Nikonova) B+
The Other Side of Sleep (Rebecca Daly) DNF

Sep 17 Sat
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar) B-
Amy George (Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas) W/O
Moneyball (Bennett Miller) C-
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies) B+
Killer Joe (William Friedkin) C

Sep 18 Sun
Page Eight (David Hare) B
Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier) B
Elena (Andrey Zvyaginstev) B
A Mysterious World (Rodrigo Moreno) B

Invasion (Hugo Santiago) DNF
Crane World (Pablo Trapero)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Well, that didn't work out so well.

After a lifetime of trying, I guess I've figured out that film festivals and I weren't meant for each other. The problem isn't just that there's a relatively scarce amount of films I actually like, but that even those films are seen under less-than-ideal conditions. If I'm going to devote myself to making films as well as I can, attending festivals (at least ones that don't include my own work) no longer seems like part of the equation.

In other news, I'm about to finish putting together a cut of my movie. Feature? More like 34 minutes. I guess the downgrade should bum me out, but given that it calls for cheaper festival submission fees and that I'd very much like to forget about the excised footage, I'm happy with how things are going.