a Healthy Disdain

TIFF Counts Down to Christmas with Roman Polanski: The latest Lightbox retrospective gifts Toronto cinephiles with seven of the naughty director’s best

Upping the ante on Columbia Pictures’ claim that the forthcoming remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the “feel bad movie of Christmas,” TIFF’s programmers have readied a veritable advent calendar of psychological anguish with their latest directorial retrospective. Opening this evening and running through December 25, the Grinch-approved slate features six of Roman Polanski’s bleakly brilliant early-career efforts, as well as a Christmas Day screening of 2010’s similarly sombre The Ghost Writer. As tempting as it is to construe the timing of the series as an insidious bid to deflate Torontonians’ high Holiday spirits, TIFF’s official line is that the retrospective was scheduled in anticipation of the director’s latest, Carnage, which arrives at the Lightbox on December 30.

Based on an award-winning play by Yasmina Reza, Carnage is a blackly comic battle royale of bourgeois debasement, tinged with the sort of existential claustrophobia that has long been a Polanski trademark. Indeed, it’s been an element of his cinema since his superb debut feature, 1962’s Knife in the Water (★★★★1/2), which screens tonight at 9 p.m. A lean psychological thriller that would lay the thematic groundwork for a remarkable career, Knife in the Water elegantly positions a recreational yacht cruise as a microcosm for generational conflict, simmering with sexual tension. The crew are a well-to-do couple and their impromptu guest, a handsome young hitchhiker invited aboard at the husband’s whim. Prefiguring Carnage conceptually if not in tone, the film is a fiendish chamber piece wherein a veneer of civility gives way to petty posturing and base agression, exacerbated by intimate, inescapable confines.

Screening on Wednesday, December 21 is Polanski’s first English language feature, 1965’s Repulsion (★★★1/2), also the first film in his masterfully unsettling “Apartment Trilogy.” The titular affliction refers to the psychosexual paranoia suffered by Catherine Deneuve’s virginal protagonist, which blossoms into homicidal dementia when her sister departs on holiday and leaves her alone in her London flat. Polanski immerses the audience within his lead’s increasingly fractured psyche, rendering her descent into madness via a series of hauntingly surreal hallucinations that, even 45 years later, were an evident point of reference for Darren Aronofsky in conceiving 2010’s Black Swan.

1966’s Cul-de-sac (★★★1/2), which screens on Sunday, December 18, is perhaps Polanski’s most peculiar effort, even as, thematically, it’s entirely of a piece with his previous features. (The director, for the record, cites the film as the best of his ’60s output.) Reprising the mental ménage à trois dynamic of Knife in the Water, and adding dashes of Repulsion‘s derangement and sexual dysfunction, Cul-de-sac casts Donald Pleasance and Françoise Dorléac as an effete husband and promiscuous wife whose stately, isolated dwelling is invaded by a loutish thug (Lionel Stander) on the run. Though physically less confined than Polanski’s previous protagonists, Cul-de-sac‘s couple are bound by bonds of a more metaphysical nature, as they prove resolutely incapable of seizing their chances to escape. Ditto Stander, who’s called his boss to bail him out, but seems destined to face an interminable, Beckett-esque wait. Laced with dark humour, the director’s third feature is an absurd but compelling curiosity.

If Cul-de-sac is a slightly esoteric selection, then Rosemary’s Baby (★★★★★) remains as widely acclaimed today as when it first propelled Polanski to Hollywood stardom in 1968. Quite simply, his adaptation of Ira Levin’s bestseller is one of the best horror films ever made, expertly evoking a sustained, sinister unease, and establishing a marvelously ambiguous scenario wherein it seems equally likely that the bizarre goings-on at a Gothic Manhattan apartment building might be the product of a genuine demonic pact, or of paranoid prenatal delusions. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her actor husband (John Casavetes) are the building’s newest tenants, and are eager to start a family, particularly once he lands a starring role thanks to another’s sudden misfortune. Rosemary’s pregnancy proves a literal nightmare, however, and she becomes consumed by concern that she’ll lose the baby. Naturally, we’re not letting on one way or the other, save to assure you that Rosemary’s Baby is a certified classic. The second and most beloved of Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy screens Friday, December 23—perfect for those who fancy a bit of Satanist mystery ahead of Santa’s big night.

TIFF aren’t entirely without a seasonal sense of generosity, though, hence the retrospective’s two scheduled screenings of Chinatown (★★★★★). Of these, we recommend the screening on Sunday, December 18, which will be accompanied by lecture from Toronto film critic Adam Nayman on the development of Polanski’s career and artistic personality. If you can’t make that, the film also screens on Tuesday, December 20, and, even without Nayman’s insights, Chinatown is still a fixture in the pantheon of all-time greats. Polanski’s devastatingly nihilistic neo-noir features a signature turn from Jack Nicholson as ’30s P.I. Jake Gittes, who takes on what he believes to be a routine mission of marital reconnaissance, and winds up nose-deep in a murderous scheme to divert the water reserves of an already drought-stricken L.A. Faye Dunaway is nearly as iconic as a tragic femme fatale, while John Huston’s defiantly lascivious antagonist now reads as a fascinating, stand-in for his controversial director.

Polanski, in fact, would assign himself the lead role in 1976’s The Tenant (★★★★), his last film before his flight from justice in 1977. The final, Paris-set instalment in the Apartment Trilogy is an apt exploration of displacement and persecution, and, like both Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, demonstrates a thematic concern with claustrophobia and paranoia, and trades heavily in the tenuous nature of the boundary between the authentic and the imaginary. Polanski plays Trelkowski, a French citizen of Polish origin, who, like Rosemary, moves into a new building after the apparent suicide of a young female tenant. Also like Rosemary, Trelkowski’s neighbours are an elderly, meddlesome bunch, though The Tenant is more cagey than Rosemary’s Baby in its references to the supernatural. The film ultimately emerges as a fusion of its Apartment predecessors, but inverts the deranged aggression of Repulsion‘s Deneuve into a spookily manic portrait of self-annihilation.

The Ghost Writer (★★★★), TIFF’s Christmas Day offering, postdates The Tenant by over 30 years, but is no less brooding, and no less personal. It was edited during Polanski’s recent period of house arrest, and features a central character in a similar predicament, in Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang. A former UK Prime Minister, Lang has been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and must remain in the US to avoid extradition. Ewan McGregor plays the man tasked with helping Lang complete his memoirs, and who subsequently stumbles upon a Chinatown-like web of intrigue linked to the disgraced PM. He’s no Jake Gittes, of course, but Polanski supplies his customary guile, as well as plenty of his customary cynicism—an essential ingredient where political subject matter is concerned, in any era.

Images courtesy of TIFF. For tickets and a complete programme schedule, visit Tiff.net



Partly to consolidate some of my TIFF 2011 coverage, and partly to alleviate my post-festival withdrawal, I’ve collected a second set of capsule reviews, all of which were originally published via blogTO or Sound on Sight. These represent some of my final contributions to blogTO, as I’ve formally jumped ship to the new-look Torontoist, but I’ll continue to contribute to Sound on Sight in the future, and in fact, just finished recording an episode of Sound on Sight Radio with Ricky D and the S.O.S. crew.

Our discussion touched on Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was among my favourites of the festival, as well as Take Shelter (another favourite), and Melancholia, both of which I reviewed in my previous post. Below you’ll find reviews for two more of my personal TIFF top 5, Samsara, and Snowtown, as well as a pre-People’s Choice Award panning of Where Do We Go Now?.

SAMSARA (USA, Ron Fricke)

Covering TIFF has been a privilege for many reasons, but particularly for the opportunity to screen Ron Fricke’s awe-inspiring Samsara. The follow-up to 1992’s breathtaking Baraka, Fricke surpasses even that brilliant film with an effort I can only describe in superlatives, and with what sounds like hyperbole, but isn’t.

Like Baraka before it, Samasra is something akin to a human-centric, arthouse Planet Earth, surveying the globe in a series of astonishing, dialogue-free, 70mm vistas, and underscored by a mixture of traditional instrumental and choral music. Fricke further demonstrates his mastery of time-lapse imagery, a technique that invests even familiar sights – say a helicopter shot of an L.A. freeway – with a hypnotic, organic rhythm. That Samsara is instantly one of the most visually-stunning films in the history of cinema is reason enough to cherish it, but Fricke and co-editor Mark Magidson also achieve a number of truly profound juxtapositions, brimming with meaning and emotion.

It sounds preposterous, but it’s true: In 99 minutes, Samsara achieves something approaching a comprehensive portrait of the totality of human experience. If you’re even remotely fond of being alive, Samsara is not to be missed.


A hauntingly beautiful, artfully structured, pitch-perfect psychological thriller, Martha Marcy May Marlene is easily among the best of this year’s festival offerings. The film is an achievement that any director ought to be proud of, but the fact that it’s Sean Durkin’s debut feature is frankly staggering.

Also surprising is the performance of Elizabeth Olsen (as a character née Martha, later labeled Marcy May and Marlene), younger sister to the better-known Mary-Kate and Ashley, who, on this evidence, could yet become her family’s brightest star. Here she holds her own even against another excellent performance from John Hawkes, who is both fearsome and tender as Patrick, the charismatic head of a commune-come-cult that, like its leader, is at once seductive and terrifying.

Supporting turns from Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy, meanwhile, as Martha’s well-meaning sister and brother-in-law, respectively, contribute to a subtle but pointed critique of bourgeois banality. Durkin mines his material for optimum suspense, as well as an acute evocation of post-adolescent uncertainty.

SHAME (UK, Steve McQueen)

In 2008, a lesser-known tandem of Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen combined to devastate TIFF audiences with the indelible Bobby Sands biopic, Hunger. Three years on, the duo, now two of the festival’s big buzz names, are looking to repeat the feat with Shame, an equally fearless portrait of sexual addiction. As the secretive, smut-obsessed Brandon, Fassbender bears all and then some, giving perhaps the best performance of a career that is already frighteningly accomplished.

Both insatiable and believably irresistible, his habitual, compulsive conquests are interrupted when his impulsive, self-destructive sister (Carey Mulligan, straining resolutely against type) turns up uninvited, cramping his compact Manhattan apartment as well as his style. Visually, McQueen, too, continues to enhance his reputation, rendering Brandon’s constant, near-predatory sate of arousal with consummate skill.

His screenplay, however, co-written by McQueen and Abi Morgan, accounts forShame‘s only notable shortcomings. Most problematically, Morgan and McQueen follow a remarkable climactic moment with an unfortunate contrivance, and a series of false endings that pack all the subtlety of a runaway train. Otherwise, Fassbender and his director deliver another stunning collaboration.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN(Spain, Pedro Almodóvar)

A debauched, high camp mashup of Face/OffOldBoy, and the world’s glossiest telenovela, The Skin I Live In takes Pedro Almodóvar’s signature, soapy sensibility and applies an ingeniously effective genre (plot) twist.

Antonio Banderas is terrifically deranged as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a world-renowned plastic surgeon capable of effecting the sort of fanciful transformation that turned John Travolta into Nicolas Cage. He’s likewise capable of acts of vengeance that are positively South Korean in their extremity, and, fittingly, also demonstrates a proclivity for sexual transgression that would make Chan-wook Park proud.

Beyond these (hopefully) enticing teases, the less you know, the better, save that Almodóvar springs what would be a lesser film’s crowning reveal just past Skin‘s midpoint. This paves the way for a superbly subversive third act, wherein the tropes of the rape-revenge fantasy are turned inside out. Almodóvar clearly delights in an unhinged exploration of his favored themes, including the consuming, self-destructive nature of passionate desire, and the malleability of sexual identity and orientation.

I was cooler on his last film (Broken Embraces) than most, but The Skin I Live In is a thrilling surprise in more ways than one.

THINK OF ME (USA, Bryan Wizemann)

Though less masterful than either Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, or the Dardennes brothers’L’Enfant, Bryan Wizemann’s Think of Me is a noteworthy thematic companion, and a compelling entry in American neo-neo-realism. Lauren Ambrose – of Six Feet Under fame – delivers a formidable performance as Angela, a Las Vegas single mother on the margins, in both economic and geographic terms.

The glittering decadence of the Strip is ever-present, albeit distant and intangible, reinforcing the precarious state of her personal finances. Serving a similar purpose (if rather more on-the-nose) is her baby’s literal need of a new pair of shoes. “Baby”, in this case, means the 8-year-old Sunny, played by newcomer Audrey Scott with a precocious, affecting naturalism.

When a co-worker (Dylan Baker) notices that Angela has stretched herself desperately thin, he casually informs her that his sister, an affluent Torontonian, recently failed in an attempt to adopt a child. His implication escapes Angela at first, but Wizemann’s intentions are immediately clear.

That Think of Me succeeds despite a predictable third act is testament to characters that are convincingly drawn and artfully performed, and its sensitive evocation of a struggle that is all too believable.

WHERE DO WE GO NOW? (France, Lebanon, Italy, Egypt, Nadine Labaki)

Hash-laced baked goods are the opiate of the masses in Nadine Labaki’s cartoonishly over-broad quasi-musical, Where Do We Go Now? Religion, in contrast, proves to be a potent source of antagonism for the inhabitants of an isolated, unnamed Middle-Eastern village. Initially, the townspeople – all either devoutly Christian or Muslim – manage to cohabit in peace, but news of sectarian violence in surrounding regions quickly provokes a series of farcical misunderstandings.

Innocent mishaps are misinterpreted as acts of mutual religious intolerance, giving rise to increasingly sacrilegious reprisals among the suddenly senseless, belligerent menfolk. Possessed of cooler, more cunning heads, the women hatch a collective scheme to heal the widening rift, involving a troupe of Ukrainian showgirls and, yes, lots and lots of hash.

While these ingredients might make for a dynamite half hour of South Park, at 100 minutes, Labaki’s feature begins to bludgeon you with its facile theses: religious violence is asinine, we’re all the same on the inside, men are hot-headed dumb-dumbs. Add problematic shifts in tone, flat characterization, and an aimless inter-faith romantic subplot, and you’ve got a muddled if well-meaning misfire.

RESTLESS (USA, Gus Van Sant)

Even accounting for the considerable diversity of his previous efforts, Restless is a curious addition to Gus Van Sant’s filmmography. Granted, as an exploration of the emotional tumult of adolescence, its subject matter is of a piece with some of his most lauded work (ElephantParanoid Park), but in tone and style, Restless feels like the debut feature from an indie up-and-comer, rather than a filmmaker of Van Sant’s seasoned pedigree. (Indeed, as the first film from twentysomething screenwriter Jason Lew, that’s precisely what it is.)

The problem is, Restless doesn’t feel like a debut in the sense that it’s uncommonly fresh or vibrant, but, on the contrary, gives the impression of a film that strives, a little too earnestly, to be “different” (Mia Wasikowska’s chosen term, as the terminally-ill Anabel, for Henry Hopper’s funeral-crashing protagonist). “Different”, in this case, means morbid and mawkish and quirky, but also a film that hews closely to indie romance formula, down to its invocation of a manic pixie (dying) girl.

Wasikowska maintains her recent high standards, but struggles to elevate maudlin material that seems distinctly out of place in TIFF’s Masters programme.


Chronicling the romantic misadventures of the odor-obsessed coeds who run an upper crust university’s suicide-prevention center, Whit Sitllman’s long-awaited Damsels in Distress is a wry, absurd delight.

Indie darling Greta Gerwig is wonderfully deadpan as Violet, the verbose leader of a preening, pretentious, but well-intentioned pack, whose notion of philanthropy involves dating one of the school’s farcically simpleminded frat boys, and whose chief life ambition is to kick-start an international dance craze.

Her priggish, privileged existence is thrown into disarray when her unsolicited relationship advice duly backfires, but tap choreography and sunshine-scented bar soap offer an unlikely path to redemption. Meanwhile, Violet’s transfer student protégé (Annaleigh Tipton) is torn between the sly, faux sophistication of a French post-grad (Hugo Becker) and Adam Brody, as a preppy, posturing playboy.

All involved are perfectly cast and Gerwig shines, but it will come as little surprise to Stillman fans that it’s Damsels meticulously mordant dialogue that truly steals the show. Evidently, despite a 13-year hiatus, Stillman’s rapier wit and delicately skewed sensibilities remain firmly intact.

MONSIEUR LAZHAR (Canada, Philippe Falardeau)

For what is ultimately such an airy and agreeable film, Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar is prefaced by an act that is difficult to interpret as anything but willfully hostile: A primary school teacher has hanged herself in her classroom, presumably knowing full well that her students will be first to discover the horrific scene. Beyond the bald statement that this woman – despite being widely beloved – was “unwell”, the implicit motive for her astoundingly inappropriate choice of venue is revenge on a manipulative pupil with whom she’d had a row.

What details eventually emerge on this point are anticlimactic, and the result is a film that, for all its general virtues of craft, is premised on an event that remains, distractingly, both provocative and opaque. Oddly for an “inspirational teacher” film, its characters also remain relatively developmentally inert. The students are basically a bright, well-adjusted bunch, and brief moments of distress aside, they remain so throughout. Similarly, genial refugee claimant-come-substitute-teacher Bachir Lazhar (Algerian humorist Fellag) arrives to less a culture shock than a gentle culture surprise, and is only cursorily perturbed by an ostensibly tragic past event.

Offering vague answers to its own pointed questions, Monsieur Lazhar disappoints, especially as a follow-up to Falardeau’s delightful TIFF 09 coming-of-ager, It’s Not Me, I Swear!

SNOWTOWN (Australia, Justin Kurzel)

Just as in 2010, a first-time Australian filmmaker has delivered an uncommonly accomplished debut crime drama, about an innocent teen corrupted by the poisonous, sociopathic tutelage of a deranged father figure. The principle difference, though, between David Michot’s Animal Kingdom and Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown is that the latter film is based on a horrific true story. In fact, the real distinction isn’t merely that Snowtown is based on a true story, but that, thanks to hugely authentic, partly improvised performances from a cast of non-professionals, it feels like a true story, both tragic and terrifying.

In a convenient piece of symmetry, the notable exception is Daniel Henshall, who plays John Bunting, known as “Australia’s worst serial killer.” Henshall gives one of the festival’s standout performances as the charismatic Bunting, his magnetism enhanced by the fact that many of the cast – drawn from the depressed area where the crimes occurred and the film was shot – knew him from his work on Australian TV.

It’s a bleak, disturbing film, but as much as the murders themselves – which mainly occur off-screen — it’s Kurzel’s portrait of the prevailing, festering deprivation that devastates.

KILL LIST (UK, Ben Wheatley)

Apart from all else, Kill List features the best buddy-assassin duo since Quentin Tarantino treated cinephiles to the legendary Pulp Fiction pairing of Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega. But where Jules and Vince traded QT’s signature, pop-culture repartee, Kill List‘s Jay (Niel Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) share the genuine banter of lifelong best mates.

How director Ben Wheatley manages to balance elements of social realism – TIFF’s synopsis invokes Mike Leigh with good reason – with caustic humour, extreme, graphic violence, and plenty of frantic WTF-ery, is a mystery nearly as indecipherable as the one that propels the film forward like a speeding, high-calibre slug. But balance those elements he does, and with a deftness that belies his stature as only a second-time filmmaker. (His debut was 2009’s dark crime comedy, Down Terrace.)

On the evidence of Kill List’s late film insanity, I won’t rule out with a deal with devil. Indeed, Satanic inspiration almost seems likely, given an ending that will live in infamy, topping perhaps even Se7en’s anguished “What’s in the baaaahx?” conclusion.


Having weaseled my way into an official TIFF 11 press accreditation via my official regular gig at blogTO, I fully intend to subject myself to all the films I can physically withstand once press and industry screenings begin in earnest on September 8. In the meantime, here are reviews for the films I’ve seen at pre-festival media screenings, most of which appeared in part one of blogTO’s TIFF 11 review roundup.

THE ARTIST (France, Michel Hazanavicius)

To borrow a reference from TIFF invitee Mr. Brainwash, The Artist is the “Bat Papi” to Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic homages: Where QT often fetes 70s grindhouse fare, French director Michel Hazanavicius has penned a love letter to Hollywood’s silent heyday. In contrast to Brainwash’s dubious credibility, however, there’s nothing suspect about The Artist‘s craft.

Painstakingly authentic and as lavishly mounted as any 20s epic, it’s a ceaselessly charming marvel of gesture and spectacle, charting Tinseltown’s seminal transition to the talking picture era. Jean Dujardin dazzles as the strapping, Fairbanks-inspired George Valentin, a waning star undone by hubris and a disdain for synchronized sound. Opposite, Bérénice Bejo is similarly enchanting as Peppy Miller, the fresh face who earns her big break thanks partly to Valentin, and who proceeds to become a leading light of the talkie revolution.

Both warmly familiar and wittily inventive, and aided by a magnificent score, The Artist succeeds to an improbable degree. Postdating popular silent cinema by nearly a century, Hazanavicius gives new meaning to the notion of a late-period classic.

THE PATRON SAINTS (Canada/USA, Brian Cassidy & Melanie Shatzky)

When I label The Patron Saints “a pitiful aggregation of geriatric decline”, I mean it in the most complimentary terms. Shot on dreary-looking video in a dreary-looking facility for the aged and infirm, it’s an unconventionally lyrical doc, confronting the stark realties of what it means to be old, lonely, and wholly dependent on others for one’s most intimate needs.

It’s about the sorts of indignities we’d all rather pretend we’ll never have to face, but which are, statistically, increasingly inevitable. Thankfully, co-directors Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky don’t actually provide any stultifying statistics or captions of any kind, and forgo a traditional framework of interviews and narration. Instead, they present a series of arresting, impressionistic portraits – momentary glimpses at physical and psychological frailty, unadorned apart from the gossipy voiceover of Jim, a resident who is both surprisingly lucid and shockingly, hilariously candid.

Most remarkably, the juxtaposition of his astonishing quips against images of desperation and dementia somehow isn’t exploitative, but thoroughly and affirmingly human.

TAKE SHELTER (USA, Jeff Nichols)

Michael Shannon captivates as a portrait of paternal paranoia in Take Shelter, the terrifically affecting sophomore effort from Jeff Nichols, an apparent master in the making. When rural Ohio everyman Curtis LaForche (the typically indelible Shannon) is wracked by tempestuous dreams of his family’s annihilation, his maternal history of schizophrenia makes the potential implications doubly ominous.

Aware that he’s predisposed to delusion, his visions are nonetheless so vivid and violent that he’s compelled to act. Unbeknownst to his wife (Jessica Chastain, in the midst of a deservedly meteoric rise), he invests in costly renovations to a derelict backyard storm cellar, despite the impending expense of surgery to restore his daughter’s hearing. That his frighteningly-realised hallucinations also begin to tax his workplace relations adds to the film’s charged, foreboding air.

Purely on the level of psycho-familial drama, award-worthy performances from Shannon and Chastain justify the price of admission. But it’s Nichols’ powerful allegory for contemporary economic and political uncertainty – punctuated by awesome evocations of natural fury – that girds Take Shelter with a timely, haunting resonance.

DRIVE (USA, Nicolas Winding Refn)

For sheer testosterone-infused, blood-spattered badassery, few films at this year’s fest will compete with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Like Hazanavicius, the Danish directorial darling embraces the trappings of Hollywood homage, echoing the slick detachment of Michael Mann, and most conspicuously and directly, Walter Hill’s 1978 chase thriller, The Driver.

Via Hill, Winding Refn also channels Melville’s Le samouraï: with tone and style calibrated for maximum cool, Drive is the story of a brooding, highly-skilled and honorable wheelman with a fateful weakness for women in peril. Despite his clean-cut look and disarmingly nasal drawl, Ryan Gosling achieves the requisite stoic magnetism, and crucially, is convincingly menacing when he needs to mean business. So too is the normally affable Albert Brooks, who, as an utterly ruthless LA crime boss, means some very nasty business indeed. Meanwhile, per the film’s male-centric tradition, Carey Mulligan is asked only to look adorable and endangered, and is adept at both.

As popcorn entertainment with an art house veneer, Drive satisfies immensely. Only its premium ticket price and imminent Cineplex arrival impede a “must-see-at-TIFF” recommendation.

MELANCHOLIA (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, Lars von Trier)

As a director with a credible claim to the title of “world’s most polarizing”, Lars von Trier’s latest feat of cinematic nihilism inspired more ambivalence than I’d anticipated. Certainly, conceptually, von Trier’s apocalyptic tragedy of manners is supremely accomplished, and approaches Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as a work of outrageous beauty. Emotionally, though, Melancholia mostly left me cold (unexpectedly, coming from an arch provocateur).

Indeed, Melancholia is virtually the anti-Tree of Life. Both films pair candidly intimate family portraits with humbling scenes of celestial violence, but reach opposing conclusions. Malick views the world with a rapturous, spiritual reverence. Von Trier, ever morose, wouldn’t be bothered if it ended tomorrow.

His self-admitted bouts with depression and anxiety are represented, respectively, by sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Both are participants, as bride and hostess, in an implosively calamitous upper-class wedding, before it emerges that a once-hidden planet will collide, catastrophically, with Earth. Performance-wise, both are superb, as is von Trier’s staging of these decidedly unhappy events. But as for the actual characters they play, I’m genuinely unsure that I care.

TAKE THIS WALTZ (Canada, Sarah Polley)

A TIFF sensation in 2000, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love seems to have served as potent inspiration for two wunderkinds of Canadian filmmaking. Last year, Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats lovingly appropriated Wong’s slow-mo tracking shots, while, with TIFF 11 gala selection Take this Waltz, Sarah Polley delivers a slow-burn infidelity drama that evokes Mood‘s lush palette and erotic restraint.

Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby may not share the same smoldering magnetism as Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, but, apart from its forbidden-soulmate-nextdoor conceit, Waltz is more mumblecore than melodrama, and, above all, exudes an awkward honesty. That’s not to say there aren’t false moments (even allowing for Polley’s creative reconfigurations of Toronto’s West End streets).

An audacious and variously climactic late film montage, in particular, beggars belief, but by and large Waltz is a sensitive, evidently heartfelt depiction of marital ennui, typified by Seth Rogen’s sober, against-type turn as Williams’ well-meaning husband.

AMY GEORGE (Canada, Yonah Lewis & Calvin Thomas)

On the subject of Canadian wunderkinds, Amy George is the debut feature from Calvin Thomas, 24, and Yonah Lewis, 25, a writer-director partnership out of Oakville’s Sheridan College. With just $10,000 at their disposal, the duo settled on a subject both intimately familiar and inexpensively explored: the peculiar perversities of adolescent boys.

Their protagonist is Jesse, (the excellent Gabriel del Castillo Mullally, 13), a mopey Riverdale teen tasked with capturing a non-literal self-portrait. In search of inspiration, he happens upon an obscure quotation that asserts sexual experience as a prerequisite for “true” artistry, with the result that his creative aspirations and innate pubescent curiosity become purposefully entwined. His subsequent clumsy fixation with a high school-aged neighbour (the titular Amy) builds to an ingeniously organic exploratory exchange.

Granted, Thomas and Lewis do venture on some less focused artistic sojourns of their own, but, inevitable rough edges aside, Amy George demonstrates considerable promise.

LUCKY (South Africa, Avie Lathura)

As much as I’m reluctant to kick a doe-eyed orphan when he’s down, Lucky is difficult to recommend because, for the majority of its running time, the South African production depicts a succession of scoundrels doing exactly that. Of course, as an ardent misery porn fanboy (I happily endured Biutiful at TIFF 10), it’s not that I object to the mere fact of the ironically-named protagonist’s misfortune. Rather, it’s that Avie Lathura’s feature adaptation of his own award-winning short doesn’t so much tug at the heartstrings as subject them to repeated, calculated yanks.

Lucky’s uncle, most notably, is a transparently manipulative caricature, seemingly conjured of pure cruelty. He not only shuts his door to the destitute 10-year-old but also embezzles his meager inheritance, denying him his heartfelt wish to go to school. And then there’s the elderly Indian widow who first shuns Lucky, and then exploits him, before abruptly seeing the error of her lifelong, anti-African prejudice.

A unique look at South African social stratification, Lucky is by no means a bad film, but heaps early hardships on its young lead with slightly too heavy a hand.

THE ODDS (Canada, Simon Davidson)

TIFF’s temptation to synopsize Simon Davidson’s The Odds via a comparison to Rian Johnson’s Brick is understandable. Both films are feature debuts, both are murder mysteries, and both star out-of-their-depth teen sleuth protagonists. Beyond these admitted similarities, though, references to Brick deal The Odds a losing hand.

Davidson’s screenplay is most harshly exposed, demonstrating neither the precocious wit nor the intricate plotting that earmarked Johnson as a noteworthy talent. And where Brick‘s dialogue made artful use of noir anachronisms, Davidson’s script simply feels a tad out of touch. An early, non-ironic utterance of 90s relic “As if!” sets a try-hard tone, embodied throughout by Paul (Jaren Brant Bartlett), the tough-talking proprietor of a peewee gambling ring. He’s putting the squeeze on our hero, Desson (Tyler Johnson), who, despite his grating self-satisfaction, is pretty poor at cards. He’s a marginally better detective, at least, and scents foul play when a poker buddy turns up dead.

Naturally, he’s soon in over his head – a little bit like his director. The Odds is a serviceable first effort, but Brick it certainly ain’t.


Apart from being uncommonly pretty people, Ryan Phillippe, Taylor Kitsch and Malin Akerman share a conspicuous inability to perform a credible South African accent. That the trio are also the principle cast of The Bang Bang Club – adapted from the late apartheid era memoirs of prominent South African conflict photographers – is telling of the film’s priorities.

Writer-director Steven Silver succeeds at capturing the violent spectacles amid which the titular protagonists made their names, but just as his actors flub the region’s linguistic subtleties, Silver fails to illuminate the complex ethnopolitical context of the bloodshed he reenacts. Beyond a token introductory caption, the film offers precious little to explain its frequent scenes of black-on-black brutality, focusing instead on the cadre of photojournalists whose fearlessness, and whose whiteness, afforded them neutral, bipartisan access to the township battlegrounds.

Greg Marinovich (Philippe), Kevin Carter (Kitsch), Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach) and João Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld) earned their “bang bang” moniker for their crossfire-dodging exploits in Soweto’s embroiled settlements, but the quartet apparently also won plenty of female admirers. Silver juxtaposes their foolhardy photographic forays with raucous post-shoot celebrations, as the renown and royalties brought by global syndication quickly turn the group into combat-snapping rock stars (requisite sex and drugs included).

The incongruity of the pairing – anguished subjects, jubilant journos – implies what Silver otherwise makes explicit. When Marinovich angrily chides his editor/girlfriend (Akerman) for struggling to steady a lamp as he preps a composition of a murdered baby, we can’t help but get the picture: it’s all too easy to misstep the line between journalistic detachment and callous exploitation.

It’s particularly ironic, then, that The Bang Bang Club falls afoul of a similar quandary. Silver’s set pieces are thrilling, and authentically savage, but he appears less concerned with the human causes and costs of the upheaval. Even his leads remain emotionally and motivationally distant, and this is doubly true of the anonymous African masses tasked with filling out his frames.

If there’s a partial exception, it’s Carter, who’s the film’s most conflicted character, if not its least clichéd. Both he and Marinovich won Pulitzers for gut-wrenching depictions of extreme suffering, and their contrasting reactions come to represent the film’s central dichotomy. Philippe’s Marinovich is unperturbed by questions of ethical propriety, but Kitsch, as Carter, is tortured. Carter, in fact, committed suicide in 1994, overcome by guilt and devastated by the death of Oosterbroek, who was struck by a stray bullet three months before. Marinovich was severely wounded in the same exchange.

The film depicts both events, but these reenacted tragedies, like South Africa’s larger turmoils, never fully register. Silver’s background is in documentary filmmaking, and it’s difficult to escape the notion that his material is ideally suited to an archival account. Rather than recreating the indelible originals, he might have devoted his abilities to better conveying the broader circumstances in which the famous photos were taken.

(This content originally published via Next Projection, August 18, 2011)


During last week’s discussion of Attack the Block, Matty asked what he missed while he was cowering in fear of the film’s admittedly impressive, largely practically-realized aliens. Evidently, it was the fact that Attack the Block is the best summer flick of 2011, easily outdoing both X-Men First Class, and, yes Adam, even Super 8.

Not only does Joe Cornish deliver more fun than both of those films combined, he does so while offering the kinds of social insights that First Class, in particular, wastefully avoids. Despite its civil rights-era setting, and the inherent allegory of mutants as marginalized citizens, First Class has nothing interesting to say about race or gender politics, and even falls back on tried and true clichés  (expendable black characters, scantily-clad women). Attack the Block, in contrast, cleverly explores the demonization of Britain’s urban youth – a subject that is particularly poignant in light of recent events.

Cornish, however, is careful not to glamorize gang violence, and this contributes to one of Adam’s issues with the film – its teenage fatalities. I do concede that these are slightly overshadowed during the film’s otherwise terrific climactic sequence, but feel they ultimately strengthen the film. Cornish is to be applauded both for his willingness to provide such initially reprehensible protagonists, and for his decision to teach those protagonists some appropriately harsh lessons in the course of their redemption.

The kids’ initial nastiness and the unexpected deaths are part of what make Attack the Block so much more satisfying than a typical Hollywood blockbuster, seemingly calibrated for maximum sterility. This is also true of the wonderfully innovative creature effects, and of the dialogue, which is remarkably accurate to the snap-crackle banter of urban London slang. For me, it’s this freshness, as well as the film’s super-tight screenplay, that take it above Super 8, as enjoyable as Abrams’ effort may be.

As for John Boyega, it’s possible that, given the accent, Matty didn’t hear what he was saying, but, either way, he’s completely wrong. Boyega is very good, as are all the kids – Alex Esmail as “Pest” most notably.

I realize that, by and large, you were both positive on the film, but felt compelled to write in because Filmspotting has a proud pedigree of backing lesser-known films, and Attack the Block certainly deserves the support. Convincing folks to see modestly-budgeted indie films can be like pulling teeth, but Attack the Block is massively entertaining, and a genuine crowd-pleaser. Were I on the Golden Brick panel, it would be a shoo-in for a year-end nomination.

This letter was originally written as a response to Filmspotting episode #358. There was no feedback segment this week – I fear because too few listeners have seen the film in order to offer opinions – but I didn’t want these sentiments to go to waste. I’m still trying to find time for a full review. Also, to be clear, Filmspotting is awesome.



Exit Through the Gift Shop
Far and away the most fascinating of 2010’s crop of high-profile “prankumentaries” – and one of the year’s best in any genre – many critics found Exit Through the Gift Shop, from iconically anonymous street artist Banksy, literally too good to be true. A shockingly entertaining blend of humour, insight, coincidence and subversion, it’s been commonly suggested that, like Joaquin Phoenix hoax I’m Still Here, Gift Shop was an elaborate con, playfully but purposefully crafted to expose the absurdities of the commercial art scene.

After half a dozen viewings, I remain a believer, and if the film’s Best Documentary nomination is any indication, so does the Academy. That said, I appreciate the skepticism. Banksy, after all, is a professional trickster, renowned for audacious feats of artistic disobedience, and it’s prudent to approach with caution. Suspicion is also a fair response to the shadowy artist’s bait-and-switch introduction: Claiming to have turned the tables on his would-be documentarian (“he was actually a lot more interesting than I am”), Banksy surrenders the spotlight to a personality as comically improbable as any Sacha Baron Cohen alter ego.

That man is Thierry Guetta, a bumbling, lushly-mutonchopped, cartoonishly French L.A. expat, who, after arriving as a boy in the early 80s, became a surprisingly successful entrepreneur, importing second-hand streetwear at a tidy markup. Conveniently, Guetta also cultivated a near-clinical obsession with his video camera, capturing thousands of hours of candid footage of himself and his family, which, more conveniently still, happens to include one of street art’s original leading lights. Gift Shop, in turn, is the extraordinary story of what transpired when Guetta gained access to street art’s other prominent pioneers, and was allowed to train his obsessive gaze on their agitprop underworld.

Acting both as a videographer and an ever-willing accomplice, Guetta facilitated his new idols in their midnight raids, recording priceless footage of countercultural ephemera inherently at odds with commercial valuation. By 2006 he’d established a reputation as a veteran street art sidekick, and was at last introduced to Banksy himself, the only major player to have eluded his lens. It was as an accessory to the artist’s Guantanamo-themed Disneyland installation that Guetta would decisively prove his worth, stashing incriminating tapes and withstanding a four-hour interrogation from irony-averse authorities. Banksy adds that he was able to escape the park thanks partly to Guetta’s detention, and that thereafter he trusted the tight-lipped Frenchman completely.

Indeed, Exit Through the Gift Shop originated as Life Remote Control, a film Guetta cut together at Banksy’s behest. Concerned by street art’s sudden, lucrative cachet among private collectors – for which he was significantly, if inadvertently, responsible – Banksy asked Guetta to assemble his footage in the hope of publicizing the movement’s egalitarian, anti-establishment foundations. When Banksy was shown the torturously inept final product, however, that hope was replaced by concern for Guetta’s sanity. It was at this point that Banksy claims to have taken the filmmaking reins, and to have casually suggested that Guetta occupy himself by producing some art of his own.

The ensuing role reversal is astonishing (imagine F for Fake meets Face/Off), and must be seen to be believed – or disbelieved, as the case may be. This third act turnabout is the crux of Gift Shop conspiracy theories, such is its success in revealing the willingness of both the general public and alleged connoisseurs to embrace even the most vapid pop culture regurgitations, provided they’re heralded with sufficient hype. For skeptics, it’s difficult to believe that Banksy merely documented, rather than deliberately engineered, a sequence of events so ripe for satire.

Again, I accept Gift Shop as essentially genuine, but would only be more impressed if Banksy had premeditated such an intricate farce. On that understanding, he’s not only provided an account of the origins of a vibrant guerilla art form, which simultaneously lampoons efforts to commercialize that art form, but has done the former whilst duping the commercial art world into lampooning itself. Apart from its general sardonic brilliance, what makes Gift Shop so remarkable is that, whatever manipulations it might be peddling, as a cultural indictment it remains very much valid.

(This content originally published via Next Projection, August 8, 2011)


TIFF Neorealism

On now through August 28, Days of Glory continues TIFF’s efforts to redefine the summertime cinema-going experience. A sidebar companion to Spectacular Obsessions, the series celebrates the masterworks of Italian neorealism, offering welcome respite from summer’s mindlessly bombastic blockbuster fare. The postwar movement gave rise to some of cinema’s absolute essentials, often eschewing escapism for powerful tales of working class woe. TIFF’s tribute is duly comprehensive, featuring 23 classics and rarities, as well as an in-person discussion with accomplished Italian film scholar, and Queen’s Media Professor, Frank Burke.

Speaking recently from his summer home in Tuscany, Burke offered an encyclopedic account of neorealism’s origins, scope, and legacy, and his appearance, prior to a screening of Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (August 5, 6:30pm), is not to be missed. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Il Posto itself is a time-honoured triumph. Though it arrived more than a decade after neorealism’s late 40s heyday, Olmi’s bittersweet coming-of-age tale still rings charmingly, awkwardly, and masterfully true.

TIFF Neorealism

That authenticity, along with the film’s concern with an ordinary young office worker, is emblematic of what Burke cited as neorealism’s radical attempt to “minimize the manipulation of cinema.” Employing real locations, non-professional actors, and confronting harsh postwar economic realities, the movement represented a clear-eyed rejection of the fascist fantasies of the Mussolini era.

Among Burke’s picks for those looking to the Lightbox for a neorealism crash course are two of Roberto Rossellini’s famed War Trilogy — Rome, Open City (August 10, 6:45pm) and Pasian (July 29, 6:30pm). Both shot in the immediate aftermath of German occupation, against actual, bombed-out urban and rural backdrops, Burke identifies the pair as the original standard-bearers of the neorealist movement. Open City is a cat and mouse chronicle of a resistance leader’s bid to escape Gestapo clutches, and is, without exaggeration, one of the most influential films of all time. Paisan, scarcely less seminal, is a six-episode story of Italy’s liberation, co-written by TIFF’s man of the moment, Federico Fellini.

TIFF Neorealism

Third on Burke’s list was opening selection Bicylcle Thieves. Thanks in part to the availability of high quality prints, Burke explained that Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 release has supplanted Rossellini’s films as neorealism’s most iconic, though Bicycle Thieves certainly remains a masterpiece in its own right. The story of a father robbed of the tool he requires to earn a modest livelihood, it’s a simple scenario with the gravest of stakes, and continues to resonate with audiences and filmmakers 63 years on.

In addition to Bicycle Thieves, Burke recommended Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice (August 10, 9pm) as a particularly accessible selection for those new to neorealism. Despite its director’s ardent left-wing leanings, this seductive, Oscar-nominated crime drama is one of the few films in the program to exhibit overt Hollywood influence, and brims with sensuality, suspense, and heavy elements of film noir.

TIFF Neorealism

As for my personal picks, fans of contemporary indie auteur Kelly Reichardt will feel instantly familiar with De Sica’s moving paternal tribute, Umberto D. (August 1, 6:30pm). A stubborn but downtrodden and disenfranchised pensioner, the eponymous Umberto, with faithful pooch in tow, is evidently the great granddaddy of Reichardt’s heartbreaking Wendy and Lucy. Alienated, in debt, and facing eviction, his dire financial straights threaten to deprive him of even his beloved canine companion.

For purists, Luchino Visconti’s La Terrra Trema (August 21, 4:30pm) is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of true neorealist form and content, with it’s nonprofessional cast and class exploitation narrative. Shot in a seaside fishing village in eastern Sicily, the film was initially funded by the Italian Communist Party, and features a raw, detailed evocation of the townsfolk’s daily struggles, both physical and economic.

Lastly, Mamma Roma (August 22, 6:30pm), from Pier Paolo Pasolini (of Salò infamy) is a tragic tale of twisted motherly affection, prefiguring 2009’s much-loved Mother from Bong Joon-ho. Anna Magnani is sensational as the titular Mamma, an endearingly outrageous ex-prostitute with a fearsome determination to forge a better life for her formerly estranged, misfit son. Considered by many to be the director’s best, it’s no wonder this singular work was the sensation of TIFF’s Pasolini retrospective last year.

For a complete list of films and show times, visit Tiff.net. All screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets are available online, by phone: 416-599-TIFF, or in person: TIFF Bell Lightbox, Reitman Square, 350 King Street West.

(This content originally published via BlogTO, July 29, 2011)

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