a Healthy Disdain


THE 2011 TIFFSTRAVAGANZA: REVIEWS OF DRIVE, THE ARTIST, MELANCHOLIA, TAKE SHELTER, TAKE THIS WALTZ, THE PATRON SAINTS, AMY GEORGE, & THE ODDS

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.



Review: THE BANG BANG CLUB

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)



ON ATTACK THE BLOCK’S BRILLIANCE: AN OPEN LETTER TO FILMSPOTTING


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.

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Review: EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP

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)




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