a Healthy Disdain


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.


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