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.




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