TIFF is done for another year and, although I am still recovering, here is the first wave of mini-reviews for the films I saw. I will repost these reviews with more details closer to when they are released in theaters.
Like You Know It All (Jal Aljido Motamyunseo)
Filmmaker Ku Kyung-nam (Kim Tae-woo) is a critical darling yet he still has not made a commercially successful movie. The general public just cannot seem to make sense of any of his films. When Ku is invited to serve on the jury at a music and film festival, he sees it as a great honor. Yet once on the jury it quickly becomes apparent that reviewing movies is the last thing on Ku’s mind. When Ku is not sleeping through films, or skipping them completely, he is out catching up with old friends and getting into drunken conversations about life. Yet wherever Ku goes trouble seems to follow. Is it possible to have commercial success when you are not even understood in your private life?
Similar to his main character, Ku, director Hong Sang-soo cannot seem to make up his mind on what he wants this film to really be about. He wants defy typical convention by exerting his right to throw several different ideas into the same melting pot. As a result, Sang-soo rarely takes a stand on anything of real significance. Like You Know It All really finds it groove at the beginning as satirical element, regarding the pretentiousness of film festival, is spot on. The problem is that the film gets silly after that. This is due to the various contradictions in the film. Ku prides himself on freedom but constantly craves conformity. This is most evident in his interactions with a former college flame. Ku’s longing for his old flame to be his soul mate is yet another misguided attempt for acceptance. A good chunk of the film focuses on Ku being a callous womanizer who repeatedly puts the moves on his friends’ wives, and leaves drunk-girls in vulnerable positions for others to take advantage of. Yet Ku tries to play the victim in all of this claiming that a soul mate would cure his self absorbed ways. Ku’s constant flip-flopping goes from comical to annoying fairly fast. Since neither Ku, nor Sang-soo, seem to have any really concrete arguments to make, Like You Know It All ends up being much ado about nothing
What do you do when your religious beliefs conflict with your entertainment choices? Well if you are Mormon, and live in Utah, the answer is simple…you find a workaround. After the prophet declares a ban on viewing R-rated movies, a number of video editing companies, such as Clean Flicks and Flick’s Club, start popping up. Clean Flicks specialized in taking R-rated movies, like The Matrix, and illegally editing out all of the violent and graphic content. They would then turn around and sell the edited version to the masses. This eventually led to a war of words in both the media and in the courts, between the companies that edited videos and the Directors Guild of America. As the media attention grew one man, Daniel Thompson, unwittingly became the face off the whole Clean Flicks industry. Problems arise when it is revealed that Daniel may not quite be the wholesome Mormon he appeared to be.
While Cleanflix takes a firm stance on censorship it does provide a fair look at the ideology of edited movie companies. I also liked how the film provides insight into the Mormon community without making them look like freaks. Directors Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi, who are Mormons, show that the Mormon community is made up of well meaning individuals who are interested in pop zeitgeist just like everyone else. The problem is that they do not see the inherent contradictions with using companies such as Clean Flicks. They are essentially breaking one religious law in order to obey another. One of the funny things about the whole debate is that Hollywood already provides edited movies for television and airplanes, yet they refuse to release them for sale to the general public. Which is perplexing considering that there is clearly major demand for them in Utah and other places across America. It seems like a huge financial windfall that Hollywood is passing up. The one complaint some may have with this documentary is that Daniel Thompson’s story takes up a large amount of the second half of the film. Personally I found Daniel an interesting subject to follow as his lust for media attention provides the documentary with some of its funniest, as well as most disturbing, moments. He is a walking contradiction that perfectly encapsulates the religious versus consumerist debate that is one of the underlying themes of the film.
Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi held a Q&A after the screening.
After the suffering the tragic loss of their infant son, a couple (William Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg) attempt to mend the wounds the death has opened. The husband (Dafoe), who is a psychologist, believes that the best cure for his wife’s grief is to confront one of her deepest fears. It seems that the wife (Gainsboug) is having reoccurring nightmares about the woods near their cottage in Eden. At Eden the couple quickly realizes that facing ones fears may not quite be the medicine they were hoping for.
Lars Von Tier’s nightmare look at the stereotype of the sexes is, if nothing else, a film that will stick with you long after you see it. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is up to the individual viewer. This is not the type of film that you really need to see at 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning, but such is the way the TIFF schedule goes. The much publicized graphic scenes are indeed hard to watch and not easy to forget. Yet I found that those particular scenes were more distracting than anything else. Those moments actually ruined everything that was so wonderfully set up in the first section of the film. Antichrist is visually stunning at times; and raises a lot of interesting questions about the dispositions of both men and women. The theme of nature being Satan’s playground is fascinating. I really liked how Von Tier interprets the whole Garden of Eden story and juxtaposes it with the history of burning pagan women for being witches. He also looks at the idea of a woman’s pleasure being a punishable offense. Unfortunately all these great ideas are overshadowed by the excessive later half of Antichrist which almost borders on torture-porn. When reflecting on the film you automatically think back to “the wheel” and other gruesome moments, instead of how wonderful Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance is. While Antichrist is destined to be the subject of many film school papers for years to come; it is just not as strong, or as focused, as Von Tier’s previous works. The concept is great and the performances are good, but overall I would say this one is a rental.
On a side note, this film, oddly enough, reminded me of the Canadian film Lost Song that played at TIFF 08. That film was also about a couple that go to their cabin in the woods, but this time it was an attempt to cure the wife’s postpartum depression. It would be interesting to watch both that and Antichrist back-to-back one day.
Year of the Carnivore
Sammy Smalls (Cristin Milioti) works as an undercover security guard at a local grocery store. When she is not catching shoplifters in the act for her boss (Will Sasso), she is pining over the neighbourhood busker, Eugene (Mark Rendall). After a night of passion, Sammy is shocked to learn that Eugene no longer wants a relationship with her due to her poor performance in bed. Since Eugene refuses to help Sammy improve her sexual technique, Sammy sets out to gain sexual experience by any means necessary.
After directing a few short films and starring in the controversial film, Shortbus, Sook-Yin Lee makes her directorial feature length debut with Year of the Carnivore. The film is a funny and thought provoking look at human connection and the loneliness that we all have…especially married couples. Although sex is the catalyst for the story, it is rarely shown as pleasurable. Heck, even Eugene has a bored look on his face while taking part in a threesome. Sook-Yin wants to show what hinders our sexual encounters the most is both our inhibitions and our lack of true connection. Society spends so much time talking about sex, selling sex, and looking to have sex; yet in reality people rarely act on their impulses. One of the notable aspects about Year of the Carnivore is how every marriage in the film is in trouble. Whether it is the young couple with twin babies or the couple who have been together for 25 years, they have all lost both the passion in the bedroom and the basic art of communication. Sure these themes may not be new, but Lee makes them fresh again with her smartly written script that is both comical and charming. Besides Lee, a lot of the films success is due to the hilarious performance by Cristin Milioti in the role of Sammy. Milioti, who has great physical comedic timing, convincingly conveys both Sammy’s quirky awkwardness and her womanly awakening while avoiding the realm of farce. Year of the Carnivore could have easily been a formulaic romantic comedy but instead it turned out to be one of the festival’s pleasant surprises.
Sook-yin Lee, Mark Rendall and a few other cast members held a Q&A after the screening.
The Art of the Steal
Dr. Albert Barnes held the largest collection of post-impressionist and early modernist art in the world. Despite the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s best efforts to acquire the pieces, Barnes snubbed the Philadelphia elites and housed the collection in suburb of Merion. Before his death in 1951, Barnes made a will to ensure that the collection stayed out of the hands of the Museum and others who wished to profit off the works. Barnes wanted the collection to remain an educational tool for serious students of art and not the casual tourist. Barnes was able to hold off the dollar eyed vultures when he was alive, but once Barnes passed away things changed. Even his iron clad will started to show some cracks...
Don Argott’s documentary was easily one of my favourite films at the festival this year. The story unfolds like a murder mystery complete with a full list of suspects. Argott details step by step how money rules the bottom line of everything. It was the catalyst that forced many Philadelphia politicians and corporations commit crime of stealing Barnes’ collection. The Art of the Steal forces you to question if something as strong as a person’s will can be violated, what say do you really have in any part of your life? The most startling aspect of this documentary is how matter of fact some people, such as the Governor and the Attorney General, are when openly talking about how they essentially blackmailed institutions such as the of Lincon University. The funny thing is both men act like it was just business as usual. It is this type of mentality that is so chilling. The taking over of the Barnes collection was as epic as major corporate merges. Many of the key players not only hid key information from the public but also used public money to essentially commit the crime. It is truly fascinating to see how the Barnes’ collection has ended up becoming everything Barnes objected to when he was alive. The Art of the Steal will make you look at art, politics, education, and the law in a whole new light.
Don Argott and crew held a Q & A session
Taking place in 2nd Century A.D., Kelin (Gulsharat Zhubayeva) has two suitors vying for her hand in marriage. Unfortunately her true love, Mergyen (Kuandyk Kystykbaev), cannot afford to pay the same dowry to Kelin’s father that Baktashi (Erzan Nurymbet) can. Although Kelin is reluctant to become Baktashi’s wife at first, she starts to develop genuine feelings for him after a while. Kelin’s blossoming love for Baktashi is soon tested once Mergyen reappears into her life determined to win her back at all cost.
Ermek Tursunov’s film has no dialogue whatsoever which means that it is up to the actors to convey and sustain the story for the 84-minute running time. The cast does a good job rising to the task. Not all the performances are note perfect but they are sufficient enough for the subject matter. Kelin would have been better served with much tighter editing. The film’s pacing is much slower than it really needs to be. Also, there is nothing in the film that really sets you up for the events at the end. Kelin must assume a role for which she has no prior preparation. Tursunov seems to imply that she will rise to the challenge like those before her. Maybe it is a given for those familiar with the history of various cultures within Kazakhstan, but I just did not see how that is possible. The central theme in the film, regarding love and tradition, are nothing new; nor is the overall execution. Kelin is an adequate film but not one that will leave a lasting impression.
Director Ermek Tursunov held a Q & A that turned out to be far more engaging than the actual film.
The Men Who Stare At Goats
After a chance encounter with Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney), journalist Bob Wilton (Ewen McGregor) realizes that he might have come across the juiciest story of his career. Lyn claims to be part of a special military group of super-soldiers trained in the art of mental warfare. They can become invisible, located hidden items, and even make a goat’s heart stop beating through mere thought. Yet after traveling across the Iraq dessert, in search of Lyn’s former unit captain Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), Bob begins to wonder if Lyn’s tales are actually more fiction than fact.
Grant Heslov’s latest feature evoked mixed reactions out of me at various points in the film. There are times when the writing in The Men Who Stare At Goats is truly brilliant. During these moments the dialogue is fast paced and the film hits all the right comedic notes. Unfortunately there are also times when it becomes painfully obvious that there is really no substance to the picture at all. Clearly they had a great concept but just could muster enough material to sustain a whole movie. Many people I spoke with who loved The Men Who Stare At Goats cited the Coen Brothers’ comedies as one of the reasons they enjoyed the film so much. Whereas this was one of the major reasons I found the film disappointing. To me, The Men Who Stare At Goats plays more like a poor man’s Coen Brothers flick. Even Jeff Bridges seems to be phoning in his old Lebowski performance for the film. Several of the running gags, most notably the Jedi and other pop culture references, become stale after hearing them over and over. The casting is great and Heslov allow his actors to really let loose in their roles. Though Heslov needed to rein in the story much more than he does, especially in regards to the ridiculous third act. Again, there are some truly funny segments that almost warrant a mild recommendation for those scenes alone. Yet on the whole, despite the potential it displayed, The Men Who Stare At Goats was ultimately more disappointing than anything else.
In Jeff Stilson’s documentary, Good Hair, Chris Rock goes on a mission to try and understand the obsession black women have with “Good Hair.” Whether it is using the harmful chemicals found in a tub of hair relaxer; or spending thousands of dollars on weaves, black women are constantly striving to have European-looking hair. Rock’s journey will not only lead him across America but all the way to India as well. What he finds out along the way is equally hilarious and disturbing.
Good Hair is definitely an eye opening look into the black hair industry. After the film, I discussed many of the points raised with my mom and she was echoing many of the same sentiments that the women in the documentary stated. Generations of women have grown up, and will continue to grow up, longing for “Good Hair.” Rock knows that there is nothing he can do to change this fact, which is why this documentary is more concerned with entertaining than shaking the status quo. Still it would have been nice if Good Hair had added a little historical context in regards to why many cultures covet the European style of hair. Actually it would have been interesting to have a few Europeans provide comments about black hair in general. The only non-blacks featured in the film are of Indian or East Asian decent. Regardless, in the grand scheme of the picture, these are minor quibbles as Rock never intended the film to be a sermonizing tool in the first place. The segments in India are extremely effective in showing how out of hand the hair obsession in North America is. The same can be said for the business side of things, in which the film points out how much money the industry rakes in and who is really benefiting from it. While the film is filled with many great celebrity interviews, Rock really shines when he is interacting with regular folks in the beauty salons/barber shops. Some of the most amusing comments come when the interviewees explain why you cannot touch a black woman’s hair during sex. Good Hair may not strive to be a scathing social critique, but it is still an enjoyable film that is both funny and thought provoking.
Chris Rock and model/actress Melyssa Ford held a Q & A session after the screening.
A Serious Man
After last year’s misstep, Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers find themselves back on track with A Serious Man. Set in Jewish suburbs of Minnesota in 1967, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries hard to live a good and upstanding Jewish life. Despites his best efforts to a “serious man”, Larry cannot seem to stop this downward spiral he seems to have found himself in. His wife (Sari Lennick) has fallen in love with another man and wants Larry to grant her a religious divorce so she can remarry within the faith. Larry’s children only talk to him when they want money or the television fixed. To make matters worst, Larry’s application for tenure at the University is in jeopardy due to a series of mysterious and damaging letters that have suddenly appeared. Looking for guidance, Larry does what any “serious man” would do…seek counsel from the elusive Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner).
Due to the underlying bleak tone, and the abrupt ending, A Serious Man is bound to divide audiences. Personally I loved the film, as it was a funny commentary on faith and human nature. Larry does all the right things and his life gets worse by the day; whereas everyone else is committing sinful deeds and seemingly living well. Even the religious leaders, who are the most “serious men” of all, are merely going through the motions. All of the various Rabbis in the picture are quick to provide random stories and rhetoric yet none of them can apply the tales to the actual matter at hand. The performances in this film are fantastic even the bit players provided wonderful moments. Stuhlbarg is by far the standout though. Stuhlbarg brings so much comedic subtly to the role that it is easy to miss upon first glance. As I mentioned before the ending will rub many the wrong way, but I found it rather fitting when looking back at the overall themes of the film.
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
Winner of the festivals top prize, The Peoples Choice Award, Precious is a film that packs a very heavy punch. It is 1987 in Harlem and Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is barely sixteen and already pregnant with her second child. Living with her emotionally and physically abusive mother (Mo’Nique), Precious constantly dreams of a better life. Unable to neither read nor write, and facing expulsion from school, Precious is forced to attend the Each One/Teach One alternative school. Can this school provide Precious with a way out of her miserable life? Or was merely cursed from birth?
I am hesitant to heap too much praise on this film for I fear that adding to the buzz Precious has already generated might only speed up the backlash towards the film. Still, I cannot deny that Precious finally cements Lee Daniel’s as a director. He skillfully blends the dark themes with the more accessible moments far better here than he did in either The Woodsman or Shadowboxer. This is not to say that Precious is an easy film to watch. On the contrary, the film is extremely bleak and unrelenting. No matter how many times you tell yourself “her life cannot get any worse”…it does. Daniels smartly incorporates just the right amount of fantasy sequences in the film. This allows him to pull Precious, and the viewer, out of the sewage long enough to take a quick gasp of air before being submerged again. Daniels is wise not to overplay these moments as he keeps the dream sequences somewhat grounded. Regardless of how you feel about the subject matter, there is no denying that the Precious features two of the finest female performances you will see all year. Mo’Nique is simply brilliant as Precious’ abusive mother. She brings so much intensity and emotion to the role that, even though you despise her, you fully understand her motivations. While Mo’Nique will most likely get a lot of award buzz, and rightfully so, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe deserves some as well. Due to the nature of the subject matter, the film really lives and dies on Sidibe’s performance. Thankfully Gabourey rises to the extremely high bar that both Daniel’s and Mo’Nique have set for her. Gabourey Sidibe does such a wonderful job finding that dark uncomfortable place for Precious that you barely notice some of the more well-known cast members in supporting roles. While I highly recommend Precious, you should try and see the film before the hype gets out of control. Precious works best if you go in without any preconceived notions.
Still to come: The Road, The Ape, Micmacs, The Loved Ones, Youth in Revolt, Life During Wartime, Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, If I Knew What You Said, etc.