Friday, October 02, 2009

TIFF 09 Recap Part 3

Youth in Revolt

While on vacation with his mother (Jean Smart) and her latest deadbeat boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis), cynical teenager Nick Twisp (Michael Cera), meets the girl of his dreams, Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday). Unfortunately for Nick, the distance between where he and Sheeni each live is a huge road block in their budding relationship. The only remedy is for Nick to get kicked out of his mother’s house and be sent to live with his father (Steve Buscemi). In order for this plan to work an upstanding individual like Nick will be required to do some truly bad deeds. Luckily for Nick, Francois Dillinger (Michael Cera) is an expert at creating havoc. As Francois sets Nick’s plan into motion, Nick is forced to deal with the unexpected consequences.

As Francois Dillinger, Michael Cera finally gets a chance to break away from his usual awkward teenager role. Yes, as Nick, Cera is still doing the same deadpan teenager role we are all use to, but most of the memorable moments in the film come courtesy of Francois. Youth in Revolt is a far more entertaining teen comedy than Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. Granted Sheeni, is not as well rounded a female character at Kat Denning’s Nora was in that film. Still, Youth in Revolt greatest asset is its wonderful supporting cast (e.g. Smart, Galifianakis, Buscemi, Fred Willard, Adhir Kalvan, Justin Long, Ray Liotta, etc.). Besides providing some great laugh out loud moments, the supporting cast also help to keep the comedic pace moving briskly. I also liked how the breezy script allowed Miguel Arteta to incorporate a few stylistic touches, such as animation, into the film. Arteta wisely does not overwhelm the film with it, but it never feels out of place when it is included. While Youth in Revolt may not bring too much new to the coming-of-age genre, it does have enough comedic moments to satisfy for a few hours.

B+




Bitch Slap

In Rick Jacobson’s homage to 70’s sexploitation movies, Bitch Slap, three buxom femme fatales set out to steal 200 million dollars from a criminal kingpin. At first everyone role in the heist is clearly defined. Hel (Erin Cummings) is the brains of the operation, Trixie (Julia Voth) is the bait, and Camero (America Olivo) is the muscle. As plans begin to spiral out of control, and secrets are revealed, the women roles are blurred and allegiances are question. It quickly becomes clear to all that the women need to fear each other just as much as they fear the kingpin.

If you enjoy Russ Meyer’s movies, or any cheesy sexploitation flick for that matter, chances are good that you will be entertained by Bitch Slap. The movie is tongue-in-cheek from beginning to end with some inspired cameos (e.g. Kevin Sorbo, Lucy Lawless, Renée O’Connor, etc). The one major flaw with Bitch Slap is that it gets fairly repetitive after a while. There is only so many girl-on-girl slow motion fight scenes, witty references for female genitalia, and over-the-top action sequences a person can take. As a result of all the excess, the movie takes far too long to get to the big twist (which you see coming in the first twenty minutes). Jacobson and crew have so much fun playing things up that they left out the most important aspect of the original 70’s genre…the moral subtext. Frankly the cheesy, and often horrific, moral lesson is what made the Russ Meyer’s movies so entertaining. With the exception of the one dimwitted cop, and even he is a stretch, there is no character is truly corrupted by the women. Bitch Slap does have many enjoyable moments but ultimately it does not hold a candle to the 70’s sexploitation movies that it is honoring.

C




Ajami

The conflicts between Israeli’s and Palestinians have been widely documented on a global scale but rarely do we see what goes on daily in average neighborhoods. Ajami looks at how the lives seemingly separate individuals are intertwined. There is the story of a family who must pay for one uncle’s heroic act. Another story looks at an Arab who wants to live in Israel. There is also the story of the cop who is desperate to find his missing brother. To give any more of the plot away would be a great disservice to the film.

Ajami is a film very much in the same vein as City of God as provide a unique look at a world that few of us really know about. Not only does Ajami show what life is like for Arabs living in Israel, but also the constant conflict between religion and honor. One of the shocking things about Ajami is how the structure and rules are said to be in God’s name, yet all it seems to do is breed more criminal activity. Of course the cultural conflicts are present as well, but directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani care more about the human element rather than the historical debate. Ajami does not make any grand political statements, nor does it choose side. Instead it provides a fascinating, and at times heartbreaking, look at how corruption and violence can ruin communities no matter where in the world you are.

A




Micmacs (Micmac à tire-larigot)

Bazil’s (Dany Boon) life is turned upside down after a drive-by-shooting leaves a bullet lodged in his head. Homeless, and aimlessly roaming the streets of Paris, Bazil stumble upon an eccentric cast of characters who invite him to join their makeshift family. With the help of his newfound friends, Bazil devises a scheme to get revenge on the two weapons manufacturers that have caused him a lifetime of distress.

Second runner-up for the festival’s people choice award, which was on by Precious, Micmacs is truly a crowd-pleaser. Jean-Pierre Jeunet brings his whimsical imagination that he has displayed in numerous films, including Delicatessen and Amelie, to the caper movie genre. Despite the subject matter, Jeunet is not really interested in making a grand political statement. Micmac’s main goal is to entertain and, as far as screwball comedies go, it succeeds on several levels. The romantic subtext is nowhere near as engaging as Amelie but, to be honest, it really only plays a minor role in the story. The real fun of Micmacs is watching Dany Boon’s physical comedic timing. Boon’s performance helps Micmac’s achieve the Chuck Jones level of insanity that it strives for. Micmacs may not have the emotional resonance of some of Jeunet’s other films, but the film had me laughing more than any other film I have seen so far this year.

A+

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet held a very entertaining Q & A after the screening.




Vengeance

After his daughter, Irene (Sylvie Testud), is seriously injured, and Irene’s husband and children killed, restaurant owner Frank Costello (Johnny Hallyday) is determined to find the people responsible. Leaving France for the foreign land of Hong Kong, Frank enlists a trio of hitmen (Anthony Wong, Lam Suet and Lam Ka-Tung) to assist him in the search. As Frank and the hitmen trek forward it becomes clear that both sides are keeping secrets. One secret in particular may not only jeopardize the partnership, but Frank’s life as well

Although Vengeance is director’s Johnnie To’s first English language film, his trademark “bullet ballet” is still intact. While I am a big fan of some of To’s previous works I found Vengeance to be a huge disappointment. Part of the problem is that the story falls apart halfway mark when one major twist is revealed. When To introduces a Memento-style subplot it ends up stifling the whole production. Pretty much everything after that becomes pointless, this is especially apparent in the shootout at the trash yard. Many of the shootout scenes, normally To’s strong point, feel lifeless as a result of the inept plot. Sure there a few nice stylistic touches but nothing we have not seen To do better elsewhere. Vengeance would have been better served to leave the twist out completely. Without it, To would not have to use lame plot devices, such as resorting to “divine intervention”, in order to keep the story moving. Vengeance is misguided on many levels and will leave you frustrated more than anything else.

D




Le Refuge (The Refuge)

Mousse (Isabelle Carre) and Louis (Melvill Poupaud) have just received their latest stash of heroin and plan for a night of drug induced ecstasy. This results in Mousse waking up in the hospital days later, after going into a coma, and she is told that Louis has died from an overdose. If that was not shocking enough, Mousee also finds out that she is pregnant. Deciding to keep the baby that is growing inside her, Mousse retreats to a quiet home in the countryside to live life in peace. Things get complicated for Mousse when Louis’ brother, Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy), pays her an unexpected visit and feelings start to develop.

Francois Ozon’s latest film, Le Refuge, is a film that is almost too subtle for its own good. The set up of Le Refuge leads you to think that you about to witness a gut-wrenching drama, when the film is actual a quiet meditation on isolation and sexuality. The connection between Mousse and Paul is built up slowly and rarely goes the path you think it will. A lot of the tension that arises between the two is more a result of Paul’s physical resemblance to Louis more than anything else. Le Refuge felt like a much somber version of The Swimming Pool in several ways, partly because of the themes Ozon is playing with. While not as strong as that film, Le Refuge does have many interesting elements going for it. Just do not go into the film expecting any grand moments as the whole film is rather anti-climatic.

C


The Ape (Apan)


Krister (Olle Sarri) wakes up the bathroom floor one morning. He is not sure how he got there or why there is blood on him. Disoriented, and extremely late for work, Krister frantically get ready for another day as a driving instructor. As he goes about his day, it soon becomes clear that Krister’s life is about to change forever.

The brilliance of The Ape does not reveal itself immediately; to be honest I was not fond of the film upon first viewing. Yet I could not stop thinking about it after the screening was over. The more played certain scenes over in my head, the more it became apparent how brilliantly deceptive the film actually is. Despite its conventional appearance The Ape is anything but that; which is why the film is both frustrating to watch, and upon reflection, immensely rewarding. After the opening scene, you expect that the full mystery to be revealed, when the truth is director Jesper Ganslandt is not interested in the mystery at all he only cares about the present. While certain answers are given, the film is really about how Krister copes with the events that happened before we (the viewer) started following him. The relatively calmness Krister exudes for most of the day, coupled with some of the choices he make, is what really makes this film chilling. While The Ape is not the easiest film to sit through but it definitely warrants repeat viewing to truly grasp how good it actually is.

A


A Gun to the Head

Trevor (Tvgh Runyan) has left his criminal ways behind him and is now living the typical suburban life with his wife Grace (Marnie Robinson). One night, while out getting wine for a dinner party Grace is hosting, Trevor gets a call from his troublemaking cousin Darren (Paul Anthony). Although he really should get back to his dinner party, Trevor just cannot pass up the temptation of one quick beer with his cousin. Soon enough Trevor finds himself in middle of a dispute between Darren and local a drug dealer, Sam (Hrothgar Mathews). This not only puts Trevor’s life at risk but his wife’s as well.

Although Blaine Thurier is more known for his musical talents (he plays keyboard in The New Pornographers) he shows a lot of promise as a director. His third feature is an enjoyable dark comedy that manages to find fresh laughs in rather familiar territory. The premise is nothing you have not seen numerous times before; but the performances from the cast, especially Anthony and Mathews, are what really keep your interested. The actors do a good job of finding the right comedic rhythm for the dialogue. Some of the funniest moments arrive in the dinner party scenes when Grace’s boss tries valiantly to convince to Grace into partake in a threesome. Frankly, you may never look at Japanese culture the same way again. Although the film is enjoyable for the most part it does lag a bit towards the end. The darker toned ending does not quite fit with the overall picture.

B –

Director Blaine Thurier and cast members Marnie Robinson, Hrothgar Mathews, Benjamin Ayres held a Q & A after the screening.


If I Knew What You Said (Dinig Sana Kita)

Nina (Zoe Sandejas) is the lead singer of a rock band but cannot seem to keep out of trouble. Facing expulsion from school Nina has no choice but to attend an experimental camp that combines hearing impaired students with regular students. It is at the camp where Nina meets Kiko (Romalito Mallari), a deaf student with a passion for dance. Despite the emotional baggage they both are carrying a genuine friendship is formed between Nina and Kiko. Unfortunately their bond will be put to the test as their individual lives start to spiral out of control.

At first glance Mike Sandejas’s film looks like it might be just another “after school special”-style film about acceptance. Yet as the film progresses you realize that there is much more going on than you initially expected. Sandejas creates realistic and well-rounded characters in Nina and Kiko. Zoe Sandejas and Romalito Mallari provide strong performances to make the characters believable. If I Knew What You Said does tug at your heart a few times but it never over does it. There are rarely any moments in the film that feel false or forced. Granted the film wraps up a little too sweet for my liking, but really that was a minor complaint as the rest of the film had me hooked far more than I ever expected it would.

Director Mike Sandeja, Zoe Sandejas and Romalito Mallari held a Q & A after the screening.

A-/B+




Life During Wartime

In Life During Wartime, director Todd Solondz revisits many of the characters that he brought to life so vividly in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness years earlier (14 and 11 years respectively). After once being married to a pedophile, Bill (Ciarán Hinds), Trish (Allison Janney) is happy that she has finally found herself a normal guy, Harvey (Michael Lerner). Trish and Harvey plan to marry but things are complicated when Bill is released from jail. Meanwhile Trish’s sister Joy (Shirley Henderson) and her husband, Allen (Michael K. Williams), are having problems due to Allen’s immoral habits. As Joy takes a solo trip to reconnect with her family she is haunted by the ghost of a lover past. Both Trish and Joy must figure out if it is better to forgive or to forget.

Life During Wartime is like warmed over comfort food in many ways. You really do not need it but it satisfies for a brief time before you are hungry again. As a big fan of Solondz’s previous films I had no problem with the fact that he used a completely new cast for each role. Yet since it had been so long since I saw both Dollhouse and Happiness it did take a while for me to reconnect with the characters. While I liked the casting (Janny, Henderson, William, Charlotte Rambling, and Paul Rubens are good in their given roles) I could not help but wonder what the original actors (especially from Happiness) would have done with this material. I think that is one of the main things that hinders the film overall. Happiness was such a good movie that it really did not warrant a sequel. Todd Solondz trademark dark humor is still intact but somehow the film seems to play things much safer than his previous films. Solondz doe raise some interesting questions on the lengths of human forgiveness but ultimately he has covered this theme better elsewhere. At the end of the day Life During Wartime made me want to rent Happiness again more than anything else.

B-/C+


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

After making a bet with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), who is more commonly known as the devil, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) wins the gift of immortality. Several years later Mr. Nick and Dr. Parnassus make another bet that would ultimately save the life of Parnassus’ one true love. Unfortunately for Dr. Parnassus this bet comes at a grave price as he is forced to give up his first born child, Valentina (Lily Cole), to Mr. Nick upon her 16th birthday. Now on the eve of Valentina’s sweet sixteen, Dr. Parnassus and Mr. Nick decide to make another bet that may either save Valentina or damn her forever. The bet is simple, Dr. Parnassus must convert five souls through is mystical “Imaginarium” travelling show before Mr. Nick converts five souls. Dr. Parnassus knows that the devil always has a trick up his sleeve, which is why his randomly meeting with Tony (Health Ledger) is so intriguing. Is Tony a gift from above? Or is Dr. Parnassus taking his biggest risk yet?

It has been well documented that this film features the final performance of Heath Ledger. It is also no surprise to hear that Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp, and Jude Law were asked to fill in for Health in certain scenes. What may come as a shock is how seamlessly the injection of the new actors is. Since most of the non-imaginarium scenes were shot prior to Health’s death, Farrell and crew were only needed for the fantasy sequence. Once you see the film, the limitless possibilities of the Imaginarium will make perfect sense. The two performances that probably deserver the most praise are that of Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits. Sure Health is charming as ever, but it is Plummer and Wait who really make this film a treat. Waits in particular does a great job as the devil, you can see how easily a man like Dr. Parnassus could be swayed by his deceitful charm. Director Terry Gilliam does a good job at keeping the film grounded in reality despite all of its fantastical moments. This film is far better than his last two works, The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, though not as strong as some of his earlier films. The one major flaw with the film is the Imaginarium scenes with Farrell in the third act. I found the whole sequence from the children’s benefit up to the stairs chase just went on far too long. The film needs a little tighter editing near the end. Still, despite the somber events surrounding the film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is an enjoyable ride that is a fitting final chapter to Health Ledger’s canon of work.

B

Terry Gilliam introduced the film and held an engaging Q & A after the screening

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