originally published September 27, 2010
- The films are fading fast in the rearview for me (no reflection on them, necessarily), but before they become too vestigial I want to at least highlight the rest of what I saw at this year's TIFF, starting with a movie called White Irish Drinkers (*/****). How I wound up catching this flick is fairly embarrassing: the director is "John Gray," which I misread in my bleary, end-of-festival state as "James Gray." I was severely late for the flick, so I don't want to pummel it (or even officially rate it), but keen auteurist that I am, I figured out my mistake pretty quickly: James Gray just wouldn't have a naked girl (the maddeningly familiar Leslie Murphy) run around a cemetery with "free spirit" music cued up on the soundtrack--he's not a de facto film student anymore. Though it turns out that John Gray has an extensive TV-movie resume, having done everything from The Marla Hanson Story to the remake of Brian's Song, this feels very much the work of a novice, not a little for its pretensions to be the next Mean Streets. Because Stephen Lang salvaged Public Enemies virtually single-handedly, I was hopeful when he turned up here, but his character may be even more one-note than the one he played in Avatar. As his put-upon wife, Karen Allen has seemingly recovered from the stupefying euphoria of getting to resurrect her iconic Marion in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Strangely, I missed said goofy grin, yet she makes the most of a thankless role that indirectly references her previous brush with this genre, Philip Kaufman's The Wanderers. The rest of the cast is made up of baby-faced thugs who have to be given black eyes at regular intervals in order to pass for tough. On a related note, I never could shake the feeling that this is exactly the sort of project Vinnie Chase would be hot for on "Entourage".
- If the effusive headlines at AICN are any indication, the geeks were born to love James Gunn's fast, cheap, and out-of-control Super (**/****). I wasn't exactly indifferent, but I'm definitely burned out on these pomo comic-book movies. Aggravating the picture's been there/done that feeling is its pronounced debt to Taxi Driver, which Super rehashes with selective realism and a much greater emphasis on shock value. It also has a Troma patina--which is probably a hard thing for Gunn, who cut his teeth on stuff like Tromeo and Juliet, to shake--that makes the all-star cast look like they're participating in a telethon, although Ellen Page overcomes this obstacle to deliver another performance for the ages. As the ferocious sidekick to Rainn Wilson's homemade superhero the Crimson Bolt, she resists every impulse towards good taste and forces audiences to start recognizing her as a) an adult woman and b) a sexual being by modeling her skin-tight spandex costume as indecently as possible. Still, the film is so glib and so arch that I kind of resented its presumptuous detours into sentiment and tragedy.
- I don't show my appreciation for Bruce Springsteen--an evergreen artist if ever there was one--often enough, thus in a way going to see The Promise: The Making of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" (**½/****) was a form of penance. But I confess I had an ulterior motive, which was to set foot inside Toronto's new state-of-the-art cinema complex the Bell Lightbox. It's beautiful. Huge, too. My visit was basically a hit-and-run, but I did of course get to audit one of the five spacious screening rooms, with its impressive corridors and seventies-brown, perhaps quintessentially Canadian interior. (The lobby is a mix of cool blues and modernist whites.) As for the Bruce doc, a quasi-sequel to Wings for Wheels: The Making of "Born to Run", it's a pleasant mix of fly-on-the-wall footage of the original recording sessions for the titular album and retrospective interviews with the E Street Band as well as various industry types. You've got to admire Springsteen's chutzpah in documenting and cataloguing his creative process with a borderline-Kubrickian obsessiveness long before his reputation warranted it, but as much as his collaborators bitch about his anal-retentiveness from their current vantage, he's such a benign genius that the studio material frankly doesn't generate a lot of electricity--at least between jams. Moreover, so much of it is presumed to need contextualization by the latter-day interviews that I grew restless with the constant cutting back and forth.
- I don't know what to say, really, about Canadian Carl Bessai's Repeaters (*/****) or Ji-woon Kim's I Saw the Devil (**/****). Bessai has flirted with sci-fi tropes before but he's wading pretty deep into the genre pool with this indie riff on Groundhog Day, in which three rehab residents take the place of one weatherman. While these 12-steppers are more obviously inclined to seek redemption in do-overs than Bill Murray was, they might as well still be TV meteorologists: given that they cheerfully relapse upon realizing tomorrow now comes with a clean slate, it's a cheat that they're able to control and even forget their addictions once some semblance of a plot kicks in. The '80s-horror-movie coda doesn't help matters. The premise of I Saw the Devil, another film instantly enshrined by the geek cult, is that a serial killer locks horns with a Korean secret service agent, who uses every tool at his disposal to track his wife's murderer and thwart the bastard's attempts to claim another victim, thereby giving him a terminal case of blue balls. It's a potentially exasperating conceit rendered all the more so by the execution: the picture's too long, too repetitive, and neither stylish nor meta enough to get away with lazily-plotted scenes like the one where the presumed-unconscious killer overhears a crucial bit of information. I write this as a fan of Kim's A Tale of Two Sisters and his Leone pastiche The Good the Bad and the Weird.
- Let's go out on a high note, with Eric Lartigau's The Big Picture (L'homme qui voulait vivre sa vie) (***½/****). (The literal translation of the French title is considerably more loaded: "The Man Who Wanted to Live His Life.") I actually don't want to spoil this one with a plot synopsis, because I can't discount the sheer pleasure I got from its constant gear-shifting. (This year's TIFF taught me that I'm learning to appreciate a good yarn well told.) Suffice it to say, the first act filled me with dread that this was going to be another film that sets out to punish the workaholic patriarch, only in French (it's in fact based on an American novel by Douglas Kennedy), but the picture soon flies off in a different direction, and then it soars--a draggy section of pipe-laying in the middle notwithstanding. What I love is its moral ambivalence, its neutrality: Romain Duris's Paul Exben isn't a bad guy, he just does bad things; and somehow, his acts of atonement are even worse, yet there is a certain consolation in that he's following his muse. We observe him with interest if not attachment. A literate epic,The Big Picture waxes poetic on everything from the nature of identity to the virtues of digital vs. analog (both reveal their boundaries in Paul's transition from one world to the other), to photography, to fame, to globalism... And let it not go unsaid that A Prophet's Niels Arestrup and Public Enemies' Branka Katic are absolutely lovely in pivotal roles that leave a little hole in the air when the movie's over.