AICN reader garbageman33 sent in this very nice roundup & grading of films he caught at the recently concluded TIFF. We truly appreciate his time, effort, and patience...and hope you enjoy the following:
COMIC CON EPISODE IV: A FAN’S HOPE
There’s been a lot of humor mined from the attendees of San Diego’s annual Comic Con, many of whom come dressed as their favorite comic and movie characters. But unlike, say, Triumph: the Insult Comic Dog, Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) isn’t here to poke fun at them. He’s here to celebrate their slightly off-kilter view of things. It’s a universal story: freaks get around other freaks and suddenly feel normal. And it’s incredibly touching to watch as Spurlock and his crew follow five attendees coming from all over the country to their mecca. He also interviews people like Kevin Smith, Josh Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), comics legend Stan Lee and our own Harry Knowles to paint a really affectionate portrait of a convention that has grown from 500 people to 130,000.
In this Norwegian thriller, a corporate recruiter suffering from a Napoleon complex lives way above his means in hopes of keeping his statuesque art gallery owner wife happy. To make ends meet, he moonlights as an art thief, stealing works from the high-level executives he’s supposed to be placing. Unfortunately, his latest client/mark is an ex-special forces operative with expertise in tracking his prey. Oh, and he may or may not be sleeping with the recruiter’s wife. The twists just keep piling up. And so do the bodies. It’s a decent thriller with some black humor and a couple cringe-inducing gags (emphasis on the “gag”). I just wish the plot felt a little more organic. Instead, it’s like a giant Rube Goldberg device in which A and B have to happen so C can happen. You can practically see the writer’s gears turning.
Ryan Gosling is a stuntman by day and getaway driver by night. He’s also a loner who lives by an unbreakable code and, of course, when he finally breaks it, everything goes to shit. Yes, it’s that old ditty. But the clichéd story is told with so much style that it really doesn’t matter. Think 80s Michael Mann. Right on down to the synthesizer music and neon type in the opening credits (the director admitted that he ripped off the typeface from Risky Business). Gosling’s nearly wordless antihero is ably supported by Bryan Cranston as his handler and Carey Mulligan as the neighbor who finally gets him to let his guard down. And Albert Brooks is fantastic as Bernie, a Hollywood producer turned low-level gangster who takes a hands-on approach to dispatching his enemies (Cranston joked that they referred to him on-set as Bernie the Knife). I just wish the whole movie felt as unexpected as his casting.
In the latest from Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt), George Clooney plays a real estate lawyer and lifelong Hawaiian trying to resolve some family business while his possibly unfaithful wife lies comatose after a boating accident. It’s a pleasant enough movie, with some good laughs and a few nice, emotional moments. But it seems like an odd choice for everyone involved. Alexander Payne isn’t the first person I’d think of for a sentimental, borderline mawkish tale about legacies and how our lives aren’t always what they appear to be from the outside. And Clooney certainly isn’t the person I’d think of to play hurt, befuddled or Hawaiian. The word “pandering” comes to mind. And judging by all the Oscar talk being thrown around, it appears to have paid off handsomely.
THE BROOKLYN BROTHERS BEAT THE BEST
In this ultra low-budget indie, the writer/director/star plays a mopey, underemployed 20-something who just wants to make music. But he keeps getting kicked out of bands for being too mopey. Then one day, he gets punched in the face and kidnapped while wearing a giant pink bunny costume. The perpetrator is a guy who wants to be in a band, but only plays Fisher Price instruments like toy horns and xylophones. Still with me? It then becomes a road movie as the two of them embark on a makeshift tour, with a hot concert promoter in tow. Yes, it’s excessively quirky. But it also has a ton of heart. And it beautifully captures the joy of making music. You know that piano store scene in Once that everyone loses their shit over? Well, this has at least two scenes on par with that. As an added bonus, the actual music is really, really good. Someone in the film describes them as “The Shins meet Sesame Street”, which is right on the money.
In this Thai thriller, an ex-cop becomes a hitman, gets shot in the head and survives, albeit with a strange condition that causes him to see things upside-down (I’ll wait while you look it up on Web-MD). This film pulls off the rare feat of being glacially slow and still almost impossible to follow, as the plot jumps back-and-forth in time as he tries to figure out who wronged him and why. Actually, “jumps” is the wrong word. It hobbles back-and-forth. And there are so few point-of-view shots (which are actually cool) it’s difficult to identify with what he’s going through. You know, the whole upside-down thing. At least I wasn’t alone in hating it. Let’s just say I’ve seen less walkouts during a labor strike.
In this Mexican film, a beauty pageant contestant witnesses a nightclub massacre perpetrated by a vicious drug cartel. Rather than do the sensible thing and just kill the only witness (because that’d be a really short movie) the gang takes her hostage and forces her to do a series of increasingly dangerous tasks that she’s helpless to control. Think Maria Full of Grace. Only shitty. Because while that film took a documentary approach to a realistic story, Miss Bala uses the same approach to tell a hyper-stylized story. It’s basically Scarface shot with an iPhone. Look, I get it. The girl is a stand-in for the Mexican people and their helplessness against the drug war. But she’s such a passive character that it’s hard to feel too sorry for her.
THE LAST DOGS OF WINTER
The Canadian Eskimo Dog has become the rarest registered dog breed in the world. In this documentary, we follow the efforts of one idiosyncratic adventurer in his efforts to save the dogs from extinction by setting up a breeding grounds in the remote outpost of Churchill, Ontario. The doc features some amazing footage of the dogs frolicking with migrating polar bears. But, perhaps, those scenes would be best left as 5-minute youtube clips rather than a 97-minute documentary. There’s just not enough here to sustain interest. At least, not the way the director has it structured. Instead of talking to the workers about their own lives, he focuses almost entirely on the dogs. But hey, you can’t be too hard on anything that features a box full of puppies.
JUAN OF THE DEAD
Does the world really need another zombie film? Especially one that’s a parody of a parody? As a matter of fact, yes. Yes we do. This horror comedy (emphasis on comedy) follows the misadventures of Juan, a Cuban layabout who slowly comes to the realization that the people wandering the streets eating their neighbors may not be dissidents like the TV news coverage keeps telling everyone. So, he gathers up a few friends who arm themselves with oars, baseball bats, slingshots and harpoon guns and go into business ridding families of their zombified loved ones. There’s a political allegory in there somewhere. But it takes a backseat to all the zombie dispatching. This is destined to be a cult classic. At least in Cuba.
For a movie to succeed in midnight madness, it doesn’t have to be good. In fact, that could be seen as a detriment. Citizen Kane would bomb in midnight madness. Instead, it just has to give the people what they want. Namely, some good scares, a couple awesome kills and maybe a laugh or two (preferably of the macabre variety). That’s it. Exhibit A: this film, about a group of aspiring rockers whose day job cooking for the inmates of an asylum for the criminally insane isn’t nearly as dangerous as it sounds. That is, until the power goes out, the guards all get killed and they have to fend for themselves. Is it the next great horror film? Not at all. The acting is stiff, the setup takes too long and the characters aren’t exactly vivid. But it gives you plenty of opportunities to yell at the screen. And that’s really all we ask.
Apparently, I’m a Philistine. Because my favorite film at this year’s festival is a big studio comedy with lots of Hollywood stars in it. 50/50 follows an affable editor played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who learns he has cancer and begins to fight the disease with the support of his best friend (Seth Rogen), his young therapist-in-training (Anna Kendrick), his mom (Anjelica Huston) and his fellow chemotherapy patients (Philip Baker Hall and Max Headroom). And, somehow, after the discovery of his disease, the movie becomes funnier. Rogen, in particular, is great as the guy who always knows just the wrong thing to say. In other words, he plays Seth Rogen. And Anna Kendrick does what she does. The film actually has all the conventions of a romantic comedy. But with potentially terminal cancer thrown in the mix. As the saying goes, “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry”. Or, if you’re like me, “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry so uncontrollably you have to apologize to the people around you with a giant snot bubble coming out your nose”.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Manassas Tigers have been the whipping boys of their inner-city Memphis football league. Then, an inspirational coach shows up from the suburbs. Followed by a documentary film crew. And Harvey Weinstein. Not surprisingly, it all leads to a broad, crowd-pleasing film. Think The Blind Side. But with lower production values. Trouble is, the directors are so busy trying to tug our heartstrings that they forget to paint the players or coaches as real people. There’s just not a lot of insight. Instead, we get motivational speeches. Lots of them. And if you know anything about football coaches, you know they only speak in clichés (“Football doesn’t build character, it reveals character”). Sure, there are some big, emotional moments. But those are more a product of the subject matter than any great skill on the part of the directors or editors.
In this Korean thriller, a collection agent discovers he needs a kidney transplant. So, he goes about tracking one down the same way he’d track down a bad debt. You see, years before, his young son died and donated his organs. Now, he wants at least one of them back. To help in his search, he enlists the help of a recently paroled con artist. Who has an agenda of her own. But she also has two different very angry groups after her. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. But it’s also not as interesting. There are a couple good action scenes and some black humor. Unfortunately, it’s at least 20 minutes too long with a backstory that adds nothing. Plus, it has at least two more endings than Return of the King. The best part about the whole movie was watching the predominantly Asian crowd go apeshit when they introduced the cast. Apparently, the main actor is the Korean George Clooney (as opposed to the Hawaiian George Clooney I saw in The Descendants).
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
Whit Stillman (Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) is back after a 13 year absence. And he still seems to think young people are much smarter than they really are. In this film, he follows a group of overly articulate college girls who make it their mission to elevate their fellow classmates. Usually in the most condescending way possible. There are some great running gags (students considered suicide risks are treated with donuts and tap dance routines). and the dialogue is frequently hilarious. The film is at its best in the first 30 minutes or so as it establishes the characters. Once it settles into a fairly standard narrative, it gets a lot less funny. Especially when the funniest of the girls (Greta Gerwig) goes into a funk and stops talking after a fight with her boyfriend (she only likes him because he’s dumb and impressionable). But it all comes around at the end with one last dance number.
THE MOTH DIARIES
How do you screw up a vampire movie set at an all-girls boarding school? Ask Mary Harron (American Psycho). ‘Cuz she screwed it up real bad. In this gothic tale, we follow Rebecca, a student trying to move on with her life after the suicide of her poet father. But when a tall, pale new student comes between her and her best friend, Rebecca starts to suspect that the new kid might, in fact, be a vampire. Clearly, Harron is trying to capture the confusion of adolescence. Your body is changing, your emotions are charged, there’s moths flying around all over the place. I get it. But it’s all done in such a lame, undercooked way, it makes the Twilight movies look like Let The Right One In.
PAUL WILLIAMS: STILL ALIVE
It’s hard to remember now, but in the 70s, Paul Williams was everywhere. He wrote and performed some of the biggest songs of the decade (Evergreen, Rainbow Connection). He appeared on countless talk shows, in movies (Smokey and the Bandit) and game shows. But then, like so many celebrities of that era, he started abusing drugs and alcohol. Most people assume he died soon after. Including the director of this documentary. But once he discovered that Paul Williams is still alive, he set out to catch up with him. Thankfully, Paul was a willing subject. Because what follows is a joyous, funny, life-affirming journey. We see footage of his glory years on Johnny Carson, juxtaposed with his current gigs, at conventions and hotel lounges. We even join him on a treacherous bus trip into the terrorist-filled jungles of the Philippines where, apparently, he’s still a big star. All of this could be depressing if Paul seemed depressed about it. But he doesn’t. He’s just happy to have someone along for the ride. Which forces the director to insert himself into the film more than he’d probably like. This could usually be seen as self-serving and indulgent. But, in this case, it just comes across as two friends hanging out together.
JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME
In the latest from indie darlings the Duplass brothers (Cyrus), Jason Segel plays a 30-year-old man who lives in his mom’s basement, patiently waiting for the universe to give him a sign of what he should be doing with his life. Trouble is, he sees signs in everything, from infomercials to wrong numbers to delivery trucks. When he finally does get out of the house, to make a Home Depot run for his mom (Susan Sarandon) and track down his brother’s (Ed Helms) possibly unfaithful wife (Judy Greer), fate finally intervenes and reveals his destiny. Or, is it just another false alarm? It’s a fun little comedy helped immeasurably by great casting. Which leads to a fun little game. Think of actors there’s really not a suitable replacement for. As in, if you can’t get Jason Segel to play the lumbering doofus with a heart of gold, who do you get?
Toward the end of the festival’s second week, your choices get a lot more limited. So, if you’re not careful, you can find yourself in a Nicolas Cage flick. In this one, he plays a seemingly successful businessman whose mansion is invaded by some thugs, one of whom may or may not know his wife (Nicole Kidman). We know this because they share a knowing glance. Then, another. And another. And finally, a slow-motion knowing glance. Clearly, the director (Joel Schumacher) doesn’t believe in subtlety. As a result, the entire film is pitched way too high. It’s basically 90-minutes of people yelling at each other. There’s no buildups. Or lulls. Every scene seems exactly the same. And yes, Nicolas Cage remains the Kobayashi of chewing scenery. In fact, by the end of the film, there’s nothing left in the mansion. Cage ate it all.
In this midnight madness flick, a ragtag group of survivors wander the post-apocalyptic countryside and get in touch with their feelings. Now, don’t get me wrong, character studies are all well and good. But not at midnight. And not with trite, clichéd dialogue and horrific acting. Seriously, these clowns (including Dominic Monaghan from Lost) make the cast of Entourage look like the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross. The film builds to a showdown in an abandoned country home. One that’s shot at night. With a shaky cam. I’m still not entirely sure what happened. But I think a couple people might’ve died. There’s really no way of knowing. Just an unmitigated disaster from start to finish.