Monday, September 14, 2009

TIFF Day # 5: A Serious Man, Survival of the Dead, The Road, Soul Kitchen & Partir

So it’s day five of the festival, but my first full day of movie watching. I effectively doubled my total number of movies seen at this year’s festival, going to five movies in one. It made for a very long, but rewarding day. I got in line for the first screening at 8 this morning, and got out of my last screening at 10 tonight, and that doesn’t include about three hours of travel time. Not that I’m complaining - I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The first film of the day was not only the best I saw today, but the best the festival has offered me so far. It is the latest film from the Coen brothers A Serious Man (****) and is another masterpiece from my favorite filmmaking brothers. It’s 1967 in Minnesota, and Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), cannot seem to catch a break. He gets no respect from his two children, has a wife who wants a divorce so she can marry a new age spouting friend of theirs, and his opportunity for tenure maybe in trouble because a student threatens to ruin his reputation, and someone has been sending anonymous letters bashing him to the tenure committee. Oh, and his idiot savant brother (Richard Kind), who has just come up with a way to win at cards, has moved into the house, and spends most of his time in the families one bathroom draining his cyst. The movie is a like a retelling of the Book of Job, with poor Larry struggling to maintain his faith in the midst of all the craziness around him. He goes to see three different rabbis in search of spiritual guidance - the young one who tells him simply to see God in all his surrounding (“I mean, just look at the parking lot, Larry!”), the middle aged one who tells him a loud winded, and pointless, story about a goy and his teeth, and the old one who will not even see him. I doubt the old guy would have been much help though, since when Larry’s son goes to see him after his bar mitzvah, he simply quotes Jefferson Airplane song lyrics to him. A Serious Man is at once one of the Coen’s funniest movies, and also one of their most quietly moving. We like Larry from the beginning of the movie, and continue to like him all the way through. It’s an amazing performance by Stuhlbarg, and the supporting cast - almost all of which come from Yiddish theater - are pitch perfect. I doubt this will be as crowd pleasing as last year’s underrated Burn After Reading, but this film is even better. Easily one of the very best films of the year.

Next up was George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead (***), which while undoubtedly being the weakest of Romero’s six zombie movies, is still a hell of a lot better than most American horror films. Picking up shortly after his last film, Diary of the Dead, left off, the movie follows a minor character from that movie Crocket (Alan Van Sprang), a rogue soldier, as he and three fellow AWOL Soldiers try to survive among the undead. Along the way, they meet a kid (Devon Bostock, from Atom Egoyan’s Adoration), who suggests they try Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware. The kid has seen an ad on the internet by Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh, also from Adoration) telling them how wonderful it is. What they do not know is that O’Flynn has been banished from the island by the powerful Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), because they disagreed about what to do with the undead. O’Flynn wanted to slaughter them all, but Muldoon wants to keep his kin alive, thinking one day there might be a cure. Once on the island, an all out clan war begins between the two families. The movie continues Romero’s tradition of mixing parable with gore (and yes, this film is extremely bloody, offering even more new ways to kill a zombie), but this time the parable itself is a little thin. Welsh’s over the top performance helps quite a bit (Romero says this is his version of William Wyler’s The Big Country, which I guess makes Welsh Burl Ives), and the movie remains undeniably interesting throughout - and contains one of the best closing images of the year - but as good as it was, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed.

After that came John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Road (****), which is a film I think I need to see again to fully digest. The cinematographer and production design in the movie are brilliant, perfectly capturing the barren, grey landscape McCarthy described America becoming after some sort of cataclysmic event. Viggo Mortenson delivers one of the best performances of the year as The Man, who along with his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee, also quite good), travel the desolate road in search of the coast, and they hope, salvation. Along the way they have to fight off starvation, and marauding gangs, many of whom have become cannibals out of desperation. Seen in flashback, Charlize Theron gives an excellent performance as The Man’s wife, helping to flesh out a character that was left mainly a mystery in the McCarthy novel. Other cameos - by Garret Dillahunt, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker and Michael K. Williams - also pack quite an emotional wallop given how little screen time each has. Best of all though is Robert Duvall, as an old man they come across in the road. Despite being on screen for no more than 10 minutes, Duvall gives one of the year’s best performances. Its type of performance that sometimes gets nominated for an Oscar despite the limited screen time. Hillcoat’s filmmaking is impeccable, the acting universally excellent, the score (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) memorable, without being overbearing. The film, like the novel, is very complex, so I think I need to see it again to determine just how good a film it is. Mortenson and Smit-McPhee also did a very memorable introduction to the film, getting booed for coming out in Habs memorabilia, but then they knew that was going to happen, right? Oh, and by the way, Viggo also cleared up that rumor that he was quitting acting - it ain't true! I am overjoyed because he's one of the best there is.

After the darkness of The Road, Faith Akin’s Soul Kitchen (***) was just about the perfect antidote. Akin is mainly known for his hard hitting dramas like Head On and The Edge of the Heaven, but said he needed a break from that sort of heavy storytelling, so decided to make something light. The result is the delightful Soul Kitchen, a comedy about a Greek man (Adam Bousdoukos, who also co-wrote the screenplay) living in Akin’s favorite haunt Hamburg who runs a restaurant that serves cheap food to a cheap clientele. Things change when his girlfriend moves to China, and he convinces a profane, but brilliant chef, to take over in the kitchen for him, and his friend’s band to play. All of a sudden, Soul Kitchen is a hot night spot, and he’s actually making money. Things get complicated when his brother gets out of jail, and brings some trouble with him, and an old school friend becomes determined to buy the place for his land development. Oh, and he throws his back out, making him have to hobble throughout most of the movie. Soul Kitchen is a lightweight entertainment to be sure, and one that goes on perhaps about 20 minutes too long for its own good, but is also a genuine crowd pleaser and perhaps the most fun I have had at any screening so far this year.

Last, I saw the French drama Partir (* 1/2) directed by Catherine Corsini, although now I kind of wish I had skipped it and just gone home a couple hours earlier. The film is about an affluent, middle aged woman (Kristen Scott Thomas) who falls in love with an ex-convict from Spain (Sergei Lopez), when he injures himself working at her house. This sexual attraction she feels for him is enough to make her abandon her two children, and her doctor husband (Yvan Attal), who is none too happy about it. Because the movie opens with a gunshot, and then one of the title cards that informs us that it is six months earlier, we know by the end of the movie, someone is going to get shot. But by the time we find out who, I was well past the point of caring. Scott Thomas’ character is supposed to be sympathetic - her affair meant to signify her throwing off the shackles of her boring, unsatisfying life and embracing love for the first time - but I couldn’t stop thinking of her as a spoiled, selfish brat of a middle aged woman. Scott Thomas gives the role her all, and she remains more comfortable in French than her native English, but the role is terrible. Lopez, so good as the bad guy in Pan’s Labyrinth and Dirty Pretty Things, is just not cut out for this kind of leading man role. Attal handles himself well, but while we were supposed to see him as the villain, I cannot say that he behaved all that badly given what Scott Thomas does to him. Her final act of the movie is one of the most selfish acts I can recall seeing in a movie. In short, I hated the movie.

So that’s it for Day 5. Tomorrow, there will be five more films - Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass, Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, Sean Bryne’s Midnight Madness feature The Loved Ones, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and finally Johnnie To’s latest Hong Kong action film Vengeance. While I may not have any tomorrow that I am absolutely dying to see, I do look forward to all five. See you then!

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