Thursday, September 17, 2009

TIFF Day # 8: High Life, Mother, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done? and Cleanflix

So today, on my second last day of the film festival, I saw four movies stretched out over 12 hours. It was more relaxing than many of the days, as I had more time between my screenings, which allowed more time to unwind and eat, and also do something other than run from movie to movie. Tomorrow, where I will see five movies over 14 hours, I will not have that luxury.

But onto the movies themselves. I started out the day with a pleasant surprise in Gary Yates High Life (***) a Canadian crime dramedy that was actually very well made, acted and written. I try to see a couple of Canadian films by directors I don’t know every festival - if I don’t watch Canadian films, who else will? - and have almost always walked away disappointed, so my expectations were low. But from the first scene in High Life - set to Three Dog’s Night “Mama Told Me Not to Come”, I knew this would be different. Director Yates has obviously studying his Tarantino and Scorsese, as his camera is always movie, always probing into the lives of his screwed up characters. The film centers on four “friends”, who are all morphine addicts in 1983 Winnipeg, who decide to go for one big score - ripping off those new fangled ATM machines they see everywhere. Billy (Rossif Sutherland) is the pretty boy front man - the only one anyone is going to see. Donnie (Joe Anderson) is the brains who has the technical know how to help pull off the scam. Bug (Stephen Eric McIntyre) is a psychopath who cannot be controlled. And Dick (Timothy Olyphant) is the leader, trying to hold everyone else together. The four performances at the heart of the movie (and this, in essence, a four character piece)) are all wonderful, and Yates energetic direction makes up for some of the movies more obvious story lapses. After the movie was over, it was revealed in the Q&A that the film was based on a play that took place entirely in Dick’s apartment, and car, and that the filmmakers wanted to “open up” the play to make it more cinematic. While this certainly does allow for more directorial flourishes, and excitement, it is also the weakness in the film, as it’s when these characters are talking - not shooting - that this movie really shines. High Life certainly does not reinvent the wheel or anything, but it was a fun, energetic way to start off the day.

Next up was the day’s best film, Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (****) which is part psychological thriller, part family drama and part pitch black comedy - all three elements are handled amazingly well by Bong. Kim Hye-ja gives one of the best performances I have seen at the festival as the mother of a mildly retarded grown up who is accused of murdering a high school girl. She is determined to prove her son’s innocence, and starts investigating the crime herself, after the police illicit a confession out of her son under questionable circumstances, and then close the case. The lengths she will go to protect her son in this film are extreme, but Hye-ja grounds the movie by making her over protective, damaged mother completely believable. The film also features one of the most unique color palettes of any movie this year. Bong, already the director of two masterworks - Memories of Murder and The Host - has made perhaps his best film to date with this one. This is Korea’s selection for its submission to the Academy Awards for best foreign language film, and I hope that it at least gets nominated. And while I know it will never happen, Hye-ja should be nominated as well.

The next film is probably my biggest disappointment of the festival. As a huge fan of the weirdness of both David Lynch and Werner Herzog (and coming off of Herzog’s great Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans on Tuesday), I was very much looking forward to Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (**) that Lynch produced. I expected the film to be weird, which it certainly was, but I also expected that the collaboration between these two would result in something brilliant, which it did not. Michael Shannon plays a classic Herzog type character - a man has traveled to the jungles of Peru, and come back damaged, obsessive and ranting about God. The movie opens when the body of Shannon murders his mother at the house of neighbor with a sword, and then returns home and tells the police when they arrive (led by an untypically subdued, straight laced Willem Dafoe) that he has two hostages, so they better stay out. But most of the movie is told in flashback as Shannon’s fiancĂ©e (Chloe Sevigny) and friend (Udo Kier) talk about the months that led up to the murder. What starts out as an interesting puzzle, quickly descends into weirdness, with the great Grace Zabriskie reduced to playing an even more overprotective, overbearing mother than the one in Mother, to such a degree that is just unbelievable. Worse still, it becomes clear that neither Shannon nor Herzog really understand what makes their main character tick. Shannon covers well, giving a strange performance full of quirks and ticks, but underneath that there really is little to off. But the biggest problem is that the film is a really uneasy mixture between the compulsions of Herzog and the compulsions of Lynch, resulting in a strange hybrid that is likely to satisfy fans of neither director. The film is certainly watchable, and at times quite interesting, and as with any Herzog film it contains some very striking images - but the movie just never adds up to anything. I’m glad I saw it though, even if only because I now know that one eccentric, genius auteur per movie is enough. Any more, and you end up with this.

The day ended with my one and only documentary of the festival (how the hell did I allow that to happen?), Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi’s Cleanflix (***), a film about the rise and fall of the “edited movie” business in Utah. In 1986, the Mormon Prophet told his flock that they should not watch any R Rated movies, because they pollute the mind. Many Mormons seem to take this seriously, and so when a business opened in 2000 that sold movies that edited out all the gratuitous violence, swearing and nudity from R Rated Hollywood movies, business boomed. Unfortunately for them, the Director’s Guild of America - and some of its most powerful members - were none too impressed with the business, claiming - rightfully so - that these businesses had no right to edit their movies without their permission. A legal battle, that the DGA handily won, seemed to put an end to the industry, but then the stores starting up again, trying to use a loophole. As with any story like this, an interesting character becomes the focal point of the movie. In this case, it’s Daniel Thompson, who runs a video store that rents and sells edited videos. He is slightly egomaniacal, and loves to himself speak, and somehow always seems to be the person who ends up on the news. I liked the film’s first and second acts - where it concentrated more on the issue of editing movies and the legal battle that ensued (that does include some hilarious comparisons between the original and edited versions), as well as interviews with all the players involved - including customers, editors and filmmakers like Neil LaBute - over the last act that concentrates almost solely on Daniel. I followed the case when it was on the news a few years ago, but still had no idea how involved it all was. Directors Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi have made a straight ahead, no frills documentary that tells its story well. This is a must see for people interested in censorship.

And that’s it for today. Tomorrow, I am seeing five films - Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere, Drew Barrymore’s Whip It with Ellen Page, Christain Carion’s L’Affaire Farewell, Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass and Pen-el Ratanaruang’s Nymph. After that, it will be time to close the books on another addition of TIFF.

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