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SIMON SAYS: Best and Worst at the Toronto International Film Festival 2011

SIMON SAYS: Best and Worst at the Toronto International Film Festival 2011

By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor

Just got home from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Pretty exhausted. Saw 21 films in a week’s time — not bad, but not nearly as good as the 42 films I saw at Cannes. In any case, here’s a li’l rundown of the films I saw at the festival but did not write about for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, the super-duper fantastic outlet for whom I did most of my Toronto coverage. Pardon my brevity.

Alps: Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to Dogtooth is a more polished version of his earlier Kinetta. Like that film, Alps suggests that social interaction is nothing but a self-perpetuating kind of performance art governed by arbitrary but communally accepted rules. Lanthimos’ playful mise-en-scène and bitterly dark sense of humor makes this almost as good as the virtuosic Dogtooth, but not quite. A.

Anonymous: I’m not sure if I’m going to review this at a later date, but just in case I do, I’ll only say this: ewwwwwww. F+.

Carré blanc: A new French sci-fi film with considerable buzz behind it. It’s an engaging and moving mishmash of themes that THX 1138 previously explored. Far too literal for its own good, but it’s short and sweet, if largely unambitious. B.

Chicken with Plums: Persepolis comic creator Marjane Satrapi collaborates again with Vincent Parronaud, co-director of the film adaptation, to create a vibrant melodrama that provides some fascinating insight into Satrapi’s shadow puppet/burlesque-style of drama. Mathieu Amalric stars as an unhappily married father of two determined to kill himself. After we watch this character stumble through a week of absurd trials and tribulations, we come to see how the ridiculous circumstances of the past have informed his present death wish. Chicken with Plums falls apart during its last ten minutes, but still, it’s a mostly warm and funny sophomore collaboration for Satrapi and Parronaud. B+.

God Bless America: Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait’s fifth directorial offering is being woefully misinterpreted as a black comedy that lauds its deranged protagonist’s actions. I find this frustrating, considering how often the director shows us that he likes his characters’ politics but does not respect their violent actions at all. A man with a victim complex (Mad Men’s Joel Murray) runs around, with a young teenage misanthrope in tow, killing people that he thinks deserve it. The murderous pair are self-righteous and precocious, but they’re not right because they kill people. Goldthwait’s venomous and barn-door-broad observations on the devolution of pop culture are infrequently hilarious (ex: the tampon gag). Wish there was more to it. B-.

Into the Abyss: Werner Herzog’s documentary about Michael Perry, a young Texan that was sentenced to the death penalty for his part in the murder of three people, is harrowing, but also features a number of the Austrian director’s idiosyncratic problems. Herzog’s pre-lethal injection visits are painful, but he tries too hard to structure his film around his observations of how we’re all trapped by time. Stil, pretty sharp for the most part. A-.

Kotoko: The 11th film I’ve seen by seminal Japanese horror/punk filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto is a characteristically stirring character study. The title character desperately tries to become comfortable with not knowing if she can protect both her child and herself from, uh, herself. It gets monotonous after a point, but Tsukamoto’s performance as a nebbish man that offers a supplementary target for Kotoko’s sadomasochistic impulses is veddy good indeed. B+.

Life Without Principle: It takes a while to get used to the radically different tone of Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To’s latest, but once it gets going, Life Without Principle becomes an absorbing neo-noir that mercilessly exploits the current global recession to create a story about gamblers of all stripes. Clever and sharp storytelling from To, a modern master of mood and pacing. A-.

Love and Bruises: Without showing any signs of improvement, Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye covers the same ground with the same exact emotional beats as he did in the superior Summer Palace and Spring Fever. Still, he does self-destructive romance well enough so, OK, fine, sure. C+.


Moneyball: Capote director Bennett Miller’s first film in six years is a very good underdog sports movie, though not much more. Screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian’s attempts to make Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) look like a dickish visionary are undermined by Miller’s impulse to keep the film grounded in formulaic storytelling tropes (all the transition shots of Pitt staring off into outer space are maddeningly rote). Once the A’s break a major sports record, the film becomes largely defined by clichés and bad melodrama. Jonah Hill gives a pretty strong breakout performance as the statistician who gave Beane his edge. B+.

Smuggler: Accomplished surrealist Katsuhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea, Funky Forest: The First Contact) pointlessly pays homage to and sometimes sends up Guy Ritchie with a gangster epic that is not nearly weird enough to be anything more than just disappointing. Is that one guy done up to look like Blacula? Yes, I think so. Why? I do not know. D.

You’re Next: According to film programmer Colin Geddes, director Adam Wingard (Popskull, A Horrible Way to Die) wanted to make a “Midnight Madness movie,” or a movie that would feel right at home at the wildly popular sidebar of contemporary horror films that Geddes programs every year for TIFF. As such, Wingard pored over other Midnight Madness movies in an attempt to crack some kind of secret Midnight Madness code. The result is You’re Next, a stupid but stylish slasher that revels in pointless violence. You don’t grow to like Wingard’s final girl, you just appreciate that she can fuck people’s shit up real good. Ugh, no mas. D.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.

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