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TIFF 36 Four: Friends with Kids, The Oranges, Americano, Damsels in Distress, Palin, Paradise Lost

TIFF 36 Four: Friends with Kids, The Oranges, Americano, Damsels in Distress, Palin, Paradise Lost

Meredith Brody runs the Scotiabank gamut from relationship dramedy Friends with Kids to the latest installment of doc Paradise Lost.

Who said “it’s better to burn out than fade away?” Neil Young, that’s who, and I’m only mildly embarrassed that, despite riffling through the 444-page Toronto catalogue daily, I only realized yesterday that the documentary Neil Young Life premiering tomorrow was directed by Jonathan Demme (or that Demme had another documentary in the program, I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful, about a Hurricane Katrina survivor); I’m either reading too fast or too slow.

I’m fading away before I burn out, tonight. I used to think I had a non-addictive personality merely because I didn’t abuse alcohol or drugs or cigarettes, but many years ago I came to terms with an addiction to culture, popular and less so, which bursts into full flame at irresistible culture buffets like TIFF. Today was overstuffed, and not at all the calm Gallic trilogy I anticipated yesterday night. A simple switching of two screenings — the putative 12:15 The Oranges (good cast: Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, asst’d TV kids, feature debut by Julian Farino, who has excellent episodic TV credits) with the 4:30 p.m. Damsels in Distress (the unique and idiosyncratic Whit Stillman’s return to feature directing after a 13-year hiatus) — throws my whole schedule awry.

I do see Mathieu Demy’s Americano, which sweetly uses footage from his mother Agnes Varda’s Documenteur, featuring himself, but the homage he pays to his father, Jacques Demy, in naming a character after Demy’s Lola, only serves to remind the viewer of the gap between that masterpiece and the slender Americano. Salma Hayek does have one fairly luscious striptease turn, but Anouk Aimee she isn’t.

Then, due to the imminent re-scheduled Damsels in Distress screening, I only catch a scant hour of Jean-Marc Vallee’s Café de Flore, not long enough either to fully engage with it or comprehend how its two separate narratives cohere.

I thought Damsels in Distress was going to suit me right down to the ground – four (or five) attractive, eccentric young ladies, speaking in a stylized patois all their (and Stillman’s) own, imposing their own wacky logic and sense of decorum on a mythical college campus, tap-dancing and musical numbers included? Instead I never connected with it, remaining more irritated than amused. I just read Gabe Klinger’s take on it from Venice for Sight and Sound’s blog, and I find myself wishing I’d seen the movie he did. Waiter, bring me whatever he’s having!

I segue haplessly, having missed too much of Philippe Garrel’s That Summer to feel like I’m getting the real reel thing, into Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids. Cynically I compare the opening close-ups of Adam Scott with hers: he’s craggy and shadowed, she’s spackled with makeup and lit as high as the aging Joan Crawford. Her script (longtime pals decide to have baby and share its raising w/out romantic or sexual commitment) has its moments – although I hate its repetitive trope of “She’s not upset” – cut to her being upset; “I won’t do X” – cut to X. It almost always gets its cheap laugh, but enough already. In grand romcom tradition, everybody has great apartments – even townhouses – in NY, and what they suffer are, well, the problems of rich people. In a strong cast, John Hamm is exceptionally good, but Westfeldt herself seems miscast.

I feel miscast my ownself by attending a slick commercial American comedy at an international film festival. Still I allow myself to go directly to The Oranges, another slick commercial film, though I feel with less of an obvious sheen on it than Friends with Kids. (My seatmate has the reverse impression. Taste, the great divider.) In one of those festival-scheduling coincidences, Alia Shawkat, who has grown up a lot since Arrested Development, who I just glimpsed in Damsels in Distress, has a juicy part in The Oranges (pun not really intended), as well as narrating the film. I assume there are members of the audience who think Hugh Laurie is an American.

Afterwards I fail to get in to The Awakening, a ghost story that I think will be classy because it stars Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, and Imelda Staunton, and is set in a provincial English boarding school. I hotfoot it over to the Industry Ticket Office for the first time and fail to get almost anything I’d be interested in for later, finally scoring a ticket for Sarah Palin – You Betcha!, by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill. I’m a fan of almost everything they’ve ever done, separately or together, but although this subject would seem to be shooting fish in a barrel, I don’t think they’ve come up with anything particularly fresh – or even stated their case clearly and compellingly. Compared with their best films, it’s mildly enjoyable, and will even look better on TV (it was made for British TV Channel 4), due to the dubious quality of some of the footage shot for other media. Programmer Thom Powers says it best: “She’s a crackpot.” (I would add the adjective “dangerous”.)

Now would be a good time to have a meal and go home, but while trying to score a ticket for a Chinese philosophical martial-arts epic, The Sword Identity, I’m given one for Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. Due partly to my friendship with Lisa Fancher, one of the four stalwarts of Save the West Memphis 3, I’ve not only seen the first two films but tried to understand the recent mystifying legal circus that freed Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley, while still deeming them guilty, thanks to something called the Alford Plea. Thie version we see premiering tonight ends with the news that 4 days after it was finished, the Three were freed. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who have followed the case for eighteen years – initially thinking they were making a one-shot movie about guilty thrillkillers – were summoned to Arkansas on short notice and filmed the final court hearings. Twelve minutes of additional footage will be added to the version showing at the upcoming New York Film Festival on October 10th and 11th, and airing in January 2012 on HBO.

I’m headed home fully half-an-hour earlier than I would be if I’d gotten into The Sword Identity, tra la. And I resolutely turn my footsteps away from the Winter Garden Theatre, only a few blocks south, where Livid, “a Pandora’s box of unspeakable horror,” to quote the catalogue, is about to play – in French! — to TIFF’s most vocal and enthusiastic audience. That way lies Midnight Madness.

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