TIFF Review: Coriolanus

Coriolanus (2011, directed by Ralph Fiennes)

Never let it be said that Ralph Fiennes half-asses anything.

For his directorial debut, Fiennes figured it wasn't enough to bring one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays to the big screen for the first time. Nope, that's not enough of a challenge. He also had to star in it, modernize it and stock it full of machine guns and media saturation, and go toe-to-toe with Vanessa Redgrave. Oh, and what the hell, let's prove to the world that Gerard Butler is a damn fine actor to boot.

If you don't know the play, there's probably a reason for that. It's not among Shakespeare's best: a Roman general is despised by the people for his heavy-handed methods of suppressing dissent but lionized for his victories against foreign enemies. When he returns in triumph and is put forward as consul, a couple of senators conspire against him and get him exiled, whereupon he joins up with his bitterest foe to take his revenge on the city and the people that rejected him. There's some dramatic meat on those bones, but what themes there are scuttling below the surface don't exactly carry the weight of a Lear or Hamlet.

At the same time though, picking a lesser-known play gives Fiennes as blank a slate as you can get for doing the Bard, and as an actor he takes full advantage. His Coriolanus is a military genius but politically tone-deaf, a pure bullet of a man who knows only one speed and one direction in which to live his life. As with all Shakespearean heroes his strengths and weaknesses are but two sides of the same coin, and both lead inexorably to his downfall.

The rest of the cast is hit and miss, although mostly hit. Redgrave is of course magnificent as Coriolanus' mother, Brian Cox is his typical gravelly self as his senatorial mentor, and Jekyll's James Nesbitt proves surprisingly adept as one of the schemers who turns the city against him. But the massive surprise is Butler as Aufidius, Coriolanus' sworn enemy and eventual patron. Making no attempt whatsoever to hide his Scottish accent, Butler dives into his role with a fury, matching Fiennes blow for blow and line for line in the early scenes and deftly planting the seeds for their eventual mutual respect and alliance. 300 may have made Butler a star, but this is the film that establishes him as an actor to be reckoned with.
Of the principal cast only Jessica Chastain comes up short, but to be fair she doesn't exactly have much to do as Coriolanus' wife.

Seriously though, if Butler doesn't do Macbeth sometime in the next 10 years or so where I can see it, I will never forgive him.

Fiennes' casting instincts might be superb, but his directing skills are still fairly rough. The modernization is interesting, but this is not McKellan's Richard III. It allows Fiennes to stage some suitably chaotic war scenes, have pundits spit out couplets as sound bites and add some pretty good running gags (the Roman news network is called 'Fidelis'), but in the end Coriolanus and Aufidius still have a knife fight, and winning the job of consul still involves pressing the flesh in an open air market. It comes off not so much as a 'the more things change' commentary as it does the screenplay running out of ideas on how to update some of the scenes. Fiennes leans too heavily on some shots, as basically every speech of the slightest length (especially his own) in tight close-up, and a few too many people walk away from the camera, out of focus and into a pool of light.

None of the problems are major though. Coriolanus is a solid debut for Fiennes behind the camera, a coming out party for Butler as a Serious Actor, and a fairly ripping good yarn. Any one of those is reason enough to go see it.

TIFF Review: The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best

The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best (2011, directed Ryan O'Nan)

Alex isn't having the best week of his life. The douchey wannabe rocker he's stuck in a duo with cuts him loose after lecturing Alex on how his lonely indie-folk ballads aren't as autobiographical as his own sub-Ozzy-esque werewolf ditties. He gets fired from his job as a musical moose who sings at schools, after he beats up a special needs student. In self-defense, of course. Oh, and he's still obsessively carrying around the Dear John letter he just received from the love of his life.

What better time to form a new band with Jim, the deranged lunatic who punches him in the park, and go on a cross-country tour while jammed into the front seat of the lunatic's grandpa's barely functioning orange '80s VW Rabbit?

To say the movie is twee wouldn't be to do it justice. Alex's dark acoustic musings get mashed together with Jim's collection of toy instruments to form a sound described in the film as "the Shins meets Sesame Street." Naturally they're a hit (if you define 'hit' as 'barely making enough money to pay for gas and food') and quickly get joined by Cassidy, the tough-exteriored girl who's doing the booking on their first gig and decides on a whim to split Pennsylvania and become their manager. Whimsical shenanigans ensue as the duo spar from coast to coast and Alex and Cassidy start to fall for each other, until things inevitably splinter apart and then pull back together in a heartwarming, quirky finale.

If I sound like I'm shitting all over the movie, I don't mean to. It's relentlessly formula, sure, but there's nothing wrong with formula when it's well done, and Brooklyn Brothers has enough humor and charm to get through it's weaker moments. It also has an ace in the hole: a parade of cameos and supporting performances from a bizarre array of recognizable faces. Wilmer Valderrama, Christopher McDonald, Melissa Leo, and Andrew McCarthy as Alex's resolutely Christian older brother all lend their chops to the production and give it a little necessary pep.

Really, whether you can even tolerate the film or not depends on how well you can handle the music. If you can imagine Jonathan Coulton cutting an album entirely of his more 'serious' numbers, with Fischer-Price sponsoring the tour, you've got some idea of what to expect. If that has you clawing at your ears and running for the hills, give this one a miss. If that sounds kinda cute, then Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best is the film for you.

TIFF Review: You're Next

You're Next (2011, directed by Adam Wingard)

Some scenes are universal. A family gets together for their parents' anniversary, and immediately falls into old patterns. The two older brothers squabble over nothing, the baby girl beams at daddy, the youngest brother broods in the corner. Their various significant others watch on with varying degrees of concern and amusement at the whole scene while the folks try to maintain some semblance of peace during their big night. And then of course the inevitable crossbow blot shatters a window and catches somebody in the forehead...

Wait, what?

A home invasion film that both embraces and defies convention, You're Next is a more than worthy follow-up to Wingard's A Horrible Way To Die, another film that took some delight in not going where you might expect it to. Bloody as all hell, the film stacks up bodies like cord wood as the invaders discover that their victims aren't quite as hapless as they planned. It's also got a vicious sense of humor, which spills out in the form of some ridiculous lines of dialogue and the survivors' reliance of home defense techniques stolen directly from Macaulay Culkin's bag of tricks, albeit leaning more towards axes than cans of paint. And while AJ Bowen is his usual effortlessly awesome self, and Stuart Gordon's favorite scream queen Barbara Cramptom is tremendous as the family matriarch, it's Sharni Vinson as Bowen's Aussie girlfriend Erin who totally steals the show.

It's not a perfect film. Joe Swanberg, the weak acting link in Horrible Way To Die, is still a half beat out of synch in this one. And the opening sequence in which some inconvenient neighbors get offed tries to be a Scream-level table-setter but falls flat, mainly due to the fact we never really see the victims showing any fear or terror.

But once that crossbow bolts shatters the night, it's pretty much balls to the way straight to the finish line. If you're tired of pretentious, misanthropic twaddle like Funny Games messing up the good clean fun of the home invasion genre, You're Next is a hell of an antidote.

TIFF Review: Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse (2011, directed by Frederick Wiseman)

If you've seen a Wiseman doc before, you probably know what you're getting into. His style is verite and he does it extremely well, "simply" pointing a camera at his subjects and letting their lives provide any sort of narrative. There's very little that's truly simple about his films though. In lesser hands that form of documentary can be deadly dull, but Wiseman's ability to construct exquisite images, and find rhythms through the editing process, sets his work far above many of his peers.

Which is why Crazy Horse, in many ways, caught me by surprise. In portraying subjects already used to scrutiny, Wiseman made some interesting changes to his usual style, and I'm still not sure whether they were for the better.

If you don't know, the Crazy Horse is Paris' most revered burlesque venue, a club that for decades has been dedicated to the admiration of the feminine form. What that means is that the film is, shall we say, very casual about its use of nekkidness. There are reasonably hot naked and partially naked women on screen for probably a quarter or a third of the film's running time - women rehearsing routines, performing routines, or just hanging out backstage. For that reason alone, this is easily Wiseman's most "mainstream" film. To his credit though, the camera doesn't do any ogling. Wiseman, as always, is worried about the composition of his images and not in turning on his audience, but frankly the ladies of Crazy Horse don't need any help in that department anyway.

As performers though, most of the people in the film are used to being watched, and while there's no sense that anyone is performing per se their comfort level in front of the camera, and their awareness of it, is a sharp contrast to any of Wiseman's previous films that I've seen. He also, for lack of a better word, cheats. In something like Boxing Gym he makes no attempt to explain to the audience who his subjects are or what they are doing, and offers no summations. Meaning comes purely from observation. In Crazy Horse though he actually lets the staff of the Crazy Horse explain themselves by filming them being interviewed by other journalists. It's kind of a jarring intrusion, almost talking heads by proxy, and I'm not sure it should have been in the film. Media attention is surely part of their lives, but I have to think there could have been more organic ways to portray that fact.

That nitpick aside, Crazy Horse is for the most part pure spectacle. Many of the routines, even in rehearsal, and filmed in a fairly tight shot and surrounded by nothing but darkness, effortlessly giving the audience the illusion that are actually in the club and not watching a film about the club. There is a rope suspension routine near the end of the doc that might be the best primer on the appeal and eroticism of bondage play ever put to film. And when Wiseman does open things up, such as scenes where he cuts back and forth between a routine itself and other dancers watching the routine backstage and commenting on it, he brilliantly reveals the personal dynamics of the troupe, simultaneously supportive and competitive.

Perhaps my favorite moment in the film comes when the dancers are simply hanging out and watching an old video of Russian ballet bloopers. At no point does anyone say "I wanted to be a ballerina when I was growing up, and now I'm here instead". No one mourns wistfully about the road not taken. The girls are all having a good time, laughing at clumsy lifts and jetes that wind up entangled in the scenery, but it also makes perfectly clear that whatever you see them as, they all still see themselves as dancers. It's a lovely, subtle moment, and the bittersweet echo of Wiseman's previous film La Danse can't be mere happenstance.

If anyone sees this just to watch the hot naked burlesque chicks, I kind of pity them. It's an excellent film, period. You shouldn't need another justification to seek it out.

TIFF Review: Juan of the Dead

Juan of the Dead (2011, directed by Alejandro Brugues)

Shaun, Juan... I can hardly wait for Siobhan of the Dead, where beautiful Irish lasses fight zombies in slow motion to the haunting strains of Sinead O'Connor and Cranberries tunes. I suppose somebody's already working on Han of the Dead, where zombies invade a Comic-Con-like gathering of geeks. How about Von of the Dead, where a retired baseball player battles zombie Phillie fans?

Anyway, Juan of the Dead is an amusing little trifle. The titular Juan scratches out a living in Havana running whatever schemes he can to get by, and trying to make amends with his daughter Camila, recently returned from Spain. When folks start acting oddly and trying to eat people due to a batch of expired pharmaceuticals, Juan and his motley crew of friends try to exploit the situation by charging for their zom... excuse me, "dissident"-elimination services. The usual mayhem ensues, to a seductive salsa beat.

As zombie movies go, Juan of the Dead isn't up the level you'd expect from a North American feature. The make-up is no great shakes, the actors clearly have had no fight training whatsoever, and the film-making in general is a little rough. But what it lacks in polish it (almost) makes up in charm. The token political message (that the government denies anything is really wrong, and that the disturbances in the streets are being caused by Yankee-backed dissidents) makes for a good running joke, and the script is versed in the classics well enough to introduce a character who "kicks ass for the Lord" and then promptly gets accidentally offed, as well as the creation of a jury-rigged zombie-killing car that lacked only Raimi's hyperzooms to be a full-on Army of Darkness homage. A couple of the kills, particularly a truck-mounted harpoon that leads to the decapitation of a whole mob of zombies, are inventive too. It's also extremely cool to see a film like this actually shot in Havana in all its fading, run-down glory - I don't know how they got permission to shoot this, and don't want to know. The city is very nearly a zombie itself at this point, and an important character in the film in its own right.

The words that came to mind while watching Juan were things like "cute" and "endearing", even considering the presence of a comic relief sidekick who goes way beyond 'clumsily gross' and into 'why do they keep this useless disgusting pig around anyway?' territory. It's a fun, entertaining little time-waster.

Seriously though, Han of the Dead. If no one is making it right this second, I'm both deeply disappointed and calling dibs.

TIFF Review: Keyhole

Keyhole (2011, directed by Guy Maddin)

I love Guy Maddin. L-O-V-E love. A walk down Main Street love. An apple that's so sweet love. Maddin's highly specific, highly weird aesthetic is harmoniously sympatico with my own, and his fantasies have never failed to enchant and transport me.

Which is why this is one of the hardest reviews I've ever had to write, because Keyhole in a train wreck.

The plot is only a little more inscrutable than normal from Maddin. Ulysses Pick (played by a mostly somnambulant Jason Patric), a Prohibition-era gangster, has returned home with his mob after a long absence with the intention of reconciling with his wife Hyacinth, played by (of course) Isabella Rossellini. That's easier said than done though, as Ulysses' memories are fragmented, the house is haunted and every door is locked. As he makes his way laboriously through the house unlocking every door (both literal and figurative) his gang grows restless and odd dangers mount.

As a spin on the Odyssey, Keyhole contains all of Maddin's usual weirdness. What it doesn't contain is his usual humor or vitality. I don't know whether it was because he was shooting on DV instead of his beloved old-timey hand-cranked cameras, or because the script didn't really seem to know what to do with the source material, but the Maddin magic is almost completely lacking. The whole thing is just a sodden, turgid, dreary mess, and only occasional appearances by Udo Kier put any pep in its step at all. In previous films, Maddin would sense when things were getting too heavy and cut to a shot of people in ethnically stereotypical costumes sliding into a giant vat of beer, or toss in some ridiculous line about frisky reindeer, to remind you that his primary goal was still to entertain you. There are no giant vats of beer or frisky reindeer in Keyhole, and the moments that seem thrown in for that cathartic comic relief sink like a stone. There's even another Kid in the Hall in this one, but where Mark McKinney delivered a terrific performance in Saddest Music, Kevin McDonald is wasted here, barely getting three words in before becoming pure, and not terribly funny, physical shtick.

I wish I could point the finger at the score, which is just a heavy droning awful thing that never gives you a chance to swim to the surface, but I can't. The script isn't up to George Toles' usual standards, the editing is weak, the direction is unfocused... the whole thing is just a mess.

I'm praying this is just a blip, that it was just a troubled production on something that held Maddin back, and that he'll bounce back with his next film. The alternative explanation, that Maddin just entered the twilight of his career with a sickening thud, is too monstrously depressing to think about.

TIFF Review: God Bless America

God Bless America (2011, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait)

Holy crap.

I mean this in the best possible way... how the fuck did this movie get made?

Frank is a decent but down-on-his-luck schmuck, suffering from chronic migraines and the miserable mean-spiritedness of modern America. Divorced, fired from his job for sexual harassment after a misguided but well-meaning gesture, and diagnosed with a brain tumor, Frank considers suicide until he sees a little too much of his own daughter in Chloe, the horrifically bratty star of a reality TV show. Figuring he's got nothing to lose, he tracks down and kills the brat as a way to strike one final blow against the douchification of the country. When he's spotted by Roxy, the Alice Cooper-worshipping schoolmate of Chloe's who hates even more people than he does, the two set off on a road trip killing spree to rid the US of A of every A-hole they can find.

While God Bless America could easily be just an unofficial prequel to Mike Judge's sadly bowdlerized Idiocracy, there's a little more going on here than just lampooning the most vacuous depths of the pop culture scene. The nods to Taxi Driver and Network in the film don't show up by accident. The film isn't just making fun of stupidity, it's judging it, and then acting as a cathartic jury and executioner to boot. The really amazing thing about God Bless America, for me, is that it never went quite where I expected it to. Frank and Roxy's relationship never strays (much) beyond platonic, and there's no "they get idolized in the media as famous killers and become the thing they hate" denouement. There's even very little indication that Frank and Roxy are conflicted by their actions, or worried that murder might not be the best answer for people who are "uncivilized". (In that, the film couldn't be more true-blue American if it tried.)

Instead the movie spends its time getting to know Frank and Roxy, and giving the actors a chance to shine. Joey Murray, best-known as Freddy on Mad Men, is phenomenal as the harried schlub at the end of his rope, while Tara Lynne Barr isn't quite as good but still turns in a solid performance as the sweetly manic Roxy. Given that's it's her debut (her credits to this point are little more than a smattering of guest spots on shows like the Suite Life of Zack and Cody) it's a pretty terrific piece of work from someone who's still a teenager herself. The world needs more ingenues capable of being at least slightly deranged, right?

As good as they are though, the acting is more than matched by the direction. Goldthwait continues to improve by leaps and bounds as a director, and while his form of satire is a lot more visceral than, say, Chris Guest's, he's almost at the point where he can get honestly mentioned in the same breath. Bobcat's put himself on my list of directors whose next efforts I will watch, no questions asked.

From the opening dream sequence, in which a noisy baby gets shotgunned like a blood-filled skeet, to the final massacre at a live American Ido... err, Superstars taping, God Bless America is pure delightful fun, if your idea of pure delightful fun is watching small, shabby, emotionally-stunted fucktards getting slaughtered in large numbers.

TIFF Review: 50/50

50/50 (2011, directed by Jonathan Levine)

Dramedies so rarely work, it's a wonder they get made at all. The mix is a tough one to get right. If one element dominates the other seems forced, and if the two don't flow together organically the whole concoction comes out sour. It's like a bad mojito. Too much rum, or the wrong type of rum, and it becomes the kind of swill only a 15-year-old could pretend to love. Too little booze, and you might as well be drinking toothpaste-flavored water.

50/50 is a pretty smooth mojito, with a decent kick to it.

This is the part of the review where I describe the plot, so TalkBackers won't bitch about whether I actually saw the film or not and instead can bitch about spoilers. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a nice normal Seattlite who does pieces on volcanos for public radio that no one much wants to listen to. Things are inching towards getting serious with his sexy artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), and everything seems blandly hunky-dory... until the back pain that's been bothering him turns out to be a rare, nasty form of cancer wrapped around his spinal column which leaves him with 50/50 odds of survival at best. As he gets rushed into chemo all his assumptions about his safe cozy life, and indeed his safe cozy self-image, are ripped apart and he's got to not only learn to survive, but learn to live.

If that sounds a bit trite it's because it very easily could have been. The plot too often opts for charcoal instead of pitch-black, and the direction from Levine doesn't take any risks (when Radiohead's High and Dry kicks in on the soundtrack after Adam finds out he's sick, I nearly groaned out loud. What, they couldn't get Nirvana's All Apologies?) But that provides a clean canvas on which an exceptionally talented cast can work. There aren't any scene-stealers here, because just about everyone is locked in from the get go: Anjelica Huston as the mom hiding her own pain beneath suffocating concern; Anna Kendrick as the novice therapist still trying to define her personal and professional boundaries; Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer (!) as Adam's fellow chemo patients... there are simply no weak links. No, not even Seth Rogan as the asshole best friend who sees Adam's cancer as a great way for them both to get laid. But good as they are, they're all just satellites in orbit around an incredibly grounded, funny, moving performance by Gordon-Levitt. In every single frame of film he's completely invested in his character, and the honesty in Adam's mounting frustration and fear and rage is what truly makes 50/50 work. It isn't an over-the-top histrionic performance (in other words, it isn't Oscar bait) but it is an exceptional one, and it's just another bit of proof that it's long past time Hollywood realizes that Gordon-Levitt belongs in the conversation when talking about the best actors of his generation.

50/50 isn't revolutionary, and it isn't as good as the modern reigning queen of the genre, Terms of Endearment (which it kind of foolishly name-drops). But it's a hell of a lot better than it could have been, and there are moments on both the comedy and drama sides that stick with you for a bit after the credits roll. There's not much more you could ask for from a moji... err, a dramedy.