Last year my second favorite film of the festival was TAKE THIS WALTZ by actor-turned-director Sarah Polley (you can read my review here). I was excited to kick off Day Two this year with Polley's documentary STORIES WE TELL, which not only elevates navel-gazing autobiography to something unique and special, but also (against all expectations) thematically fits in with the young filmmaker's two narrative features (AWAY WITH HER was her directorial debut).
Beyond the inevitable family secret Polley reveals, her doc paints a loving and insightful portrait of her mother and father's relationship... by gathering all of their friends, family members, and colleagues and asking them to provide a kind of collective memory of who they were and what they did. It's a fascinating approach that attempts to ferret out the truth without letting anyone's agenda or viewpoint dominate.
Is it successful? I guess you'd have to ask all the participants. But as an audience member I was both engaged and enthralled with the domestic dynamics on display. Polley has an artist's eye and ear for cinema, and a surprisingly egoless style that invites you into her intimate project rather than insist you care.
Whether this film will ever find distribution in the U.S. is a question (TAKE THIS WALTZ only played in Ann Arbor for a week), but if it does it is well worth your time to check it out.
THE WE AND THE I is probably the least Michel Gondry-like film I've ever seen Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) make. If you threw SCHOOL DAZE and DAZED & CONFUSED in a blender and hit puree you might get something akin to this shaggy dog indie.
It's the last day of school and a group of African-America teens ride the bus home to The Bronx. That's the plot. Period. Instead of a story we get chaotic displays of crushes, pranks, bullying, texting, ugly rumors, posturing, and feisty independence, as the kids try to figure out when to stay with the pack and when to break out on their own.
Playfully acted and loosely improvised by non-actors, Gondry's examination of high school peer pressure is energetic, amateurish, predictable and, on occasion, profound... delivering a final thirty minutes that makes up for the scattershot opening sixty.
Favorite TIFF banner: "From OMG to WTF!"
Helen Hunt Gets Very Very Naked
My third flick of the day was decided solely on my interest in the lead actor rather than the story. John Hawkes is one of those actors who has impressed me with everything he's done. From WINTER'S BONE to MARCY, MAE, MARTHA, MARLENE he has displayed an intensity and charisma that overwhelms the screen without stealing anyone else's thunder. He is an actor who is comfortable with stillness and quiet, understanding that if your performance has enough gravity, everything will be drawn to you.
With THE SESSIONS Hawkes once again shines, only this time it's in a role that doesn't rely on threat or menace but rather charm, wit, and decency.
Based on a true story, THE SESSIONS follows poet and journalist Mark O'Brien's quest to lose his virginity. The hitch is, this 38 year old man is confined for most of his life to an iron lung and is a devout Catholic.
Funny, sensitive, moving, and always engaging, Hawkes' remarkable portrayal is aided by terrific performances from William Macy (as his priest) and -much to my surprise- Helen Hunt as his sex therapist. While some might find Mark's sexual encounters uncomfortably candid, I was amazed by director Ben Lewin's ability to navigate the film's potentially titillating scenes with taste and tenderness. Don't miss this when it comes around.
The next films of the day took a decided detour into darker more genre territory with Don Coscarelli's (Phantasm) JOHN DIES IN THE END, and BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, which gives the great Toby Jones a rare leading role.
JOHN DIES IN THE END was originally a comedic horror novel by David Wong (well, actually, first it was a web serial) which told the story of two 20somethings that battle otherworldly demons courtesy a strange mind and time-altering drug known as Soy Sauce. Unfortunately, what was mostly amusing on the page is merely a big mess on the low budget screen. While there are some pleasures to be had --Paul Giamatti as a doubting reporter, an amusing series of phone calls from the future, a monster made of frozen meat-- the movie is chaotic cult-minded flick with low rent FX and a plot that struggles to keep track of itself.
For the first hour of the slow-burning BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO I was all in. Moody, claustrophobic, and unnerving, director Peter Strickland viscerally immerses you into the world of moviemaking - especially the environs of a low budget sound studio - to good creepy effect.
It's the 1970s and Jones plays Gilderoy, a sound mixer who has come to Italy to work on a giallo-style horror film (think Dario Argento). Lonely, pining for home, surrounded by macabre and menacing coworkers, and frustrated by how difficult it is to get reimbursed for his travel costs, Gilderoy starts to wonder what he's gotten himself into. This sends him on a kaleidoscopic journey where reality and cinema begin to blur.
Part Roman Polanski, part David Lynch, BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO scores high on atmosphere and surreal paranoia, but ultimately fails as the movie devolves into Lynch-inspired incoherence in its last half hour. The pay off is quite disappointing given what comes beforehand.
Capping off the day's half dozen screenings was Paul Thomas Anderson's (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) much anticipated THE MASTER.
Attending the public premiere, Anderso0n gave an incredibly short and perfunctory introduction then disappeared as soon as the film began. Since my review will be appearing in next week's paper let it suffice to say that this is, in my opinion, Anderson's least accomplished film. While Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are tremendous in their roles and there are a hand-full of spectacular scenes, the movie struggles to justify its existence, unspooling a story that repeats its ideas and themes over and over without building toward a meaningful conclusion. It's hard to understand how Anderson the screenwriter was willing to let Anderson the filmmaker shoot such a congenitally flawed script. It sure looks great though. I suspect The Master will be a film that's far more enjoyable to talk about than to witness.
TOMORROW: End Of Watch, Cloud Atlas, and twice the Viggo Mortensen.