Toronto International Film Festival 2009: Part 5

The end is nigh. Tomorrow, it’s one last film (Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done) and then it’s no TV for a month. 27 films in 8 days is pushing it, even for a genuine film fanatic such as myself. Plus: I can’t straighten my legs.

Highlights this week are clear: A Serious Man was my favourite, for sure, but I am predisposed to a certain reverence for anything those Coen Brothers do. Still, I do believe it’s their most rewarding film since The Big Lebowski. And, yes, I am including No Country for Old Men when I say that. Alongside it, Partir, The Disappearance of Alice Creed and I Am Love (see below) were both top flight films (for totally different reasons). Guy Maddin’s short Night Mayor was indelible and mysterious.The Road was good, but does not need to exist. Up in the Air was almost great. And, Jennifer’s Body was just plain awful. See you next year?

Cracks (dir. Jordan Scott, 2009)

After 80 minutes or so, what appears to be a perfectly pleasant (if a bit dull) coming of age tale turns so abruptly into something else that one’s head is given to spin. Where on earth did this come from? Set in a remote all-girls boarding school in 1930s England, seven teens practice diving under the watchful eye of an encouraging, modern, and poetic free spirit named Miss G (Eva Green, doing an Anne Hathaway impression). “The most important thing in life”, she counsels, “is desire”. But, before you can say Dead Poets Society, a new student appears: a beautiful Spanish countess (Maria Valverde) with the whiff of scandal following her across the sea. The erstwhile leader of the dive team (Juno Temple) is immediately jealous (especially after the new girl performs a complex dive, suggesting that all young women in the 1930s just happened to be adept at high dives, something that is news to me) and sets about a plot to destroy her. This would have made for an agreeable enough film, but all of a sudden Eva Green’s character begins to break apart, her armour showing (ahem) cracks. She is not who she says she is, you see. And, worse, she has fallen in love. Forbidden love. From then on, first-time director Jordan Scott (daughter of Sir Ridley) relies entirely on the goodwill of her audience as characters begin to do things she hasn’t prepared us for, culminating in shocking violence and frustrating ambiguity.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (dir. J. Blakeson, 2009)

This excellent thriller is worth every bit of your attention, but you may just have to trust me. You see, the movie opens with two men kidnapping a young woman, hauling her to a soundproof apartment, chaining her to a bed, and stripping her naked. But before you can spit and storm out of the theatre – I do not do “torture porn” – things get really interesting, and never look back. The complex script is tightly controlled, the performances are all note perfect, and the spare direction is astoundingly effective throughout. Set in two rooms for almost all of its brisk runtime, and involving only three actors, the film is alternately claustrophobic and revelatory. In the title role, Gemma Arterton (who is almost unrecognizable from her turn as bond girl in Quantum of Solace), gives an especially terrific and deeply brave performance, hinting at what’s underneath but refusing to give it away. Though nothing is sugar-coated, the film never descends into any celebration of violence, of the flesh, or of pain. Indeed, with each new surprise, every sudden twist, you just fall deeper under its sway. A smart, grown-up, black little movie, with among the most satisfying endings I’ve seen this year.

Suck (dir. Rob Stefaniuk, 2009)

Once more, without feeling. This story of a lousy rock band who become vampires to make it big is all formula all the time (see Jennifer’s Body for a similar storyline in the same festival!); as the band gets bigger, the guilt gets harder to bear. Billed as a vampire rock opera, this Canadian indie feature is way more rock than opera: featuring paper-thin characters, little emotion, and almost no subtext to speak of, it couldn’t be less slight. This wouldn’t be too big a deal if the music didn’t utterly… well, you know. Though it boasts cameos from certifiable rock gods Alex Lifeson, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins and Carole Pope, the schlocky pop-goth we have to endure every eight minutes or so only barely qualifies as rock. Jessica Paré makes the most out of her role, playing it alternately sexy and schoolgirl, but in the lead an inert, charisma-free Rob Stefaniuk (who also wrote and directed) is badly miscast. In support, Moby provides a wicked cameo, and Malcolm McDowell hams it up as the Van Helsing character. A few good jokes, a lot of lame ones (the idiot French Canadian lackey is borderline blackface comedy in terms of Canadian stereotyping), brutal music, zero sex, and literally no scares at all (none!) do not a vampire comedy rock film make. Plus, the whole “I gave you the ultimate gift: immortality” speech does not need to be in every vampire movie, OK? Enough.

Whip It (dir. Drew Barrymore, 2009)

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is a mostly feminist coming of age sports flick by way of the Suicide Girls. Starring an array of top-flight female talent (Ellen Page, Barrymore, Kirsten Wiig, Juliette Lewis, and Marcia Gay Hardin) and riding a can’t-fail grrl-power premise — a teenager refuses the stuffy anachronism of beauty pageants and escapes to the sexy, empowering world of roller derbies — this film is sure to delight many audiences. Though it suffers from one, fairly fatal, flaw in my feminist reading – the disorganized and flighty team never wins until they start listening to their male coach, suggesting (probably accidentally) that they needed a clever man to get them organized and focused — there is indeed a raft of progressive gender politics underwriting much of the story. Barrymore proves a capable director – her sense of fun and eye for quirky detail are everywhere on display — but has no sense of timing. Over-long at 111 minutes (especially since plot isn’t exactly why we’re here), some scenes run on after they’ve done all they can, while others are clearly superfluous to the narrative. But, her biggest problem is the miscasting of a deeply unfunny Jimmy Fallon as the announcer at the derby. He is effectively the narrator for every major action scene, and yet all he does is irritate. Ultimately, this is a mindlessly amusing popcorn flick, and maybe that’s all it wanted to be. But, with its hints of subversion, and a dynamite cast, it could have been so much more.

I Am Love (dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2009)

So, apparently Tilda Swinton can do anything. Speaking in both Italian and Russian (but never her native tongue), Swinton gives an exemplary performance in this Visconti-esque tragedy. A family of latter-day Milanese aristocrats teeters on the brink of modernity – the elderly grandfather who started their hugely successful textile company is set to retire, and with his departure the sun will set on the old ways. Director Luca Guadagnino explores the collision of an individualistic modernity with a familial past through the lens of class and sexual politics – suddenly, steamy affairs between the bejeweled wealthy and the under-shirted help spring up, homosexuality rears its head, and painting is eschewed for photography. The “just so” of the past becomes the complexity of the present and future, an unexpected baby on the way a metaphor for this relentless continuance. It all works very well under the steady, if at times seriously pushy, eye of Guadagnino. The cinematography is astounding, the music utterly mesmerizing, and a love scene all cut through with shots of bugs in the sun-dappled fields is worth the price of admission alone. The title still confounds me – love seems the least likely of the culprits behind the series of tragedies that befall this family over the two hour run-time – but, that’s art I guess. Frankly, this was such a vast, fascinating, and enveloping bit of cinema it could have been called Whip It (or maybe even Suck).and it still would have worked.