Director/Country/Time: Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan, 114 min.
Cast: Yoshio Harada, Kirin Kiki, Hiroshi Abe
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: No matter the culture, family reunions are a pain the ass
Noel's Take: Between this film, Rachel Getting Married and Summer Hours, it's been quite the fest for subtle dramas about the ties that bind until they sting. (And I haven't even seen the Desplechin film yet, which is reportedly in the same vein.) Kore-Eda's entry into the genre is maybe his most straightforward and accessible; it's like Ozu, but blunter. A family gathers for the anniversary of the eldest son's death, and over a day of eating, praying and chit-chat, a lot of old resentments and prejudices resurface. Unlike Rachel Getting Married, the conversation doesn't spill over into emotional or physical violence, which puts the Kore-Eda maybe slightly ahead of the Demme; but the Demme is also more stunning in style, and more emotionally overpowering. Still Walking is primarily meticulous in cataloguing how a family can smile at each other tea and then casually rip each other apart whenever someone leaves the room. Particularly noteworthy is the performance of Kirin Kiki as the sweet-faced matriarch, constantly making food or handing out gifts, while also making some of the most inadvertently cruel comments of anyone in the family. Still Walking is a movie about how family dynamics are often driven by perceived slights and miscommunicated expectations. It's also a movie about accumulated artifacts in old houses, and how the whole history of a family can be told in the books, trinkets, posters, clothes and utensils they never throw away. The clutter mysteriously assembles—a monument to regret.
Scott's Take: Someone on the message boards asked politely that we stop bringing up Ozu's Tokyo Story, but don't blame us on this one: It's all Kore-eda's fault. I'm taking nothing away from Ozu's film (which is in my all-time Top Five) by saying that Kore-eda complicates the tensions between the older and younger generations by making the seniors sometimes callous and obliviously hurtful and extending some compassion to their children, who are trying to make their own way in a different world. Kore-eda's script, while a bit too literal at times, is subtle in how it differentiates an ensemble of flawed yet sympathetic characters and also in how it hits the pressure points that exist in every family, but don't necessarily manifest themselves in conflict. 12 years after the death of one of their own, the family still can't mend the tear in the fabric; they not only grieve but also hold their lives against the potential of the deceased, which is infinitely more promising than the reality would likely have been. And yet for all its obvious strengths as a piece of writing and acting, Still Walking goes flat in the direction, forgoing any expressiveness for the look and feel of a TV movie. That it's set almost entirely in a single household makes it seem cramped and airless, and Kore-eda's one stab at poeticism (warning: symbolic butterfly) lands with a thud. Better direction and a few fewer endings, and this one might have been a masterpiece. Noel's Grade: A-; Scott's Grade: B
Director/Country/Time: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 105 min.
Cast: Arta Dobroshi, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione
Headline: When an Albanian in Belgium gets caught up in an immigration scam, her conscience puts her in peril.
Scott's Take: First a warning: If you haven't seen Lorna's Silence and intend to do so, it's probably best to just skip this capsule (and any other reviews or synopses), trust the Dardennes, and just experience the movie with a clean slate when Sony Classics releases it in 2009. And that warning speaks to the Dardennes' talent for burying exposition: What would normally be the basic premise of a movie becomes, in their hands, a series of revelations that they parcel out in due time. Here, Dobroshi plays an Albanian immigrant who has achieved legal status in Belgium by marrying a pathetic junkie (Renier); as the film opens, she's involved with a mafia outfit that's paying her to marry and legalize other immigrants. The only problem, of course, is that she's still wedded to Renier and he needs to get out of the way. Coming out of Cannes, the knock against Lorna's Silence is that the Dardennes are guilty of repeating themselves, since the plight of the poor and immigrant kind in their native Belgium has long been their stock-in-trade. It's hard to argue with that, except to say that the Dardennes continue to elucidate the high-stakes dilemmas of their characters with clarity and tension, and they still have the power to knock you on your ass. The ending of this film—as with the endings of La Promesse, L'Enfant, and The Son—is perfection. Grade: A-
Director/Country/Time: Ramin Bahrani, U.S.A, 91 min.
Cast: Souléymane Sy Savané, Red West
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Driving Mr. Cranky
Scott's Take: It still amazes me that Bahrani's previous feature, Chop Shop, is an American movie, since it covers a subculture—the body shops in the shadows of Shea Stadium—that seems foreign to this country and in a style that's more reminiscent of Italian neo-realism that anything contemporary Amerindies have to offer. His follow-up isn't as fresh and revelatory on that front, but Bahrani's concern with the American immigrant experience remains, as does his generous humor and resistance to sentimentality. It helps that he has a performer as magnetic as Savané, who brings unflagging (and often heartbreaking) optimism to the role of a Senegalese cab driver in Winston-Salem who drives around an irascible 70-year-old (Red West) and seems to make it his mission to cheer him up. The passenger offers Savané $1,000 to pick him up at his motel in two weeks' time, take him to a mountaintop in the Smokies, and leave him there to end his life. Though the plot has shades of Abbas Kiarostami's A Taste Of Cherry, Bahrani goes the conventional route by detailing the give and take between these two men and the painful understanding they have to reach with one another. What gives it distinction, beyond Savané's infectious personality, is the continued particularity of Bahrani's work: In his last three films alone, he's introduced us to a Pakistani street coffee vendor (Man Push Cart), a Latino orphan working in a black-market body shop (Chop Shop), and now a Senegalese cabbie. It's been nice—and certainly novel—to make their acquaintance. Grade: B+
Of Time And The City
Director/Country/Time: Terence Davies, UK, 77 min.
Headline: Sentimental filmmaker pines for the Liverpool of his youth
Scott's Take: It's been eight years since Davies has made a movie (the wonderful, if misleadingly titled, House Of Mirth) and another eight years before that since his last "essay film" (1992's The Long Day Closes)—a stifling term that doesn't do justice to their particular magic. Films like The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives are poised between nostalgia and regret, and that's the tone that carries Of Time And The City, a bittersweet (but mostly bitter) valentine to his native Liverpool. Unearthing some amazing vintage newsreel footage, Davies gives a rich sense of the city's architecture and history, though from the distinct perspective of the poor, miserable working-class blokes that inhabit it. He also provides the wry narration, which sings with poetry at times and withering humor at others, all while frankly revealing his past, and the pains and pleasures of growing up different.
Noel's Take: Having never seen a Davies film before, I don't have much to add to Scott's expert opinion, except to say that I found this essay-film sumptuous, mesmerizing, and more than a little closed-off. I enjoyed Davies' mellifluous narration, which ties together the personal, the political and the cultural, but because Davies stops talking for long stretches, and doesn't go in chronological order, I had a hard time fitting all the pieces of his memories together. As dreamy as the musical montages of everyday Liverpool life are, they explain next to nothing about the places Davies shows, or what his feelings about them might be. I enjoyed the film, and yet I often felt like I was watching home movies without a host. Or a Guy Maddin film without the feverish intensity.
Scott's Grade: B+; Noel's Grade: B
Director/Country/Time: Saul Dibb, UK, 109 min.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling
Program: Gala Presentations
Headline: Beloved aristocrat copes with colossally crappy marriage
Noel's Take: This bodice-ripping prestige picture is already being knocked by some critics for being too dry, too safe and too on-point, and there's no denying that the wigs are high, the powder is thick, and the diction is perfect in the way that always seems to define period pictures about silently suffering souls. But I found it pretty effective, perhaps because I was taken with the theme, and how Dibb and company explore it. Knightley's playing Georgiana Spencer, one of the most popular people in late 18th century England, and yet for all her influence on women's fashion and Whig politics, at home she has no power over her cold, demanding, adulterous husband. The parallels to Georgiana's descendent, Lady Diana Spencer, are wholly intentional, and yet I was less interested in the "ironies of fame" business than I was in the idea that Georgiana espouses unlimited liberty for the people in her public life, yet settles for limited liberty in her private life, for the sake of her children. (She claims there's no such thing as "freedom in moderation," but becoming a parent tends to redefine such things.) The Duchess is hardly high art—it's more like Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette played straight—but it's strong middlebrow fare, and well-acted by Knightley, who just seems more comfortable in corsets.
Director/Country/Time: Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan, UK, 120 min.
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Accused game show cheat reflects on life as a Mumbai urchin
Noel's Take:† Going by the buzz from Telluride and my understanding of the premise, I had high hopes for this high-concept tour of Indian poverty, which is structured as a series of flashbacks that explain how the hero answers questions correctly on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? By sheer happenstance, every question relates to his life. He knows who invented the revolver, for example, because his gangster brother carried a Colt; and he knows the composer of a classic song because the ringleader of his band of orphans taught him how to sing it in order to earn more alms. Neat, huh? Throw in Boyle's usual visual flair and Slumdog Millionaire has a lot of that old Trainspotting/The Beach-style pep, along with an bracing emphasis on garbage, shit, scars, and other signifiers of a hardscrabble life. But I felt my spirit sinking early in the film, when I guessed (correctly, as it turned out) what the game show's final question was going to be, and I sunk into a substantial funk in the Slumdog's second hour, when the contrivances related to both the game show and the contestant's life started to become a bit much. Too many people recognize each other by voice or by sight after being separated for years; too many details of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire don't make sense; too many moustache-twirling bad guys complicate the hero's life for the sake of melodrama the movie doesn't need. Slumdog Millionaire has its charms, but in a way its charms are part of the problem—the film seems to be trying too hard to make poverty relatable, by equating being poor to love that transcends all obstacles, and underdogs who beat the odds. It's rousing in all the wrong places.
Sunshine Barry & The Disco Worms
Director/Country/Time: Thomas Borch Nielsen, Denmark, 78 min.
Program: Sprockets Family Zone
Headline: Earthworm yearns for a better life, whatnot
Noel's Take: I always hope that a new animated classic might be unearthed in this part of the TIFF slate that few people cover, but I'm always disappointed. Within the first three minutes of Sunshine Barry, I'd written the word "DIRE" in capital letters in my notebook. Three minutes later, I underlined it. Three minutes after that, I underlined it again. And then I left, to give my seat to one of the distributor types inexplicably lined up outside the theater, anxious to get in. If any of them had asked me whether they should buy the movie or not, I'd have told them that this story of a good-natured worm who defies convention by urging the insect world to dance is strictly straight-to-video fare—more Veggie Tales than Pixar. And I'd add that its sub-Bee Movie comic timing could be clocked by a sundial. In a word. DIRE.
Coming Up: From Spike Lee to Mike Leigh, plus Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and A Chorus Line!