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The A.V. Club At TIFF '08: Day 4

Zack And Miri Make A Porno

Director/Country/Time: Kevin Smith, USA, 102 min.

Cast: Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Jason Mewes

Program: Special Presentations

Headline: Kevin Smith makes a good movie

Noel's Take: I gave up on Kevin Smith after Dogma, coming to the conclusion that I was done with indifferently shot, choppily edited slacker comedies in which all the dialogue was essentially one long monologue split between a handful of one-note characters. I was annoyed by Smith's self-aggrandizing attempts to build his "askewniverse," and by his vision of a world in which regardless of gender, race, religion or social status, everyone was adept at raunchy sex talk. So bear all that in mind when I say that Zack And Miri Make A Porno was pretty darn enjoyable. Having not seen a Smith film in roughly a decade, I have no idea whether Zack And Miri's simple-but-effective mise-en-scene, well-modulated performances and reasonably well-crafted narrative are a new development, or if Smith's been coming to this place for a while now. And to be fair, it's not like Smith is completely out of the woods. Zack And Miri is clumsily unfunny at times—particularly when Smith makes tone-deaf efforts at gay-themed and black-themed comedy—and it's occasionally gross just for the sake of being gross. But Rogen and Banks are completely winning as the titular couple: two old friends whose dead-end jobs and buy-now-pay-later approach to life has left them on the verge of losing their apartment. So in a choice that smartly—and, frankly, kind of sweetly—mimics Smith's own rags-to-riches story, they decide to make a movie. Only instead of being a movie where people only talk about sex, it's a movie where they actually have sex. And the stars? Zack and Miri, who discover as their big love scene approaches that they may be forcing themselves into a level-jump in their relationship that they'd both secretly longed for. The romantic comedy elements of Zack And Miri are by-the-numbers, but the romance is touching, and the scene where the two leads shoot "the scene" takes some interesting turns, going from hilarious to something else. Maybe it's a case of grading on a curve, or maybe it has to do with Smith's return to underdog status after a decade of being beat up by irascible critics like myself, but I found myself really rooting for this movie by the end, and leaving the theater satisfied.


Grade: B

Miracle At St. Anna

Director/Country/Time: Spike Lee, USA, 166 min.

Cast: Derek Luke, Michael Early, Laz Alonso

Program: Special Presentations

Headline: Black soldiers in WWII fight Nazis in Italy, racism at home

Noel's Take: This pains me to write, because I'm a lifelong fan of Spike Lee's, and I think his recent run of films (25th Hour, Inside Man, When The Levees Broke) has been downright inspiring, but Miracle At St. Anna is a botch of the first order, a movie that telegraphs its leadenness in its first 10 minutes, and departs two-and-a-half hours later having left behind maybe two or three memorable scenes. (And even the worst Spike Lee joints have more than three memorable scenes.) St. Anna starts in the '80s, with a black postal worker shooting a customer. The attempts to unravel why he flipped out leads to the recovery of a rare fragment of Italian statuary, and a story that stretches back to WWII, when the "Buffalo Soldiers" were being used to draw out the Nazis in Italy. Back in 1944, one platoon advanced farther than their superiors expected, and got involved in a standoff between the local fascists, the partisan rebels, and the Nazis. On paper, all of this sounds like a fine idea for a movie. But on paper you can't hear Terrence Blanchard's relentless, mournful martial score, or experience the routine-to-the-point-of-cliché battle scenes, or endure broad comedy that borders on shuck-and-jive. St. Anna stabilizes after a damn-near excruciating first hour, and becomes merely a middling war movie with a heightened social consciousness. But for long stretches, the film plays like School Daze transplanted to the European front, with the token militant and the token uplift-the-race type and the token buffoon all marching toward Checkpoint Irony. I can't remember the last time a filmmaker I revere has produced something so heartbreakingly disappointing.


Grade: C-



Director/Country/Time: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, U.S.A., 114 min.

Cast: Algenis Pérez Soto

Program: Contemporary World Cinema

Headline: A Dominican pitcher works his way through the major league farm system.


Scott's Take: Let's get some hyperbole out of the way first: Sugar, the new film from the directors of Half Nelson, understands the game of baseball more than any fiction feature I've seen outside of Bull Durham. And for that, at a minimum, a tip of the cap is in order. Baseball fans always hear the inspiring stories of Caribbean players who scrap their way to the bigs from islands like Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Curacao, but you never hear about the countless others that are left stranded when their dreams don't come to fruition. For the first hour or so, Boden and Fleck follow a Dominican pitching prospect (Soto) from Kansas City-affiliated island pro team through spring training in Phoenix and up to Double-A ball in Davenport, Iowa. Needless to say, the culture shock he experiences is profound, especially when he winds up boarding in a farmhouse with an older couple that doesn't speak Spanish and seem less invested in him than in the fortunes of their beloved minor-league squad. The pressure to succeed in that situation is extraordinary: The players' families count on getting good news (and checks) and a cold streak or an injury can sabotage a career. And when that happens, these foreign players are left stranded in the middle of nowhere with no ability to communicate and no skills to fall back on. The trouble with Sugar is that its greatest strength is also a weakness: Boden and Fleck are so heroically determined to defy all the conventions that make sports movies tick that they wind up with an earnest, shapeless drama that could use a little more tension. Still, the film offers a rare truthfulness about the game that I won't soon forget. Grade: B+




Director/Country/Time: Mike Leigh, UK, 118 min.

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Eddie Marsan

Program: Special Presentations

Headline: In Mike Leigh's latest, crazy is relative.

Noel's Take: When we first meet the protagonist of Leigh's latest slice-of-life, it seems highly probable that something's seriously wrong with her. She smiles like a fool and babbles non-stop—even to people who clearly don't want to engage with her. The rest of Happy-Go-Lucky is dedicated to alternately confirming or defying our initial impressions of Hawkins' character. It's not surprising to find out that she's a teacher, since she's the kind of childlike free spirit who relates well to kids. But it is surprising that she's such a conscientious teacher, who goes the extra mile to figure out what's wrong with one of her more violent pupils. Throughout the movie, Leigh contrasts Hawkins with other teachers, who have different methods and philosophies, and other manic types, who are more legitimately crazy. Hawkins can be a bit much to take, but the other characters do acknowledge that, and frequently tell her to grow up—or at least shut up. The one major weakness to Happy-Go-Lucky is that it's unclear whether Leigh thinks that Hawkins is a delight or a terror, but that's part of what's so great about Leigh-world, where stern judgment is frequently withheld. (This stands in stark contrast to Loach-world.) I spent much of Happy-Go-Lucky waiting for the other shoe to drop and something horrible to happen, but when the shoe finally did fall, it didn't quite land where I expected. I appreciated the surprise.


Grade: B+


Three Monkeys

Director/Country/Time: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 109 min.

Cast: Yavuz Bingol, Hatice Aslan, Ercan Kescal

Program: Masters

Headline: When a chauffeur takes the fall for a politician's hit-and-run charge, his wife and son get caught between them.


Scott's Take: Ceylan won the Best Director prize at Cannes for his latest psychodrama and he deserves it as much now as he did when his previous films, Distant and Climates, premiered at the festival. With a background in photography, Ceylan has a superb eye for dark-hued composition and an ear that's just as good; the overall effect of his visual and aural mastery is something akin to 3-D in two dimensions. Ceylan brings all that great style to bear on Three Monkeys, but tied to a scenario that's distressingly threadbare and drawn out needlessly in the first half. There's isn't much to the story, which concerns an adulterous affair between a politician (Kescal) and a woman (Aslan) while her husband (Bingol) is serving out a jail sentence for the politician's hit-and-run accident. Three Monkeys doesn't get interesting until Bingol completes his sentence and starts getting suspicious over what has happened in his absence. As the consequences are meted out, Ceylan offers scene after scene of primal intensity, registered either from a cool distance (a single-take showdown between the politician and the wife rivals the opening of JCVD for shot-of-the-festival status) or via close-ups where every pore, whisker, and bead of sweat is registered. Ceylan gets by on craft alone here, but he's capable of more. Grade: B


Blood Trail

Director/Country/Time: Richard Parry, UK, 79 min.


Program: Real To Reel

Headline: Fearless photojournalist contemplates life during wartime

Noel's Take: The most rewarding aspect of this documentary character sketch is that it was shot over the course of 15 years, starting with photojournalist Robert King's first trip to a war zone—in Bosnia—and continuing through Chechnya and Iraq, with side trips to King's Tennessee home. How (and why) Parry got this kind of access is something left naggingly unexplored, but the passage of time does make Blood Trail a little different than the average "War Is Hell: Correspondent Edition" doc, because Parry captures how King changes from an impudent greenhorn to a respected veteran—following a lengthy detour as an alcoholic party animal. Blood Trail is a bit too ambitious for an 80-minute feature, trying overly hard to psychoanalyze its subject and figure out why he's so gung ho for danger. (Here's the bullet: There are daddy issues.) Also, frankly, King can be a bit of an insufferable asshole, especially in the film's early scenes. But it's nice to see how he mellows, and a lot of the war zone footage that Parry has gotten over the years is as stunning and nerve-wracking as King's own work.


Grade: B


Me And Orson Welles

Director/Country/Time: Richard Linklater, U.K., 107 min.

Cast: Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay

Program: Special Presentations

Headline: A pre-Kane Orson Welles gambles on a Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar.


Scott's Take: Hey, did you know Richard Linklater had a new movie? Neither did anyone here until they picked up a Toronto Film Festival schedule—just the first indication that this is a between-pictures lark along the lines of Tape rather than the next A Scanner Darkly or Before Sunset. In a nutshell, here's what I thought of Linklater's breezy account of Welles' audacious 1937 stage production of Julius Caesar: Liked "Orson Welles," hated "Me." Unfortunately the "Me" in this movie—a teenage dramatist played by Efron (High School Musical)—is in every scene, so getting to the Welles parts takes slogging through stuff like a love triangle involving stage manager Danes or the mini behind-the-scenes drama that take place when everyone's waiting on the genius to show up. Though the film pays homage to Welles' bravado and the theater in general, it's really McKay's uncanny, larger-than-life performance as Welles that gives it any real life. Had Linklater tossed out the "Me" part and zeroed in on Welles and his creative process, he might have been onto something. As is, there's only glancing suggestions as to what made this Caesar so special, and a giant hole at the movie's center. Grade: C+


Lovely, Still

Director/Country/Time: Nik Fackler, U.S.A., 90 min.

Cast: Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn, Elizabeth Banks

Program: Discovery

Headline: Two lonely oldies fall in love over the Christmas season. With a twist.


Scott's Take: A lot of the buzz surrounding Lovely, Still, a deeply strange and off-putting "holiday fable" about l'amour fou between two people of advancing age, concerns its young writer-director Nik Fackler, a 23-year-old prodigy from Omaha, Nebraska who runs in that city's Saddle Creek circles. The kindest thing I can say about the film is that Fackler goes far out on the ledge, infusing a Christmas-themed storybook romance with equal parts grade-school sweetness and steadily advancing psychosis. As a lonely grocery bagger who finds some desperately needed companionship from the new neighbor (Burstyn) across the street, Landau gets his most substantial role since Ed Wood, but Fackler doesn't serve him well. Though there's something to the idea of two senior citizens behaving like moonstruck teenagers, with all the scary intensity that implies, Fackler isn't content to play it straight. Instead he makes the romantic scenes way too cutesy-poo (with all the hand-holding and wall-to-wall holiday music and Christmas lights that illuminate on cue) and wastes an inordinate amount of energy gearing up for a lame third-act double whammy. There's no doubting the young man's talent—at 23, I was working at a stone quarry, shoveling limestone sand from under the conveyor belts—but he still needs to reign it in a bit. Grade: C-

Tomorrow: Ché in the morning! More Ché in the afternoon! Also: Mickey Rourke makes a comeback and Kiyoshi Kurosawa throws a curve.


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