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Movie Of The Day:

Lou Reed's Berlin
(dir. Julian Schnabel)

Lou Reed remained fairly prolific in the three decades after he left The Velvet Underground, but his solo albums–outside of maybe Transformer–never exactly set the world afire in the way that V.U.'s body of work did. The Blue Mask, New Sensations and New York are well-liked by many, but even among Reed fans, his solo stuff tends to be fairly divisive, with vocal proponents and opponents of everything from the avant-noise experiment Metal Machine Music to the post-Springsteen mainstream-rock push Coney Island Baby. (The latter being one of my favorites.)

Berlin is especially controversial among Reed-ophiles, both for its prog-rock pretensions–it's a song cycle about a drug-addicted German prostitute and her children, with contributing performances by the likes of Steve Winwood and Jack Bruce–and for its fashionable nihilism. Lester Bangs bashed it as "a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor," and fans of the more pop-minded Transformer by and large didn't care to take Reed's journey into the colossally morose in 1973.

Me though, I've always loved Berlin. I bought a used cassette copy when I was a junior in high school and played it obsessively for months, absorbing every somber string-hanging and wobbly cabaret melody. I was a classic-rock and prog-rock buff before I got into punk and new wave, and I initially approached the latter genres from a historical/scholarly perspective, not because I had any interest in "the scene." I bought my first Minutemen and HĂĽsker DĂĽ albums because they got good reviews in magazines I respected. Ditto The Velvet Underground, who I got into because their name kept getting dropped in reference to a lot of other bands I liked. (And because their records had just come back into print at the time, to much critical fanfare.) When I got around to Berlin, I found I liked it even more than Transformer, because the flutes and strings on Berlin sounded a lot more like the classic rock I was familiar with than Transformer's laconic glam posturing.

My only complaint with Berlin over the years has concerned its relatively punchless sound, which was a common problem for Reed and his circle of proto-punkers. (The first time I heard Belle & Sebastian, I remember thinking that their songs sounded a lot like Berlin with a proper mix.) If nothing else, Julian Schnabel's concert film Lou Reed's Berlin presents the album's ten songs with a force they've rarely shown before. Filmed over five nights in New York, Lou Reed's Berlin offers Reed with a lively backup band–including horns, strings, a gospel choir, and Sharon Jones and Antony as background singers–performing Berlin from start to finish, and then running through a short encore of "Candy Says," "The Rock Minuet" and "Sweet Jane." The relatively poppy first half of Berlin is rendered ferocious, with nearly every song ending in extended dual guitar jams. Then the quieter, sadder second half takes on a mesmerizing spiritual quality, as all the musicians on stage support Reed's endearingly awkward descriptions of demimonde degradation.

I'd hardly place Lou Reed's Berlin in the pantheon of great concert films. Schnabel's cameras rarely seem to be in a useful place, and between the high-grain image and the pointless lo-fi recreations of the album's characters and story, the movie looks cheap and needlessly pretentious. But for Reed fans–heck, for rock fans–the movie is an essential document of a noteworthy event. Reed's always been an ideal case study for rock auteurists, because so much of what makes him great is bound up in his weird lyrics and lackadaisical vocals, both of which are particularly off-putting on Berlin. And yet, it's those words and how Reed sings them that makes Berlin so personal, so idiosyncratic. The Reed of the 2000s still sounds at home mumbling about a girl whose friends all "call her Alaska," and describing how the decadent pleasures of one night lead to the desperate repercussions of the following morning. (B+).

Also Playing:

(dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto): In typical TIFF Midnight Madness fashion, this Japanese superhero mockumentary takes a winning premise and a handful of great scenes and almost squanders them with its fitful pacing and varying depth. The "dai nippojin" (or "Great Japanese") of the title is a sixth generation giant-sized hero who protects the country from the dwindling ranks of skyscraper-high monsters. Matsumoto spends about 30 total minutes of screen time on the fighting–funny bouts between our man and a procession of surreal freaks with useless powers like a powerful stench and elastic eyeballs–and the rest on his normal-sized daily life, which consists of him moping around a dingy house, complaining about how his ex-wife never lets him see his daughter and how his salary's too low. The joke's kind of one-note, but Matsumoto is saying something about the decline of heroic ritual among his increasingly petty and whiny countrymen. A tighter film would've made that theme stronger and clearer, but Dainipponjin gets points for intelligence and imagination, and for a pop-art final sequence that pays tribute to the Ultraman aesthetic, with a dollop of William Klein's Mr. Freedom stirred in. (B).

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (dir. Sidney Lumet): As a caper-gone-wrong movie, Before The Devil Knows Your Dead is fairly conventional, following two fuck-up brothers (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) who come up with the perfect plan to knock off their parents' strip mall jewelry store, and then see one piece of the plan after another collapse into shit, in ways that should be familiar to anyone who's ever seen a heist movie. But we don't watch crime stories to see the plot points fall into line, we watch them to see how people behave when they're misbehaving, and it's here that Before The Devil excels. Hoffman and Hawke are both aces as middle-class boobs who fancy themselves too smart to fail–even though previous failures brought them to this point in the first place–and Lumet clicks into old master mode, letting scenes play out at a deliberate pace so that we can absorb the nuances, from the way Hoffman relates to his Manhattan drug dealer to the way Hawke boils at the everyday unhelpfulness of the suburban service sector. And the chronology-juggling of Kelly Masterson's screenplay serves a thematic purpose, not just a stylistic one. By jumping forward and back in time, Masterson reflects the mentality of two dudes desperate to skip to the ending, where they imagine themselves all fat and happy. But Masterson and Lumet force them to start back at the beginnng and grind it out, proceeding misstep by misstep. (B+).

La Citadelle Assiégée (dir. Philippe Calderon): A number of questions spring to mind while watching Philippe Calderon's kid-friendly docu-fable, but they're all variations on one: How the hell did he pull this off? Le Citadelle Assiégée (or, in English, "The Besieged Fortress") uses miniature cameras to get inside a massive termite colony on an African savannah, observing the rituals of this mini-civilization and then seeing what happens when the colony is threatened by fire, rain, falling tree branches, and an encroaching army of driver ants. Calderon structures the movie like an action-adventure, beginning with the introduction of the colony's king and queen, and then cross-cutting between the termites' daily trials and the slow march of the drivers, who defeat all comers on their way across the plain, and then finally engage the termites in mandible-to-mandible combat. (Or whatever…I'm not a scientist.) I have absolutely no idea how Calderon got the camera where he did to tell the story that he does, but it's a remarkable feat of engineering and storytelling, blighted only slightly by the fact the images begin to run together after a while. Seen one incident of ant-on-ant violence, you've seen them all. Luckily, there's more to La Citadelle than just the fighting. (B+).

Notes, Thoughts, Things Overheard…

My colleague and pal Josh Rothkopf has a terrific blog post up at the Time Out New York site, all about festival fatigue, and how it makes certain impressionistic films–the ones that still "make sense" even if you doze through them–stand out more than solid entertainments. He's right that it's easy to overrate and to underrate at a festival, because every movie stands against the one you've just seen, and the anticipation for the ones you're about to see. Foursquare movies that push past the two hour mark can seem punishingly long when you start thinking about the bathroom breaks, quick meals, calls home and e-mail checks you need to make as soon as the closing credits roll. And films with arresting visuals and no story to speak of can seem like genius when you've just seen three consecutive rambling, quirky Amerindies. There's no better way to take the pulse of world cinema than to attend the Toronto film festival–and that pulse is strong this year my friends, let me tell you–but when it comes to evaluating each film as an individual unit, mistakes can be made. Movies that play like gangbusters with a festival audience may never strike a chord with multiplexers. Doesn't mean either side is off-base, just that a single movie as the centerpiece of an evening out has a different value than one in the mid-afternoon slot of a five-movie day…