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Movie Of The Day:

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (dir. Sidney Lumet): It’s hard to define what, exactly, the Sidney Lumet touch might be, since his films are relatively plain-Jane stylistically, without any obvious hallmarks that would make his screen credit superfluous. Lumet’s films are, by and large, defined by their uninflected realism; he’s not the sort of director who expresses himself through handheld cameras, showy tracking shots, or elaborate lighting schemes. With a focus on character and performance, Lumet classics like 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince Of The City, and The Verdict are quite firmly set in the world we know, and he tends to cut away the sensationalist aspects of stories that in other hands would be taken to their pulpy extremes.
Case in point: Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, the 84-year-old director’s best film since 1990’s Q&A (though I actually enjoyed his last film, the courtroom drama/comedy Find Me Guilty, despite its slow start and general flabbiness). The story isn’t much different from something like Fargo: Amateurs trying to pull off an ill-conceived, low-stakes criminal scheme and the horrible consequences that follow. But Lumet’s film, while plenty violent, isn’t wood-chipper violent, and Kelly Masterson’s fine dialogue, while full of dark wit, doesn’t get hung up in local vernacular. Both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are in fine form as brothers who attempt to knock off a mom-and-pop jewelry store that happens to be owned by their actual mom and pop. Hoffman presents the idea as a win-win situation: They know the layout, security codes, and safe combinations; they can fence the jewels for 20 cents on the dollar (netting them $60,000 each); and insurance will pay for their parents’ losses. Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan.
Two things struck me when watching this movie: (1) That it’s a movie about family, and that the robbery and its aftermath are as much an expression of family dysfunction and resentment as it is a quick-and-easy way to make a buck. There’s the sense throughout that Hoffman is deliberately setting up his weaker younger brother to fail. (2) That the need for money, especially from deadbeat dad Hawke, is behind nearly every exchange in the film. It’s astonishing the lengths he’ll resort to in order to send his daughter to see The Lion King with her friends. Before The Devil could be tighter, but Lumet’s leisurely telling of these events doesn’t mean there’s no suspense. And also: Michael Shannon, last seen as the mentally disturbed stranger in Bug, has quickly risen to my shortlist of favorite character actors. Definitely someone to watch. (B+)

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Son Of Rambow (dir. Garth Jennings): Earlier in our TIFF coverage, Noel and I had a disagreement over buzz-sucker Juno, which I liked a lot and Noel considered annoying twee. In my post, I argued that whimsical little indie quirkfests like that film can break hard one way or another, depending on your level of tolerance for what it’s trying to do. (I was saying “yay” to Wes Anderson films and Rocket Science, “nay” to the likes of Little Miss Sunshine and Garden State.) Resembling the lovechild of Anderson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Jennings’ follow-up to his disappointing adaptation of Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy definitely broke the wrong way for me, despite a few bright moments and some real visual panache. The unlikely friendship between an outcast doodler from a fundamentalist background and the school bully—united by their attempt to shoot a homemade movie inspired by First Blood—has some potential. But their creative efforts smack too much of the Max Fischer Players and their relationship turns gummy in the second half. Put succinctly, this one tested my gag reflex. (C)

Very Young Girls (dir. David Schisgall): Though littered with moving testimonials and some good information about the problem of underage prostitution in urban areas, I wished this well-intentioned documentary had dug deeper. Schisgall takes his cues (and his subjects) from Girls Mentoring and Educational Services (GEMS), a New York-based non-profit group dedicated to helping teenagers regain control of their lives. That’s a surprisingly tall order: Most come from broken homes and are turned out in their early teens, when they’re most vulnerable to pimps who restore their need for comfort and self-worth before breaking them down again. Many profess to “love” their pimps still, in spite of the abuse, and GEMS founder Rachel Lloyd, who was once in the same position, knows precisely how to handle her emotionally fragile charges. Schisgall includes some startling footage of pimps bragging about themselves in incriminating home videos, but he doesn’t hit the streets hard enough to provide much more than a PSA for a worthy organization. One thing’s for sure, though: I’m not feeling quite as good about that Hustle & Flow Best Song Oscar anymore. (B-)

Inside (dir. Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury): Five minutes into this giddily gratuitous French bloodbath, my critic friend Sam Adams leaned over to me and said, “This festival is fucking with you.” By the end of January, I’m expecting to be a father for the first time, and between the Romanian abortion film Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days, the American adoption comedy Juno, and this twisted adoption-by-force splatterfest, TIFF has baby fever and my nerves are pretty much shot. What does it say about my deadened senses that I was not only able to sit through this little number, but kinda-sorta had a good time with it? It’s a very basic home invasion story: A due-any-day-now mother, widowed by a recent car accident, fends off a spooky woman (the feral Beatrice Dalle) who’s intent on taking her unborn infant by force, with scissors being the surgical implement of choice. Tasteless in the extreme—including many “kid in peril” shots from inside the womb—Inside shoots for the amped-up art-horror of Frenchman Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension) and its deliberately overwrought execution is as undeniably effective as it is sleazy and unconscionable. No doubt the Midnight Madness crowd ate this one up. (C+)

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Lou Reed’s Berlin (dir. Julian Schnabel): I’ll make this one short, since the insights in Noel’s “Movie Of The Day” post are far more valuable than mine, given that this concert film was my first exposure to Reed’s classic album. (Somehow, I got into the Velvet Underground and middle-to-late period Reed albums like New York while bypassing everything in between. Clearly, some record-buying is in order here.) My only thoughts: (1) Praise due again to Jonathan Demme’s groundbreaking Stop Making Sense, which convinced directors like Schnabel to keep the cameras tight on the stage and treat moviegoers as the audience. (2) The subway system runs directly under the Royal Ontario Museum, intermittently creating a low roar and a slight tremor whenever the trains pass by. As support for Reed and company’s overwhelmingly muscular performance, this is the first time the rumble has become a beneficial part of the festival experience. (B+)