To read Scott's Day Two, click here.

Movie Of The Day: My Kid Could Paint That (dir. Amir Bar-Lev)

A non-critic friend of mine once gave me a good standard for judging documentaries: If reading a description of the movie tells you just as much as watching it will, then maybe it's not a very good documentary. For about the first 30 minutes, My Kid Could Paint That seems bound to fail that test. Even though director Bar-Lev elaborates on the comically brief biography of 4-year-old abstract art superstar Marla Olmstead with mini-histories of modern art and child prodigies, the relevance of Marla's rise to success–from a coffeehouse show to NYC galleries–seems at first a little too mapped-out. Just your basic chin-stroker about what the art world fervor over a kid painter says about the validity of modern art, and so forth.

But right around the time Marla turns 5, the story starts to evolve, keyed by a 60 Minutes report that fuels speculation about whether the kindergartner had some outside help with her masterpieces. In an instant, My Kid Could Paint That transforms into a multi-level study of what original creation means, how parents handle gifted children, the cruel voraciousness of the media, and what responsibility documentarians have to the people who allow them into their homes. The implications of all of these questions become cumulatively unnerving, whether you're a parent, a journalist or an art-lover. (Or in my case, all three.) By the end, Bar-Lev starts crossing the line from passive observer to investigator, culminating in a direct confrontation with the Olmstead family that almost single-handedly raises My Kid Could Paint That from not-bad to great. (A-)

Also Playing:

No Country For Old Men
(dir. Joel & Ethan Coen): I actually liked Intolerable Cruelty and thought The Ladykillers had its redeeming qualities, but neither film felt completely on-point. Taking a few years off seems to have done the Coen brothers a world of good. Here, the familiar Coen signifiers are well-deployed, from the seedy motels to the barren landscapes to the slow dollies in to people not quite able to sleep. But No Country For Old Men is also graver than any other Coen brothers movie, despite their trademark deadpan humor and flavorful dialogue (a lot of which is lifted from Cormac McCarthy's novel). The theme of unstoppable evil and the lengths we'll go to avoid confronting it seems to have provoked a steely purpose from our Coens. No Country is quiet for long stretches, and the story perversely withholds some major characters (and the stars who play them) until they're absolutely needed; but nothing abot the movie is in the least saggy or superfluous. It's a fine-tuned anxiety-delivery device, with a menacing jack-in-the box lurking inside.(A)

Juno
(dir. Jason Reitman): "Indie twee" movies like this one, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, etc. are kind of a genre all of to themselves, with conventions that aren't inherently bad, just a little irritating at times. Or at least that's what I tell myself, since I love Wes Anderson's movies, which share some of that overly precious sensibility. Juno though, tested my patience beyond measure. This story of a precocious 16-year-old (snappily played by Ellen Page) who gets pregnant and chooses adoption over abortion, is committed to quips and quirks first and foremost; and though some of the movie is laugh-out-loud funny and even moving almost despite itself, the parade of not-quite-of-this-world characters and their not-in-the-least-believable behavior makes it a trifle at best, and insulting at worst. Overall, a (C).

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (dir. Andrew Dominik): Seeing No Country For Old Men early in the day–and admiring the way that it kept moving forward with nary a wasted shot or scene–may have fed some of my occasional impatience with Jesse James, which is languorous by design. In delineating the intertwined fates of an outlaw and his assassin, Dominik doesn't always choose wisely between what's important to show and what's not. Partly that's due to the mood he's trying to strike: an immersive old west experience that includes all the idle conversations along with the gunfights. Westerns of the past 40 years tend to be either "ratty hat" (revisionist and dirty) or "natty hat" (iconic and pristine). Jesse James tries to be a little bit of both, and as a result it doesn't feel stock or familiar. It's a movie to get lost in, even when the movie gets a little lost itself. (B).

Notes, Thoughts, Things Overheard…

The running joke at film festivals is that every conversation starts with, "So what have you seen today?" At Toronto, that chit-chat is accompanied by the familiar gesture of colleagues digging into their respective satchels to find their well-thumbed, inked-up screening schedules, to compare notes on what's coming up, and who's seeing what when. We're all convinced that festival planning is like a Chinese box puzzle, solvable by anyone with the patience to figure out how one person can see every significant movie in a 10-day period. When we hear that someone is seeing the same we are, but a different time, it makes us question our core assumptions.

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