TIFF Round-up #2: A New Classic, a Killer Bobcat, Stoner Faust and Six Others

In rough descending order of preference:

Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold)
I haven’t been a fan of Arnold’s past attempts to amp Brit kitchen sink drama with swooning handheld camerawork (i.e. Fish Tank), but this adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic vindicates Arnold’s moody aesthetic while sending its source material to new lyrical heights. The provocative casting of Heathcliff as a black child is a minor twist next to the true marvels of Arnold’s revision: dialogue is radically reduced, making ample room  to surround the viewer in an ecstatic sensory experience of the Yorkshire moorlands. Dozens of images of fierce beauty run wild throughout this film; what’s fascinating is how Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan employ new levels of technical virtuosity to bring a newfound eloquence to their visions of life lived in unapologetic rawness.  It is the same paradox between wildness and refinement that dooms the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy, as the forces of civilization destroy their untamed kinship. Almost miraculously, the film combines the best of both worlds. – Kevin B. Lee

Life Without Principle (dir. Johnnie To)
To, often considered the last great holdover from Hong Kong’s glory days as the epicenter of action cinema, generally isn’t referred to as an issues filmmaker. But there is a socially critical subtext to some of his work (i.e Breaking News; Election) that comes to the fore in this complex study of how Hong Kongers respond to the global financial meltdown. A bank teller, a loan shark, a gangster and a cop’s family are connected through a crime involving 10 million HK dollars; their actions illustrate prevailing values typical in To’s homeland that prove tragicomically insufficient in facing the crisis at hand. The ambitious narrative folds back on itself without warning, but To is so confident in his movement through scenes that even power point presentations and computer screens sustain the story’s velocity. The film ends with a trifecta of deus ex machina happy endings, but I argue that it’s not so much cheap audience gratification as a call-out to Hong Kongers’ Candide-like attitudes towards global problems beyond their comprehension. The candy coating hides a bitter pill to swallow.  – Kevin B. Lee

God Bless America (dir. Bobcat Goldthwait)
A candy-colored killing spree by an unlikely pair of moral rebels. They’re mad as hell, they’re not going to take it any more, and they’re hilariously over-articulate in their non-sexual union. The movie plays almost like an off-beat version of Joel Schumacher’s  Falling Down – its moral outrage less self-righteous, but just as sharply pointed. Goldthwait includes some hilarious TV-spoofs that include a tampon-throwing reality show starlet. Joel Murray is impeccably mellow, even as he indulges in fantasies of infant-shooting purges, and Tara Lynn Barr makes for his fearless (if slightly grating) companion. – Michał Oleszczyk

Faust (dir. Alexander Sokurov)
Freshly awarded the Golden Lion at Venice, Sokurov’s latest is pitched as an allegorical coda to his trilogy of historic tyrants ( Moloch’s Hitler, Taurus‘ Lenin, The Sun’s Hirohito): here the Faust legend is interpreted as a depressed Everyman’s discovery of life’s meaning through lust for sex and power. As Faust and Mephistopheles (bearing a tail shaped like a shriveled penis) walk and talk their way through several shaggy set pieces depicting worldly vanity, the meandering but playful proceedings at times evoke a Medieval Euro art film turned stoner movie (all the more amusing since Putin reputedly pushed this film to convey Russian values to European audiences.) Sokurov’s characteristically jaundiced color palette, distorted anamorphic framing and overdubbed soundtrack add to the films loopiness, though a couple of spellbinding closeups of Faust’s lust object Margareta ring clear as church bells. Throw in a seduction scene that suggests a zombie-populated porn clip directed by Tarkovsky and you have one of the strangest – and possibly one of the most original – works in the festival. – Kevin B. Lee


Keyhole (dir. Guy Maddin)
Haunted in every sense and scene (not least by the ghost of the late George Kuchar), Maddin’s latest makeshift folly is perhaps best described as a deranged remake of William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours. All hopes for clarity and coherence are squashed early on, when – after a spectacular noir shoot-out – the living mingle with the dead and George Toles’ rich and strange dialogue kicks in. Keyhole, which was developed from an earlier Maddin short and feels a bit forced at its present 105 minutes, is nevertheless a triumph, albeit an almost autistic one. It’s a movie speaking in a non-extant language: one impossible to learn, but difficult to resist. – Michał Oleszczyk


UFO in Her Eyes (dir. Guo Xiaolu)
Expat Chinese novelist-filmmaker Guo delivers a knowing satire of capitalist greed’s reach back home as it spreads from the cities to the countryside. A peasant woman’s brush with a UFO (who turns out to be a rich tourist played by Udo Kier) sends a sudden cash infusion to her village, leading to a series of economic development schemes as ridiculous as they are commonplace in china today. Guo crams several other social issues into her scenario (migrant labor, demolition and displacement, citizens tights and womens freedoms) to the point that they almost crowd out her characters. But bynand large this is an astute, often hilarious critique of contemporary China’s crisis of values. – Kevin B. Lee

Think of Me (dir. Bryan Wizemann)
No need to go to the Ozarks to tell a story of a woman’s fierce resilience in an unwelcoming environment – simply cast Lauren Ambrose as the lead. Big-eyed and dimpled, gorgeous yet disheveled, Ambrose (who also produced the movie) provides some state-of-the-art skittishness as a single mom determined to survive in a post-recession Las Vegas. The movie combines some second-hand Dardenne immediacy with shameless tear-jerking stunts straight out of Stella Dallas (“Mummy, are we really giving our dog away?”, cries the daughter named – yes –  Sunny). A frustrating movie with a great central performance to pull you up short and prevent easy dismissal. – Michał Oleszczyk

The Incident (dir. Alexandre Courtès)
Horrific yet monotonous, this wide-screen grand guignol has a terrific opening. As power is cut off in an ominous concrete insane asylum in the middle of nowhere, the inmates get violent, turning the premises into one big Precinct 13. The gore factor goes way up in the second half, and the baroque mutilation includes what for me seems like a first: a stun-gunned eyeball in a huge close-up. Eons away from the political immediacy of such snake-pit classics as Shock Corridor, The Incident presents itself as an existential ordeal, even as it relishes in a campy sense of exaggerated violence turned into vaudeville. – Michał Oleszczyk

In Darkness (dir. Agnieszka Holland)
A great theme wasted in a sea of half-directed (or wildly overdramatized) histrionics, poor storytelling and occasional luridness. The real story of a Polish mini-Schindler, who started out saving Jews in WW2 Lvov as a means of making money, only to discover his own humanity in the process, is hopelessly muddled and misses most of the marks it sets out to hit. Holland is strong in presenting the moral complexity of the story, but fails to establish its tone and focus. – Michał Oleszczyk

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