TIFF Round-Up #3: A Lonely Standout in a Middling Crop

The Loneliest Planet (dir. Julia Loktev)
Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg play a couple of backpackers, eager to experience the Caucasus Mountains by taking a long guided trek. For them, Georgia is more a land of uncommon landscapes and textures than any socio-political reality, and director Loktev (working from a short story by Tom Bissell) explores their innocence with a similar fondness they have for each other’s bodies. As the title of Loktev’s previous feature Day Night Day Night indicated, she’s interested in rupture and change, and so there is a shocking, not-to-be-revealed twist in the middle of The Loneliest Planet. In the end, the movie is about the thin line between the placid and the ominous – it’s to Loktev’s credit that it remains visually gorgeous throughout without ever succumbing to facile postcard beauty. This would make a perfect double bill with Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff: both movies focus on guided forays into the unknown, and both strip the characters’ identities bare, only to reveal how brittle their assumptions about themselves were to start with. – Michał Oleszczyk

That Summer (dir. Philippe Garrel)
Garrel’s exquisitely realized film about an insecure artist (director’s son Louis Garrel) who loses his actress wife (Monica Bellucci, her legendary looks eroding to reveal new layers of character) to an affair is being referred to as a spin on Godard’s Contempt (the grand Cinecitta studios in Italy appear in both films). But as a film about filmmaking, what Garrel has to say is more deeply embedded in a dark view of 21st century French culture at large, where social activism is but a shell of its 60s heyday and French filmmaking has succumbed to pan-European commercialism. All the same, Garrel’s pessimistic view is offset by his characteristically gracious cinema, his camera empathizing with his characters even in their most off-putting destructive moments of selfish hurt. Shot in rich color, this film exudes a more contemporary vibe than Garrel’s recent black and white efforts (Regular Lovers, Frontier of Dawn), but his unmatched ability to freeze moments in an amber-like eternity is as present as ever. – Kevin B. Lee

Burning Man (dir. Jonathan Teplitzky)
A simple story of a volatile Australian cook losing his wife to cancer is told in a carefully edited jumble of flashbacks – a structure obviously based on Nicholas Roeg’s Bad Timing. The movie is never less than engaging, even as it gradually reveals its basic thinness and incorrigibly conventional nature. It’s further impaired by Matthew Goode’s near-sedate pretty-boy performance, embedded within a remarkable female cast featuring Kerry Fox, Bojana Novakovic and the underused Rachel Griffiths. The narrative is too forcefully set as an inspirational tale of death and renewal, and is borderline cute at times, but if I’m to watch a TV-movie-of-the-week tearjerker, it may as well be as playfully structured and full of small, off-hand scenes of great humor and beauty as this one. – Michał Oleszczyk

Barrymore (dir. Eric Canuel)
Playing a legendary ham is not the same as hamming, as Christopher Plummer’s superb turn as John Barrymore proves in the film version of William Luce’s one-man play. As Barrymore tries to seduce his imaginary audience, Plummer doesn’t so much ask for sympathy as presents acting itself as a sort of existential armor that his subject rarely functioned without. Too bad that Canuel indulges in some showy tricks, almost as if he was afraid of the theatrical nature of the material (when, in fact, that very theatricality is its strength). – Michał Oleszczyk

Himizu (dir. Sion Sono)
Sono adapts a 2001 Japanese manga novel about two troubled teens, incorporating this year’s national disasters to give his vision of rampant societal dysfunction a current events context. Too bad, because it comes off as a callow tack-on that obfuscated the original project’s depiction of the madness of growing up in modern Japan, tsunamis be damned. Sion’s filmmaking itself is pretty maddening, a slapdash onslaught of high-pitched drama and hyperbolic violence, garnished with gimmicky effects and a classical hits score to provide profundity as instantly as Cup-a-Noodles. Defenders can claim Sion’s whole approach as one invoking unapologetic adolescence; by that score the two young leads make a more valiant effort, given the emotional cartwheels Sion has them turn, it’s remarkable that they are what grounds the viewer in Sion’s histrionic maelstrom. –Kevin B. Lee

The Oranges (Julian Farino)
Nothing less (or more) than American Beauty re-made as a Honeymooners special, this programmatically cute 90-minute sitcom had me squirming in my seat from the word go. An all-you-can-eat cast (Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney) shows tremendous dedication to a pat and self-congratulatory script that doesn’t allow for a single emotion that wouldn’t be accounted for in advance (all that is missing is a laugh-track and commercial breaks). Alia Shawkat in the lead makes one acutely aware that a single episode of Arrested Development had more daring and sheer outrageousness that the careful calculations of this film. – Michał Oleszczyk

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