Thursday, Sept. 4

The Barbarian Invasions (C+)—An expansion (or, in this case, contraction) on Arcand’s Decline Of The American Empire, this “lil’ chill” tries to do too much with too little, using the slow death of an womanizing academe (and his estranged children) to launch into broader class, political, and social issues. Might have worked better if weren’t so overstuffed, though funny and touching in the right places. (A visit to a decrepit, overcrowded hospital does yield a choice line about the Canadian health-care system: “I voted for Medicare. I’ll accept the consequences.”)

S21: The Machine Of Death (B)—Structural problems aside, this Lanzmann-like inquiry into a Khmer Rouge prison has moments of extraordinary power, especially in footage featuring former guards (appearing as an act of understanding, if not precisely contrition) going through their sadistic routines. The ease with which they slip back into character after all these years puts new emphasis on the “machine” of the title. Some complained that the interviewer didn’t press these murderous automatons hard enough, but I don’t think any answers would be sufficient. Now that their consciences have been restored, they look back on their actions as if a stranger committed them, and their disbelief is telling enough on its own.

Distant (A-)—In other hands, this minor-key Odd Couple pairing about a cultured, fastidious photographer from Istanbul who takes in his poor, slovenly cousin from the sticks might have been the stuff of low comedy. But Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s masterful direction gives the film profound weight—as a Tsai-like deadpan comedy, as a Loach-like social expose, and as a Tarkovsky-like landscape picture. The title theme gets full expression in the scenario and in the execution, which plays with the space that separates these characters from each other and the world around them.

Friday, Sept. 5

I Love Your Work (C+)—Actor/director Adam Goldberg takes a huge risk by assuming an audience will care about the boo-hoo hardships of being a huge movie star, especially when he has the privilege of filling out his little indie with a Rolodex full of them. Fortunately, the first half is leavened by plenty of humor, taking sharp, often self-deprecating jabs of the incredible insularity of fame—the stalkers, the gossip hounds, the VIP tables, the roomful of managers, agents, bodyguards, and personal assistants, et al. But once the film firmly affixes its gaze to the navel, the fun evaporates. Unlike other actors-turned-director, Goldberg shows real facility behind the camera; if he can keep his indulgences in check (and that’s a big “if”), he could be a talent to watch.

Crimson Gold (B+)—My friend and fellow critic Josh Rothkopf called Jafar Panahi’s fatalistic drama an Iranian Taxi Driver, with Travis Bickle recast as a quiet, class-conscious loner (and military veteran to boot) who prowls the city on a moped, delivering pizzas to the more fortunate before retiring to his one-room hovel. (Josh’s fertile analogy finds other corresponding characters and situations, but I’d rather not give them away.) Most impressive here are some of the longer setpieces, namely the opening robbery scene and the hero’s dark-night-of-the-soul encounter with a half-cracked rich guy.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (B+)—I don’t entirely trust this documentary’s fawning treatment of Venezuelan president Chavez, but its first-hand access to an audacious coup attempt gives the film stunning immediacy for most of the way. I confess to not being fully aware of the details—nor of the C.I.A.’s possible complicity in orchestrating them—so it was riveting to see how the moneyed Old Guard used their privately owned media companies to bamboozle the people and overthrow a democratically elected leader. Seeing this riveting piece of agitprop made me grateful to live a country where the media doesn’t acquiesce to the powerful elite. Oh wait…

The Mayor Of Sunset Strip (B+)—It could stand a few more sessions in the cutting room, but George Hickenlooper’s funny and heartbreaking documentary is the last word on the lure of celebrity and the sadness that comes from residing on its fridges. Certainly, no one character in the festival was more memorable than Rodney Bingenheimer, a Zelig-like L.A. gadfly (and Davy Jones stand-in) who attached himself to seemingly every major musical figure that ever reached the city limits. (In spite of his gnome-like presence, his mere association with the stars earned him a notorious amount of groupie action, and, later, a telling friendship with Kato Kaelin.) As Rodney gets pushed ever further to the margins, the film heads into darker territory, leading to a final question from Hickenlooper that completely wrecked me.

Game Over: Kasparov And The Machine (B)—Completing the doc trifecta, this reasonably gripping account of Kasparov’s agonizing loss to IBM’s Deep Blue computer in 1997 is compromised by a director intent on goosing up the action with pulsing edits, a driving score, and frequent cutaways to a mechanical chess machine called “The Turk.”(I feared we were in trouble when the director stood up at the public screening and assured the audience that they weren’t going to be subjected to much “boring” chess play.) The film doesn’t go far enough in exposing foul play from the IBM people, but clearly they put Kasparov in a hopelessly compromised position—and, of course, profited greatly from their PR stunt was pulled off. Kasparov is a terrific subject, however: His still-tortured analysis of the notorious second game (in which the computer reacted in an uncomputer-like way to one of his gambits) is a particular highpoint.

Cypher (B-)—Dude, it’s like we’re totally living in a Matrix, controlled by corporations with pills and spies and black helicopters and freaky seminars and whatnot. Engaging enough while it lasts, but the monochromatic photography pretty much sets the tone for the monochromatic goings-on. It also doesn’t help that you’re constantly reminded of all the better movies that are being ripped off: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Parallax View, etc.

Saturday, September 6

Dogville (A-)—Take away all the gimmickry and hype that surrounds (and is perpetuated by) Lars Von Trier and he is, at bottom, a peerless dramatist: Any other director would risk career suicide by mounting a three-hour opus on a barely appointed stage, but Von Trier has a sadist’s knack for locating his characters’ (and his audience’s) soft spots and provoking a singular emotional experience. I wasn’t as moved by Dogville as I had anticipated, but no film in the festival has more meat on its bare bones. In a wicked subversion of that All-American classic, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Von Trier shows how the democratic ideals of a wholesome, God-fearing community run against the corrupting influence of human nature. Mike D’Angelo astutely described the film as an allegory for the immigrant experience, with Nicole Kidman as an outsider driven into labor with no hope of social advancement, victimized by greed, exploitation, and moral hypocrisy.

Elephant (A-)—Detractors angrily accuse Van Sant of lacking the perspective, moral or otherwise, to comment meaningfully on Columbine, but they’re missing the point. Few events have been seized upon so opportunistically (by politicians, pundits, social critics) and Van Sant should be praised for seizing it back, creating an uninflected meditation on an average day that turns out to be not-so-average. At once gentle and terrifying, beautiful and brutal, the film is nothing more (or less) than an accounting of the students’ lives, a monument to their existence. As in Gerry, Van Sant and his marvelous cinematographer Harris Savides create gorgeous spaces that allow the viewer freedom to reflect without imposing any point-of-view on them. Bonus points for the film’s ingenious structure: The moment I realized that time was doubling back on itself—by way of a reverse angle that suddenly thrusts the audience toward the main event—remains the most exhilarating of the festival.

Goodbye Dragon Inn (B)—A disappointment only by Tsai Ming-liang’s lofty standards, this bittersweet valentine to the cinema benefits from his signature melancomic tone and meticulous framing. But it also feels conspicuously undernourished, with long takes that don’t always materialize into anything substantial. Single shots continue to reside in my head, even after seeing a couple dozen films subsequent to this one, but Tsai can do better than mere gallery exhibits, no matter how evocative.

Free Radicals (C)—No movie that plays A-Ha’s “Take On Me” three times can be all that bad, but after patiently wading through this dreary demonstration of Chaos Theory in action, I was sorely disappointed that it all roughly amounted to nil. Those butterflies are a real menace: A few flaps and the entire country of Austria is brought to its knees.

Sexual Dependency (C+)—Daring conceit, mixed results. For his first feature, Bolivian-American director Rodrigo Bellott pulls a Figgis and splits the screen in half for the film’s entirety, showing a daisy-chain of interconnected stories from two angles. The gimmick doesn’t really justify itself until later in the movie, when Bellott follows the narrative on one screen and uses the other more impressionistically (though not enough, alas.) Around the halfway mark, I was surprised and gratified to see Bellott take the stories in a more expansive direction. But once the overriding thesis (Macho Ritual And Its Consquences, or something to that effect) kicks in, there’s not much left to intrigue.

Sunday, September 7

21 Grams (B+)—As articulated by top-flight actors like Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, and (Homicide fans rejoice!) Melissa Leo, Innarito’s bold, capital-letter Catholic themes of Sin, Redemption, Forgiveness, and Salvation take on enormous gravity and emotional force. Credit also to Innarito and ace Soderbergh editor Stephen Marrione for jumbling the chronology and allowing the audience to gradually situate itself in time. Peaks a bit too early, though: I was too wrung out by the end for the payoff to have much impact.

Jesus You Know (C)—Those damned Austrians again. A month or two ago, I was put off by Ulrich Seidl’s relentlessly ugly fiction debut Dog Days, but I was hopeful that his formal rigors would play better in documentary form. Save for a few stylized domestic scenes (and a couple funny cutaways in ping-pong and foosball games in the church rec room), the film shows various people praying outloud to Jesus, revealing mini-narratives in the process. Interesting in theory, grueling in execution.

Touching The Void (B)—The amazing true story of a mountain-climbing expedition gone horribly awry, told by the men involved narrating over extensive (and convincingly realistic) reenactment footage. Based on this and One Day In September, Errol Morris fanboy Kevin McDonald is admirably cinematic in his recreation of past events, even if he never approaches Morris’ visual panache. Better to know as little about the events as possible going in; for the unacquainted, this is edge-of-your-seat stuff.

Vibrator (C/zzz)—After a few days of absorbing punishing aesthetics on little sleep, I finally crashed one hour into this slight Japanese road movie—not just nodding in-and-out, mind, but a full, deep hibernating slumber. My friend Chris Stults, who liked the film quite a bit (best to take his word for it in this situation), had to wake me when the end credits were rolling; as we exited the theater, I bid him farewell and walked off in the wrong direction.

The Yes Men (N/A)—God help the poor bastards who tried to rush the Cumberland this year. Josh and I held a place in line nearly an hour-and-a-half before showtime (we were around the seventh in order for this film, I believe) and gawked as virtually no one in line for our screening or the two screenings before it got in. Two days later, we were the last people admitted to the new Kim Ki-duk and arrived to find the first two rows nearly empty. What a waste of time!

Monday, September 8

The Company (A-)—In harmony with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Robert Altman’s behind-the-scenes look at the innerworkings of a ballet company puts a heavy emphasis on performance and craft, resulting in a handful of breathtaking stand-alone dance pieces. Leave it to Altman to ignore the conventions of the backstage musical: The artistic process is pushed to the fore while the few glimmers of melodrama are relegated to the margins. (Favorite touch: When a dancer is injured, he or she is simply replaced. No muss, no fuss.) In what might be interpreted as a sly piece of Altman self-parody, Malcolm McDowell hams it up beautifully as an egomaniacal artistic director.

The Five Obstructions (A-)—Lest anyone talk about anybody else, Lars Von Trier hijacks the discussion once again with this playful and exhilarating experiment on the creative process. Lars the merry prankster delights in confronting his austere counterpart Jorgen Leth with “obstacles” (no more than 12 frames per edit, shooting in far-flung locations, etc.) in remaking parts of his 1967 film The Perfect Human, but the film has more serious things to say about how creativity arises from restrictions. This is perhaps the best argument ever made on behalf of the Dogme principles, but it could just as easily apply to conceptual rigor in general. Funny, inspiring, and, in the end, surprisingly moving.

Young Adam (B)—An involving, well-acted, meat-and-potatoes suspense drama about responsibility (or culpability, in this case) that doesn’t evolve so much as stays the course, which is actually quite brave and gratifying under the circumstances. The filmic equivalent of a stiff, invigorating winter chill.

The Fog Of War (A)—Errol Morris’ interview with Robert McNamara, the former Secretary Of Defense who was widely acknowledged (and vilified) as the architect of the Vietnam War, occasions a stunning and virtuosic look at war and foreign policy in the 20th century—and clear, dispiriting evidence that history is doomed to repeat itself. Though slippery and elusive by nature, McNamara is never exactly evasive; he genuinely wants to come to terms with his actions and explain the thinking behind his decision. If he falls short of contrition, so too justification. As ever, Morris’ technique puts a distance between himself and other documentary filmmakers, but here it’s applied to a subject of greater import than any film in his career. A stunner.

In The Cut (D+)—Lending balance to the strongest day of the festival, Jane Campion’s supremely silly erotic thriller wraps high-minded theses on marriage and female pleasure in some of the lamest plotting this side of an unproduced Joe Eszterhas script. In a Last Tango tryst with an arty (read: naked) Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo’s bruised masculinity confirms the Brando tag, but even he gets processed through the red herring factory.

Tuesday, September 9

The Saddest Music In The World (B)—Strong start, weak finish. Set in Depression-era Winnipeg, Maddin’s inspired off-the-wall premise of a beer company magnate (Isabella Rossellini) sponsoring a contest to determine…well, you can read the title. Wonderful cast, some of the funniest lines in the festival, and Maddin’s retro style carry the day, even when the story runs out of gas.

Shattered Glass (B)—Screenwriter-turned-director Billy Ray doesn’t bring much panache to his debut feature, but his straightforward, just-the-facts approach to the Stephen Glass story seems appropriate for a film that champions hard-nosed journalism over sexy young stars like Glass. Hayden Christensen, so wooden in Attack Of The Killer Klones, plays the villain with creepy opacity and Peter Sarsgaard quietly steals the movie as TNR editor Charles Lane—his dispassionate, leveling stare could make him the poster boy for the profession.

The Good Lawyer’s Wife (B-)—Muddled, tonally schizo South Korean melodrama leavened by lots of nudity and some truly impressive sexual acrobatics. Beyond the prurient, the film still offers a compelling relationship between the title woman and a teenage voyeur, and one surprising act of violence that caused the audience to gasp in unison. And also, nudity.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…And Spring (B+)—For those accustomed to Kim Ki-duk’s annual exercises in violence, perversity and sexual politics, this genteel meditation on Buddhist themes—told with an exquisite balance and control that complements its subject—represents a major curveball. Some find it a religious experience (literally), but I could only admire it from a distance, perhaps because its lessons are so simple and schematic. I suspect a second viewing will push it over the top.

Wednesday, September 10

Twentynine Palms (B)—I still don’t know what to think of Bruno Dumont’s scandalous opus, but the film certainly took some of the heat off Vincent Gallo. Mesmerizing viewing the entire way, as Dumont spends the first 105 minutes wandering the (beautifully photographed) landscape with a bickering couple whose hot-and-cold relationship leads to sniping one minute, animalistic sex the next. The languorous goings-on comes to an end in shocking fashion; turns out Dumont was building to something, after all. I’m not sure I buy his logic, but the film is certainly a singular experience: You could feel the audience’s collective enmity growing by the minute, until it exploded into laughter during a particularly emphatic sex scene and full-blown antagonism during the final reel. Loud boos, defiant applause, Atom Egoyan in the front row—now this was a festival screening.

The Yes Men (B-)—For those who aren’t aware, The Yes Men are a troupe of anti-globalization satirists who pestered the WTO by doing a parodic mock-up of its website and posing as WTO spokesmen at a few speaking events and on television. Their Swiftian interpretations of WTO policies are daring and brilliantly funny—one speech about solving third-world hunger by feeding them McDonald’s hamburgers composed of filtered first-world waste is a particular highlight—but the film is less a documentary than a promotional video. I expected more from Chris Smith (American Movie, Home Movie), who has a gift for portraiture that’s unutilized here. Best to consider it a side project and move on.
Haute Tension (B-)—Viscerally effective, old-school spatter movie from France nods to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other exercises in realistic terror, but it’s partly spoiled by new-school slickness and a stupefying plot twist. Would have been better if director Alexandre Aja and his screenwriter had simply plunged headlong into 90-minutes of bloody terror without throwing kinks in the slasher machinery. Delivers the goods nonetheless.

Thursday, September 11

Coffee And Cigarettes (B+)—Mostly delightful collection of Jim Jarmusch’s diner shorts, with only a couple duds (mainly early in the cycle) interspersed with numerous gems, particularly Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, The White Stripes, Bill Murray with RZA and GZA, Cate Blanchett with herself, and, best of all, a hilariously awkward exchange between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan. Certain lines and themes bubble repeatedly to the surface, but nothing terribly substantial.

Dallas 362 (B+)—Who could have guessed that a slot-filler, directed by Scott Caan (James’ bulky, affable chip-off-the-block), could be the find of the festival? The characters are Mean Streets-lite, two L.A. palookas who collect money from degenerate gamblers and start bar fights in the downtime. The relationship between a troubled kid (Shawn Hatosy) and his therapist (Jeff Goldblum) recalls nothing more inspiring than Good Will Hunting. Yet Cann and his stellar cast, which includes himself and (welcome back) Kelly Lynch, keeps tweaking the action in unexpected directions, not to mention supplying some of the sharpest dumb-guy dialogue I can remember. Great music (early White Stripes, other blues-inflected rock), diamond-sharp cutting, supple camerawork. A real talent to watch.

The Return (B)—I wish I could glean more thematically from this Venice prize-winner about an estranged father who suddenly returns home so his adolescent sons after a 13-year absence. As is, very elegantly done and terrifically acted by the two young boys. By keeping the father’s history and motivations a secret, the dramatic tension grows by minute, culminating in a road trip in which one boy clings to his father and the other one keeps his distance, neither knowing what this volatile stranger has in mind for them.

The Five Obstructions (A-)—Still cool.

Gozu (B)—Inexplicably long at 129 minutes, Takashi Miike’s latest opens well and ends with a magnificently twisted climax that tops even Dead Or Alive. In the soft middle, Miike settles into an uncharacteristically low-key Kafka-esque comedy; it doesn’t really work, but it still counts as a good sign for those of us concerned that Miike was getting too enamored of the wacky. The midnight madness crowd seemed to nod off along with me until that kick-ass finale, which left everyone buzzing on a high.

Friday, September 12

The Brown Bunny (C)—Not nearly the disaster so hailed at Cannes, though not a misunderstood masterpiece, either. Vincent Gallo’s minimalist road movie, cut by 30 minutes since its disastrous debut, works best as a finely textured travelogue, with plaintive songs by people like Gordon Lightfoot placed over a diverse picture of the American landscape, as seen through a bug-flecked windshield. But once Gallo reaches his destination, the only solid element is his throbbing member. Basically, the film rehashes Gallo’s man-child character from Buffalo ’66, to vastly diminishing returns. (Still, those writing it off as a Gallo vanity project never acknowledge his intense vulnerability in that scene with Chloe. He’s terrible, but deeply exposed.) I hope the movie gets a fair shake regardless, though the press audience came primed to ridicule it, so its reputation may have permanently sullied it. (Sitting two seats away from me, that shoplifting cretin Rex Reed spent long sections of the film tapping his dress shoes on the floor.)

Still to come: Time Of The Wolf (B), PTU (B), Undead (D)