Another day with back-to-back-to-back films, with the quality of what's being offered (or at least, what I'm choosing to see) decreasing dramatically. Some real stinkers today, along with a couple good flicks to make it far from a total bust. It's so disheartening to see something that begins fairly well and then crashes and burns pretty rapidly, something that occurs all to often with so-called "festival" films, the generally arthouse fair that populates the majority of presentations here. The key, it's not so hard to realize, is to have an ending that serves to elevate the premise and promise of the film, something that seems the most challenging thing in all screen development.

I ran into Roger Ebert this morning, and while he's certainly looking worse for wear, it was really wonderful to see him walking the halls of TIFF again. I actually had ran into Roeper yesterday, and his caustic humour caught me off guard - for some reason, he looks like a pretty straight arrow on his show. I guess you can't judge a host by his banter.

Margot at the Wedding
A dry, dark comedy, with Margot Baumbach eschews the colour and flamboyance he picked up from his days with Wes Anderson. The sense of lightness that even the dour story of Squid and the Whale still hinted is pretty much absent in this underlit, raw film. Despite this imposed seriousness, the film remains quite enjoyable.

Nicole Kidman drops her glamour look, playing a mother of a young teen who travels to visit her sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is marrying a schlub of a man (Jack Black). Her visit proves to bring up lots of bitter memories, and her essentially schizophrenic demeanor leads to much angst, conflict and general stress.

This is not all negativity and darkness - the performances keep the tone shifting throughout, and even Jack Black (God love him, but he can certainly overreach occasionally) hits the tone of his performance perfectly. This is a sarcastic and somber comedy, certainly not to everyone's taste, but a unique and compelling flick.
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Grade: B+
King of California
Michael Douglas tries his hand at the Robin Williams-as-crazy man motif, this is your typical tale of a dad, his daughter, and the quest for lost gold in modern day suburban California.

Arriving home after years of being institutionalized, Charlie must reconnect with his daughter who has been essentially orphaned by his absence. While Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has to deal with her father's continued quirkiness, she gets caught up in his search for lost treasure, while losing her job, her car, and often her wits.

Unfortunately, despite the madcap caper, a dash of mythology and comic sidekicks, it just all feels like everyone's trying too damn hard to be clever. This king lacks all the style and panache of the Fisher variety, and it falls apart into a maudlin mess of slaptick silliness. Good performers are wasted, and in the end this is nothing but forgettable crap.
Directed by: Mike Cahill
Grade: C-
Reclaim Your Brain
The premise is great - coked up TV exec, responsible for such Reality TV tripe as a Eugenics show (designed to create the next gen of Wunderkind), gets his comeuppance and turns his passion into making better shows for the masses. His grand plan, naturally, is to hijack the ratings boxes, sending populist crap into the toilet and instead draw out poetry, documentaries, black and white classic films, all in an attempt to reset the cultural foundation of German society.

Unfortunately, the film quickly looses the momentum it accrued during its first kinetic ten minutes, and by the end, when without irony the lead character decries the fascists making decisions for the public while he and his friends themselves are dictating what does and doesn't succeed, the film treads some frightening ground indeed.

In fact, this is one of the more blatantly fascist films I've seen come out of Germany since the black and white days, with imprecise irony failing to mask the underlying hate that the film celebrates. With its attempt at a light demeanour and counter-cultural leaning, there's a certain evil to the whole thing. Elitism, didacticism and a snide, snarly tone are irredeemable, and when the film tries to switch to some bizarre slapstick it is simply covering the repugnant with the banal.

It's awful, indeed, but also dangerous, worse in the end for having started out with such promise only to fail.
Directed by:Hans Weingartner
Grade: F
With Your Permission
With Your Permission is another viciously dark romantic comedy out of Denmark, this one centering on domestic abuse. Jan is a member of the catering staff on a Denmark-to-Sweden ferry, a ship full of the elderly and bored passengers who have chosen not to take the newly constructed, far more convenient bridge linking the two nations. His home life is miserable, with a negative, abusive wife making his nights a nightmare.

The beatings by his wife become so severe that there's no way to hide it at work, and Jan is forced into therapy. Jan's accidentally placed in a class with spousal abusers (rather than the abused), and the comedy flows from this misunderstanding.

We learn that Jan's wife has a talent for Opera, one she has given up in order to be with her husband, and it is this fact that underlies her own depression. The farcical and violent situation becomes more comprehensible, and it all seems to come together in the end.

As it all unfolds, the film does avoid many pitfalls, and it comes across as a generally amusing, uniquely plotted romantic comedy. It may not be the finest film of this year's fest, but I appreciate the risks that it takes, and with fine performances and good plotting it's an edgy and droll film that's worth a look.
Directed by: Paprika Steen
Grade: C+
Sleuth
I must admit that I'm not a big play-loving guy. I don't mind reading them, but I simply don't do well suspending disbelief in a staged environment. That said, some of my favourite films, such as Dogville, utilize the stage conventions, breaking down on screen the physical and dramaturgical limits of the traditional stage page.

All this is prelude to the fact that Slueth is nothing more or less than a filmed play. While this is no radical re-invention of the play-on-celluloid genre, it does present its material with enough style and panache to make it a winner.

The story involves a tennis match of wits, pitting a rich man (Michael Caine) against another who is having an affair with his wife (Jude Law). Caine lures Law into a savage joke, only to have the tables turned again and again in this duel of wits.

The language is fantastic, and they really egg the most out of one another. In the end, for me, any limitations of Slueth as film are due to the conceit of the play itself - two guys in a room engaged in banter for just shy of two hours. With fabulous design, some beautiful and witty camera angles, and very strong performances by the two leads, the film carries itself quite well.
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Grade: B+