TIFF REVIEWS: Day 7

In an earnest attempt at getting to what I’ve promised people reading this, I’m going to try to churn out a day more frequently… this weekend, however, will be devoted to reviews of (hopefully) A Serious Man, Paranormal Activity & Bright Star.

First on the day was Italian political-thriller The Front Line. It stars the internationally acclaimed Giovanna Mezzogiorno, as well as up and comer Riccardo Scamarcio as the stories central focus. They play Susanna and Sergio respectfully – a couple whose anti-establishment directives take on an extreme during the wave of right-wing political events that swept up eastern Europe in the late 60s to early 80s. This, of course, is what sparks the conflict between the extremest organization and the Italian government.

Starting off with a character reflecting on past events is usually a poor decision — it is no different here. Sergio is found sitting in a dark and barren cell speaking to the camera. Instantly we know that he meets his ends with the police and that the way he speaks somberly about his relationship with Suzanna, that they also come to a tragic end. This nullifies any major suspense between the policia and either of the protagonists; especially since Suzanna’s perspective is only somewhat shown and she’s the only one whose end we don’t immediately interpret.

As traditional, the film follows a pro-terrorist agenda – well, if the terrorists are white, anyways. Like last years’ Hunger and The Baader Meinhof Complex, The Front Line negates the government’s side of the argument – impressing upon the viewer that the ones committing all the crimes out of distaste for the ruling establishment are the good guys. It’s blatant bias like this that bothers me most about films like these – seldom do you see the government get a fair shake, let alone a nibble of perspective. Their entire argument is condemned and everything they say converted to simple and asinine, yet the terrorists are filled to the brim with philosophy and idealist views to change the world.

Later on, the romantic dynamic comes into fruition. At first, the cold but identifiable glances shared between Sergio and Suzanna over their groups plans were their dearest form of communication – kind of humorous considering they are sought as the ones in control of this ‘take action’ organization. When the romance brews, it does contain its fair share of intrigue – not making it a habit of stepping into familiar territory. Plus pleasantries in both characters are uncovered that make way for a bit of real development in this exclusively stylish thriller. If you believe I’m exaggerating, look no further than the fancy editing of simple times and dates into frames – its a film wholly destined to excite.

What keeps this run-of-the-mill chronicle from being merely poor is the burgeoning suspense. I’ll admit that while you know how its going to unfold, there are scenes that absorb the viewers attention long enough to forget your preconceptions; inducing a sprinkle of flare. In addition, while the utmost lead performance by Riccardo Scamarcio isn’t by any means stellar, his co-star in Ms. Mezzogiorno encapsulates the exemplary hardened and reckless terrorist. There’s a reason why she’s so highly regarded and you’ll surely understand why after witnessing this dignified portrayal.

Even though the story takes expected turns, the structure and characterization are archetypal and the conversations profuse, The Front Line does well by balancing itself on the thin border that separates the good with the bad. [5/10]

YouthinRevolt

As the days begin to wind down at TIFF, I find that its the second screening that is the toughest to make it through; you don’t have the early morning adrenaline to make it through the rest and your body has had enough time to shake off its fatigue with a meal or caffeine.

Youth in Revolt appears to be a typical indie-comedy with recurring face of the ‘movement’ in Michael Cera – a young man whose ordained his name in pop culture with his awkward shtick. For fans of cinema – or more specifically, people who grew up watching the classics – the film packs a far more identifiable punch that will certainly resonate with this specific type of viewer more so than one would expect given the charred outline. As is, the story is about a sixteen year old boy named Nick (Michael Cera) whose quest for cool is boundless. After coming to the realization that his life is headed in no specific direction, Nick decides to take matters into his own hands. And if you’re wondering, yes he is a virgin and yes this story is primarily about “getting some”.

We get a minor glimpse of Nick’s angst – he’s a loner, his mother and him don’t have any sort of understanding and he loathes her boyfriend, Jerry (the hilarious Zach Galifianakis). Suddenly one night, Jerry picks a fight with a trio of marines. Since they’re more fit and could certainly pummel him, Jerry decides to take his girlfriend and Nick to his dilapidated trailer in the middle of nowhere. Having nothing better to do with his life, Nick finds it a good idea to just go with it.

The first deviated plot point is that Nick’s a lone wolf. There is minimal banter conjured up and when it is its between either his promiscuous and grating mother Estelle (Jean Smart) or a various number of pompous acquaintances – for the first act, anyways. When out and about in the haggard terrain that the trailer trash landscape provides, he bumps into a young beauty – a diamond in the rough, if you will. Immediately one grasps that this will be a tale about finding love in the most unlikely of places – a tired concept that passes above the trend with its unique advances. Of course, she’s his soulmate of sorts – she loves foreign cinema and obscure literature as he does, only she has an avid obsession with French affairs. From Serge Gainsbourg to Jean-Paul Belmondo to the desire of a man named Francois, Sheeny Saunders (Portia Doubleday) is the ideal woman for any enlightened young man. She, too, has problems – a devoutly Republican (see: highly religious) homestead that, albeit wealthy and protruding considering the area, provides little in terms of sufficient understanding. Here, Nick and Sheeny make a pact – Nick will get kicked out of his home and figure a way to live nearby his new found infatuation if she can land Nick’s father George (Steve Buscemi in a small role) a job somewhere in the area.

When Nick’s “family” returns to their abode, they find an automobile in the middle of their living room. This is hilarious in areas, but symbolic in exaggerating finding something fitting where it doesn’t belong – even furthering the point that foundations would have to crumble in order for it to be removed. It’s cheap, but for those invested in the feature, it’s a delightful little marvel.

Back to Nick and his new objective – becoming the bad boy no girl can resist. In wanting to be as suave as imaginable, he conjures up an alter-ego named Francois Dillinger (Michael Cera again for the curious). The thought process of this character is attributed to two primary figures – Belmondo’s Michel in Breathless and John Dillinger. But even Johnny Depp’s recent portrayal of the infamous 30s gangster isn’t as calm or collected. Cera churns out an unexpected amount of gravitas in this role, adding a previously concealed depth to the young actor’s ability. In addition, the conversations neurotic Nick and his nonchalant inner persona are unquestionably the comical peaks in the feature.

In the end, Youth in Revolt is a coming of age tale of rarely matched proportions. It’ll take a very specific viewer to comprehend and enjoy the maladroit and manufactured conversations between Nick and the people around him and an even more distinct one to place themselves in Nick’s shoes. A triumph for the indie-comedy era and one that deserved a far more benevolent release date, if only for Cera to garner his first major award nomination at this years Golden Globe ceremony. [8/10]

One of my most anticipated features of the festival was next in Glorious 39. With a widely acclaimed television film director getting his first crack at a major cinematic film and a cast with some of the best British acting exports in Bill Nighy and *yawns* Julie Christie. After getting word that I was in for a real disaster the evening prior, my expectations for this film set to be released in the UK on my birthday (hint hint) were very low. Alas, I was hopeful that the “Hitchcock” in the film would emerge victorious and all the negative buzzing about the film was just from a few bad eggs. Sadly it wasn’t.

The story starts off innocently enough – a group of young adults frolicking around a wide-open marsh that glows beneath a perennially gorgeous British afternoon sky. Fortunately, not all the film is as palpable as the opening film would indicate… unfortunately, most of the film is either too vague or too direct to take seriously on its fundamental dramatic level; reaching moments of true absurdity.

Initially, Glorious 39 is a story about a pure young woman named Anne Keyes (Romola Garai) who is throttled into a spiral of nasty events brought on by the British and their debating over joining the fight against the Fuhrer. Her father, Alexander (Bill Nighy) is an upper-class citizen who is known to be associated with a plethora of petulant politicians, so it comes as no odd occurrence that the Keyes’ home is one of the several storage places for the governments files. Because of this, the atmosphere of the film takes on a completely separate sensation that gathers together too fast to be dire – placing unfounded exaggeration on the aura; essentially occurring overnight.

Turns out that there is plenty going on behind closed doors that no one but the upper echelon of England know about. Of course, precocious Anne attempts to cast some knowledge to fellow civilians – including her newly acquired love interest Hector (David Tennant) – about the ongoing debacle, but needs to educate herself first and foremost. Otherwise linear stories get entangled with one and other, people suffer and worrisome answers are given to happily prompted questions – its like everything you’ve seen before mysteries in the past. However, in order to stray from being too genial with the outline, writer/director Stephen Poliakoff opts to get more and more depressive with Anne’s story. This sporadically comes to avail, but seldom lands where one would like it too – creating some of the most inopportune laughs of the festival; especially in the final stretch of the loose thriller.

Usually a lead performance reflects upon the quality of the feature. With Glorious 39 the rarity that is “the lead performance is the feature” applies, and as a fan of Garai (in some respect) it pains me to say that both her acting and the feature vilely go hand in hand. Like the feature, Garai has sprouts of brilliance scatter across the parched role that is Anne Keyes. Wrapped up in a paragraph, Ms. Keyes appears to be a delicious role that any young woman would love to take a bite into – its only in practice that the role is erroneously assembled. Not all the blame can rest upon Romola’s shoulders, but here it’s evident that no one knew what they were doing with Ms. Keyes. In fact, most roles are malnourished in this feature – its only Nighy’s performance that really sticks out from the seemingly unconcerned characterization scribed by Stephen Poliakoff.

This grievous revelation has left this viewer crestfallen, because after her sublime portrayal in Atonement, I’m starting to believe that her ability on screen is greatly based on luck as opposed to skill; that her strength in grasping a role is prepubescent at best.

In essence, Mr. Poliakoff attempts to hit a sonorous chord with his audience by implementing real wartime tragedies (ie. the abundance of pet killing). His cut-and-dry approach to what potentially had masterpiece written all over it prompts a very fitting alternative title for the feature: Ordinate Without a Heart. [4/10]

Having to rush from the last feature to this allowed me to flush any disappointment I had from the former quite easily. Coincidentally, this was yet another wartime thriller – a different formula and one that works with the human heart as opposed to against it, but one nonetheless. With Guillaume Canet, Emir Kusturica and Alexandra Maria Lara being directed by a man who has only directed two features – one of which garnered his country an Oscar nomination in 2005 – in Christian Carion… what could go wrong? The answer: very little. A tad underwhelming considering the talent, but a solid outing by anyone’s standards.

Generally when one hears of a film about a man breaching their home country to give political secrets to another, one jumps to the thought that whizzing bullets, ferocious action sequences and outrageous explosions are to ensue. Here, director/writer Christian Carion opens up L’affaire farewell with a whimper – setting a melancholic and quiescent air for the subtle espionage to take place under. This contemplative film emphasizes finding your purpose in life and the importance of a good friendship – all the while balancing its existential thriller core and never losing sight of the intentions of either in the two hours it runs for. Plenty of filmmakers find themselves taking on complications when balancing two core human functions such as compassion and uncertainty. Favorably for viewers, this French filmmaker does both with restraint and a humbled sense of this enigmatic world and those that inhabit it.

Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica) and Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet) are two individuals with scary parallels. Each have a loving wife and a son (although Sergei’s is going through puberty while Pierre’s is still a boy), each hold a strong esteem for democracy and each are essentially loners. They first meet when the French government sends Pierre to meet Sergei to learn about the military secrets he says he holds in secrecy against his Russian government. At first, Sergei is against the idea of having a young man running one of the most important French operations in their history, but soon warms up to the young Frenchman as he sees more and more of himself in Pierre.

With Pierre’s frequent moving due to his profession and Sergei’s standoffish persona, neither have truly connected with another human being since the first moment they laid eyes on their loves. However, in Sergei’s case the once prominent scent of love has now faded into obscurity; finding himself desperate for someone to relate with. Although Pierre is hesitant, Sergei peruses this one last opportunity at companionship with perhaps more energy than the French government does soliciting Sergei’s secrets. This takes their dynamic to a variety of levels from warming to unsettling – keeping the time the two spend together constantly interesting and unpredictable.

Generally the story stays metaphorical enough to keep its viewers attention from wandering – its only in the family drama aspects of the film does the plot begin to grow tired. In fact, its primarily only Pierre’s life at home that is tedious and sterilizes any dexterous tension. The whole wife worried about her family’s well being subplot runs on repeat here; leaving hardly any room for an apt sense of distinction between their relationship and the adjacent fleeting one of Sergei’s.

What the film lacks in obtusely manipulated action sequences it makes up for with intelligent performances, solid character development and a great use of contrast. Whether it be showing the difference in ideals between communism and democracy or just flagrantly displaying fundamentally parallel people in different circumstances, L’affaire Farewell effectively demonstrates the various challenges that the human condition entails. Also: leave it up to an acclaimed foreign director to deliver the best performance of the festival in Emir Kusturica – a very sympathetic performance full of humility and generosity towards the role given to him. [8/10]

Onto what is considered the most surprising foreign film of the year in Lebanon. After getting a hint from a friend that I’d love the film (on a hunch of his) before either Venice or TIFF started, I promptly swapped Gigante for this Israeli feature. And can I say, that was by far the best decision I made all festival – well, apart from the last minute audible between Les Dernier jours du monde and The Ape… but more of that later.

The film opens on a landscape shot of an agglomeration of sunflowers. They’re entirely hunched over and appear sad; as if nature – or better yet, the world – is already in a despondent state. With that image in mind, Lebanon begins its descent into the mentality of new soldiers and the corruption of their innocence.

Like last years Waltz With Bashir, the wartime experiences displayed on the celluloid are semi-autobiographical – director/writer Samuel Maoz’s harrowing depiction of war would spell it out clearly enough if he hadn’t said so beforehand. Set on the first day of the 1982 Lebanon war, the film follows the worrisome routine of four soldiers – two of whom are new to military duty. For the next 90 minutes, the viewer seldom sees outside of this brooding and dreary tank. As tension runs high and mistakes are made – Maoz demands viewer consideration, especially when dripping down a brief political agenda when characters aren’t lambasting one and other or bullets are being fired.

For the cast of character, Maoz swiftly prompts the similarities and distinctions between each soldier. We’ve got frail and fresh-faced gunner Shmulik (Yvan Donat), one of the two new recruits to the war; distressed and easily spooked youthful driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov); the experienced leader that has a refined emotional core and thinks studiously rather than with his gut in Assi (Itay Tiran); and the longtime comrade of Assi in foul and tense Hertzel (Oshri Cohen). Each of which is uncomfortable – both with the compact confinements of the tank and the idea of battle. They’ve some calmness instilled into them from the confident and blunt commander Jamil (Zohar Strauss) who places a simple sounding directive in front of them — this, of course, dissipates almost immediately the first moment things appear awry.

Length is the feature’s only problem – its too short. Each character, while developed somewhat, runs amiss with the initial characterization given to them for unfounded reasons. With a lengthier script or more time spent building deeper emotional capacity – a five minute scene where each of the men joke about sexual fantasies (but that’s surprisingly one of the more emotional and unique moments, so there’s even moments of brilliance in the detrimental scenes here) in great detail doesn’t exactly impress intelligent comprehension of characters towards the viewers. Virtuous in giving the public a bit of perspective on the strains of your typical soldier, but not nearly as fulfilled as recent others (see: Days of Glory).

By the final frame – that in which the tank we spend almost the entire duration in placed in the middle of the frame displaying the group of hunched over sunflowers – the viewer has grasped exactly what Samuel Maoz wanted. With a lucid message, lighting pacing generally reserved for top-tier popcorn fare and as fantastic an ensemble one will experience all year – Lebanon supersedes the excitement of modern day warfare films with its timeless theme: ‘the world is already a depressive place – what good can war do?’ [9/10]

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