TIFF Review: Short Takes | Bleader

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

TIFF Review: Short Takes

Posted By on 09.15.09 at 10:00 AM

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I've been at the Toronto International Film Festival for four full days now, watching four movies a day, and these suckers are starting to pile up. So I'm going to bang out some capsule reviews, starting with my favorites so far.

Soul Kitchen
  • Soul Kitchen

Soul Kitchen. After the cross-cultural tragedy The Edge of Heaven, Fatih Akin makes a left turn into comedy with this funky story of a Greek restaurant owner in Hamburg. After his German sweetheart takes off for a six-month assignment in Shanghai, leaving him bereft, he begins to think about joining her there. But his main responsibility is the title establishment, a converted warehouse that specializes in low-priced gourmet food and high-powered American soul music. The story arc is reminiscent of many other restaurant movies—a new chef revitalizes the menu, the place becomes the hottest spot in town, a smooth operator conspires to take over the business—but Akin has populated his little joint with a memorable cast of characters.

Blessed
  • Blessed

Blessed. The source material for this moving Australian drama was "Who's Afraid of the Working Class?," a play staged in 1999 by the Melbourne Workers Theater. I'm guessing the play was more politically oriented than the film, which focuses on the relationships between teenage children and their neglectful mothers. At least one scene still shows traces of a political slant: when a truant in search of cash breaks into the house of a lonely and rather unhinged old woman, she mistakes him for her own son and offers him a copy of The Grapes of Wrath. But the same scene is also emotionally astute: when the old woman tells the boy she loves him, he protests, "Don't fucking love me! I'm robbing you!" Ana Kokkinos directed.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans
  • The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans. This drama by Werner Herzog has been variously described as a remake of and a sequel to Abel Ferrara's notorious Bad Lieutenant (1992), but in fact it's neither: taking over for Harvey Keitel, Nicolas Cage plays a different cop but with the same weakness for sex, drugs, and vigilante justice. Given the heavy Catholic themes of the original, this seemed like a strange project for Herzog, but it's really just an excuse to pump some production money into New Orleans and make a badass cop movie. After a family of five is massacred in a drug-turf dispute, Cage swings into action, though in his case this usually means shaking down suspects for whatever drugs he can snort in his car. The tragic moment that motivates him is heartbreaking: next to the body of a little girl, he finds a glass of water containing an exotic fish and a scrap of looseleaf with the child's poem: "My friend is a fish / His fin is a cloud / He see me when I sleep." But at some point Herzog and Cage must have decided to play this one for laughs: the director is particularly fascinated by the reptiles (snakes, alligators, iguanas) that are part of the landscape in N'awlins, and Cage, stoop-shouldered from a back injury and saucer-eyed from his chemical intake, is flat-out hilarious. He hasn't been this good since Raising Arizona.

The White Ribbon
  • The White Ribbon


The White Ribbon
. Michael Haneke's black-and-white period drama, which one the Palme d'Or at the Cannes festival earlier this year, has been described as a treatise on the root causes of German fascism. I'll leave that to the historians, but it's certainly an eerie tale in which Haneke's signature obsessions—cruelty, violence, sexual repression, bourgeois control—simmer quietly as subtext before bursting into the open in the final reels. It takes place on the eve of World War I in a village that seems quiet and sedate but secretly roils with, as one character phrases it, "malice, envy, apathy, and brutality." The title refers to the custom of a strict father who viciously canes his children, then follows this cleansing ritual by having the mother tie a white ribbon on each child to remind him of his newly won innocence and purity. Cane me, Michael, I'm ready for my ribbon.

The Road
  • The Road


The Road
. John Hillcoat's adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel was supposed to come out last fall but has had its release date pushed back so many times it reminds me of that old Henny Youngman joke: "This movie wasn't released--it escaped!" I can't imagine why the distributor, Dimension Films, is so skittish about it—aside from the fact that it's set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. populated by roving bands of cannibals, what's the problem? Perversely, the movie is now slated for Thanksgiving weekend. Hillcoat made a name for himself with the Aussie western The Proposition, and this film is similarly taut and tough-minded, with a fine performance by Viggo Mortensen as a starving man trying to preserve both his humanity and his little boy's life, goals that frequently conflict.

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