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Toronto Film Festival 2008 (Day 2)
by Erik Childress

The second full day of the festival is the kind one loves to wake up for. Who knows how the evening will be? But if you need coffee or orange juice to get yourself energized for what some of us were waking up to, then you’re no movie lover at all. I get the orange juice anyway because I like it, but this morning it was coming with a side order of Coens.

The early response to Joel & Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading was that of a mixed bag. Reviews out of the Venice Festival were low-key and unenthusiastic. On top of that, so many critics were wondering out loud why this newly Oscar-minted duo were following up 2007’s Best Picture winner, No Country for Old Men, with such trifle goofiness. Makes you wonder how long some of these people have been working professionals since anyone who has followed the Coens know this to be their M.O. Their dark debut, Blood Simple, gave way to one of the funniest comedies ever, Raising Arizona. The mysterious Barton Fink (an ending to be revisited for those baffled by No Country’s fade out) came a few years before The Hudsucker Proxy. Their Oscar-winning screenplay for Fargo was followed by the once reviled and now cult-revered, The Big Lebowski. The dour Guttenberg-less The Man Who Wasn’t There got doubled up with Intolerable Cruelty AND The Ladykillers. Hell, do the math and just on basic genre-labeling you could say that with Burn After Reading, their comic-to-serious ratio is 7:6. The Coens’ positive-to-negative ratio is even greater. So where does their latest fall? Pretty firmly in-between.

So in-between actually that based on mood and who I’m talking to, I could easily switch opinion and go the other way with it. What’s so great about the Coen Brothers is that no matter what side of the genre or how serious you believe their taking themselves or how much more clever they may seem than the audience – their movies are always about something. Burn After Reading is basically their own satiric take on our fading political administration to take advantage of a situation for capital gain and the paranoia necessary to complete their goals. You’ve got a forced out CIA agent taken to writing his memoirs, a philandering Treasury officer going behind the CIA’s back (on his home soil) fearful of being poisoned by his own allergies and a pair of fitness trainers looking to milk some cash from the government so one of them can cheat and have plastic surgery. Sounds like America to me. Digging out such connections is enough to make anyone with a sense of humor about the last eight years appreciative of the Coens’ efforts to hit their points without going all Lions for Lambs. Except even at a relative 90 minutes, the pacing isn’t quite as screwy as the premise and it winds up with the occasional lag while it chases too much of any particular subplot. Most notably George Clooney’s relationships with Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand; the former of which produces little of remembrance while the latter at least has one surprise waiting for us in the basement. The big laughs come mostly courtesy of Brad Pitt, whose performance as the too-in-love-with-his-job fitness instructor hits the kind of perfect beats that make you wish he’ll show up in one of the Apatow productions next. The last image of Pitt in the film is the stuff Kodak moments were made from and while we’re gathering some of the great comedic scenes of the year, you can make room for the two between David Rasche and J.K. Simmons as the CIA officials desperately trying to make sense of the behavior of these Americans on their watch. The final scene can even be construed (as colleague Nick Digilio asserted) as a self-satire of No Country’s third act of playing all its major moments off screen. Burn After Reading has a lot of big laughs, but in-between doesn’t have a lot of small ones for a consistent balance. So while I appreciate the attempt and would certainly watch it again, I can’t quite call it a full success. Even if I wouldn’t tell someone not to see it.

Burn After Reading

THINGS I HEARD IN LINE: Now we’re less than a hour away from a film that has potential to be one of my huge crushes from the festival. Jumping immediately into line, I was just a few places ahead of one of the fest’s regular journos. Discussions were happening about Burn After Reading with the same kind of mixed verbiage. This guy decided to prop up the film by giving anyone who would listen the classic “well it wasn’t as bad as…” play. In this case, it was the Coens’ remake of The Ladykillers. As an avid supporter of this film as both a comedy and (“it’s also about”) the evolution of Southern ignorance towards African-Americans and the perpetuation of hip-hop culture, listening to this guy was the kind of gritted-teeth aggravation that made me want to shake him out of his own ignorance. (Especially since Intolerable Cruelty is by far their weakest effort.) Of course, shaking is the least of things you’d want to do to a guy who threatened to break the knee of a volunteer at Toronto the year prior because he wouldn’t let him into an invitation-only screening of The Assassination of Jesse James. Yes, I was there.

It’s enough to make you want to put your iPod on and shut off the world – if, you know, I had an iPod. Suitable as any segue, I guess, into Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. While no one in the film makes direct reference to that classic Charles couple, their presence hovers over the film almost like a pair of guardian angels. When you go through the history of all-time movie couplings such as the Charles’, Bogie & Bacall and Tracy & Hepburn few will immediately be comfortable with including Michael Cera and Kat Dennings on that list. But you know what, they should. Maybe its not fair to invoke all-time status based on a singular film, but while watching the Infinite Playlist it’s near impossible to not want these two to be together. And I don’t just mean in the skins of these characters. I’m talking in real life as well. Cera with his puppy dog sarcasm and Dennings with her ferocious, yet loyal sensibility against fakery and insincerity are a valentine to movie relationships and we’d be heartbroken if they didn’t end up in each other’s arms.

Cera’s Nick is coming off a bad breakup. Dennings is the eagle eye to her party-heavy best friend (a hysterical Ari Graynor, who Sopranos fans may remember as Meadow’s party-heavy college roommate). He makes the best mix tapes ever and she has become the recipient of many after his rail-thin bitch ex (Alexis Dziena) would rather throw them out then take a listen. A chance encounter at a club becomes an all-night hunt for the missing party girl, a mysterioso DJ named Fluffie and a burgeoning friendship that you can tell is going to last the rest of their lives. Sounds pretty flimsy, right? Well it’s not. Director Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas) keeps the material from getting too light or too wacky. There’s probably a little too much chasing down the drunk friend, despite how funny Graynor is, and you wish there was a little less grumbling and more of the Before Sunrise/Sunset feel that we get in the final half hour which is quite special. Put Michael Cera and an escalator in your climactic scene and somehow magic is born. Coming up just shy of greatness, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is still a welcome romantic comedy in a year full of Made of Honors, 27 Dresses, Fool’s Golds and What Happens In Vegas’.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Better to spend one night with Nick and Norah than Four Nights with Anna though. Not that there’s anything wrong with Anna. She’s the girl next door who likes to change in front of her window, get drunk at parties and then sleep a lot. That’s a simplistic view though, albeit one I’m sure shared by the stalker living next to her. He’s a middle-aged man living at home who slips some sleeping powder into Anna’s sugar cup to allow him to roam free through her house and observe her slumber; a metaphor no doubt for the audience. Director Jerzy Skolimowski (Moonlighting, with Jeremy Irons, not Bruce & Cybill) plays with time shifts but conducts much of the action through such a bleak lens that key elements remain almost literally unfocused. While the protagonist is presented as mostly harmless, the film’s tone between dark comedy and creepy psychodrama just never works and alternates with such mellowness that it’s impossible to get a grasp on how we should feel about either “victim.” Poland didn't look this bleak during WWII.

Four Nights With Anna

It’s here where I break with the press screenings for the day and lumber on over to Ryerson University for a public showing of a film that was impossible to fit into my schedule otherwise. It took a while for me to warm up to the work of Richard Linklater. Sorry, but Dazed and Confused even at the age of 18 never did anything for me. It took a second viewing of the aforementioned Before Sunrise to grasp it as a beautiful romance instead of a pretentious hipster talkfest. In the post-Waking Life world though, Linklater has crafted some truly interesting (Tape, A Scanner Darkly) and quite entertaining films (School of Rock and, yes, even the Bad News Bears remake) including the even better Before Sunset. So I was very curious to see what a film called Me and Orson Welles could possibly be like. One industry-bucking filmmaker taking on the supreme being of any labeling. And maybe if the focus was a little more on that, we would have had a film worth remembering instead of just a single performance.

Zac Efron is not the performance in question, although he stars in the film, not as Orson Welles but as the “Me”. He’s a cocksure high school student who stumbles upon the Mercury Theatre and charms his way into their infamous first production of Julius Caesar as Lucius. Giving him backstage advice on how to deal with the blustery wunderkind are statured names such as John Houseman and Joseph Cotton, but “Me” spends most of his time with Welles’ assistant (Claire Danes) whose ambition and reluctance to sleep with anyone in the cast have dubbed her the “Ice Queen” despite a near-always sunny disposition. While the Ice Queen and “Me” are taking up a lion’s share of the on-screen antics, there’s a little miracle of a performance going on from Christian McKay as Orson Welles. On TV’s Mad Men, McKay’s character once referred to himself as Welles, but in Linklater’s film he is Welles incarnate. You would swear you were watching some extra on the Citizen Kane DVD detailing the Mercury’s history with archival footage because McKay embodies Orson in every combustible mannerism, crooked smile and voice boom. He’s so phenomenally good that some studio could pick the film up and release it this year as the best opportunity to steal the supporting actor Oscar away from Heath Ledger. For good taste’s sake though, they will likely wait for 2009.

Me and Orson Welles, if nothing else, shows that Linklater will never be Welles. An unfair statement for sure since nobody ever will (even as P.T. Anderson keeps giving it his all) but if Welles was in charge of this film, he would have recognized what was working, rewritten it and fired whomever he needed to on the spot to fulfill his new vision. There’s no way that anyone watching this film will give two licks about Efron’s character. Even as an incidental audience eye into Welles’ world, his character is wildly miswritten as someone able to match wits with the likes of Cotten and Houseman (let alone Welles) instead of as a naïve outsider who is going to get some true life experience from the mentor of all mentors. Who cares about his feelings for Danes or for her life’s goals and that goes double for the more age-appropriate gal who “Me” bookends the film with? Whenever McKay is on screen, it’s transportive. When he’s conducting his symphony of actors, it’s a mesmerizing glimpse into backstage and creative politics. Welles’ attitude certainly reflected a “Me, me, me” approach to artistic license, so it’s a shame that Linklater didn’t see the egotistical irony in the title and just make a film all about Orson Welles. It’s what he would have wanted.

Me and Orson Welles

Day 3 will continue with Flash of Genius, The Burning Plain, The Duchess, Cooper's Camera and Religulous

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originally posted: 09/17/08 01:58:00
last updated: 09/17/08 02:14:06
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