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TIFF 36 Day 6: The Descendants, Moneyball, Page Eight, Urbanized, Think of Me

Festivals
by Meredith Brody
September 14, 2011 1:18 AM
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Stop the presses. Meredith Brody finally saw The Descendants.

I "caught up with” The Descendants at 9 a.m. Tuesday. That’s what it feels like when you’ve missed half-a-dozen screenings between two festivals, despite the fact that its official opening isn’t until November 19th. For me Alexander Payne has been pretty much four-for-four (loved Citizen Ruth, Election, and Sideways, enjoyed About Schmidt with some reservations). Plus his stint as Guest Director at the 2009 Telluride Film Festival revealed an insatiable and supportive cinephile. First impressions of the perhaps over-anticipated The Descendants: it’s a movie I’ve never seen before. George Clooney believable, non-schticky, left vaunted charm off screen, vanity-free performance. Interesting Hawaiian background. Generally excellent performances from supporting cast. About real human emotions that are rarely portrayed onscreen. Didn’t go for cheap sentimentality. But I wasn’t as moved as I would have liked to be, either by content or form.
Decided I should try something much less commercial and took a leap into the void because friend told me Pen-ek Ratanaruang was “best Thai director after Apichatpong Weerasethakul,” so went to see his Headshot, which I found quite commercial, even though programmed in TIFF’s Vanguard selection: “Innovative filmmakers and bold films that challenge our social and cultural assumptions.” I threw up my hands and went commercial again, to no avail: Moneyball pretty much left me cold. Too long, slackly paced, larded with inserts of statistics and computer files, and not witty, stylish, or charming enough.

I have been entranced lately by The Hour, or anyway the first two hours of The Hour, on BBC America, plus I have extremely happy memories of Plenty (the stage play if not the movie) and also the movie Paris by Night which David Hare both wrote and directed, so I segue to his Page Eight. I am thrilled by the cast credits as they unfurl: Billy Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Saskia Reeves, Ewen Bremner, Ralph Fiennes. I like the settings – London streets, country houses, secret service offices, an art gallery, stylish restaurants – and for a while the rapid-fire dialogue, until it becomes increasingly clear that everybody is speaking in David Hare’s voice. I snatch bits of pleasure here and there, but I feel increasing discomfort and disdain from my seatmate, who accompanied me on a whim when I pointed out that the Czech film they were headed to was rotoscoped animation, especially during the uncomfortable clinch scenes between the luscious, blooming Rachel Weisz and the dry-as-a-bone, creased Bill Nighy. (One can’t help but think of her real-life liaison with James Bond.) I feel I needs must apologize. Geez does Hare loathe Tony Blair.

And America, by the way, which is also not flattered by its portrayal in Think of Me, starring (and produced by) the gifted Lauren Ambrose, believable as an up-against-it single mom trying to raise a child in a crappy apartment while working at crappy jobs in crappy Las Vegas. Dylan Baker is creepy as co-worker who has an appalling agenda. (No, not a pedophile one, though he does give off that aura.) I’m reminded of a deathless line in The Friends of Eddie Coyle: “Life is tough, but it’s even tougher when you’re stupid.” I’m also reminded that Ambrose has just been cast in the revival of Funny Girl that Lea Michele has been unsubtly and convincingly auditioning for on Glee -- who knew Ambrose could sing? Plus everyone and his brother has been saying she’s just too damn pretty for the role. I don’t care – I’ll be there.

But as for Think of Me -- after an hour and 43 minutes of stress, it turns out to be kinda a shaggy-dog story.

I top off the night with Urbanized, my kind of porn: lots of shots of great cities of the world, intercut with talking-heads shots of revered architects, designers, urban planners (several with those great architect/designer/urban planner eyeglasses). Urbanized tries to cover too much in its brisk 82 minutes, but it’s both exciting and depressing (the world is going to hell in a handcart, as millions flock to cities and add to their slums; BUT the Highline in NY is pretty damn cute, there’s a new efficient bus line in Bogota, bike lanes in Copenhagen, and there are some swell buildings going up around the world). I’m not surprised to find the 80-seat Bell Lightbox 5 packed (it’s the last press screening of the day, running unopposed except for the last hour of Kotoko, which started an hour earlier and 3 blocks away).

I am surprised, however, to find myself seated in a row with my favorite American women TIFF regulars: Rachel Rosen of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, and B. Ruby Rich, film writer and professor of film at UC Davis. In my imagination they would all be at fancy parties or dinners at that hour. But here they were, soaking up the info and lingering in the lobby to discuss zoning problems and population density afterwards.

Ruby and I take the (excellent) subway northwards, discussing our favorite urbanist, Jane Jacobs, who wrote the wonderful The Death and Life of Great American Cities while living in Greenwich Village on Hudson Street, but soon decamped to, yes, Toronto.

There are at least half-a-dozen films competing for my attention in tomorrow’s first press screening slot. I’m torn. The only constant: more bad coffee.

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