TIFF: Day 2 — Coen Brothers, George Clooney, Michael Haneke and a ninja Puritan

Alright, so it’s actually my first day at the festival, but it’s the second day of the fest itself, and I’m always one for going along with the official rules. Missing the first day was a bit of a bummer (I’m still very curious about the new Pedro Almodovar film and Lars von Trier’s almost absurdly controversial Antichrist), but there’ll be no shortage of films to keep me occupied.

So, without further ado, the four films I watched today (and I’ll be trying to average four a day , though I’m sure that’ll fluctuate):

A Serious Man (dir. The Coen Brothers)

It’s been one hell of a three year stretch for the Coen brothers. After giving fans a bit of a scare with the not-so-great combo of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, they’ve hit back hard, first with 2007’s nihilistic masterpiece No Country for Old Men and then with last year’s lightweight but entertaining as hell Burn After Reading. At first, A Serious Man feels closer in tone to the latter (although its starless cast is basically the opposite of Burn’s Clooney-Pitt-Malkovich dream team), but the issues it deals with are every bit as weighty as anything in No Country.

The film is essentially a meditation on faith, questioning the role of God in a chaotic world through the life of a Jewish university professor (a perpetually put-upon Michael Stuhlbarg). His wife wants a divorce, his brother is sleeping on the couch with no sign of leaving and a student is making his life miserable over a failing grade. Coincidences and omens pile up seemingly randomly, the script is loaded with references to paradoxes and religious allegories, ’60s psych rock is put on the same plane as Talmudic wisdom and the ending is every bit as off-putting as the notoriously unresolved No Country. In other words, it’s another hit from a pair of almost frighteningly consistent filmmakers (the aforementioned slump notwithstanding).

Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman)

Diablo Cody got a lot of credit and a lot of flack for her 2007 teen pregnancy hit, Juno, and it was well deserved on both counts. Oddly, though, director Jason Reitman’s name hardly came up in connection to the movie — yet he’s undoubtedly responsible for a lot of the cutesier touches, like the opening credit animations, that rubbed some folks the wrong way.

Reitman directed and co-wrote Up in the Air, so there’s no one to pass the blame onto this time. Not that it’s a terrible film — it’s a perfectly middle-of-the-road dramedy, anchored by an unsurprisingly charismatic lead performance from George Clooney as a downsizer-for-hire and a surprisingly solid turn from Vera Farmiga (Orphan, The Departed), who matches him note for note as his on-the-road love interest. Less great: Anna Kendrick as Natalie Keener, the overachieving (get it?) twentysomething who’s mucking up Clooney’s frequent flyer plans by proposing to do the downsizing via teleconferences.

Despite the topical subject matter (layoffs are certainly on a lot of people’s minds lately), the movie doesn’t offer any real insight, even with a string of semi-obnoxious talking-head interviews. Instead, it settles for jokes about text messaging and — despite one clever twist on the usual grand romantic gesture — a conservative moral that doesn’t really jibe with the rest of the tone.

The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke)

Austrian director Michael Haneke is known for toying with his audience. Last year’s Funny Games (an English-language remake of his own 1997 German-language film) mocked horror movie audiences for their torture-loving ways. Cache (2005) masterfully manipulated its audience — watching it was the only time I’ve heard a whole theatre gasp in unison. The White Ribbon, his Palme d’Or-winning 2009 effort, plays with the audience in an altogether different way — by trying their patience.

The film isn’t slow so much as it is methodical. Set in a small town in Austria in the year leading up to the First World War and narrated by the town’s schoolteacher, The White Ribbon is less about its individual characters than the tensions, suspicions and class conflicts that eventually lead to atrocities. Haneke has described the film as discussing “the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature,” and viewed in that light, its nearly non-stop miserablism is a bit more understandable. But the slow pace, a number of reprehensible characters and Haneke’s emotionless directorial distance don’t make for an easy film to get into.

The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, though, and it recalls the crisp composition and stark contrast of turn-of-the-century photographs. The lack of any emotion makes it a frustrating experience, but there’s no question that it’s the work of a master director.

Solomon Kane (dir. Michael J. Bassett)

Originally conceived by Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, Solomon Kane is the most deadly puritan you’ll ever come across — a badass-turned-pacifict-turned-badass. To give you an idea, at one point he gets crucified by his enemies, tears himself off the cross and kicks their asses. It’s a ridiculous moment in a ridiculous movie, and if that’s the sort of scene that’d turn you off, steer clear.

Even for b-movie fans, Kane is a bit of a slog. The plot is by the numbers, milking an unsurprising twist for the majority of its run and relying on cliched dialogue that isn’t quite over-the-top enough to be awesome. Despite a handful of memorable scenes (including an appearance by Gareth from the British version of The Office), there’s really not enough in Solomon Kane to recommend it, but it’s hard not to be at least a little impressed with a film that’s willing to crucify its main character halfway through.

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