TIFF 2011, Day 6: Generation P, Death of a Superhero, Into The Abyss, Trishna, Urbanized

I have a few friends who may take this as more of a recommendation than is really intended, but Generation P is basically what you would get if you took Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, moved it to Russia, and swapped the super-heroes for advertising creative types. In other words, it’s a bit of a mess, but when you’re blending social commentary, political philosophy, ancient mythology and psychedelic drugs, a mess is what you’re aiming for, really. As the government and economy open up at the tail end of Soviet Russia, poet and kiosk operator Babilen meets an old friend who convinces him that the future lies in the ad world. What follows is a mix of heavy handed cultural criticism (the film’s view of marketing is about as subtle as Adbusters) and bizarre tangents that coalesce into a strange multi-media conspiracy. The last third might require a good working knowledge of contemporary Russian politics to fully appreciate (I started losing interest a few times), but it’s a good mix of inspired and infuriating.

The two main selling points of this kid-battling-cancer drama are its use of animated bits to convey the kid’s fears, and the chance to see Andy Serkis in a non-CGI role. The latter pans out better than the former. The movie does a good enough job getting across the muddle of emotions that come from essentially receiving a death sentence before you’re in spitting distance of adulthood, so the comic book characters that serve as emotional surrogates, while completely in fitting with the character, come across clumsy. Serkis’ role, meanwhile, is basically another take on Robin Williams’ Good Will Hunting psychologist, dead wife, bad sweaters and all. Despite all that, it comes across as sincere rather than calculating, even if it does press all the obligatory buttons.

I expected more from Werner Herzog, to be honest. Into the Abuss bills itself as a documentary about the death penalty, but while it’s excellent at capturing the emotions that surround the debate, it still feels like a superficial treatment of the subject. Focussing in on a single case, Herzog looks at the details of a car theft and triple homicide that left one of its perpetrators with a life sentence and another on death row. The evidence of their guilt is overwhelming, including DNA and damning statements from the perps themselves — so when the death row inmate calmly insists on his innocence, it’s shocking that Herzog simply lets that thread drop. What we’re left with, then, is a collection of emotionally powerful interviews (peppered with leading questions from Herzog), and a few moments where Herzog’s personality comes through (which, naturally, are pretty wonderful). That it doesn’t build into a larger argument, though, seems like a wasted opportunity.

Director Michael Winterbottom transports Tess of the d’Urbervilles to contemporary India, and while the results are certainly beautiful, they’re less engaging than they could’ve been. No blame for that goes to the actors — Slumdog Millionaire’s Frieda Pinto plays the titular heroine with the right mix of hesitation and ambition, and Riz Ahmed is charming enough that, for a while at least, you can see how his general assholishness could be forgiven. And certainly no blame goes to the cinematography, which is gorgeous and colourful throughout. But the structure becomes numbingly repetitive after a while — there are only so many times you can see a woman degraded before the new insults don’t seem much worse than what came before. All of which makes the climax seem to come out of nowhere, rather than being an escalation of emotionally devastating circumstances, and a tragedy with a weak climax, even a gorgeous, well-acted tragedy, is just an exercise in suffering.

Gary Hustwit is an expert at making seemingly mundane topics exceedingly fascinating. After tackling typography (Helvetica) and household objects (Objectified), he’s moved onto a much larger scale. Urbanized looks at urban design, taking an impressively global view of the issue and providing the requisite background info to argue for the subject’s importance. The talking heads can come across a little poncy — academics and design professionals do have a certain air about them — but the topics they discuss, namely liveability of modern cities and the challenges facing the urbanization process, prove endlessly interesting. There’s a perfunctory attempt to be evenhanded by inviting in a sole pro-sprawl planner, but Hustwit’s point is obvious and well-made. Case in point — by 2050, Mumbai’s slums will have the population of New York and London combined, and are currently averaging one toilet per 600 people. Clearly, something needs to change.

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