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Elles (Malgoska Szumowska, France/Poland/Germany)—Special Presentations

By Sergio Baldini

In Elles, a female journalist from the woman’s magazine Elle (played by Juliette Binoche, whose presence reinforces the sub-Hanekean tenor of the film) is investigating student prostitution. She interviews two young women, one French, one Polish, living in Paris, who have turned to hooking to finance their education. Listening to their accounts of paid sexual encounters, the journalist is disturbed by their sometimes shocking nature, and by the two girls’ uninhibited sexuality. This in turn makes her aware of her humdrum bourgeois life with a husband and child, which has extinguished her sex life, both real and fantasized. Such a synopsis sounds trite and full of clichés—and indeed it faithfully reflects the nature of Malgoska Szumowska’s film, which has all the insight of an article in a woman’s magazine. (Say, for example, Elle). The mise en scène matches the project’s stupidity and dullness, and culminates in an uninspired ending: a business dinner organized by the journalist’s husband, haunted by phantoms of her interviewees’ clients (Szumowska rashly referencing Buñuel here). Rather than suffer this pretentious failure, you’d be better off seeing Emmanuelle Bercot’s excellent Mes chères études, a film on the same subject made for television in 2010.

Hanaan (Ruslan Pak, South Korea)—Discovery

By Mark Peranson

It’s no hot shakes being a Korean in Uzbekistan. Deported to the Far East of the USSR under Stalin, the fourth-generation Koreans living in Tashkent have integrated into society but remain subject to daily racism, and, if we take Hanaan as a factual representation, are knee-deep in drug-related violence. Six years after a friend was killed, the older and wiser Stas (Stanislav Tyan) has become a policeman, working undercover to infiltrate a gang of Uzbek heroin dealers. But the corruption he discovers pushes him to the limits, and into a downward spiral emblematic of the destiny of the Korean outsider in the post-Soviet society.

In his stark debut, which plays as a Korean-Uzbek version of Serpico (with a nod to French Connection II), director/writer Ruslan Pak—who also acts as Shin, Stas’ friend who escapes to Korea (possibly the hanaan, or promised land, of the title)—shot down and dirty in the streets, alleyways and apartments of his hometown, using a DSLR camera and without the permission of local authorities, as with the subject matter and graphic scenes of drug use, governmental approval of the script was undoubtedly impossible. It’s all rather clunkily staged and performed and not exactly original, but that’s forgiveable to some extent, as Hanaan is based on the life of Stanislav Tyan, who in his first-ever performance reenacts many of the excruciating events he lived through himself—scenes surely tough to film, and just as tough to watch.

 

The Last Gladiators (Alex Gibney, US)—Real to Reel

By Adam Nayman

Having not even seen Goon, I still feel safe in saying that Mike Dowse’s Seann William Scott vehicle will be remembered as the pre-eminent hockey-thug movie of TIFF 2011. That’s because it would have to be pretty awful to sink below the level of Alex Gibney’s scattershot and finally incoherent The Last Gladiators, which toggles between being a profile of former Habs tough guy Chris Nilan and a larger meditation on the “frontier mentality” underlying the culture of the National Hockey League. The form is unremarkable—a Hockey Night in Canada between-periods profile stretched to feature length—and there are tricky, telling lapses that either speak to a bad fact-checker or an indifferent filmmaker.  When Nilan complains that Canadiens coach Jean Perron undid his predecessor Jacques Lemaire’s good work in turning the brutish winger into a 20-goal scorer, it’s a cheat; Perron was behind the bench when Nilan won his only Stanley Cup, which the film frames as the glorious apex of his career. “The crest of the wave,” Nilan’s dad calls it, and Gibney delights in dropping hints that Nilan was headed for a fall from grace. It’s a shameless tactic, and, in the absence of any real insight into the role of violence in hockey, that sense of exploitation is what lingers after the final buzzer.

Porfirio (Alejandro Landes, Colombia/Spain/Uruguay/Argentina/France)—Visions

By Michael Sicinski

 

Should we read up on films before seeing them, or try to go in without preconceptions? This question is directly applicable to Landes’ film but could well be generalized as a broader one regarding appropriate spectatorship. An accomplished and engaging film in every way, Porfirio nevertheless induces a degree of déjà vu from a strictly cinematic standpoint. A sunbaked observational piece about a paraplegic (Porfirio Ramirez Aldana) living a modest life with his layabout son (Lissin Ramirez) and girlfriend (Jasbleidy Santos Torre) selling phone minutes to area residents, Porfirio minutely chronicles his daily struggles: maneuvering in and out of his wheelchair, getting open-air baths, grabbing hard-to-reach objects. He’s also struggling to get a hearing from the Colombian government, since he is clearly owed a settlement and getting the bureaucratic runaround. (An innocent bystander caught in the drug-war crossfire, Porfirio was accidentally shot in the spine by a policeman during a shootout.) But Landes also shows us more graphic scenarios. We see Porfirio taking a shit, having graphic sex, and being shirtless and sweaty pretty much all the time, like a cross between Cheech Marin and a Butterball turkey, all in hard, unforgiving medium shots. Suffice to say, there is a spectre haunting Porfirio, and it’s Carlos Reygadas. Having said this, a final-buzzer revelation arrives which undoubtedly recodes all that comes before it, and, if known ahead of time, would produce a radically different viewing experience. [SPOILERS AHOY.] Porfirio is a true story, re-enacted by the actual participants. In fact, Ramirez’s attempted skyjacking has made him a modern Colombian folk hero, a people’s outlaw in a nation overrun by, well, outlaws with causes far less just. Landes (Cocalero) does not obviate all stylistic concerns with this quasi-docudrama approach, but he certainly complicates matters, and compellingly so.

 

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, UK)—Special Presentations

By Adam Nayman

Call it Smothering Heights: Andrea Arnold’s film of the Emily Bronte perennial is so heavy on atmosphere that it’s difficult to breathe. Actually, Arnold’s approach is the opposite of putting on airs. Inspired by either the technique or the robust grosses of recent, earthy literary adaptations like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, Arnold seeks to pare the novel down to its stark, hostile essence—not merely to loosen the Olivier-issue cravat, as it were, but splatter it with blood and mud in the process. The result is a film whose lack of classical decorum feels like an act of will rather than an opening of the floodgates: even the string of saliva dangling from the lips of young Catherine as she licks Heathcliff’s wounds seems to have been carefully stage-managed. The scenery is great—almost as photogenically windswept as The Turin Horse, with the added British benefit of ceaseless, driving rain—but  good location scouting isn’t enough, especially when some of the casting is so disastrous. The actresses playing Catherine at different ages don’t match up at all, while the two Heathcliffs are handcuffed by the role’s vindictive particulars. Using black actors is a nod to Bronte’s original description of the character, but it also feels like part of the package of provocations, along with all the violence towards animals (a surefire way to spike the tone when things get monotonous). As in Fish Tank, Arnold favours show-offy compositions and overt symbolism—a chained white horse there, a snared hare here—without demonstrating much ability to plausibly pace and escalate dramatic action. Nor much in the way of taste: yes, that is a Mumford and Sons song on the end credits.
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