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The venerable and exceedingly intermittent Plastic Podcast, which has outlived the two blogs with which it was intertwined, and whose audio archives were difficult to ...

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Daily Plastic is a Chicago-based movie blog, a collaboration between Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks, the same pair who brought you the wearable movie tote, the razor-thin pencil pocket, and that joke about aardvarks. If you know the whereabouts of the blue Pontiac Tempest that was towed from the Plastic Parking Lot on the evening of August 7th, 2008, or more importantly if you've recovered the red shoebox that was in its trunk, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Davis was the chief film critic for the late, great Paste Magazine (which lives on now as a website) from 2005 through 2009, and he counts this interview with Claire Denis among his favorite moments. Every once in a while he pops up on Twitter. He's presently sipping puerh in Chicago, even at this hour. Meanwhile, Parks, whose work has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, The Hyde Park Herald, and Paste, is molding unsuspecting, college-aged minds in the aforementioned windy city. Media types are warned to stay clear of his semester-sized field of influence because of the distorting effects that are likely to develop.

The © copyright of all content on Daily Plastic belongs to the respective authors.

Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee Kim in Treeless Mountain

It’s the last day of the Toronto Film Festival, and a bit of regret darkens my morning. I’ve skipped a few films the last few days, both because of poor reviews as well as a lack of energy. But as I walk to lunch, I can’t help but think of movies not seen, opportunities not taken. Who knows? Maybe one of those would’ve been my favorite of the fest? Ah well. Sometimes 40 films don’t feel like enough. Fortunately, there are three more before I head back home, and two are exceptionally enjoyable.

Some friends have described Treeless Mountain as a “children-in-peril” movie, which I find a bit strange. Yes, it’s a movie about two young girls, aged six and four. And, yes, they’re in a somewhat uncomfortable situation, as their mother has left them with an aunt to go find their father. But the girls are never in any danger. The aunt may be harsh at times, but she’s not a wicked stepmother figure, and most of the other adults in their lives are kind and comforting.

Instead, the movie’s focus is on how siblings interact, particularly in the way older ones, even as young as six, look after the younger ones and how the younger ones both depend on the older ones and live in their shadow. In this, director and writer So Yong Kim has captured incredibly naturalistic performances from her young charges. Much of the film is shot in tight close ups on their faces, and the tremendous emotion they convey is reminiscent of Victoire Thivisol’s amazing debut in Ponette. The movie is also funny in numerous places, as the girls try to take care of themselves, believing that if they can save enough money their mom will return.

Treeless Mountain’s script is also subtle, as it becomes a commentary on the differences between the cities, towns, and farms of Korea--how relationships change depending on the environment. The striking establishing shots take on greater power as our protagonists return to the land, so to speak, though construction equipment and the forces of modernization it represents are never far away.

Jeremy Heilman has remarked that “Kim is undoubtedly a skilled director, but she’s someone who seems more content to observe than state.” But what he sees as a flaw strikes me as a spectacular asset. Rather than telling us what to notice, Kim lets us make the connections ourselves. By intently watching these sisters, we’re reminded of our own sibling relationships. At multiple points in Treeless Mountain, I was taken back to childhood memories I hadn’t explored in years. And the film ends with an appropriately gorgeous long shot.

• • •
Blind Loves (Lehotsky)

As with Treeless Mountain, Blind Loves may receive the pejorative ‘sentimental’ tag from some hard-nosed critics. It’s a documentary that follows four blind people and observes them in their relationships. Peter is happily married to his quiet wife, while Miro is doggedly pursuing a woman who’s partially blind but whose parents are bothered more by his Gypsy roots than his disability. Elena is a married woman who’s pregnant and worries whether she’ll be allowed to keep her baby, and Zuzana is a teenager involved in an online relationship.

Like all great documentaries, the movie lets us in on a unfamiliar world. So we watch how blind people get through the day: Peter ‘watching’ tv and giving music lessons, Elena and her husband putting up Christmas lights and wrapping presents with transparent cellophane, Miro replaying voice mail messages as if he were looking at old photographs. Interestingly, water plays a recurring role, emphasizing the tactile nature of their lives.

If Blind Loves just offered a window into their world, it would be captivating, but Slovakian director Juraj Lehotsky also infuses his film with real style. Many of the images utilize unusual camera placements and play with natural light. He varies between close-ups (a shot of the television reflected at night in a woman’s sunglasses is especially great) and longer shots in fascinating ways. The sound design--a mixture of music, effects, and silence--becomes almost hypnotic. And one scene of stop-motion animation (evoking the great Jan Svankmajer) embodies Peter’s dreams in spectacular fashion.

Though it’s easy to sentimentalize the blind, Lehotsky largely avoids that trap, though there is an incredibly moving scene in a movie theater near the film’s end that brought me to tears. You’re a cold, cold soul if you fold your arms and grunt. Who said emotion was bad? Certainly not when it’s handled as well as it is in these two movies.

• • •
Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle)

On the other hand, the emotional tone in Slumdog Millionaire rings false, though don’t tell that to the hundreds of festivalgoers who gave it the People’s Choice award (the most prominent honor at Toronto). It’s about a young man who somehow finds himself about to win 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But first he has to be tortured in the back of a police station, because how could a “slumdog” know all the answers to those questions? Yes, tortured.

The movie is structured around his interview with a police detective (played by the always great Irfan Khan), where the young man shows that he learned the answer to each question at various points in his life. So what we have is a fictional bio-pic. Ugh. This schematic approach pairs with the game show itself so that the movie becomes preordained. Anyone who doesn’t know exactly (and I mean exactly) how this movie will end just isn’t paying attention. The only thing that surprised me in the last 45 minutes was the irrelevant fate of a minor character.

To make matters worse, director Danny Boyle can’t leave well enough alone. His hyper-kinetic editing style mixes with his embrace of bright Indian colors to create the equivalent of a two-hour music video. True, the music in the film is peppy and fun, but it’ll feel awfully familiar to anyone who’s seen a Bollywood flick.

In fact, Slumdog feels like a Westerner’s superficial version of India, as the ludicrous script trots out cliche after cliche. The Taj Mahal? Check. Gritty slum teeming with street children on huge trash heaps? Check. The awesome sprawl of Mumbai? Check. Young adults working at call centers? Younger girls trapped in a red light district? Everyone dancing to a Bollywood dance number? Check, check, cliche.

I’ll admit I found myself tapping my foot to several of the numbers, and the sheer rush of movie adrenaline is hard to resist. But the further away I get from the movie, the more toxic I find its smell.

• • •

And so the festival comes to an end. But one last thing before we put TIFF ’08 to bed--a list of the movies I saw in some order of preference (because all the cool kids are doing it). Note that each movie is linked to the post where I reviewed it in more detail.

Best of the Fest

35 Shots of Rum

The Great

Goodbye Solo
Waltz with Bashir

The Excellent

Blind Loves
A Christmas Tale
Still Walking
Treeless Mountain
Two-Legged Horse

The Good

24 City
The Beaches of Agnes
Che, part I
Linha de Passe
My Mom’s at the Hairdresser
Of Time and the City
Suspension/When It Was Blue
Synecdoche, New York
Wendy and Lucy

The Flawed

The Silence of Lorna
Tokyo Sonata

The Mediocre

Before Tomorrow
Burn after Reading
Che, part II
The Lucky Ones
The Sky Crawlers

The Bad

Four Nights with Anna
Slumdog Millionaire
Three Monkeys

The Horrible


See all of our Toronto 2008 coverage here.

11 Responses to “TIFF '08, Day 10 (with a wrap-up list)”

  1. Maya says:

    I just love that you call RR "flawed." I completely distrust when Rob, Girish and Darren lock arms, do the Monkee walk, and call something a "masterpiece."

  2. Well, they do got me 3-1. :)

    Seriously, I like a lot of experimental cinema, but I'm not always the best judge. Some things I love, and sometimes my eyes start glazing over. That happened a bit with RR.

  3. Maya says:

    I was, of course, joking. If there's anyone's opinion I trust implicity when it comes to avant-garde cinema, it's the Monkees. But it is reassuring to know there's another galut in the joint. I've really enjoyed your coverage from TIFF, J. Robert.

  4. Thanks, Michael. I've only had a chance to skim through your voluminous coverage. I'm always impressed at how quickly you put up all your interviews. The rare interview I do takes me weeks afterwards to get up the energy to transcribe.

    I did have a chance to read your i-vu with Rithy Panh and loved it. Makes me hope that the film comes to Chicago relatively soon. And thanks for your earlier comments on my posts, even the ones where you were "baffled." I'd respond, but I'm a bit tired of talking about movies (TIFF makes me exhausted in more ways than one), so I'll just let you and Darren have the last word.

  5. Robert DAVIS says:

    For the record, I did not call RR or any other film at TIFF a "masterpiece," so you can remove the quotation marks. I called it a "favorite" that's "still playing in my head." I know this is my own personal bugbear, but I try very hard to keep my opinions rooted in my own subjective point of view. (E.g. at the end of the year, I make lists of "favorite films" instead of "best films." It's just my way.)

    But I would say that one of my favorite effects a film can have is to spur conversation afterward, and I imagine it's no accident that I was sitting next to Girish and Darren and talked with them a bit after the film. That we had a number of things to say about the film says something about the way it triggers thoughts, minimal as it is, in our three heads, anyway. I saw Benning's previous film, casting a glance, alone at the PFA, and while I enjoyed it, I didn't even remember seeing it until a particular shot in RR suddenly reminded me of it. (Actually, it was a particular sound.) I wonder if I'd have a stronger memory of the film if I'd had someone to "lock arms" with afterward?

    Experimental film often seems like a blank slate onto which you can project your own ideas, and RR certainly works that way. There's no need to be skeptical of such films. It's OK that they work this way. Some filmmakers seem to be particularly good at planting seeds and leaving wide open spaces for your mind to go crazy. Benning is one of them, and RR is a great example. I recommend going into the screening with Darren's observations in mind. Let your thoughts wander for a couple of hours on those and other ideas. It's quite fun.

    I have my own list of observations, and I enjoyed comparing them with Darren's. During the screening, I even did a little trainspotting: by my count there are 43 shots of 45 moving trains, one stationary train, and one truck rigged to run on the rails.

  6. Robert DAVIS says:

    Michael, let me echo J. Robert's comments about your Rithy Panh interview. I'd told myself I'd wait until I saw his film to read your interview, but I ended up scanning it yesterday, anyway. I've been intrigued by him since S21, although a couple more recent films were a little disappointing. I can't quite get my head around the idea of him directing Isabelle Huppert (and yet the connection through Marguerite Duras to S21 makes perfect sense!), but I too hope that film comes to Chicago. I actually tried to fit it into my TIFF schedule near the end, but it was too late.

    (J. Robert, Michael told me at TIFF that he didn't have the energy to post every day during the fest, although he did for a while. Glad to see he's recharged his power packs!)

  7. Maya says:

    The only pleasure an old codger like me has is mercilessly teasing a young whippersnapper like you, Robert; thanks for taking the mock punches so well.

    I can't imagine The Sea Wall won't have a wide festival presence, if not distribution soon. It's a fairly "mainstream" film.

  8. Sam C. Mac says:

    Really enjoyed reading through all this. I'm a huge Claire Denis fan, but I think I was at that early morning screening some of you were at, so I need another viewing before I call it one of my favorites of the fest-- I liked it quite a bit, nonetheless. I was surprised no one reviewed "Ashes Of Time Redux", which was my favorite film of the festival, even though that's kind of a cheat. Still, nothing could beat seeing one of the most beautiful films ever made on the big screen (and I got a great seat). I'm glad to see you guys liked Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale" too, which was my favorite NEW film at the festival, and easily one of my favorites this year-- who knew a combination between "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Fanny And Alexander" could be so successful? Anyway, check out our site's own coverage of the festival, if you get a chance. Cya --Sam C. Mac

  9. Anindita says:

    I'm from Bombay, presently in NY, and hated Slumdog Millionaire which I saw at the MIAAC festival this weekend. Was most distraught reading a fawning review in NY Mag which says it might be an Academy winner for Best Picture. But then a friend put me on to your blog and I'm happy again. Well said!

  10. Robert DAVIS says:

    Thanks for the perspective, Anindita. J. Robert made a similar argument on the Toronto episode of our podcast, and I talked with Danny Boyle on the latest episode -- he doesn't actually have much personal experience with India, which probably won't come as a surprise to you.

    I have a friend from Mumbai who's going to see the movie this weekend. I'll be curious to hear his reaction, too.

  11. Anindita says:

    Thanks Robert, just heard the podcast! The book that Boyle says the movie is based on, Maximum City, is unbelievably pretentious as well. So that makes things a little clearer.

    I actually think the movie would fare very well in India because the typical English movie going urban audience shares this liberal pride in exposing the grime and grit of their society. Indian papers will get overwhelmed by a British director taking interest in India and say stuff like: "Finally, a film that exposes the underbelly of Bombay..."

    It's not a terrible movie on its own. It's just that I was expecting so much more from Boyle. Perhaps he could redeem himself by branding this as a Bollywood spoof.

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