Film Fests Archive for September, 2010

TIFF 2010: It’s a Wrap

Another year of TIFF has officially wrapped, the awards have been announced, and everyone’s gone home. It was a really great fest this year with a solid slate, although I can’t say I disagree with those who feel the fest would benefit from cutting their slate a bit to be a little more discriminating. I saw some films that surprised me (The Illusionist, A Night for Dying Tigers), some that were disappointing (Hereafter, Miral) and some that took my breath away with their vision and execution (Black Swan, I Saw the Devil).
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TIFF Review: Three

One thing about Tom Tykwer: He always makes exactly the kind of film he wants to make, down to the smallest detail. His latest film, Three, explores ideas around relationships, love, sex and sexuality through a tale of a long-time couple, Simon (Sebastian Schipper) and Hanna (Sophie Rois), who have fit together comfortably for so many years, know each other so well, that probably neither they nor any of their friends can imagine them not being together.
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TIFF Review: A Night for Dying Tigers

Tolstoy would have loved the Yates family in Terry MilesA Night for Dying Tigers. Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but the Yates, more-or-less normal though they may seem on the surface, are just about as messed up a family as you can hope to find in an indie film.

There’s certainly a prevalence of dysfunctional family setups in independent films, for better for for worse, but, this film leans more towards a stylilzed arthouse feel than your than typical low-budget indie family drama, and thankfully, no holidays, roasted turkeys or road trips are involved.

The storyline, about the messed-up relationships, long-standing competition and feuding among four siblings, and the various not-so-secret secrets revealed at a family gathering the night before the eldest Yates brother reports for a five-year prison sentence, somewhat evokes Festen, that marvelous Danish masterpiece of familial angst that was the first of the Dogme films.

Where Festen started out as an innocuous birthday gathering, then relied upon building tension leading up to a shocking reveal at the end, though, Miles instead reveals that his characters have some serious issues as soon as we meet them. “Aha,” we think, knowing this family is clearly deliciously dysfunctional — not quite in the seriously depraved Dogtooth sense of dysfunction, but still, obviously there’s a lot going on here. We don’t know quite how it will all fall together, but Miles uses a taut, controlled approach of smaller reveals that, a drop at a time, erode the family gathering as we wait with bated breath to see how it will all play out.

Here’s what we have here by the way of the set up: three brothers, all genius prodigies and the product of equally brilliant parents, and one adopted younger sister, fragile, cracked, and never shining as brightly as her brothers. A mother’s experiment, as one of the brothers says, in “nature versus nurture.”

Russell (John Pyper-Ferguson) is a Booker Prize-winning novelist, Patrick (Tygh Runyan) a successful director of horror films who’s just been greenlit for a more serious literary adaptation, and Jack (Gil Bellows), the stalwart oldest brother around whom the family is gathering at the family homestead, is about to go off to prison for five years. Fragile sister Karen (Lauren Lee Smith) has been charged with organizing the festivities.

The family home, which is the heartbeat of what’s left of the Yates family, was designed and built by their famous architect father for their art historian mother, a physical symbol of the very greatness to which the Yates siblings were always expected to aspire.

The relationships among the four siblings are revealed, more or less, through the women woven peripherally into their tale: dinner guest Laney (Jessica Heafey), a friend and past lover of all three brothers; Amanda (Sarah Lind) Karen’s friend who is onhand catering the affair, who seems to know all the family skeletons; Melanie (Jennifer Beals) Jack’s long-suffering wife; Jules (Kathleen Robertson), Jack’s longtime lover and the inadvertent cause of his prison sentence; and fresh-faced Carly (Leah Gibson), Russell’s much younger grad student girlfriend, the one outside observer of all that unfolds.

Old feuds, resentments and secrets simmer and boil, simmer and boil, in a deliberately unsettling rhythm as the wine flows and the party progresses. Miles carefully guides his players through a series of emotional hills and valleys around all the family history while Carly, who just thought she was meeting her boyfriend’s family, and had no idea of what she was getting into here, plays witness as the chaotic underpinnings of complicated sibling and marital relationships begin to unravel any pretense of social politeness.

The film feels, structurally, very much like a stage play, and Miles tends to keep his camera close to the action, creating a sense of intimacy between audience and story that very much draws the viewer into the psychological drama of the characters as it all plays out. This is a study in character and relationships, mostly; there’s very little in the way of narrative arc, character arcs, or inappropriately melodramatic moments, even when the film hits its most emotional peak.

Miles seems not to be passing judgment on his characters, so much as he simply allows us a glimpse into the lives of this very interestingly unhappy family at this pivotal point in their family history; he leaves it to us to judge for ourselves whether the uniqueness of their upbringing by parents determined to raise child prodigies excuses their questionable moral behavior as adults.

In a way, this film did remind me a bit of Dogtooth, one of my favorite films at last year’s TIFF. While A Night for Dying Tigers lacks Dogtooth‘s raw, edgy, weirdness, they have similar themes of children whose uniquely odd upbringing has very much shaped them into the flawed, imperfect, interestingly unhappy people we see during our time with them.

Of all the films I saw at Toronto, I’d have to say this film surprised me the most; I went into it with very little in the way of expectations, and came out of it quite impressed by the direction and performances. Beal and Smith are particularly noteworthy, but all the cast is solid.

I give Miles credit as a writer, as well, for not leaning on those dual crutches of the family melodrama, voice-over and exposition, to convey to us what we need to know about the Yates siblings and what made them the way they are. We learn enough about them peripherally to draw us into their story, and from there Miles pretty much just gets out of the way and lets his actors bring it on home.

Overall, I thought A Night for Dying Tigers was rather brilliant, and I hope it gets picked up for distribution. Well done.


TIFF Review: Cool It

Pssst. Have you heard about global warming? Sure you have. We’ve all heard about that, right? Especially since Al Gore told us a few years ago the inconvenient truth that the world as we know it is going to come to its catastrophic end if we don’t do something about it right now. The trouble is, who’s questioning whether we’re doing the right things?
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TIFF Review: Dirty Girl

I put Abe Sylvia‘s Dirty Girl on my maybe list primarily because it’s set in late ’80s Norman, Oklahoma, and I am an Oklahoma Girl. I put it on my definite list when the Weinsteins bought it the other day, because love the Weinsteins or hate them, they tend to have good taste in their movies.
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TIFF Dispatch Day Six: Catching Up

Time to lighten things up a bit, after that last dispatch, eh?

As we near the homestretch, this has been a really good fest for me. In a lot of ways I feel like this fest represents a bit of a coming full circle for me from last year’s devastating fest-spent-in-a-hospital bed, which was all kinds of double-plus-unfun.

Over the past 12 months my life has pretty much completely changed in many ways — a bit of a rebirth, you might say, and like any birth you have to go through the pain to get to the new life waiting on the other side. But I am very glad and very grateful to be back at TIFF and back on my fest coverage game, working productively and filling my soul up with so many good films.

The slate at this year’s TIFF — and I don’t think I’m alone in saying this — has been exceptionally strong. I’ve seen 25 films in seven days, and of those there are only a couple that I’d say I actively did not like. That is an incredible run of good luck for a critic, because so often it’s a total crapshoot at a fest this; I couldn’t begin to tally up how many times I’ve gone to a fest and sat through mediocre-to-bad films far more often than films that blew me away, or even just made me happy I’d worked them into my schedule. But this fest? Has been mostly great.

Yesterday at a screening some press folks behind me were bemoaning the “terrible” slate at this year’s fest, and I had to wonder if we were attending the same festival. Or perhaps I’ve just gotten really lucky with the screenings I’ve chosen, and they were particularly unlucky with theirs. Or, who knows, perhaps they were just tired and having a bad day. Certainly by this point in the fest, everyone’s walking around looking a little shell-shocked.

Before TIFF, after a slate of mostly boring summer movies, the excellent Scott Pilgrim not doing well at the box office, and another Oscar season looming, I was dealing with a seriously annoying case of “I don’t give a shit about awards season.” After TIFF? I’m feeling rejuvenated, excited even. There are some excellent films at this festival with an eye toward the upcoming awards rush — some very much expected soft pitches and others that were unexpectedly good, or smaller films with outstanding performances.

And while many of us like to say we really don’t care about awards season, what we do care about is that the frenzied buzz around the Oscars, in particular, can give some smaller films a boost that can make a real difference to their bottom line. So while I don’t care much about a naked golden man statue, I do care very much about film, particularly good films, and the people who put their hearts and souls into making them, and there are a couple of films out of TIFF I will be championing over the coming months.

Since my last dispatch, there are a few films I’ve particularly enjoyed. I was surprised by how much I loved I Saw the Devil, which just may end up being the first serial-killer thriller to end up on my year-end list. It also may be the best-directed film at the fest; certainly it’s among the best.

It was less surprising that I enjoyed the new Mike Leigh film, Another Year, but what was surprising for me is that this film has surpassed Secrets and Lies as my favorite Mike Leigh film. And if you are also a Mike Leigh fan, you know this is high praise. Lesley Manville gives a stunning performance in the film; it’s worthy of an Oscar nom, but in a crowded field this year, it’s going to take a serious push to get it there, but she could (and should, if we’re judging on actual merit) be a dark horse contender.

I saw Another Year at a public screening, where it was very enthusiastically received. I always enjoying watching Mike Leigh at Q&As, because I think he tends to be much more open to audiences at screenings than he can sometimes be with journalists. Very quickly into the Q&A, Leigh turned it around on the audience and turned it into group discussion on the film, and it was a lot of fun to watch the enthusiasm and passion with which the crowd discussed the film. Anytime a film inspires that level of discussion, I think it’s achieved something special.

The other part about TIFF, of course, is that it’s end-of-summer camp for film geeks. It’s always great to come to Toronto and reconnect with friends. In a normal year I would have seen most of these folks at Sundance, but this year a nasty post-surgical infection pre-empted my Sundance plans, so I haven’t seen most of my friends in a year. It’s a relatively small world in which we all work, and most of us use Facebook and Twitter prolifically to stay in touch. However did people stay in touch before the Internet age? It’s hard to imagine my world without the daily IMs and texts and Facebook messages that allow me to stay connected to friends who have, over the years, because my extended family.

But this fest is so busy for most of us that much of our social interaction is actually not so much social as it is sitting next to each other in screenings, and perhaps rushing over for a quick coffee fix before the next one. I don’t attend most of the parties at TIFF, my schedule really precludes doing much beyond the occasional small dinner party for this or that film.

But the one party I do attend every year is the SXSW karaoke party, which took place last night at a new location downtown. This is the one place where I can always count on seeing most of my good friends in one place, at a time in the fest when we’re all tired and desperately in need of a night of letting our hair down, so to speak. I banged out three reviews before the party so I could take a break with a clear conscience, then stayed way later than I intended to once I got there, but it was a much-needed break from the fest grind.

In spite of being up way too late I did manage to get up and drag my butt to the 9AM screening of Black Swan. I’d heard very divisive buzz on the film around and about the fest, but for me, it was throroughly engaging and emotionally devastating. Aronofsky is just a remarkable director, and with Black Swan he weaves together a tightly controlled, nightmarish story about self-destructive perfectionism within the world of ballet. I’d heard that Black Swan was more The Wrestler than The Fountain, but I’d have to disagree with that. It’s not really like either film, and yet it bears a distinctive Aronofsky feel. I’m not quite sure I’d call him an auteur yet, but with this film he’s getting there. More on that one later.

Another full day ahead of me, so onward.

TIFF Review: Another Year

Mike Leigh is one of those rare directors you can almost always count on to deliver something good, interesting and completely original. His latest film, Another Year, is tonally very different from the last film he had at Toronto, Happy-Go-Lucky, (actually, to be more precise, I’d say it’s tonally different from much of his previous work, but as accessible to the audience as Happy-Go-Lucky was).
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TIFF Review: Passione

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of John Turturro‘s Passione, which is screening at TIFF in the Special Presentations category, but I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised by this engaging, colorful, music-drenched journey into the musical culture of Naples.

The documentary is about as non-traditional structurally as one could imagine (and I mean that in a good way). Turturro uses stunning musical numbers — think of them as very artsy, smart music videos of Napoli musical history — to explore the complex city’s rich musical culture. If you are completely ignorant of Naples, as I pretty much am, the film is a crash course in a fascinating culture overflowing with passion.

Turturro uses a wide array of musical performances in the film; past and contemporary artists including Sergio Bruni, Massimo Ranieri and Renata Carasonni (representing the Masters) and M’Barka Ben Taleb and James Senese (on-hand for the contemporaries), interspersed with regular folks singing on the streets (and a lot of them, even, have good voices … I was certainly impressed).

The musical numbers are beautifully staged; the music ranges from deeply moving love songs to humorous ditties to deeply political folk songs, and all of it reflects a people and a place that’s diverse for being occupied by so many cultures, and yet unique in its own personality.

A couple of the songs were real standouts for me (and I’m sorry I don’t have the titles so you can go look them up): One of the first songs in the film has two artists, a man and a woman, singing passionately about love and loss as they circle each other, even embrace while singing; another love song, we were told, was written by the artist to his wife, who left him after years of infidelity. I was also impressed by artist James Senese, so much so that I looked him up and bought some of his music for my iPod after the screening.

The film opens with a trio of aging recorded music vets who guide us through the colorful history of Napoli music as they argue, talk over and cajole each other and share with us their vast base of knowledge.

Also along to guide us — and provide some levity when needed — is Turturro, whose love and passion for the Italian culture is evident in every frame of the film. Turturro, who’s always a joy to watch on-screen, uses the city itself as his canvas, showing us the bedrooms, the alleyways, the public squares, the people, and the architecture to add texture to these stories told through song.

Passione is a love letter to a culture, a poetic journey through a history that includes the children fathered by American vets during the occupation following the Second World War, a people and a culture captured in the microcosm of music, all interwoven with the beauty of Naples as a city, both in its wealth and its poverty.

Turturro captures the essence of a culture in the same way that the songs themselves do — by sharing with us how the Napoli people live their lives, what values they hold dear, the way they live, love, fight and make love. It’s a lovely, original, fascinating film with a very arthouse feel, and richly satisfying to watch, particularly if you, as I, love music.


TIFF Review: I Saw the Devil

I was on my way to the Susanne Bier film today when a couple of friends talked me into going to see I Saw the Devil instead. I asked one of them to quickly pitch me on why I would want to see it, and he pitched it thusly: Did you like The Good, The Bad, The Weird? This is a serial killer thriller flick by the same director, Ji-woon Kim, and it stars “The Bad” (Byung-hun Lee), and Min-sik Choi, the guy from Oldboy!
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TIFF Dispatch Day Five: It’s Kind of a Funny Film Festival Story …

So tonight I want to talk a little bit about something interesting that’s happening at the fest around the film It’s Kind of a Funny Story, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

I was catching up with indieWIRE’s Day Four Hot Topic, where film critics drop in the Film Lounge to chat about What’s Hot and What’s Not at the fest (I will be chatting there myself on Wednesday). This episode included LA Weekly’s Karina Longworth and indieWIRE folks Anne Thompson, Eugene Hernandez and Eric Kohn, and one of the films that got a mention as “losing” at the fest was It’s Kind of a Funny Story.
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TIFF Dispatch Day Four: Mixed Bag

I ran into a friend today who mentioned that he was enjoying these dispatches and wanted me to keep writing them. So here you go, this one’s for you.

Today was a real mixed bag for me, screening-wise. I logged about four hours sleep last night and woke up with my head aching and stuffed up, which pretty much confirmed that it was, in fact, my friend’s cooties and not the Clint Eastwood film that was making me feel like crap yesterday.
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TIFF Dispatch Day Three: The Best Laid Plans

I’ve finally gotten myself to the point of feeling more or less fully immersed in my Toronto routine (read: catching my sleep in four hour power sessions, fueling on coffee and Balance bars all day when there’s no time to eat between back-to-back screenings and Starbucks runs out of paninis, spending so much time in dark screening rooms that the sunlight, when you do come out, hurts your eyes) and have mastered the subway. I’ve seen 11 films in three days, and it’s getting to be kind of a blur (thank you, publicists who hand out press notes for us weary film crickets).
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TIFF Review: The Illusionist

The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet‘s animated adaptation of an unproduced script by French comedic legend Jacques Tati, is a sad, soulful, touching tale about a vaudeville magician past his prime and his friendship with a young girl.

Chomet, who previously made the excellent The Triplets of Bellville (which referenced Tati’s Jour de Fête), uses his uniquely beautiful hand-drawn animation style to bring the character of the illusionist to life, modeling him after Tati’s famous recurring character Monsieur Hulot in both design and action. Read the full article »

TIFF Review: Biutiful

When a great director has teamed repeatedly with a brilliant writer over the course of a career, one has to ponder how much the unique chemistry of two artistic minds working on a common canvas shapes the quality of the end result. Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s films Amores Perres, 21 Grams, and multiple-Oscar nominee Babel (which won only for Original Score), were written by Guillermo Arriaga (sometimes off ideas hatched by Iñárritu), with whom the much-lauded director had a much-ballyhooed falling out.
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TIFF Dispatch Day One: Ups and Downs

I’m starting to feel settled and in the groove now that I’m getting acclimated to being back in Toronto. It was just about a year ago that I attended my first day of the fest going full force and then wound up being taken by ambulance to the hospital on Day Two, where I spent the duration of the fest.

Given how grim things looked when I was finally discharged and allowed to return to Seattle for medical treatment at home, it feels good, really good, to be fully back on my feet immersed in covering Toronto just a year later.

I think this year’s slate is one of the best they’ve had since I’ve been coming to Toronto, and I am excited to see the many potentially great films on my slate and to dive into the fest routine of seeing as much as possible and writing as much as possible, hopefully mostly coherently. And, of course, I’m looking forward to catching up with friends I haven’t seen since last year.

We headed downtown to the new fest headquarters at the Hyatt Regency (more or less) bright and early — adjusting to the East Coast time change is always a bit of a bitch the first night, so I did sleep in just a wee bit after a late night of writing and listening to the rowdy frat party across the street.

We grabbed our badges and headed to the Scotiabank for some screenings, where my day kicked off with some action and laughs courtesy of Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, which I enjoyed the hell out of. Went straight from that into Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu‘s relentlessly dark and depressing tragedy, Biutiful, which I loved, but … MAN.

Hoping to bang out reviews on both of those before I crash for the night, and finish watching a screener, too. Then I have to pack it in and get a few hours sleep, because tomorrow I have four, maybe five films that I really want to catch, plus, of course, lots of writing. Will be fueling on energy bars and coffee most of the day, but there might be time for an actual dinner later on, hopefully with friends. Stay tuned … more TIFF coverage coming.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon