Friday, August 31, 2007

Chacun son Cinema (Various, 2007)

Thirty-three directors contributed three-minute shorts to create Chacun son Cinema, a better than average omnibus film that was commissioned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival. Given its roots, it might seem somewhat awkward to have it presented in Toronto. I'd disagree, though, as there are several good reasons to see it at TIFF:

  • It’s just as much as celebration of cinema in general as it is of Cannes as a phenomenon. Youssef Chahine’s contribution excepted, these shorts see cinema as a global, collective experience, and celebrate the experience of watching movies worldwide. Given the international nature of TIFF, the vibe is entirely appropriate.

  • Many of the directors who participated (nine by my count), also have a feature showing in Toronto this year. This tally is actually higher than the five directors who had features playing at Cannes this year. (It could be higher still, if TIFF programmers were able to secure Assays’ Boarding Gate or Wong’s My Blueberry Nights. Alas, that was not in the cards.)

  • Unquestionably, two of the strongest entries come from Canadians. Atom Egoyan’s strangely eerie Artaud Double Bill presents a possible vision of a future cinema, in which the primacy of the theater can be overcome with technology. David Cronenberg’s dark At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World is exactly as described, but funnier than one would expect, given the title.

  • Beyond those Canadian shorts, there are several others that I would classify as excellent. The Coen Brothers (who bring No Country For Old Men to Toronto this year) deliver what’s probably the most obvious crowd-pleaser of the bunch with their uproarious, but dead-on, World Cinema, featuring Josh Brolin as a cowboy who’s trying to decide whether he should see Renoir’s The Rules of the Game or Ceylan’s Climates. The Dardennes Brothers, longtime devotees of Robert Bresson, effectively pay tribute to that master with their microcosmic morality play In the Darkness. Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien (also presenting The Voyage of the Red Balloon this year) doesn’t disappoint with The Electric Princess House, which feels entirely in step with his work in its examination of film’s relationship to time.

  • Ultimately, everyone who sees this collection of shorts seems to have a different set of favorites. Just because I found the Salles to be too cute by half, the Gonzalez-Inarritu to be hilariously clichéd, the Van Sant to be self-parodic, or the Cimino to be intolerable, doesn’t mean that you will. The experience of watching a few dozen shorts in quick succession, and discussing which ones you liked best with friends, is pretty close to the ideal TIFF experience. Don’t be surprised if a consensus never emerges from those debates, though. To Each His Own Cinema, indeed.

Rating: 56/100

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Preliminary TIFF Schedule

This is all very dependent upon my luck with the ticket lottery, but my festival itinerary will likely look something like this:

Thursday, September 6
16:00 - Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg) [press]
20:00 - Starting Out in the Evening (Andrew Wagner) [V1+6]
23:59 - The Mother of Tears (Dario Argento) [Ryerson]

Friday, September 7
9:15 - You, the Living (Roy Andersson) [S4]
12:30 - The Banishment (Andrey Zvyagintsev) [S1]
16:00 - One Hundred Nails (Ermanno Olmi) [S1]
18:00 - Disengagement (Amos Gitai) [V8]
21:15 - The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy) [Ryerson]
23:59 - Frontiere(s) (Xavier Gens) [Ryerson]

Saturday, September 8
9:45 - The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase) [S4]
12:00 - Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy) [Ryerson]
15:30 - The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin) [S4]
18:30 - Erik Nietzsche The Early Years (Jacob Thuesen) [S2]
20:45 - Nothing is Private (Alan Ball) [Ryerson]
23:59 - Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero) [Ryerson]

Sunday, September 9
9:15 - Lust, Caution (Ang Lee) [S2]
12:30 - Ex Drummer (Koen Mortier) [S14]
15:30 - Les Chasons d'amour (Christophe Honore) [S2]
18:00 - Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway) [Elgin]
21:15 - Chaotic Ana (Julio Medem) [Ryerson]
23:59 - Vexille (Fumihiko Sori) [Ryerson]

Monday, September 10
9:00 - No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers) [Ryerson]
11:00 - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik) [Elgin]
14:30 - Sad Vacation (Shinji Aoyama) [S4]
17:00 - Unfinished Stories (Pourya Azarbayjani) [V2]
19:00 - The Savages (Tamara Jenkins) [Bader]
21:00 - Atonement (Joe Wright) [Elgin]
23:59 - Stuck (Stuart Gordon) [Ryerson]

Tuesday, September 11
11:00 - Across the Universe (Julie Taymour) [Elgin]
14:30 - Jellyfish (Shira Geffen / Etgar Keret) [C1]
16:15 - The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin) [S2]
18:45 - Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer) [V2]
20:15 - Happy New Life (Arpad Bogdan) [C1]
21:45 - Naissance des pieuvres (Celine Sciamma) [S14]
23:59 - Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike) [Ryerson]

Wednesday, September 12
9:00 - To Love Someone (Ake Sandgren) [C2]
11:00 - Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen) [Elgin]
13:45 - Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog) [V8]
15:30 - Eat, For This is My Body (Michelange Quay) [C2]
17:45 - Iska's Journey (Csaba Bollok) [C1]
19:15 - Christopher Columbus, The Enigma (Manoel de Oliveira) [V8]
21:00 - Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung) [C2]
23:59 - The Devil's Chair (Adam Mason) [Ryerson]

Thursday, September 13
9:15 - The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen) [S2]
12:00 - Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach) [Elgin]
15:30 - Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-sheng) [S4]
19:00 - Avant que j'oublie ( Jacques Nolot) [S2]
21:30 - The Girl in the Park (David Auburn) [V8]

Friday, September 14
9:00 - Glory to the Filmmaker! (Takeshi Kitano) [V8]
11:15 - Encarnacion (Anahi Berneri) [V5]
13:00 - Corroboree (Ben Hackworth) [S3]
15:30 - Import Export (Ulrich Seidl) [S4]
18:45 - Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings) [Ryerson]
21:30 - Weirdsville (Allan Moyle) [Ryerson]
23:59 - Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto) [Ryerson]

Saturday, September 15
9:15 - Les Bons Debarras (Francis Mankiewicz) [V6]
11:45 - Smiley Face (Gregg Araki) [Bader]
14:30 - L'Amour cache (Alessandro Capone) [V3]
16:00 - Mutum (Sandra Kogut) [V5]
17:30 - XXY (Lucia Puenzo) [V2]
20:00 - My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin) [Bader]
21:15 - It's a Free World... (Ken Loach) [Ryerson]
23:59 - A l'interieur (Alexandre Bustillo / Julien Maury) [Ryerson]

Monday, August 27, 2007

California Dreamin' (Endless) (Cristian Nemescu, 2007)

Cristian Nemescu was posthumously awarded the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section for California Dreamin’ (Endless), his first and only feature. Alongside Cristian Mungiu’s Palm D’Or win at this year’s festival, it represented the crest of what’s being referred to as the Romanian New Wave. Over the last few years, the country’s output has captured the attention of festivalgoers, who have declared it a hotspot of world cinema. That being said, it’s unlikely that many will find California Dreamin’ (Endless) to be the most impressive movie to come from Romania over the last few years. It’s a strong film, but it happens to be in stronger company.

Set in 1999, the movie follows what’s euphemistically referred to as a U.S. Peacekeeping mission. As a small group of American soldiers are forced to stop at a tiny town’s train station, the film begins introducing a barrage of characters. A lot of balls are kept in the air here, as the audience meets the American troops, the rascally station agent, his daughter (who hopes to run away with the troops), her schoolmates, the conniving mayor, and a group of protesting gypsies. The townsfolk devise a plan to restage their centennial in order to lure American investment to the country, then later try to use the U.S. military might to stir an uprising. The finale brings all of these groups together, and the cross-cutting between the different characters becomes less problematic as the film picks up speed. For a while, though, the plot is difficult to get into because of how busy it is.

California Dreamin’ (Endless)’s creator died before the editing of the feature was completed, and it shows, especially during the first hour. Sloppy and perfunctory, the expository scenes feel hopelessly overextended for what seems to be a simpleminded and overly cynical look at buffoonish characters. Boorish American troops are contrasted against hopelessly naïve Romanian villagers, who try to entertain and swindle them as they are held captive by a bureaucratic snafu. Thankfully, the remaining 90 minutes puncture that setup, shifting these character dynamics in unexpected ways. Eventually each of the characterizations deepens, finding a happy medium between comic and realistic extremes. The film also gradually takes on a satirical, but grounded, vibe, acquiring more sting than one would initially expect. When it’s all said and done, it’s obvious that the complicated plot has been working overtime to set up a tragic conclusion, which is surprisingly effective in tying up all of the storylines.

Nemescu’s film is strong enough that it can be considered genuinely unfortunate that his career has been cut so short. He creates some fine visual moments, here, despite a general predilection for realism. California Dreamin’ (Endless) ultimately reveals itself as a surprisingly ambitious debut. Although it starts out taking cheap shots at its characters, it cannot be accused of this by the end of its runtime. By the time the caustic ending unfolds, Nemescu has presented both a world-weary outlook toward the country’s complicated past and an almost startling role-reversal in which the Americans, and not the Romanians, are revealed to be the naïve ones. There’s no doubt that California Dreamin’ (Endless) could do with some editing (indeed, the parenthetical in the title refers to its unshaped state), but there’s just as little doubt that Nemescu’s work is pretty worthy as is. When a foreign film this accomplished strikes you as somewhat second rate, you can definitely take it as a sign of a healthy national cinema.

Rating: 58/100

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Buzz In Action

Less than two hours ago, individual tickets for Galas and Special Presentations went on sale. Individual tickets for popular films always go fast at Toronto, and there's been a flurry of sell outs already. Here's what's already gone:

Rendition (Gavin Hood)
[Starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep]

Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy)
[Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton]

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
[Starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel]

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Shekhar Kapur)
[Starring Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, Geoffrey Rush]

The Jane Austen Book Club (Robin Swicord)
[Starring Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Hugh Dancy]

Sleuth (Kenneth Branagh)
[Starring Michael Caine, Jude Law]

Across The Universe (Julie Taymor)
[Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess]

Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen)
[Starring Ewan MacGregor, Colin Farrell, Tom Wilkinson]

Cleaner (Renny Harlin)
[Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Ed Harris]

Reservation Road (Terry George)
[Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino]

The Walker (Paul Schrader)
[Starring Woody Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Ned Beatty]

Closing The Ring (Richard Attenborough)
[Starring Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Mischa Barton, Gregory Smith]

These films, which will mostly be out before the end of the year, are hot enough that people are ponying up $37.50 for the opportunity to see them early. These are the sort of movies that I generally skip myself in Toronto, since my tastes tend toward to the obscure, but it's always interesting to see what the public-at-large is eager to check out.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The rest of the slate...

Today's announcement finalized this year's TIFF slate. After last week's 73-film blowout, anything would likely seem underwhelming. The most recent slate certainly didn't wow me. Added were two by Wayne Wang, a new film from Michael Moore, Demme's Jimmy Carter documentary, and the latest from De Palma, Zia, Sachs, & Lumet (each of which were already confirmed for the New York Film Festival) . Surely each of these movies has their audience, but I'm hardly dying to see any of them at TIFF.

The most pleasant surprise, from my perspective, was Wang Bing's 184-minute Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, which will certainly present some scheduling challenges, should I choose to see it.

I'm hardly complaining, though, narrowing the existing list down to the 50-odd films I'll watch will be a daunting task.

Flash Point (Wilson Yip, 2007)

While watching the flurry of nigh-incomprehensible cuts in the fight scenes of Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum, I worried that the prevailing trends toward hyperkinetic editing might mean that the days of impressive chop-socky choreography were on the wane. Luckily, Wilson Yip’s Flash Point shows that that’s not yet the case in the world of HK action films, where more restrained filmmaking and more impressive athletics still reign and entertain. Near the start of Flash Point, which stars Donnie Yen as a police officer who has irked Internal Affairs because he’s too rough on criminals, we’re shown a scene in which his character is reprimanded for his rough handling of a felon. He’s threatened with suspension if he doesn’t tone down his brutal behavior. He grudgingly complies, and as a result much of Flash Point’s run time is spent waiting for him to snap. It takes about two-thirds of the film’s length for it to happen, but when a bad guy injures a child, Yen finally goes ballistic, unleashing a flurry of violence in time to salvage the film somewhat.

Set in Hong Kong before the 1997 Handover, Flash Point is strikingly shot, even before the fighting begins. Yip employs a bright color palette and a strong sense of humor throughout, making the wait for the action less painful that it otherwise might have been. Nonetheless, there’s far too much in the way of routine characterization here. Eyes will likely glaze over during the densely plotted first hour, in which a romantic subplot, and some unintriguing undercover intrigue are deployed to little effect. In many respects Flash Point is the same film as Yip’s SPL, which also starred Donnie Yen, although the Yen’s mixed-style fighting doesn’t quite have the same impact here as it did there.

Still, the final half hour the film is not exactly disappointing. Beginning with a bloody fight inside an elevator, the final act of Flash Point features a series of inventive, well-choreographed set pieces. Once the movie kicks into high gear, it rarely lets up. The face-offs are filled with brutal limb-busting. Even the gunplay is more kinetic than usual. Perhaps the most impressive displays of athletics are showcased during the training clips that accompany the closing credits, though. Ultimately, Flash Point is a solid if unspectacular entry in the Hong Kong action genre. Fans of the genre will likely leave it satisfied, although it's not as likely that they’ll feel satisfied the whole time they're watching.

Rating: 49 / 100

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Schindler’s Houses (Heinz Emigholz, 2007)

A filmic study of Rudolf M. Schindler’s Modern American architecture, Heinz Emigholz’s Schindler’s Houses delivers exactly what the title promises. Filmed in 2006, the work looks at a series of 40 houses built in during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Although the buildings themselves are generally well-preserved, it’s apparent that the environments in which they were built have radically changed. The visual representation of this reality is one of the film’s prime pleasures. In many cases, Schindler’s clean designs and minimalist aesthetics have been plunged into the chaos of modern life. This is made most apparent in the establishing shots that introduce each house. As the camera cuts and delves inward with each subsequent shot, the viewer is made to understand the homes as a sanctuary from the busy exterior world.

After a brief opening voiceover, in which the director opines on the merits of ascribing ownership to a piece of art that has to also function in the real world, the film's soundtrack is comprised only of the ambient noises of the environments in which the houses are found. Emigholz’s editing strategy is snappier than one might expect to find in a landscape film. The images flit by relatively quickly, usually spending between five and ten seconds on the screen before giving way to the next. While the steady rhythm that Emigholz sets rarely changes, it provides less than adequate time to appreciate many of the details of these structures. Perhaps the director’s approach is necessary, since 40 houses are looked at in a period just under two hours long, but it makes the film less contemplative than intellectually stimulating. With each new shot, angles and perspectives are shifted, requiring viewers to reorient themselves. The movement of the camera from one setup to the next conspires to give the viewer a sense of the flow of the surveyed spaces, even though the camera itself remains static while filming.

Avant-garde filmmaking at its best provides viewers with new ways of seeing the world around them. When a camera lingers on an object that our eyes might normally flit past, it has the effect of focusing our attention and encouraging meditation. Emigholz’s spotlight on Schindler’s work in this film (the 12th in the director's twenty-five chapter Photography and Beyond series) continually questions the relationship of functional art to the environment in which it is used, while paying due respect to Schindler’s achievements. Although sightings of humans are rare in this piece, they haven’t been banished from the screen. At one point, we see a repairman repainting a doorway in one of Emigholz’s creations. At another we see none other than filmmaker Thom Andersen working at a desk. The reference is not exactly flattering to Andersen, whose own landscape documentary, 2003’s Los Angeles Plays Itself was a far more ingratiating and pandering examination of the Los Angeles landscape than Emigholz’s latest.

Rating: 55/100

Another year, another festival...

Pretty surprisingly, it’s time to start blogging about this year’s Toronto Film Festival. I am not sure how thrilled I am that a whole year has gone by since I was last worrying about the arcane procedures of the ticket lottery and subsisting on a daily regiment of fast food and three hours of sleep, but the festival is here again, and duty calls. . .

There’s undeniably plenty of buzz that this year will be a strong one for TIFF. The Cannes lineup was met with a startlingly positive response, and the early word on many of the fall films that will be playing is promising. With a festival as huge as TIFF, though, all bets are off. Everyone in attendance is likely to have a different impression of how strong or weak the year was based on the small percentage of films they choose to see.

Thinking about what’s been announced so far (the final slate will be available tomorrow), there are certainly a half-dozen or so films that I wouldn’t miss for the world. Woody Allen’s latest, Cassandra’s Dream surely tops my list. People are often down on the guy’s dramas, but I think they collectively represent much of his best work. After his stellar Match Point wowed me with its surprisingly taut construction, I’m hoping that Allen again demonstrates just how precise a filmmaker and screenwriter he can be when he puts his mind to it. Usually, I make a point of skipping any film in Toronto that will be released commercially in the U.S. within the foreseeable future. My anticipation for Cassandra’s Dream runs so high that I am ignoring the fact that it’s scheduled to come out on November 30 and diving in early.

Jacques Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe, on the other hand, has no stateside commercial bow in sight. This, perhaps, is not surprising, even given the director’s immense reputation, since the film is a chamber drama that religiously adapts a Balzac novel. After bowing to a small amount of fanfare in Berlin, it’s fallen off the map somewhat. I’ll be leaping at the chance to see it, as it could be a while before another presents itself.

It’s unlikely that such a fate will befall George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (indeed, it has a distributor lined up, although no date set). Nonetheless, since Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead still stands as the scariest film I’ve ever seen and since his recent Land of the Dead made it onto my annual top ten list, I simply can’t pass up the chance to catch the premiere of his newest chapter in his Dead series, which purportedly uses handheld camerawork to deliver a new perspective on zombie terror. For any horror fan, the arrival of a new Romero film is a major event. For this particular horror fan, it’s an event on a scale that few films of any genre can compete with.

Surely some handheld camerawork will be featured, to radically different effect, in Werner Herzog’s eagerly awaited Encounters at the End of the World. Just as Romero produced what I consider the most terrifying of all horror films, Herzog, with Lessons of Darkness, delivered what is probably the most satisfying documentary I’ve laid my eyes on. Many of the iconoclastic director’s non-fiction films have ranked among my favorites, though, so the prospect of him taking his journeyman spirit to yet another corner of the world (specifically Antarctica) is a prospect I can’t resist.

Conversely, I’ve only seen one film by Japanese director Naomi Kawase, yet her Shara struck me as something of a masterpiece. Finely modulated, both as a demonstration of the languor of depression and the exhilaration of relief, it tragically never secured an American release. Kawase’s aesthetic in that film was singular… initially appearing a bit slapdash, it slowly revealed itself as a rigorously devised strategy that paid off with two of the most cathartic scenes that I’ve watched this decade. The Mourning Forest is her follow up. It’s already won the Grand Prize at Cannes. If it can deliver half the impact of its predecessor, it would pretty much justify my trip to Canada alone.

Of course, even with such a strong lineup already confirmed, there are a few films I’d love to see announced tomorrow morning. If luck is on my side, tomorrow will see the addition of at least a few of the following: Milky Way (Benedek Fliegauf), Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas), La France (Serge Bozon), Savage Grace (Tom Kalin), He Fengming (Wang Bing), White Material (Claire Denis), There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson).