Sunday, August 31, 2008

Toronto Star Coverage

There's some good pre-fest coverage now available online in the Toronto Star.

It includes a slew of capsule reviews, and their annual buzz poll.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lottery Results

My confirmation email arrived about 20 minutes ago. I received all of my top choices. Hurrah!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Tentative TIFF Schedule

With news of the lottery results behind me (Box #9 was drawn, out of 78... My order was probably in the 20s), I feel like I can post my tentative schedule without jinxing myself. It is:

04 Thursday
One Day You'll Understand (Amos Gitai) 18:00 Ryerson
Ocean Flame (Liu Fendou) 20:30 Varsity 4
JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri) 23:59 Ryerson

05 Friday
Revanche (Gotz Spielmann) 9:30 ScotiaBank 3
The Sky Crawlers (Mamoru Oshii) 12:00 ScotiaBank 1
33 Scenes From Life (Malgoska Szumowska) 15:45 ScotiaBank 3
Serbis (Brillante Mendoza) 18:00 Varsity 2
The Burning Plain (Guillermo Arriaga) 20:30 Winter Garden Theater
Detroit Metal City (Toshio Lee) 23:59 Ryerson

06 Saturday
Zift (Javor Gardev) 9:15 ScotiaBank 3
Dioses (Josue Mendez) 12:45 AMC7
Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz) 15:15 ScotiaBank 2
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (Peter Sollett) 18:00 Ryerson
Pontypool (Bruce McDonald) 20:00 AMC6
Deadgirl (Marcel Sarmiento / Gadi Harel) 23:59 Ryerson

07 Sunday
35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis) 9:15 ScotiaBank 4
The Secret Life of Bees (Gina Prince-Bythewood) 12:00 Isabel Bader
Is There Anybody There? (John Crowley) 15:00 Ryerson
Jerichow (Christian Petzold) 17:30 ScotiaBank 4
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Kevin Smith) 21:15 Ryerson
Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley) 23:59 Ryerson

08 Monday
Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda) 9:15 ScotiaBank 1
New York, I Love You (Various) 12:00 Ryerson
Uncertainty (Scott McGehee / David Siegel) 14:45 AMC9
Better Things (Duane Hopkins) 17:45 AMC7
Three Wise Men (Mika Kaurismaki) 19:45 AMC2
Plastic City (Yu Lik-wai) 21:30 AMC6
Acolytes (Jon Hewitt) 23:59 Ryerson

09 Tuesday
Flash of Genius (Marc Abraham) 9:00 Ryerson
Two-Legged Horse (Samira Makhmalbaf) 12:00 ScotiaBank 4
Flame & Citron (Ole Christian Madsen) 14:45 ScotiaBank 2
Tonight (Werner Schroeter) 18:15 ScotiaBank 2
The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson) 21:00 Ryerson
The Burrowers (JT Petty) 23:59 Ryerson

10 Wednesday
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow) 9:00 Ryerson
A Year Ago in Winter (Caroline Link) 12:00 Ryerson
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle) 15:15 Ryerson
The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda) 19:15 Varsity8
Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso) 21:30 Jackman Hall
Martyrs (Pascal Laugier) 23:59 Ryerson

11 Thursday
Hooked (Adrian Sitaru) 9:45 ScotiaBank 4
With a Little Help From Myself (Francois Dupeyron) 11:45 ScotiaBank 3
The Dungeon Masters (Keven McAlester) 15:15 AMC10
The Sea Wall (Rithy Panh) 17:30 Ryerson
Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater) 21:00 Ryerson

12 Friday
Adam Resurrected (Paul Schrader) 9:45 ScotiaBank 2
What Doesn't Kill You (Brian Goodman) 12:45 ScotiaBank 2
Pride and Glory (Gavin O'Connor) 14:45 Ryerson
Birdsong (Albert Serra) 17:00 AMC4
Achilles and the Tortoise (Takeshi Kitano) 20:00 Varsity 8
Sexykiller (Miguel Marti) 23:59 Ryerson

13 Saturday
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky) 9:00 Ryerson
Genova (Michael Winterbottom) 12:00 Ryerson
RocknRolla (Guy Ritchie) 14:45 Ryerson
A Woman in Berlin (Max Farberbock) 17:45 Varsity 1
Miracle at St. Anna (Spike Lee) 20:30 Ryerson

Venice/Telluride Review Roundup

The Venice and Telluride Film Festivals have already begun. As the weekend wears on, I'll provide additional links to reviews of significant TIFF titles in this post:

35 Shots of Rum
The Hollywood Reporter (PRO)
London Times (pro)
Screen Daily (pro)
Variety (PRO)

Achilles and the Tortoise
The Hollywood Reporter (pro)
Screen Daily (con)
Variety (mixed)

Adam Resurrected
Cinematical (PRO)
Variety (mixed)

The Beaches of Agnes
Screen Daily (pro)

The Blind Sunflowers
Variety (mixed)

The Brothers Bloom
Toronto Star (PRO)

Burn After Reading

The Daily Telegraph (pro)
The Hollywood Reporter (pro)
The London Times (pro)
Screen Daily (PRO)
Time (con)
Variety (con)

The Burning Plain
The Daily Telegraph (PRO)
The Guardian (mixed)
The Hollywood Reporter (con)
The London Times (mixed)
Screen Daily (PRO)
Variety (con)

Cold Lunch
Screen Daily (mixed)

A Country Teacher
Screen Daily (mixed)

Variety (CON)

The Duchess
The Hollywood Reporter (mixed)
Screen Daily (pro)
Variety (mixed)

Everlasting Moments
Cinematical (PRO)
Variety (PRO)

Spout (mixed)

Flame & Citron

Cinematical (PRO)
Spout (pro)

Flash of Genius
Cinematical (pro)

Goodbye Solo
Screen Daily (pro)
Variety (PRO)

The Heart of Jenin
Variety (pro)

The Hollywood Reporter (pro)
Variety (mixed)

The Hurt Locker
Toronto Star (PRO)

I'm Gonna Explode
Screen Daily (mixed)

Inju, The Beast in the Shadow
The Guardian (mixed)
The Hollywood Reporter (mixed)
Screen Daily (pro)
Variety (CON)

The Hollywood Reporter (mixed)
Screen Daily (mixed)
Variety (pro)

Kabuli Kid
Screen Daily (pro)

Screen Daily (mixed)
Variety (con)

Mark of an Angel
Variety (pro)

Screen Daily (pro)
Variety (mixed)

The Hollywood Reporter (pro)

Paris 36
Variety (pro)

The Globe and Mail (mixed)

A Perfect Day
The Hollywood Reporter (mixed)
Screen Daily (mixed)
Variety (con)

Plastic City
The Hollywood Reporter (con)
Screen Daily (con)
Variety (con)

Rachel Getting Married
The Hollywood Reporter (PRO)
Screen Daily (pro)
Variety (PRO)

RocknRolla (CON)
The Independent (mixed)
The London Times (con)

The Sky Crawlers
The Japan Times (pro)
Screen Daily (mixed)

Slumdog Millionaire
Cinematical (PRO)
Spout (con)
Variety (PRO)

Screen Daily (mixed)
Variety (mixed)

Valentino: The Last Emperor
The Guardian (pro)
The Hollywood Reporter (mixed)
The London Times (mixed)
Screen Daily (pro)
Variety (mixed)

The Hollywood Reporter (con)
Screen Daily (PRO)
Variety (mixed)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

More useful ratings...

Now Toronto has posted a slew of pre-festival reviews:

Eye Weekly has posted capsules as well:

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pre-Fest Picks

Instead of complaining more about what’s not at this year’s TIFF, I figured that it might be more productive to provide some informed opinions about what I’d recommend seeing and I’m most looking forward to.

Let’s start with a few films I’ve already seen and would heartily recommend:

When it’s all said and done, Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt) could very well turn out to be the best film playing at the festival. Anchored by a soulful performance from Michelle Williams, this small-scale drama packs the same heart-destroying punch as neorealist classics like Umberto D. and the same immersive approach to characterization as the best films from the Dardenne brothers. Stripped down, but thematically rich, it’s able to produce reverberations about America at large, while never betraying its ultra-specific scenario.

The first act of A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin) is nothing less than dizzying. The opening moments recount the death of a child, offer a cancer diagnosis and a frantic hunt for a bone marrow donor, chronicle how a son came to be disowned by his family due to a sister’s manipulations, and startle with a suicide attempt. By frontloading the dramatic meat of the story, though, the film becomes less about shocking revelations or plot twists than the sometimes comic, sometimes serious dynamics of a family under extreme strain. This lovably messy showcase for director Desplechin probably represents his finest work yet. The all-star French cast performs admirably throughout.

A novel women-in-prison film, set within a maternity ward for the incarcerated, Lion’s Den (Pablo Trapero) represents yet another uncommonly assured outing for its Argentinean auteur. Throughout, Trapero eschews the predictable pleasures of this tawdry genre, opting for introspection and diffusion over dramatic force. What results is a surprisingly internalized performance from Martina Gusman and a movie that simultaneously attracts and repels audience involvement.

A crowd pleaser from a most unexpected source, Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) represents a radical change of pace for its director, who usually specializes in brainy horror films. Taking on a distinctly Japanese brand of angst, the movie focuses on a family, each of whom feels constrained by forces out of their control. As the family’s lives threaten to unravel, Kurosawa’s past as a director of scary movies pays major dividends. The ending, which seems to be a reassertion of the value of the family unit, has a rare cathartic impact.

I was a bit down on Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy) when I saw it back in May, but I suspect that I may have been too hard on it. Unlike most ethnographic films (this one’s set on the Kazakh Steppes), this exotic romantic comedy exhibits real directorial prowess and a consistent formal strategy. Its story is charming, its digressions feel like a celebration of a people, and near its end it’s got a shot that qualifies as a bona fide cinematic miracle. Already the winner of the top prize at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, this could be on track for TIFF’s audience award.

Moving on to things I haven’t seen, but I’d like to:

Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater) has to top my list. Even when the consensus on a Linklater film deems it a misfire (e.g. Fast Food Nation, Bad News Bears), I find plenty to enjoy. I’ve paged through this script for this one, and from what I can tell, this will offer the same generous spirit that has defined the director’s work to date.

Minimalist, deadpan, and contemplative, Honor de cavalleria was distinctive for a variety of reasons. It qualified as one of the most original arthouse films of recent years. As such, I’m eagerly anticipating its follow-up, Birdsong (Albert Serra), which attempts to graft the same stripped-down style onto the Biblical tale of the Three Wise Men.

Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso) provides is a bit of a conundrum. I’ve watched all of Alonso’s past films, but haven’t really enjoyed any of them. Nonetheless, some perverse part of my cinephile brain tells me that this is an important director. I know a unique style when I see it. As such, I feel no small bit of obligation to check out his latest, which reportedly features the ruminations of a sailor who’s returned to his homeland.

Ever since I’ve started going to TIFF, I don’t think there’s been a year where there hasn’t been an opportunity to see a film featuring Isabelle Huppert, who’s quite possibly my favorite living actress. The Sea Wall [Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique] (Rithy Panh), an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ novel, provides this year’s chance. A parable about the absurdity of French colonialism, it will likely give this singularly steely thespian a character that will let her exhibit her remarkable ability to project determination.

The barebones plot descriptions that I’ve seen of 35 Rhums (Claire Denis) don’t inspire much confidence. It’s apparently about a father helping his daughter recover from his wife’s suicide. Knowing that Denis directs, though, has quite the opposite effect. Her attention to minute emotional changes should serve her well in transforming this boilerplate material into something genuinely profound.

Genova (Michael Winterbottom) comes from a director renowned for his ability to seamlessly segue from one genre to another, which seems fortunate, as its mix of ghost story and sexual angst sounds like it could easily become compromised by conflicting thematic demands. Winterbottom is not one to shy away from a challenge, though, and he succeeds more often than he fails, so I’m willing to give this my attention, even if the appeal of Colin Firth will forever be lost on me.

Last year, Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django was one of the festival’s high points. This year, another Asian film inspired by spaghetti westerns, The Good, The Bad, and the Weird (Kim Ji-woon), promises more thrills. An unfinished version of this mindless but stylish action film premiered at Cannes to raves. I expect the reception in North America will be similarly enthusiastic.

I’m not sure if Austrian filmmaker Götz Spielmann has much of a reputation at all, but I certainly appreciated Antares, his last feature. Comparisons between his work and that of his countrymen Ulrich Seidl and Michael Haneke seem entirely appropriate, which is great for people like me who don’t mind being punished a bit by the movies they see. As such, I’ll be sure to check out Revanche (Götz Spielmann), which purportedly takes on a noir plot.

Vinyan (Fabrice du Welz) is likely a festival pick for anyone who saw Calvaire, its director’s demented debut feature. Apparently extremely violent and remarkably intense, this thriller features a French couple who roam the jungles of Thailand in search of their missing child. Check out this bizarre clip, courtesy of Twitch, and you’ll see what kind of wild ride this movie threatens to offer.

The lone film with any real Best Picture Oscar buzz coming into the festival, Miracle at St. Anna (Spike Lee) will be one to keep an eye on. I will likely skip it during TIFF, since it will release commercially in September, but its debut here probably marks the festival’s biggest contribution to this year’s Oscar race.

If I wasn’t planning on seeing them at the upcoming NYFF, Summer Hours [L'Heure d'été] (Olivier Assayas), Hunger (Steve McQueen) and Four Nights With Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski) would be top picks as well.

Finally, three films that seem like possible standouts from the Midnight Madness schedule:

JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri), the sidebar’s opening night attraction, applies a self-analytical narrative to the Muscles from Brussels’ heretofore limited screen persona. Whether low expectations, novelty value or genuine achievement are to credit for the good buzz on this one is tough to say, but there’s no denying that said good buzz exists.

The Burrowers (JT Petty) merges the Western and Giant Monster genres. It’s already prompted comparisons to Tremors, which might be setting it up for a fall with the midnight audience. Given Petty’s other films (see the excellent Soft for Digging, if you haven’t already), I’d suspect something more substantial and less reliant on genre thrills.

Martyrs (Pascal Laugier) attracted some minor controversy earlier this year when it was given a rare French 18 rating due to its extremely violent content. The film has since been re-rated to a lesser 16 rating abroad, but reports from Cannes suggest that this revenge film pushes the torture horror genre to new extremes. That sounds like perfect Midnight Madness fare to me.

Eye Weekly's first TIFF Capsules

Checking the reviews in Toronto's free dailies, Eye Weekly and Now Toronto is always a fun way of tracking the festival buzz. The former has posted their first batch of capsules, made up of things that played at Cannes:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Customary Post-Film List Griping

I'm often a bit more let down than excited when TIFF releases its final film schedule. Reality comes crashing in, and you realize that as big as TIFF is, it can show every film that you'd like to see. That being said, this year's self-absorbed disappointment (Many titles that I was eagerly anticipating, such as the Grandrieux, and the Miyazaki, are M.I.A..) is exacerbated by several other major and minor annoyances about changes the festival has apparently made.

There is now the dawning realization that as a loyal public passholder (7 years and counting), and devoted art film buff, the festival seems to be marginalizing me. The first annoyance came this year when I found out that many of the public screenings would be taking place at the new AMC 24 Theater, which is reportedly an all-digital venue. Obviously, the film industry is moving toward digital projection, but TIFF, as a premiere film festival, should be putting projection quality first, especially for its paying customers. It's possible that only films that aren't intended to be shown on prints (e.g. documentaries shot on digital) will be shown there, but I fear the worst.

Secondly, there's the announcement that the ticket lottery, which determines which films you're actually able to see, will now be prioritized, so that festival donors are given priority to their ticket choices. That obviously reduces the number of tickets available for the rest of pass holders. While that benefits the festival financially, it's galling, especially since as an out-of-town festivalgoer, I need to pay $150 extra to participate in the ticket lottery.

Worse still is the new restriction on my 50-Film Festival Pass that limits me from seeing premieres of films in either the Gala or Special Presentation sections of the festival. In the past, only the Gala Premieres were off-limits to passholders, which was a mild annoyance, but able to be scheduled around (there are only 20 or so Galas). New this year, passholders can no longer see Special Presentations at the Elgin theater. This is a huge limitation imposed on the most loyal and die-hard group of festivalgoers. It potentially affects a huge selection of the festival line-up... There are a whopping 51 Special Presentations scheduled this year! Unless additional public screenings of these films have been scheduled, this is a shameless cash grab on the part of the festival.

The situation with the Special Presentation pass restriction is exacerbated by the skimpiness of the lineups in the other sections of the festival, further limiting the options of passholders. In last year's "Masters" line-up, there were 19 films. This year there are 10. In last year's "Visions" sidebar, there were 21 films. This year there are 11. In last year's "Vanguards" selection, there were 18 films. This year there are 12. It can't be coincidental that these ailing programs tend to feature the festival's least commercial narrative works.

When combined with the festival's recent elimination the Directors' Spotlight, and the reduction of the Canadian Retrospective selection to a single, token film, these changes represent a systematic reduction of the least-commercial (and most culturally vital) aspects of the film festival. TIFF, for better or (mostly) worse, is rapidly becoming more and more of a media event than a celebration of films and filmmakers (and doing a bad job of it... few of this year's biggest Oscar contenders are showing). Obviously, there's still plenty to see at the festival, but the combination of these new initiatives should be serious cause for alarm among those who value TIFF as an opportunity to see films that can't be seen elsewhere.

Some of Today's Additional Titles

Stumbled across this on Variety's web site:

TORONTO — George Clooney, Edward Norton and Canuck starlet Rachel McAdams are among the celebs that will walk the Gala red carpet in Toronto next month, as the fest announced its 500-plus guest list, full film slate — including 11 Gala pics —and special events Tuesday.

Seven world preems join the Gala gang, including helmer Gavin O’Connor’s NYC cop family saga “Pride and Glory,” starring Norton and Colin Farrell, Toa Fraser’s period pic “Dean Spanley,” starring Peter O’Toole, Jodie Markell’s “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond,” from a rediscovered Tennessee Williams screenplay, Neil Burger’s “The Lucky Ones,” with McAdams, Tim Robbins and Michael Pena as U.S. soldiers on an unplanned road trip, Rod Lurie’s government scandal flick “Nothing But the Truth,” starring Kate Beckingsale and Matt Dillon, foreign Oscar-winner Caroline Link’s family secret story “A Year Ago in Winter” and Jerry Zaks’ Leonard Chess biopic “Who Do You Love,” starring Alessandro Nivola.

The Coen’s Venice-opener “Burn After Reading,” starring Clooney, Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, gets its North American preem as a Gala, as does Anne Fontaine’s “La Fille de Monaco.”

Gala program also includes work-in-progress “Public Enemy No. 1,” French helmer Jean-Francois Richet’s thriller starring Vincent Cassel as legendary gangster Jacques Mesrine, and Indian box-office hit “Singh Is Kinng,” helmer Anees Bazmee’s romantic-action-comedy starring Akshay Kumar, Om Puri and Katrino Kaif.

The Masters program adds world preem of Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected,” based on Israeli Yoram Kaniuk’s novel about a charismatic patient in a mental institution for Holocaust survivors. Pic stars Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe. Program also includes North American preem of Werner Schroeter’s “Nuit de chien.”

Real to Reel dazzles with the world preem of Adria Petty’s examination of Paris Hilton phenom “Paris, Not France,” modeled after 1960s pic “Darling.” Doc program also adds “Sounds Like Teen Spirit: A Popumentary” and “The Heart of Enin,” about Palestinian father who donated his slain son’s organs to several Israeli children.

Special Presentations adds Daniel Burman’s domestic comedy “Empty Nest" and the work-in-progress omnibus “New York, I Love You,” 12 shorts from international filmmakers, including Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Joshua Marston, Mira Nair, Brett Ratner, Fatih Akin, Scarlett Johansson, Ivan Attal, Natalie Portman, Shunji Iawi, Jiang Wen and Andrei Zvyagintsev.

Twenty-five titles round out the Contemporary World cinema lineup, which now includes 58 films from 42 countries. Among the pics announced Tuesday are world preems of Mika Kaurismaki’s “Three Wise Men,” Nigel Cole’s Christopher Walken-starrer “$5 a Day,” Rashid Masharawi’s “Laila’s Birthday,” John Stockwell’s “Middle of Nowhere,” Ella Lemhagen’s “Patrik, Age 1.5,” Nicholas Oceano’s bio about “The Real World” cast member Pedro Zamora, Anthony Fabian’s apartheid drama “Skin” and Samira Makhmalbaf’s “Two-Legged Horse.” CWC also adds international preem of Dogme 95 helmer Ole Christian Madsen’s “Flame & Citron” and the North American preem of Olivier Assayas’ “L’Heure d’ete.”

Canada First! adds international preem of helmer Lynn Charlebois’ feature bow “Borderline.”

Mavericks on-stage guests include Kathryn Bigelow, social activist Howard Zinn, thesps Matt Damon and Josh Brolin and painter-director Julian Schnabel.

Also announced is the new public street hub of Yonge-Dundas Square, feature free public performance, including musical artists featured in some of this year’s films (Youssou Ndour, Keb’ Mo’ and cast members of “A Chorus Line”), screenings and events throughout the fest.

This year Toronto presents 249 features: 116 are world preems and 61 are first features.

Event runs Sept. 4-11.

Full list @ IndieWire:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Visions and Vanguard slates enhanced

New Films added today:

Afterwards (Gilles Bourdos)
Sauna (Antti-Jussi Annila)
Tears for Sale (Uro Stojanovi)
Universalove (Thomas Woschitz)
PA-RA-DA (Marco Pontecorvo)
Kisses (Lance Daly)

Uncertainty (Scott McGehee and David Siegel)
Unspoken (Fien Troch)
Je veux voir (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige)
Suet (Semih Kaplanolu)
Vinyan (Fabrice du Welz)

I'm not sure what anything in Vanguard is off-hand...

Several Visions titles ring a bell, though. The McGehee & Siegel is probably a big deal, especially that it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Olivia Thirlby. I didn't hear many kind words directed at Je veux voir at Cannes. I'm eagerly anticipating Vinyan, from the director of the quirky, creepy Calvaire.

The Complete Discovery Line-Up

$9.99 (Tatia Rosenthal)
Gigantic (Matt Aselton)
Lovely, Still (Nik Fackler)
Lymelife (Derick Martini and Steven Martini)
Rain (Maria Govan)
The Stoning of Soraya M. (Cyrus Nowrasteh)
What Doesn't Kill You (Brian Goodman)
Cold Lunch (Eva Sorhaug)
Vacation (Hajime Kadoi)
Apron Strings (Sima Urale)
Better Things (Duane Hopkins)
Daytime Drinking (Young-seok Noh)
Hooked (Adrian Sitaru)
Kabuli Kid (Barmak Akram)
Parc (Arnaud des Pallieres)
Snow (Aida Begic)
Tale 52 (Alexis Alexiou)
Winds of September (Tom Shu- Yu Lin)
Zift (Javor Gardev)
Hunger (Steve McQueen)
Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)
The Paranoids (Gabriel Medina)
Three Blind Mice (Matthew Newton)
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain)
Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy)
Delta (Kornel Mundruczo)

I can recommend Tulpan from that list. It's a warm-hearted ethnographic film with more filmic rigor than usual and a few well-choreographed extended shots. Hunger, Better Things and Tony Manero were obvious buzz objects from Cannes. Delta I didn't much enjoy, but the visuals were enough for many. The star power attached to What Doesn't Kill You demands a closer look...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Holding Out for a Hayao

This year’s TIFF lineup is fairly decent as is, with plenty of must-see movies, but there are a few films that I’d be ecstatic to have revealed next Tuesday, when the entire slate is let loose. My top 5 most-wanted movies would be:

5. Julia (Erick Zonca)

Erick Zonca’s been silent since his excellent 1999 feature The Little Thief, so when his Julia premiered at Berlin this year, it was a major event. The reception to the film was mixed, at best, but the sort of partisans it’s attracted have piqued my interest. Recent Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton stars, and she’s never less than interesting on screen, so hopefully TIFF has the good sense to program this, even if might be coming into the festival as damaged goods.

4. Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke)

Practically everyone loved Duck Season, Fernando Eimbcke’s charming and poignant first feature. Judging by its Cannes and Berlin reception, Lake Tahoe, another minimalist and low-key comedy, is nearly as well-regarded. Judging from its trailer, it seems to have the same kind of slacker protagonists and languid pacing that defined his debut.

3. Two Lovers (James Gray)

Gray’s woefully underappreciated We Own the Night was a sterling example of the kind of classical filmmaking that’s all too rare these days. Two Lovers, an apparent retread of Visconti’s White Nights got slightly bruised during its premiere at this May’s Cannes Film Festival, but that scarcely matters, as We Own the Night was similarly maligned there. If this doesn’t show at TIFF, it’s not a huge disaster (it’s slated to be released next January), but I can’t say I wouldn’t be a bit disappointed.

2. A Lake (Philippe Grandrieux)

Back in 2002, during my first TIFF trip, one of my most exciting viewing experiences occurred when I watched Philippe Grandrieux’s last film, A New Life. Partly because it clearly incensed the audience, causing them to flee the screening at the (dearly missed) Uptown 2 en masse, and partly because I found Grandrieux’s bleak vision and astounding cinematography to be downright intoxicating, it was a screening to remember. Since then I’ve seen Grandrieux’s Somber, an even more accomplished work, and have been utterly convinced that he is my kind of filmmaker.

1. Ponyo on the Cliff (Hayao Miyazaki)

Already a blockbuster in Japan (taking in $50 million in its first three weekends), this animated feature from master filmmaker and national treasure Miyazaki is reportedly more in line with his kid-friendly My Neighbor Totoro. For many, that might be sound like disappointing news, but I consider Totoro to be the best animated film ever made, so that’s only exponentially increased my frothing demand.

Special Presenatations Added to Lineup

Next week will see the full film list's release (as well as some blog updates from me, with early reviews), but today TIFF announced some Special Presentations:

The new titles are:

Stone of Destiny (Charles Martin Smith) [Closing]

Special Presentations
35 Rhums (Claire Denis)
Aide-toi le ciel t'aidera (Francois Dupeyron)
The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson)
The Burning Plain (Guillermo Arriaga)
Che: Part One (Steven Soderbergh)
Che: Part Two (Steven Soderbergh)
Easy Virtue (Stephan Elliot)
Faubourg 36 (Christophe Barratier)
Flash of Genius (Marc Abraham)
Genova (Michael Winterbottom)
Inju (Barbet Schroeder)
Is There Anybody There? (John Crowley)
Last Stop 174 (Bruno Barreto)
Management (Stephen Belber)
Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater)
A Perfect Day (Ferzan Ozpetek)
The Sea Wall [Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique] (Rithy Panh)
Seraphine (Martin Provost)
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
A Woman in Berlin (Max Faerberboeck)
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
Zach and Miri Make a Porno (Kevin Smith)

Friday, August 01, 2008

Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)

Probably too overstuffed and unpleasant to find any kind of broad acceptance, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is an audacious movie that attempts to do it all, about a playwright who tries to accomplish the same in his art. Quickly moving from its initial comedy of neurotic frustration into an incredibly dense panoply of topical concerns, the film asks whether or not it’s a tragedy when the looming specter of death pushes an artist toward an all-consuming and self-absorbed bid for greatness. Judging by the state of this endlessly self-reflective work, yes, maybe it is something tragic, but decidedly not uninteresting, to be so overambitious.

After a consistently witty first act, Synecdoche, New York becomes too burdened by its hefty thematic baggage. Though one could suggest that Michel Gondry’s music video for Björk’s “Bachelorette” covered this ground far more concisely, the endlessly inventive script and surprisingly dour outlook found here distinguish Kaufman’s work. Nonetheless, for the hour or so at the heart of this film, watching Kaufman’s ambitions unfurl is nothing less than a repetitive chore. As Philip Seymour Hoffman’s consummate artist tears through his relationships and his grant money, accumulating doppelgangers and burning bridges, the unpleasantness of creation is laid bare time and again. That being said, if there’s any movie that I would excuse this kind of narrative breakdown in, it would be in a movie that attempts to cover so much ground that it ultimately becomes about how art hits its limitations when trying to encapsulate the totality of life.

Fortunately, in its last half hour, Synecdoche, New York delivers a strong closing act that largely redeems the chaos that has come before, giving the impression that it actually has realized more of its great ambitions than not. As a viewing experience, it places great demands on its audience, overwhelming them with a baffling diagram of ever-encircling representations of reality. It’s overwhelming and incessant. During the long passage in the middle of the film, where the twisting permutations of this creation begin to feel overbearing and the frequent temporal jumps drive home the futility of trying to convey the significance of a life in this form, it’s really Jon Brion’s beautifully composed score that gets the viewer through the ordeal. Synecdoche, New York is an imposing film, by design. Its self-aware attempt at greatness is so overt that it could easily alienate. If Kaufman, like his protagonist, can’t satisfactorily realize his masterpiece, though, it’s not due to a lack of effort. The result is messy and uncomfortable, but ultimately as powerful in its failures as its achievements. This may not be a successful film, in the strictest sense, but it manages to succeed at far more than most “perfect” movies do, in spite of its obvious lapses. To a greater extent than any of Kaufman’s previous screenplays, it stretches the limits of cinematic storytelling.

Rating: 65/100

Religulous (Larry Charles, 2008)

Coming off as an agnostic’s call to arms, Larry Charles’ Religulous could have just easily have been called “Incredulous”. This documentary features comedian and television personality Bill Maher as an agent of doubt, talking with a series of religious figureheads in an attempt to discover what justifies their devotion. Citing a statistic which reports that 16% of Americans are adamantly non-religious, Maher declares this group the last great, untapped minority in our country, and posits himself as their spokesperson. The opening moments of Religulous suggest that Maher chose to make this documentary partially out of a “dissonance” that he felt when questioning why otherwise rational people would embrace religious faith. He starts this search at home, recounting his childhood in his own split-faith household, and interviewing his mother about his family’s theological lapses. It’s apparent that this setup is a bit of a dupe, though, as soon as Maher starts interviewing religious folks who he’s not related to. This isn’t a film borne out of a crisis of faith, but rather from a bout of political fervor. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with allowing the devout the opportunity to make fools of themselves to win favor, there’s something deceptive about Maher’s bait and switch.

Maher’s thesis question, which broadly asks “How can they be so dumb?” is less offensive than it might initially seem, since the film gives a wide array of religious authority figures ample opportunity to defend themselves, and they generally fail miserably. In his interactions with his interview subjects, Maher doesn’t insult so much as he poses obvious questions that frustrate. Considering that these organizations have a mandate to proselytize, you’d think they’d have less terrible public relations representatives, but their ineptitude at challenging even the most basic forms of dissent provides quite a few laughs. As one would expect in a documentary with comic aspirations, extremes are generally targeted, and throughout the course of the movie Maher sets his sights on easy targets such as televangelism, a Christian amusement park in Florida, a chapel for truck drivers in North Carolina, technological loopholes to make the Jewish Sabbath more convenient, and a man who purports that he is the second coming of Jesus. For a while, Religulous seems like it is only trying to be good, insubstantial fun. Its unstructured sequences don’t work very hard to convince the audience of anything, and the film’s attacks generally feel good natured. Maher’s observations are so snarky and flippant that they couldn’t possibly be designed to sway believers. In the last third of the film, though, Religulous questions whether or not there exists an Islamic tendency toward violence, resulting in an extended sequence that not only is not enlightening, but also isn’t very funny.

Religulous is no model for journalistic excellence, but it probably needn’t be. Maher’s frequent interviews are peppered with sarcastic subtitles and cheap shots taken at the expense of his subjects. The film often cuts to short clips of stock footage, providing a virtual reaction shot to anything that a zealot says that is the least bit absurd. Even more dubiously, there are flashes forward to Maher himself, shown ruminating in a car about his previous conversations, often offering a zinger that he couldn’t think up on the spot. Otherwise, Maher’s instincts as a standup comedian and talk show host are helpful here, and allow him to retort quickly and manipulate his interviewees into making foolish statements. Since he’s a prankster first and a reporter second, this matters little. Religulous is more an opportunity for Maher to showcase his competent comic delivery than to win hearts and minds.

Amid Religulous’ willful foolishness, a few moments surprise. In one bit, a candid Senior Vatican Priest who acknowledges that people are destined to die with their dumb beliefs intact, and states that little can be done about that by the church. In another, an astronomer, ordained by the church, agrees that since modern science far postdates the Bible, arguing about whether or not men once rode dinosaurs is foolish. At both of these junctures, Maher seems to find a fellow skeptic, and lets his guard down. The more typical tone of Religulous, though, is crystallized in its smarmy closing monologue (ironically about humility), in which Maher’s false modesty is placed front and center.

Rating: 42/100

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)

Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, known until this point exclusively as a director of arty horror films, makes a major career detour with the family drama Tokyo Sonata. With this sudden shift in genre and ambition, though, he ends up delivering his best film yet. Telling an ensemble tale about a family’s attempts to navigate the economic and social landscape of modern-day Japan, Sonata externalizes the stress that’s inherent in keeping up appearances while under assault from all angles. The plot gets set into motion as the father of the perfectly average Sasaki clan loses his middle management position and begins wandering the streets, too ashamed to tell his family that he’s been laid off. A salaryman without a salary, he soon finds that his seemingly unique situation is, in fact, endemic. Similarly dislocated unemployed workers populate the parks of the city, suggesting that the malaise that afflicts the Sasakis extends to all of Japanese society. Certainly the mother and son in the Sasaki family are not immune to the same latent, but unmistakable and unsettled feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. Mama Sasaski feels invisible in her own household, and Kenji, one of their sons, grows further alienated from his parents as they refuse to embrace his burning desire to take up piano lessons. A distinct discord is present in the family’s earliest interactions, and it only grows stronger as the film continues.

The underlying anxieties that fester throughout the first half of Tokyo Sonata manifest themselves in the second, through a series of subtly exaggerated, almost phantasmagoric, encounters that see the family placed in one improbable scenario after another, challenging and mocking their continued decorum. An unlikely kidnapping, an automobile accident, and an entry into military service expand the film’s emotional range and create palpably alien territory for Kurosawa to explore. It’s here, as the family’s lives threaten to unravel, that Kurosawa’s past as a director of scary movies pays the greatest dividends. He’s able to create a pervasive sense of unease, even as he sets up the film’s frequent comic moments, which often come at the expense of the hapless protagonists. The air of anxiety that floats throughout Tokyo Sonata ensures that when the film’s redemptive but ambivalent ending finally arrives, it feels like a genuinely cathartic sidestepping of the nuclear family’s inevitable extinction.

Rating: 63/100

Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2008)

With a sudden lurch forward in ambition and a continued rarefication of his distinctive style, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan offers his latest work, the downbeat family drama Three Monkeys. A sustained portrait of exquisitely rendered emotional suffering, this film at the very least broods fabulously. Thick mood permeates every perfectly composed frame that Ceylan shoots here, creating an oppressive air that turns out to be more convincing than anything found in the script. Deliberately recalling those of Antonioni, Ceylan’s directorial strategies feature a physical world that amplifies and reflects the interior discontent of his cast. Without a doubt, Ceylan conceives visually spellbinding images that maximize his choice of digital video. He finds color gradients, tricks of light, and uses of shadow that would have been impossible to realize using traditional film. This cinematographic adeptness is especially fortunate, as Three Monkeys comes across as somewhat thin and underdeveloped when one starts pondering elements beyond the visual.

Three Monkeys clearly has been designed to be a great film, but it’s perhaps a bit too neatly conceived to feel like one. The pat ironies of its plot are far too easily resolved, its metaphorical sound design too on the nose (the rumble of thunder and the distant barking of dogs are used to add portent), and the performances rely too much on inference to hit hard (don’t expect much in the way of clear motivation from these characters). Ceylan examines a family’s guilt, with the death of a young boy and the imprisonment of the father taking key metaphorical roles, but approaches the material obliquely, lessening its effectiveness. This is the first plot-heavy Ceylan film, and certainly represents a step forward for the director in many ways, but at the same time it doesn’t feel deeply impassioned, even if it’s aware of every minute emotional shading that affects its characters. In many ways, this glacially paced thriller recalls Bela Tarr’s The Man From London. Both films attempt to reinvent the film noir genre using dazzling visuals and slow-mo pacing, but Tarr’s work is both more distinctive and more absorbing. Three Monkeys is accomplished, but overdetermined. Its dramatic force can’t its equal its visual impact, resulting in a clear indication of where Ceylan’s strengths as a director lie.

Rating: 58/100

Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)

Ari Folman’s autobiographical animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, starts out with a blast of energy, as it recounts a terrible nightmare in which the dreamer is put under siege by a pack of demon dogs. This blatant metaphor for unease immediately prompts the viewer to wonder what could have begat such a vivid and terrifying dream. To answer this question, the director sets off on a series of interviews with the troops who served alongside him during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982. Unfortunately, in doing so, the film almost immediately lurches into a repetitious cycle of guilty confessions and representational questioning. It’s not coincidental that, in Folman’s schematic worldview, those who seem to be coping the best also seem to be those in deepest denial. The movie proceeds arbitrarily and unconvincingly from this state of affairs toward a personal catharsis that utterly ignores larger political contexts.

There’s a fine line between “personal” and “politically irresponsible”, and it’s not surprising that a film this blunt constantly threatens to cross that line. This most often occurs through a gross oversimplification of the elements at play in the build-up to the genocidal atrocity that sits at Waltz With Bashir’s center. For a movie ostensibly about a group of men brooding endlessly about an event, these guys haven’t gained much real perspective about the other participants in the conflict. What results is a movie that’s anti-war in the vaguest terms, and as guilty as its subjects of compartmentalizing the atrocities that it wishes to expose. Any collection of combat-weary veterans could offer the trite reflections that this group does if they were looking to absolve themselves. Not even Folman’s cheap, last-minute gambit of confronting viewers with actual footage of the slaughter in question can do this horror justice, though. The director’s treatment of this documentary footage in this context trivializes it and reeks of exploitation. The camera’s ability to privilege the perspective of its wielder has rarely been abused as blatantly as it is in this film. This is a singularly self-serving work.

Though it’s admittedly novel to see a movie that features Israelis grappling with the fact that they played a part in allowing genocide to take place, the animated approach taken in Waltz With Bashir minimizes the horror behind that act. Apparently opting to animate his documentary footage because his subjects did not want to be photographed (!), Folman has come up with a creative, but entirely ineffective solution. The quality of the animation that’s used is not up to the serious task at hand. It turns what would have been a series of talking heads into a series of ugly drawings, and while this allows for some degree of visual expressiveness, it sacrifices the fine tunings of the human face, which is a loss too great to bear in a film so focused on personal storytelling. The viewer, as a result, gets stories after they have been processed through an intermediary, leaving them no ability to properly judge what they hear. Though occasionally capable of presenting striking graphical contrasts, the film’s animation style ultimately looks cheap and stiff. This saps a considerable amount of power from the movie, and distances the audience in a way that’s not at all helpful. The animation in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, made seven years ago, showed that with care and attention to detail this approach could enliven a film that was primarily based on dialogue exchanges. Folman’s work has all the impact and resonance of a web-based Flash cartoon. The supposed political bravery and flashy graphics on display in Waltz With Bashir have resulted in the emergence of plenty of fans for the film, but what actually is put up on the screen is unavoidably amateurish and hopelessly self-absorbed.

Rating: 46/100

O’Horten (Bent Hamer, 2007)

Bent Hamer’s O’Horten is an amiable but inescapably inconsequential character study that shows considerable indebtedness to, but little understanding of, the work of deadpan cynic Aki Kaurismaki. Relaxed to the point of somnambulism, Hamer’s stylized rumination on aging and death lacks most of the satiric bite that one would expect from one of Kaurismaki’s movies. As a result, even though he largely apes that Finn’s style, Hamer can’t turn his droll musings into a pervasive worldview. O’Horten feels small and sequestered from any real ambition. It is perfectly adequate, but perfectly forgettable; the kind of film that you spend admiring how visually crisp and clean it looks, but find yourself unable to recall more than a shot or two when it’s over.

Focusing on a Norwegian train operator about to begin life as a retiree, the film adopts a low-key and slow-paced style from the outset. With its protagonist played by aged actor Bard Owe in a laconic manner, it’s a quiet movie, with long bouts of silence that are only occasionally punctuated by spare dialogue or flourishes from the soundtrack. The tone is generally one of quiet awe or mild bemusement as O’Horten wanders aimlessly through the long nights that dominate his newly directionless life. Taken off the train tracks he has been so devoted to, it seems he has no idea where to go next. Though Hamer aims for a light touch with his directorial choices and droll script, the formula repeated throughout the movie, in which O’Horten consistently becomes some sort of benevolent presence in the lives of a group of strangers, is cumbersome enough to erase any impression of subtlety. After a while, the expectation of this formula and anticipation of non-incident overrides any surprise that the movie can generate. Too cute by half, filled with myriad forced moments of magic, O’Horten attempts to cast a nuanced spell, but ends up making rather little impression at all.

Rating: 42/100

Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, 2008)

Of Time and the City, Terence Davies’ autobiographical documentary about his hometown of Liverpool, fails to turn its assemblage of stock footage and sarcastic observation into the grand summation of a place and era it would love to be. From its opening moments, which feature Davies quoting Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, a poem about the hubris that resulted in a lost civilization, there’s a sourness that hangs over the film. Forefronting a confrontation between the elegiac and the evocative, Davies offers a series of anecdotes and aphorisms that are slightly amusing from time to time, but not especially incisive or tied to his images, which often seem randomly chosen.

In chronicling his past, the director takes an erudite approach, putting his city, its architecture, and its politics before its people. This is probably appropriate for a city symphony film, but nonetheless it distances the viewer somewhat. It is telling that the film grows overtly sappy whenever Davies finally turns his attention to actual people. His treatment of the Liverpudlians often smacks of condescension. For example, when he devotes a montage to the working class’ routines of work and play, he opts to soundtrack the film with a pretentious aria. The juxtaposition doesn’t illustrate their supposed innate beauty so much as it drives home Davies’ fundamental distance from his subjects.

This gets at the prime problem of Of Time and the City. The director’s pedantic tendencies don’t necessarily make him profound. Davies’ relates his antagonistic relationship with his devout Catholicism and ongoing his struggle with his sexuality, but they conspire to make for a distinctly detached personality. Even in his memories, Davies often seems less a rapt participant than a hopeless outsider. Early on, he makes his distaste clear that a church has been converted into a bar and restaurant, and that initial venom keeps festering throughout. Whatever Davies might be, he’s not loveable, and while that might mean that he offers a distinct take on Liverpool, it’s not likely one that most can embrace.

The most intriguing passage amid this blather comes when Davies describes his all-encompassing passion for the cinema. “My love was as muscular as for my Catholicism, without any of the drawbacks,” he recounts while describing it. The sight of Dirk Bogarde in Victim made him awaken sexually, he notes. Anonymous extras in found fragments of film begin to function as stand-ins for his mother, brothers, and self. For a few brilliant moments, it feels like Of Time and the City is capturing movie buff Davies’ willing sublimation of the realities that created his memories to the exaggerated filmed images that he can still readily reference. The style of the documentary suddenly begins recounting a life’s story through stock footage, and the effect is exhilarating. It is also short-lived. Before long, Davies drifts from his personal narrative, back to pithy observations about his town’s architecture and pastimes. It’s not exactly terrible material, but the reversion to such sundry topics seems a cruel twist after the film hinted at becoming something much more immediate.

Throughout, Davies’ raspy, formal voice, remains something of an asset. Like John Hurt’s timber in Dogvillle, Davies’ words are a pleasure to listen to, no matter what is being said. On the rare occasions when the soundtrack replaces his voice with another, or the frequent occasions where a selection of music takes over, there is something tangible lost. Without a doubt, though, Of Time and the City’s strongest asset is the city itself. As an architecture film, it is passable, with some obvious sociological value present in the heaps of archival footage chronicling the city’s ups and downs. In fact, I would attribute most of the poetic impact here not to Davies, but rather to the original documentarians who captured life in Liverpool as it happened. Occasionally an image threatens to pack some emotional punch, but those moments are rare, and isolated. As soon as Davies cuts, the effect dissipates. His contributions add shockingly little.

Compared to the truly masterful essay films of artists like Godard or Marker, this feels insubstantial. Before long, Davies’ nostalgia begins to feel like a lazy defense mechanism that enables him to retreat from the here and now. The same interior tendencies that felt endlessly expansive in his fictional works turn out to be reductive in the documentary form. While it’s amusing that Davies is still someone who can get worked up about Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, it’s also a bit pathetic. The longer one is exposed to his musings, the less insightful and more bitter they seem. Davies’ attitudinizing merely seems to represent the easiest route to melodramatic suffering. It seems odd to be placed in a position where his disengagement from the world is something to be celebrated. Even more problematic, though, is how little Of Time and the City has to offer on aesthetic or substantial grounds when compared to most films of its ilk. The editing is simplistic and the soundtracking is coarse, at best. Ultimately, this is a movie that feels hastily assembled, no matter how heartfelt it might be. In sum, it feels only mildly personal, only mildly political, only mildly devout, and only mildly interesting.

It’s rather telling that Davies seems to have no good idea how to close Of Time and the City. This dirge of a film starts with the demeanor of an elegy, so it has little place to go. As it concludes, it offers up a series of lazy punctuation marks, including shots of the modern-day incarnation of the city taken at night, a Sir Walter Raleigh sonnet read while a procession of club kids are shown cavorting, and an absurd montage of baby carriages. Davies’ inability to sum up what we’ve just witnessed drives home the unfortunate aimlessness of the whole project.

Rating: 39/100