Sunday 30 September 2012

TIFF12 - Day 10

The last weekend of TIFF is always a bit of a letdown it seems - no more premieres, no more Q&As and less and less buzz in the air - but despite a few clunkers, my last 2 days hit some huge highlights. 4 of my top 10 films of the festival happened over these last 2 days (5 if you include Friday night's), so as much as I wish TIFF would spread their premieres out a bit more to keep the energy of the fest going, I sure can't complain about a lack of quality fare. Key Of Life, for example, was simply pure enjoyment from start to end. This entry from Japan's Kenji Uchida takes the well-worn idea of people switching identities and crafts a continually surprising story about doing things for the right reasons. Its finely tuned characters always manage to stay true to themselves and I can't think of a single misstep the movie made. It starts with a suicidal failed actor who, after accidentally knocking out a man in a bathhouse, takes on his identity after realizing his victim has lost his memory. What he doesn't realize is that the man was a hired killer. For his part, the killer thinks that now he is the actor (due to leftover clothes and identification left in his hospital room) and, because of his natural diligence, starts trying to perfect his acting craft. It's best not to delve any further into the plot, but each additional detail builds upon previous ones and helps to create many funny moments and unexpected pleasures. It's rare to see such care put into building this kind of depth of character, so it was a joy to come across it. One of the best of the festival.

Early in 7 Boxes I realized that what I was watching was not only of a high caliber, but was also likely to bring its disparate threads and characters together in the end. Isn't that a great feeling? When you just somehow know that the film you're watching is in capable hands and that they will steer it in the direction it needs to go? It's not long after our hero Victor (a teenage wheelbarrow operator) begins his quest through the streets of Asuncion Paraguay for a cell phone that you get sucked into his world. Those busy, noisy streets play a central role in his search and before you know it, that selfish desire for a phone becomes something different with much higher stakes for a number of people. Without wasting much time, the film injects new people into the story as Victor attempts to deliver 7 mystery boxes for payment. One by one these new characters get tied back into the continuously moving plot and it's a wonder that with these intersecting stories nary a character or moment gets left hanging. A rival operator starts complicating matters for Victor, but when the cops and local gangsters get involved it leads to exciting chases through the streets and several standoffs. A truly fun ride.

Sad to say, the back half of the day contained fewer pleasures. That's not to say that it was without any, because The ABCs Of Death certainly provided a couple - specifically, an Apocalypses, a Dogfight, a Fart, a Klutz, Nuptials, a Toilet and, most enjoyable of all, a Quack. Those seven were the standout stories out of the 26 alphabetically ordered short films on display in this most recent anthology collection. Each of the stories has a different director who has been assigned one of the letters and two conditions: 1) keep the budget under $10000 and 2) base a death scene around a word starting with your given letter. As you might expect, there's a wide variety of approaches (animation, claymation, humour, nightmarish, farcical, depraved, etc.), but not as much true creativity. Adam Weingard's "Q Is For Quack" is the most clever of the bunch (and funniest) and Marcel Sarmiento's "D Is For Dogfight" is probably the best looking, but there's a large number of misfires. They only run a few minutes each, but when you're running at about a 25% success ratio, there's a lot of frustration to be found amongst the Libidos, Miscarriages and Orgasms. The biggest problem with the majority of the shorts is simply an odd lack of focus within the 4-5 minute run times and, even odder, a lack of brevity. Many of the ideas brought forth could have been wrapped up in a solid 1-2 minutes per film - stretching each to at least twice their necessary lengths drained them of their energy and surprises. A missed opportunity.

Speaking of blown potential, Stephen Fung's Tai Chi 0 - a mix of goofy and epic - spent most of its running time flipping in equal measures between fun, frustrating, clever and dull. As it turns out, this was the first part of the story of the founder of the Yang school of tai chi (the next part called Tai Chi Hero is due out in China before end of this year), so there's a great deal of setup, back story and long explanatory sections that are frankly not that interesting. Mostly because the central character isn't overly interesting either. In order to keep the audience alert, cartoonish moments are tossed in during character introductions (a technique that could have added a lot to the film, but falls flat most of the time it's used here) and several fight sequences. This was the second film I brought my 12 year-old to and he was quite painfully bored. He perked up during the fights, but even most of those led nowhere. While Yang is holed up in a small mountain village hoping to learn the secrets to their martial arts, Western technology is threatening to tear down the village. I expect all this will come to a head in part two, but someone else will have to tell me how it ends since I'd rather just go watch a Shaw Brothers film instead. There's something to be said for throwing the kitchen sink on screen, but make sure you turn the taps off before ripping out the plumbing...

TIFF12 - Day 9

I had a good streak going before my Friday screening of Soi Cheang's Motorway: 10 solid to great movies in a row. And then it all came crashing down. I can't say that I wasn't warned since Cheang's previous film Accident (which I saw at TIFF 2009) promised great things and delivered very few, but I couldn't resist a film that was essentially built around car chases. Especially given that Cheang is a disciple of Johnnie To - not a director I'm overly fond of but certainly one who knows how to create some wonderful set pieces. Unfortunately, like with Accident, not only can Cheang NOT take advantage of the set pieces (the car chases are good, but not great), he adds NOTHING else beyond them. Honestly, nothing. Nothing without cliche anyway. Men yell, stamp their feet and over-dramatize everything, women (even ones in positions of authority) are marginalized and a young cop has a partner "this close" to retirement. Sigh. I'm done with Johnnie To and all his students for awhile.

I was hoping that my next film Gebo And The Shadow - my first introduction to the 80-year career of Manoel de Oliveira (apart from one of the short segments of Chacun Son Cinema) - would get me back on track and show these flashy upstart kids how to really use the art form. With some lovely looking screenshots from the TIFF site, being just a shade over 90 minutes and with a cast that included Michael Lonsdale, Claudi Cardinale AND Jeanne Moreau, I thought it would be the perfect antidote. Unfortunately, it just gave me additional symptoms. Apart from a few charming moments by Jeanne Moreau, this was a drab, dull and repetitive filmed stage play. I'm not sure if those screenshots on the web site had been retouched or if we just saw a colour-drained version of the print, but the entire film had an ugly, bland look to it that wasn't helped at all by unimaginative framing within the static shots. The entire story takes place within the confines of a single room of a poor couple's house which they share with their daughter-in-law. Their son left years ago (initially it is a mystery as to why) and recently the father has felt a shadow following him. Could the son have returned? Will the mother stop whining? Will the daughter-in-law stop sniffling (I can't tell you how annoying the constant heavily mic-ed sniffling became)? Could I have cared less? The first screening where distinct sounds of snoring could be heard. Apparently, I need to start elsewhere with Oliveira.

As I waited for my next movie, I had little confidence that my day would perk up. The scuttle-butt on No One Lives had not been good from its earlier-in-the-week Midnight Madness showing. I was still hoping that director Ryuhie Kitamura (I have a strong fondness for his gleefully goofy Versus) could inject some zest into this horror/thriller, but I wasn't laying any money down on it. Despite one or two surprises and good lines, my newly found low expectations were met as No One Lives proved to be uninspired and tension free. The cast were at best bland and at worst gratingly bad, but that may be likely due to the awful characters they were asked to play. I couldn't wait until the promise of the title of the film was fulfilled. Pointless. So let's move on...

Well, thank goodness for The Thieves. It single-handedly saved the entire day. This extremely fun Korean/Hong Kong heist flick fully understands its genre, uses it wisely and yet still manages to surprise. It has its own share of cliches, but they are all used to serve the high entertainment quotient. And it was the perfect way to introduce my son to TIFF (when you get unsolicited praise from a 12 year-old, you know that you've done something right). Already one of the highest grossing Korean films ever made, you can see why audiences would be attracted to the cast and characters - all with their own little facets that move beyond just the standard one-note stereotypes. In addition to being an Ocean's Eleven style "let's bring the best team together" romp, it pits the Hong Kong elements of the team versus the Korean ones while also showing that each individual con-artist has their own angle and is happy to play against everybody else. The main heist is setup to seek revenge on an old partner-in-crime, but double crosses and unexpected issues start gumming up the works. And, in true Korean fashion, although the movie is breezy and fun for most of its running time, they shift gears and bring in some darker moments and ramp up the violence suddenly before returning to its lightness. This will undoubtedly get a wider worldwide release, so be on the lookout.

TIFF21 - Day 8

As gorgeous as some of its scenes are, Rhino Season is a waking nightmare of a film. Its tale of a Kurdish poet (remarkably portrayed by Behrouz Vossoughi), unjustly accused of writing political poetry and sentenced to 30 years in prison, captures the absolute worst aspects of humanity - particularly since it is based on actual events that occurred to a family friend of the filmmaker. Bahman Ghobadi (the director in question and Cannes winner for A Time For Drunken Horses in 2000) works through the 30 year span of his story (beginning during the Islamic Revolution) using beautiful imagery, emotional wallops and several true "Wow" moments. The composition of just about every shot is a work of art unto itself containing images that will never leave me. Animal imagery is predominant throughout - a stunning drive with a pack of rhinos, a downpour of turtles, a horse's head peeking into a car - and much of it ties in to the actual poems of the real life jailed artist which are occasionally read as voice over. The imprisonment - which includes a 10 year span for the poet's wife (played wonderfully by Monica Bellucci) - is driven by a personal vendetta, but the restrictive nature of the Islamic regime (both then and now) is never out of your mind. Ghobadi achieves this without hammering home his message and by relying on his camera to show the blackness of the jail, Vossoughi's dark sad eyes and the overwhelming sadness of Bellucci's character. Ghobadi, who is not currently welcomed back to his native Iran, gave an impassioned Q&A where he mentioned the lack of specific references to the government" "Their regime has an expiration date. I didn't want my film to have one." Best of fest.

In many ways, my next film was a much simpler affair due to its straight ahead style and small main cast, but don't be fooled by that because Our Little Differences had numerous complex layers sitting just underneath that basic exterior. Initially, it's a very sharply observed look at different styles of parenting (as contrasted between a doctor and his maid), but it ends up digging through much wider class and cultural biases as well. The doctor works at an insemination clinic and is on friendly terms with one of the cleaning staff who also does off hours work as his household maid. They are both single parents (he with a teenage son and she with a daughter transitioning to young adulthood), but take very different approaches to their children. He's one of the kinder doctors at the clinic to her, but after her daughter disappears one evening while out with his son and girlfriend, the differences in their status and position start appearing in their relationship. He remains completely unworried about what transpired, but she is far more concerned about the whereabouts of her child and pesters him to find out what happened. He feels quite put out and as the day wears on he gets more and more impatient with her, begins treating her condescendingly and even questions why she immigrated to Germany in the first place. As the details of the youngsters evening slowly get pulled from his son (I've never wanted to reach through the screen and throttle a kid more than while watching this), we realize no one has the answers.

Next up was Miss Lovely and it was yet again a very different beast - and not one I was expecting at all. I went in thinking it to be a light-hearted fun look at the low budget sex/horror filmmaking industry in India and walked away with a dark modern noir under my belt that digs into some seedy, very non-Bollywood movies. Even without all the flash and sparkle, I still left with a smile on my face though since the tale is well told and provides an exceptionally detailed look at the environments within which these people work. The movies within the movie feel spot on perfect (even though I have no major knowledge of this side of India's movie industry) and through the shady dealings of two brothers in the business, we learn all manner of different ways to sneak what people REALLY want into the films - ie. late night showings of some of these movies would occasionally be stopped mid-reel while a single new reel of porn was projected on screen to the delight of the mostly male audience. Though completely outlawed, there's still big demand for the porno reels and the brothers transition from their horror film jobs into the criminal arena. As they get deeper involved, their relationship gets tested, stakes get raised and the film gets darker. Though slow-paced in some spots, I could definitely use another viewing to really keep on top of the many characters. There's a lot offered up here.

Switching gears yet again, Thale uses a subtle and slow-building strategy to explore the old Norwegian myth of the huldra - beautiful women who lure men into the woods from which they never return. The film manages to pack in far more pleasures than expected into its budget-conscious 80 minute run time due mainly to its focus on character interaction. A pair of buddies who work cleaning up crime scenes uncover a basement space at a victim's house and as they poke about they find a young woman attached to feeding tubes in a bathtub. Apparently locked underground for quite some time, she has more surprises awaiting the two friends - the most obvious one being her tale. As the story expands a bit into the outdoors, a few additional effects are added that remove you from the film somewhat - cheap CGI just looks like cheap CGI - but they are fortunately kept to a minimum. As a first time feature filmmaker, Aleksander Nordaas seems to have good solid command of how to build characters as evidenced by the funny and natural sounding dialogue between the two leads. Considering Nordaas also wore producing, cinematography, editing and even set decorating hats along with his writer/director chores, you would expect that he would have some sort of control, but there were obviously some fully formed ideas that were getting expressed here. An impressive, tension-filled debut.

Friday 28 September 2012

TIFF12 - Day 7

There are no truly explosive moments in Blondie, but you'd be forgiven for thinking that there might be one around any corner at any given time. There are countless slow burn conversations between the three adult sisters and their mother throughout the film and the tension level just boils on and on - occasionally spilling a bit over the edge or rattling the pot, but never blowing the lid off. All three of the siblings have returned home for their mother's birthday and old habits (along with new ones) rear their ugly heads as the girls try to deal with each other and their true feelings about their mother. It's all certainly by design since I felt that same unease throughout the entirety of director Jesper Ganslandt's previous film The Ape a few years ago. It's apparent that he loves living in that middle ground space - a sort of limbo between peaceful existence and all out war with others. I can't help but be kind of enthralled by it.

Propelled by a fantastic performance by Takako Matsu (I'll stack her stare up with the best of 'em), Dreams For Sale is subtle and surprising as it charts the con games a couple use against a variety of women to "borrow" large sums of cash. Meanwhile, their own relationship slowly disintegrates. Matsu's Satoko appears to be the stronger, clearer-thinking person of the two, so when Kanya admits he had a fling with a broken-hearted woman (and managed to secure a rather large loan of money from her), she sees an opportunity for them to get back on their feet after their restaurant burned to the ground. Kanya doesn't come across as the typical man on the prowl and in fact never really makes the first move on any of the women. What they see in him is a project that they can help fix and a sensitive person who might even listen to their own problems. Rich in character detail, the film never forces you to take sides. One of my favourites of the festival.

I was curious how director Chen Kaige - who tends more towards sweeping period epics - would handle a film whose central focus on cyber-bullying and the spreading effects of light-speed gossip could only be set in the 21st century. I was also a bit worried that the technology elements might take over the story in Caught In The Web and devolve into a mess, but this was a surprisingly fun look at the web of lies we can easily get caught in and how people typically just love to assume the worst of others. It all begins with an incident on a city bus that gets recorded on a cell phone by a young reporter. The video shows a beautiful well put together woman named Lanqiu being very rude to an older gentleman and refusing to give her seat to him. Everyone assumes that the woman is an uncaring spoiled rich bitch, but no one bothers to find out that she's also just received some horrible news from her doctor. At times you may feel that the characters could easily clear up all the stories flying around with a few simple statements, but given that Lanqiu continuously hears that truth isn't all it's cracked up to be ("sometimes truth is puzzling", "only the mentally ill tell the truth these days", etc.), you can understand her reluctance to come forward and explain. Things spiral from there as further assumptions are made about her relationship to her boss and as the story gets more and more popular on the Internet, other people's own relationships become affected. It occasionally tries too hard to tie in the Internet to our ability to quickly disseminate any kind of information quickly, but fortunately it usually gets back to its wider themes.

The Suicide Shop is a brightly animated and enjoyable mix of the delightfully sweet and the darkly humourous that somewhat bogs itself down with sub-par musical numbers and pointless 3-D. Director Patrice Leconte's first foray into feature-length animation does a great job creating an enormously likable central child - the only person in this world who looks at life as a constant set of opportunities to find joy - who is determined to change the viewpoints of his parents and two older siblings. The family actually owns a Suicide Shop which provides all manner of devices and methods for the depressed members of society to off themselves. Given the gloomy grey world of the city they all live within, it's no surprise that business is booming. There are many very clever set pieces and little touches, but the main pull to the film is little Alain's optimistic outlook. Whenever he's smiling amidst the rest of the grumps and sadsacks, you can't help but smile along with him. The musical sections strangely disengaged me a bit from the story, but I always got pulled back in when the tunes stopped. As for the 3-D, the only thing it brought to the film was its ability to steal away some of the brightness of the colours. Would have been much better without the musical and 3-D bobbles.

Thursday 27 September 2012

TIFF12 - Day 6

OK, after a bit of a break, I'm hoping to wrap up the second half of my recent Toronto International Film Festival experience. Particularly because it just won't ever happen once October starts and my yearly horror marathon begins.

Ariel Vromen's The Iceman is pretty conventional in how it tells its true story (about a hitman who killed hundreds of people), but it's truly solid and effective for pretty much every second of its screen time. Most of that is due solely to one single factor - Michael Shannon. Nothing against the rest of the cast who are all very strong (return to form performances by Ray Liotta & Wynona Ryder and a really well disguised Chris Evans as the hitman's partner-in-crime-ice-cream-vendor-by-day), but Shannon tops them all in chillingly menacing fashion as he shows little feeling for anything in the world except for his very own family. When he growls at another driver to GET BACK IN THE CAR, I just about left the theatre to go sit in my own car at home just in case he meant me. The film goes to dark places as it delves into Shannon's past and many killings, but it finds some humour too (which also happens to be dark). One example is the scene where Shannon's hired killer considers giving an intended victim a second chance (a short cameo by James Franco) and tells him to "pray to God that I don't kill you". After a bit of a pause he snears "pray harder". It's all very good, polished and entertaining, but it never quite kills it or murders any specific scene. It's not really a cause for complaint - I would highly recommend this - but it screams out to have a few "Wow" moments.

The most recent experiment by Laurent Cantet in using an entire cast of inexperienced actors comes crashing down on him with Foxfire: Confessions Of A Girl Gang. Not necessarily just because of the weak acting, but specifically due to the (I can only assume) reverence towards Joyce Carol Oates' source novel. Pretty much every line of stilted dialogue feels lifted straight from the book's pages and the actors simply can't find a way to make it work. It slowly but most definitely drags the entire enterprise down with it and somewhere towards the middle (of what feels to be even longer than its 140+ minute running time) it becomes completely uninvolving as the story ultimately strands its characters with nowhere to go. You might think that the tales of a 1950s girl gang looking to put men in their place would prove engaging (with a central take-no-shit girl saying things like "It's up to you to decide how guys are going to treat you."), but apart from a moment here or there you would be wrong...There's rarely any spark in the laboured chatter between the girls and with such a wide canvas available on which to play (the one thing the film gets right is the look and feel of the 50s), I was quite disappointed in the directions that the story went. I suppose much of that can be blamed on the book (which I haven't read), but the film doesn't do much to enliven any of those non-events - especially with its constant use of close-ups when they aren't needed.

Mushrooming is that hidden gem we all look for at festivals. It starts with a simple premise - a mushroom picking afternoon for politician Aadu and his charming wife Viivi - and slowly morphs into a very funny satire about celebrity-worship and the lack of actual, real political discussion. At no point will you have solid footing with respect to where the story is headed as the plot line is about as straight and firm as the lumpy, mucky grounds of the forest where the elusive mushrooms reside. The couple, along with famous rock star Zak that they've picked up along the way (see, you didn't expect that did you?), get lost in the woods and spend the next few days alternately trying to stay alive, find their way out and "battle" an odd man who lives in the forest and accuses them of being famous since they've all recently been on TV. There's moments of absurdity - like the "Hop & Jump" game show on which Aadu makes an ill-advised appearance - but director Toomas Hussar manages to keep the story grounded as it transpires mostly in the Estonian woods. Even considering that those woods, as noted by one of the characters, are apparently far bigger than any in the entire country...As they deal with cell phone issues, breaking news of a scandal involving Aadu and try not to kill each other (Aadu is not much for the non-conventional, so he and Zak are quite the polar opposites), they also begin to figure out the concept of karma.

Even if it's a bit clunky with its many messages (modern social networking, using 3rd world countries as dumping grounds, community involvement, staying true to yourself, etc.), I greatly enjoyed Manon Briand's latest film Liverpool. Her long-awaited (at least by me) follow-up to Chaos And Desire mostly gets by on charm, character and some finely detailed performances, but it never preaches its messages too hard. The Liverpool of the title is the name of a dance club in Montreal where Emelie works as a quiet and reserved coat check girl. It's not just her name and demeanour that remind one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie, but her desire to watch other people and help where she can. After a woman overdoses at her club, she returns her checked coat to her hotel room and suddenly becomes embroiled in a criminal plot as she is mistaken for the dead girl. Her involvement manages to throw her together with a regular at the club named Thomas (they both have eyes for each other but have been too shy to make the first move) and they try to piece together the mystery, avoid danger and begin the baby steps to a relationship. It's also very clever in detailing numerous layers of people, places and things pretending to be what they are not (Liverpool within Montreal, Thomas' fake online identities, Emelie and Thomas dancing the Madison in a restaurant, etc.). If it sounds a bit twee and forced, it manages to retain the audience's good graces by staying sweet, charming and very bright and colourful. As well, I can't resist a film that makes my hometown of Montreal look this good on film.

Dying is hard...

...but if you're going to do it, make it memorable and follow this guy's lead. Taken from a 1974 Turkish action film called Kareteci Kız ("Karate Girl").

From via Matt Zoller Seitz.

Now There's Something You Don't See Everyday...#8

Ninja Wars (1982 - Kosei Saito)

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Blind Spot #9 - "Amadeus" and "Marty"

With the Toronto International Film Festival having taken up a sizeable chunk of the past month, I found myself without much time left and in a quandry as to what to choose for the Blind Spot this time around. What did I feel like writing about this month? I don't know, what do I feel like writing about? I didn't just want to slap something mediocre together, but found myself looking for two films that would at least somewhat relate to each other. I ended up choosing two Oscar winning pictures: 1984's Amadeus and 1955's Marty. Besides each film taking their titles from the first names of their main characters and each having taken home the Best Picture prize of its year (as well as Best Actor, Director and Screenplay awards), I thought that the 30 year gap between them would add some interesting comparison points. It turns out that the main characters of each film are much more interesting comparison points than I would've guessed - especially when it comes to the area of mediocrity.

The main character in Amadeus is, in many ways, not actually the famous composer himself, but his rival Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham in the Oscar winning performance). Though he fancies himself quite the musical genius (and is indeed the court composer for Emperor Joseph II), he is gobsmacked when he encounters the ease with which Mozart creates entire fully-formed pieces (the "voice of God") within his head. Salieri is not only jealous of Mozart's skill, but he wonders why God has given these talents to this vulgar character who drinks, carouses and appears to have no manners about him. Salieri vows to block Mozart's success by working against him behind the scenes and, eventually, to murder him. From the confines of an insane asylum, we learn much of this many years after Mozart's death as Salieri confesses all to a priest after a botched suicide attempt. From Salieri's point of view, everything was fine before this young punk showed up on the scene. Not that it necessarily affected his career, but he suddenly couldn't help but see his shortcomings. Previously, "everybody liked me...I liked myself.".

He can't help but now see himself as just a mediocre talent, forsaken by God. Even though he secretly attends every Mozart performance and opera, he cannot accept this and continues to work towards crushing Amadeus (e.g. ensuring people don't hire him for tutoring positions, closing operas in short order, etc.). His only chance to rise above his own mediocrity is to destroy Mozart and triumph over God.

Now let's contrast Salieri with Marty - the centre of Paddy Chayefsky's sharply tuned script that focuses on our reluctance to face change. Marty is just an average joe - at least, that's what he would like to be. He's soft spoken, not overly outgoing and considered a bit heavy set and not exactly a ladies man (though Ernest Borgnine plays those features up, he really is quite a formidable presence). He gets comments from his customers, friends and mother that all tell him what he should be doing. He should be married (and how shameful that at 35 he isn't!), he should be going out at night, he should be dating this girl or that girl, etc. Everyone seems to know how things should be for Marty - because that's how it should be for everyone. He dreams of nothing more than finding a wife and maybe buying the butcher shop where he works, so it's not like he's going against the grain. In fact, he would love some simple mediocrity, but his self-esteem isn't exactly strong and he doesn't see himself as much of a catch. He has tired of looking for women in dance halls and hanging with guys on street corners, so his Saturday nights typically end with him and his buddy Angie watching some TV. He lives with his mother and she worries that he stays in too much, so he gives in to some of her nagging and goes to the local dance hall one more time. On this particular night he happens to meet Clara and feels an immediate affinity towards her. Everyone else sees her as a plain Jane, but that doesn't bother him.

As Marty and Clara start to see possibilities ("we ain't such dogs as we think we are"), everyone else tries to get in their way. For all the attempts they've made to get Marty to this point, they now suddenly realize that their own lives will change if he gets serious with Clara. They are happy to push others to follow conventions, but resist when their own lives might change. Marty's mother, his friends and Angie all put Clara down without giving her much of a chance when they realize Marty may actually be able to change his life with her ("she's nothing", "she's a dog", "she must be 50", etc.). After everyone has criticized Marty, it's apparent that they are the ones that are static and can't accept others trying to reach for something a bit more. Director Delbert Mann makes the film darker as it goes along - each scene seems to have a little less light than preceding ones - as both Marty and Clara try to find their own rays of sunshine.

The two films are are vastly different in terms of style: Mann's approach is subtle in both the direction of his actors as well as the use of light and shadow whereas Forman uses the setting of his film to allow for ornamentation within his sets as well as the performances. Tom Hulce goes big with his version of Mozart (his laugh, his hair, his reactions, his eyes) and though it doesn't overly detract from the film, it does become tiring. The smaller roles typically fit into their boxes: the stiff politician, the loud actors, and so on, but two medium sized roles stand out for me - and not in a good way. Jeffrey Jones plays the Emperor and provides little hint as to any regalness. While all around him have typical upper crust cadences to their speech, he seems to be reading his lines in the same voice he would've used at a table read. I like Jones just fine in other roles, but he felt to be an odd choice here. Worse is Mozart's wife Stanzi (played by Elizabeth Berridge) who felt like a cast member straight out of an 80s movie and was out of place when stacked against the rest of the characters. It affected every scene in which she appeared. Abraham is fine, but I wanted some more fierceness from him - given the tenor of the film, I don't quite understand the best acting nod to him. Borgnine's statue, though, is well-deserved as he shifts through quiet sadness, heartbreak, contentment, frustration and elation.

Overall, I found that Marty packs a great deal more to consider and savour in its ninety minutes than Amadeus does in its double the running time. It's not that I didn't like Amadeus since for a 3 hour film it does move pretty quickly, has some well-constructed scenes (the Don Giovanni opera and even more so The Magic Flute) and the music is, well, it's Mozart. But it lacked characters - not just ones that I could relate to or care about, but ones that I could understand and stay with for the entire film. Because of that, there seemed to be a let down in a story that should've been packing an emotional wallop. The scenes of Mozart and Salieri constructing the Requiem Mass were some of the best of the film, but when it is actually used in context there's just no punch. And there should've been...In contrast, Marty brought me slowly into its main character's life and added concern and warmth for those around him. I understood him, empathized with him, worried about him and rejoiced with him. And that's anything but mediocre.

Friday 14 September 2012

TIFF12 - Day 5

Day 5 of the Toronto International Film Festival was a thin one - only two films and neither did a thing for me. Well, unless you include being baffled, pummeled and manipulated.

Fortunately, the Monday evening of TIFF was also the yearly mid-festival film blogger/writer/critic meet-up and that helped soothe the wounds of the day. With several folks joining from out of country this year, it made for a great evening of discussion and friendly argument about TIFF films and film in general.

The rest of the day though...

Ramin Bahrani's latest At Any Price is a major misstep. Despite a story that has excellent points to make about the pressures today's farmers face and a look at our overall societal push to never be satisfied, the film is, to be blunt, shockingly bad. The root of it all is the script - Bahrani opened our screening by stating that he and his fellow screenwriter spent 6 months with real midwest farmers, but it's hard to believe given the clunky, unsubtle and unnatural sounding dialogue. It goes from cliche to cliche and spells out every single message at every single opportunity. It's possible that Dennis Quaid was directed to act in that manner by Bahrani, but it's such a mannered, unsubtle representation of a "salesman" who is always on, that it completely misses the mark and uncomfortably exists in the same world as everyone else. Well, except Heather Graham - her aging cheerleader mistress role (see, I told you it was cliche) was not so much a character as it was a blunt force instrument to push forward further messages. She's given little to work with and does even less with it. Zac Efron likely had the best performance, but the entire cast is given some terrible dialogue to go along with the many plot machinations. I like where the film ended (which fits the theme), but I hated how they got there. I remain baffled...

Give Juan Antonio Bayona credit - he can shoot the hell out of raging torrents of water. What he has trouble doing as main helmer of The Impossible - a true story of one family's ordeal through the massive tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004 - is letting the audience find their own way to their emotions. He essentially insists on dictating everything you will feel throughout the film using a heavy-handed soundtrack and story elements designed to pound the despair down your throat. It's rather unrelentingly grim as the family of five is split apart when the waves crash ashore at their resort. After the typical early happy moments of family bliss (the character development is fine, if pretty standard), Mom (Naomi Watts) and the eldest son are wooshed away while Dad (Ewan McGregor) somehow manages to corral the two youngest and stay near the resort. Admittedly, the long sequence of mother and son struggling through the wreckage strewn water is intense, but it's all emotional manipulation after that - even to the point where family members just miss each other walking down hallways in a hospital to increase the tension as to whether they will reunite. Any story of survival from that horrible disaster is incredible enough, so why make it incredulous by adding that additional level "oh no, they just missed each other!"? As well, the film almost exclusively focuses on this particular family of five - I suppose it's understandable from a storytelling point of view, but there's very little mention of the locals. They typically appear as kindhearted "helpers" to the tourists or appear as background. I'm not even sure why I chose the film at this point - your time would be far better spent watching this documentary (part 1 of 7) that provides real stories and context for the crushing number of people killed across 14 countries. This movie just isn't necessary.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

TIFF12 - Day 4

While I started day 4 of TIFF watching Olivier Assayas' Something In The Air, I couldn't help but feel that the filmmaking was somewhat effortless. It's a feeling I've had before with his work (particularly Summer Hours), but it makes even more sense with his latest since it's put together via numerous autobiographical moments. The film starts by focusing on Gilles and his involvement in student protests with his comrades in early 70s France. They don't come across as overly sympathetic, but the characters are interesting because they are conflicted and searching for their convictions. Gilles even states that he lives within his own fantasies and never answers when reality knocks. The film is very much about making your own choices and understanding their consequences - something it seems Gilles slowly begins to figure out as he tries to balance his political ideas with his art and falls into a relationship with another protestor (played by the wonderful Lola Creton who has quickly become one of my favourite actresses). It's very rich with ideas and passion.

The most straightforward crowd pleaser I've seen so far has been the Japanese box office champ Thermae Romae. It has Romans, time travel and bathhouses - what more could you want? In ancient Rome, the architect Lucius is in a rut with ideas for new bathhouses (or thermae as they are called) and just as his depression sinks to a new low, he gets swept into an underwater portal and pulled forward in time to a modern day bathhouse in Japan. Not realizing he has time-traveled, he is stunned that these "flat-faced slaves" have developed these incredible ideas and new technology. When he's back in Rome, he uses some of the new concepts to build the best thermae Rome has ever seen. By going forward and backward in time, he develops a reputation and becomes a trusted advisor and friend of the emperor. Each visit to Japan happens to plop him in front of a pretty aspiring manga artist named Mami and eventually her and a group of elderly men from the bathhouse also get brought back to Rome. They accidentally break the expected future - the evil second in command is now tapped to be the next emperor - so they have to help fix it. It's clever and charming without pushing the cuteness too far even if it does occasionally get a little too goofy at times. It also never bothers to explain why the time traveling is happening or how it's happening which is a good thing for a movie like this - explanations would have dragged it down. The film also put me on to one of the grandeur themes I'm seeing in the festival - that of community.

The least radical and most "normal" film Sion Sono has made so far is his latest Land Of Hope. It follows his entry from last year (Himizu) as another call to his countrymen to move forward and to seek out new lives after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami of 2011. More calmly paced then Himizu and far less intense, Sono focuses on several members of a family: an elderly couple, their son & his pregnant wife and the neighbour's son & his girlfriend. They all live right on the edge of the 20 mile radius that has been evacuated due to the nuclear power plant issues and while the neighbours are forcibly removed, the elderly couple is allowed to remain. While the parents decide to stay with their old home (where they literally have roots - from the trees each successive generation has planted there), the parents-to-be try to get some distance from the potential radiation. The son's wife in particular gets paranoid about protecting her unborn child and carries Geiger counters everywhere while wearing protective suits. The neighbour's son and his girlfriend are trying to get her back to her home which was closer to the impact zone of the tsunami. There's little hope any of her family is still alive, but there's a strong need to return home. Sono speaks directly to those affected: find a new home if you have to, but keep living and take things one step at a time. He also creates a much more affecting view of real love and devotion via the elderly couple (he is the caretaker for his wife) than anything in Haneke's Amour.

Working in the same vein as the neo-realists of old and the independent "pick up a camera and start shooting" spirit of the last decade, Manjeet Singh's feature debut Mumbai's King follows a young boy named Rahul through several days living on the streets of Mumbai. Though his home is with his mother, father and little brother, most of his time is spent wandering the slums, scrounging or stealing food, playing with his friends and tracking the movements of a girl he likes. He keeps himself scarce due to his father's drinking and tendency to lash out with violence towards both him and his mother. He tries to defend himself and his Mom, but his hulking Dad is no match for him, so his friends suggest they all gang up on his father and give him a beating he won't soon forget. The majority of the film is mostly improvised with non-professional actors in the streets during the festival of Ganesh and it shows a spectrum of detail of the city - both the gorgeous colour and humanity with the slums, but also the desperation and filth. There's garbage everywhere, but the festival brings music and dancing to all parts of the city. Rahul's best friend is a small boy named Arbaaz who sells balloons and has the sunniest personality you could ever come across. What we see is pretty much the actual lives of these kids (Rahul and Arbaaz are their real names) and it leaves you feeling a range of emotions. Arbaaz continually tries to boost Rahul's spirits and tries to help him with his "girlfriend" (the music that plays with every encounter with the girl is simply joyous). When he invites Rahul to his own house (Singh mentioned in the Q&A that this was actually Arbaaz's real home that they have to vacate during the monsoon season), we see his numerous siblings and the very little they have on which to subsist. And yet his mother still offers food and shelter to Rahul. There's despair all around, but Singh and his actors offer some hope too. A truly wonderful film.

Speaking of despair, Spain's Painless layers it on thick. Not just within its story of a rare condition a group of children have (the inability to feel pain), but in its grander scope look at the horrific ways humans treat each other - particularly during the Spanish Civil War. The children are dumped into a prison to "protect" not only themselves, but others (since they don't understand that they can inflict pain on others). The story is set in the early days of the civil war (early 30s at its start), but also has a modern day component with a doctor recovering from a serious car crash delving into the secrets of his parents that tie back to those earlier events. It's a very dark and disturbing story - filled with desaturated scenes in the prison focusing on black and white contrasts - and first time director Juan Carlos Medina hits just about every metaphor spot on, but after a while it tends to drag the viewer into the muck as well. As the children grow older, a German scientist comes to the prison to study and experiment with them. His ultimate goal is to better understand pain and be able to bring his results back to the Reich, but he discovers that one of the boys is something beyond the other children. It's a horror story, but not necessarily a horror film - at least not the kind I was hoping for given the subject matter and some of the gorgeously shot scenes. I expected tension, shadows and creepiness, but I got deep and utter gloom and torment. That's not to say it makes for a bad film, but it certainly wasn't what I expected.

Monday 10 September 2012

TIFF12 - Day 3

Though my first film of Day 3 was 10 films ago (I'm writing this at the end of Day 4), I have no trouble remembering it. Shanghai fully lived up to its pedigree (a remake of the political thriller book Z upon which Costa Gavras had based his own political thriller film) while also incorporating the issues of modern day India and all of its own political quirks. The filmmakers have a keen feel for delivering just enough information - but not too much - to keep you completely immersed in the storylines that intersect. Though the film is just shy of 2 hours, there was an intermission halfway through (a regular occurrence in Indian cinemas). In actuality, there wasn't supposed to be a real intermission while it played at TIFF - the Intermission title card was supposed to appear briefly and then segue right back into the movie. Alas, there was some miscommunication somewhere and the 2nd part of the movie had not been properly loaded to the projector's server. So we had an extended mid-film break of 45 minutes. It wasn't the foul-up that will make the screening an easy one to remember though - it was director Dibakar Banerjee's impromptu 30 minute Q&A while we waited for the fix. He led us through details of what a typical evening of cinema is like in India, his relationship to the book & its author and his reason for naming the film after a Chinese metropolis (simply, that Mumbai desperately wants to copy Shanghai's growth and become a modern city), all while being friendly, funny and taking the problems in stride. I was almost saddened when they fixed the film...However, all it took was a few minutes of the second half to pull me back into the swirling conspiracies. I had initially thought that I would have to skip the end to make my next screening, but I just couldn't leave the story. It had me in its hold.

Of course, the film that followed (Michel Gondry's The We And The I) is a better candidate to see in North America at a later date, so it made more sense to miss its opening bits than the end of Banerjee's film (though here's hoping Shanghai gets exposure!). And while I did indeed miss the opening 20 minutes or so of Gondry's latest, I was easily able to slip right into its rhythms and pace as a city bus full of high-schoolers get driven home on their last day of class. Immediately I could see that it was not going to be a well-loved film by many since the non-professional actors struggle in their roles while their characters - probably not very far removed from themselves - are grating and annoying. But isn't that what being a teenager is about? What galvanized me was the energy Gondry brought to bear. The entirety of the middle section of the film called "Part 2: The Chaos" was fast-moving, cut between different perspectives, pulled stories together, focused on the kids complete & utter self-involved natures and did it all to a fantastic soundtrack (Young MC's "Bust A Move" is still one of the best dance-ditties of all time). Gondry solves the dilemma of being stuck on a bus by allowing us to see flashbacks to previous events as well as the occasional fantasy element from the kids' perspectives. This enables him to summon all his trademark magic - crafting several wonderfully surrealistic moments and using tricks like showing some of these external scenes in the windows of the bus. The characters end up showing (for the most part) a few more layers than initially expected and stories either come to satisfying resolutions or find the perfect peak/valley at which to leave us as the kids gradually start leaving the bus. There's not a great deal of subtlety in their performances, but there's a very natural feeling to the cacophony of voices when arguments flare up. I can't say that I can relate to these kids, nor did I particularly like many of them, but I highly enjoyed my time on that bus with them.

Some more surrealism followed with the Bulgarian The Color Of The Chameleon. In this case, it was less situational and more of an overall feel to the world that central character Batko lives in. He is found at an early age to have an ease with lying (a family trait as it turns out) and is recruited into the spy game. After getting fired without just cause, he looks for revenge by creating an entirely fictitious spy network from the members of Speculum: The Club For New Thinking (whose members include a "counter-intuitive feminist"). He pits the members against each other - telling one person to create short "orgasm friendly" films while another is to attempt to control the population's sexual release - and builds it to a point of being able to bring down parts of the government. It's all very dark and twisty and ingenious and quite unique. It can be a challenge to follow at times since it moves at its own odd pace and the humour switches from absurd to dry at the drop of a hat. But any film that contains lines like "probes the orifices of power with a speculum" and fits in dreamlike sequences based on Casablanca will definitely appeal to a certain subset of film fans - including me.

Michael Haneke's latest film Amour (winner of the Palme D'Or at Cannes) does exactly what he wants it to do to you. It punches you in the face. It does so in expert fashion with stunning performances from two legends of the French screen (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) and is crafted quite brilliantly within the confines of the elderly couple's apartment as Riva plays a woman slowly succumbing to the ravages of a debilitating disease. It's almost impossible not to think of one of your own family situations, a recently deceased relative or to suddenly put yourself right into the role of caretaker to a long-time companion. In other words, you'll be mulling over your own inescapable mortality. That may be what that crafty Haneke wants you to do, but short of appreciating the technical skill on display here, the movie isn't exactly entertaining. In fact, it's occasionally dull, sometimes squirm inducing and it rarely makes you think of anything more profound or interesting than "I'm going to die and so are all my loved ones". I didn't feel this harsh about the film after seeing it yesterday - I wasn't in love with it, but I was giving it a chance to settle - but a day later, I've lost most of what goodwill I may have had. A movie I have no plans to ever revisit.

The little yellow pills that Mary keeps popping to flatten her emotions are just one of the many references to that colour in Nick Cassavetes' latest film. Appropriately titled Yellow, the film follows Mary through her daily struggles to figure out what normal is supposed to feel like since she admits that she feels nothing for other people or anything at all. She copes via pills and strange dreamlike hallucinations where she may suddenly find herself in a flooding classroom, a musical number or right in the middle of stage play. She gets fired from her temp teaching job and treks back to her family home to attempt to come to grips with what broke in her life. Some of these surreal moments are visually interesting, but given that Mary is completely unsympathetic, unrelatable and of little interest, the scenarios never really lead to much. It's really hard to care about a character who has reached a point where she doesn't care about anything herself. She may have a good excuse (her family history is quite screwed up), but it doesn't help matters when we find the reasons out later in the film. Even taken as a comedy (which is how Cassavetes described it), it doesn't really work. A few bits of dark humour combined with family members turning into farm animals at a dinner table doesn't make for a compelling movie. Nor a very funny one.

Sunday 9 September 2012

TIFF12 - Day 2

Even though one of the choices on my first real day of TIFF activity (3 screenings in all) was a big missed opportunity, the day was still very much a success. The other two easily made up for the first film by completely cashing in on every opportunity to meet the expectations of their genres. If they didn't necessarily break any new ground, they each embellished their solid stories with style. Oddly enough, all three films had beginnings that were weeks if not years later than when the vast majority of their stories occurred, so flashbacks were the order of the day. But I'm getting ahead of myself...Why don't I start at the beginning...

First up was "The Great Kilapy", an African made film focusing on one particular small time con artist during the late 60s and early 70s just before the end of Portuguese colonialism in Angola. The term "kilapy" actually means heist or con, and our "hero" is no stranger to either as he goes through the motions of being an engineering student in Portugal while preferring to party and chase girls. He indirectly supports the rising student efforts to push for Angolan independence (his native country) and is forced to return after helping a rebel friend escape the clutches of the police. While back in Angola, he finds himself in a treasury position (with his father's help) that enables him to siphon funds off for the revolution. In the mean time, he hops from bed to bed capturing and breaking numerous gorgeous female hearts. A great premise for what must be a fascinating story of the rise of the revolution to the successful independence in 1974. It's a real shame we never got it. Instead we spend most of our time with the chauvinistic Joaozinho who thinks nothing of cheating repeatedly on every single woman he pulls into his grasp. It may be a different time period and even a different culture, but the complete and utter lack of respect given to every single female character by Joao (and for that matter, the script) leaves you wondering why you should care a whit for this charmless man and why the entire film is told as a story from the hero-worshipping viewpoint of a modern day adult who met him back then as a teenager. Lazaro Ramos is very good in the role and obviously has oodles of charm at his disposal, but the character shows very little of it and truly makes you wonder why he seems to command any woman within his gaze. The revolution takes centre stage occasionally, but it feels like background noise for the most part since we spend so much time with Joao and his exploits. There's no build up or tension to the con he pulls at the treasury and the revolution suddenly just comes to a close. There was so much to work with here and so few results.

On the polar opposite side of the political thriller spectrum was "Call Girl", a terrific "based on true events" account of a prostitution scandal that almost toppled the Swedish government in the 1970s. The look and feel of the film is pure gorgeous, grainy 70s (as opposed to The Great Kilapy's use of flat drab colour to denote its period) and it seems to capture the spirit of the filmmaking world of the same era too - the paranoid-70s-espionage-thriller era that is. The film was immediately engaging due to its style which put you constantly on edge by favouring slow zooms on characters and a pulsing score. The story of young foster home girls getting pulled into a high end prostitution ring that served government and public officials was compelling enough, but the mechanism employed to do it can't receive too much praise. It dragged me along with a smile on my face as it jumped from the girls being lured into the life by the ring's evil Madam (perhaps a little too perfectly evil) to a police investigation that was opening cans of worms. Of further interest was how the film plays off the willingness of the country's leaders to exploit young women, while also providing major strides towards their equality. The Social Democrats had been in power for quite some time, so it wasn't an easy task to go after them. If the sound of corruption running high, tampered evidence and a principled cop against the system strikes you as familiar, consider that it is simply existing within the parameters of the genre - and doing so brilliantly.

You could really say the same for Rowan Athale's debut film "Wasteland". It hits so many familiar beats, moments and characters that it will remind of you of a pile of other crime thrillers (particularly the "rooting for the small-time criminals to pull off the big job for all the right reasons" ones), but it will then take its place right alongside those films as a prime example of the genre. It displays all the elements that make them so appealing and in the end the movie does exactly what you want it to do. One of its strengths is the creation of its characters - again, nothing brand new, but it establishes them right away with distinctive and interesting characteristics. Even our hero Harvey's long suffering girlfriend is painted with shading and layers. We start the film with a beat-up looking Harvey in an interrogation room (facing Timothy Spall as the initially skeptical detective) and the back story gets filled in as we cut to "6 weeks earlier". Those early initial sections of the film also do an excellent job of giving a sense of place to the lads' hometown. In that respect, it has a more realistic almost kitchen-sink feeling early on, but starts to ramp up the stylistic touches as Harvey's friends get pulled into his plan (partially for revenge against the man who framed him and partially to bankroll a proper legal business opportunity) and the heist starts to take shape. Of course, any film of this nature wouldn't be worth its salt without a montage, and Wasteland doesn't disappoint in that area as it provides a fun and fast look at their preparations for the job. Nothing new, but still so very very appreciated.

Saturday 8 September 2012

TIFF12 - Day 1

Though I may still try to get a few detailed reviews written at some point, I think I'll begin my Toronto International Film Festival posts this year with single day write-ups and shorter capsules. At least that's my plan as of now - now being 1:15AM after Day 2...

Day 1 started as my last few festivals have - with something a little less mainstream. In 2009, it was the documentary L'Enfer D'Henri-Georges Clouzot (about the French director's never realized film), in 2010 the existential The Four Times, last year the 4.5 hour 3-part Dreileben and this year it was an experimental documentary on the meaning of time called The End Of Time by Peter Mettler.

The film ponders not just the concept of time, but also its relationship to space, matter and even the weather. It does so without long philosophical speeches or technical jargon (though there certainly are many ruminations via voiceover) and instead uses the majority of the film to show "set pieces". It begins with old 16mm film of a test pilot from 1960 being lifted in the air by a helium balloon. Once it reaches a height of 100000 feet, he leaves the balloon's platform and slips back into the Earth's atmosphere. The footage is stunning in all its grainy, shaky, almost abstract look and feel. Later, a visit to the guts of the CERN particle accelerator, the telescopes of Mauna Kea and the hollowed out buildings of Detroit add further images and environments that seem somewhat displaced from the normal concept of time.

A long sequence simply focuses on flowing lava - and it is riveting. As is the footage of rolling waves of clouds and shifting computerized images. As time "moves" all these things change - changing shapes, landscapes and even the weather around you depending where you are ("Everyone sees a different rainbow"). Perception is key - that falling astronaut reached a speed faster than sound and yet he felt like he was suspended in space with time standing ever so still.

Like its own push and pull with the perception of time being fast, slow, decaying, creating (says one man who lives in almost complete isolation: "The days drag and the years fly by"), etc., the pace of the film is quite brisk for the initial hour and then seems to lapse into much more experimental methods of tying concepts to images that moves at about the speed of the previously viewed lava. That's not necessarily a bad thing though - in fact, I found it helped execute its point perfectly. Time is indeed tied to everything around us which feeds into our perception of what it is.

The great thing about seeing this at TIFF is that not only did I run into 4 friends at the screening, but we experienced this unique meditation on film with a packed theatre. Along with the two friends I met before walking into the screening and the additional ones I saw afterwards, Day 1 was what TIFF is about: experiencing new ideas and concepts through film while engaging with people and soaking up their own thoughts.

Yeah, that's definitely how I should start my festival every year.