Friday 20 September 2013

TIFF 2013 - Starred Up

There's a special delight in finding that hidden gem at a film festival - not just to lord it over others that they "missed out" (though admittedly that brings a certain sense of pleasure to it), but because it helps to validate the ongoing search for great movies tucked away in corners or buried under the avalanche of big studio marketing product. I suppose it also stokes that obsessive need to watch "everything", but when you start getting that little buzz, that little jolt of realization that you're watching something really damn good when you simply didn't expect it, it's totally worth it.

That was my feeling somewhere around the 45 minute mark of David Mackenzie's Starred Up as everything clicked into place and it dawned on me that I was seeing a great film. Even in my very tired frame of mind at 12:30 in the afternoon (smack dab in the middle of the festival and with four more films to follow that day), I was energized and knew that I was on to something here. As it turns out, Mackenzie's story of a young man who gets moved up to the big boys prison where his father also happens to reside ended up being my very favourite film of the entire festival. There was a palpable sense of authenticity about the story, location (an actual old prison) and characters that kept a semblance of unease throughout the film and brought unpredictability to each and every scene. These extraordinarily flawed individuals could explode at any given moment, but could also surprise via their cunning, logic and occasional ability to see the bigger picture and not just the end of a shiv. The story kept a strong forward momentum, but also provided an ebb and flow in the status of different characters and overall emotion. Never once did I doubt that any of the prisoners had a grab bag of violent tendencies or the capacity to ignore suffering in others, but I also never quibbled when they showed an ability to change, to consider consequences or to think instead of simply reacting. In other words these were fully realized people on screen.

The central focus is 19 year-old Eric, who has just been "starred up" to the adult prison. He may have been a teenager while in juvenile hall, but there's no time for "coming of age" here. He's given his own cell due to "risk" factors and doesn't waste much time in creating a makeshift knife from his toothbrush. His demeanour, expression and body language all show he is always alert and won't wait for trouble to come to him - he'll beat it to the first punch. In his wing of this sprawling prison, just a floor above him, is his father Neville. Though he initially comes across as less physically intimidating, he has power in this particular section of the jail. He knows guards, has wider access to amenities and has his own "crew". Their first conversation in the yard is less family reunion and more about chest thumping warnings, but Neville has a clear message for his boy - be careful who you piss off here. There's a pecking order in prison and Neville reports up to an even higher level prisoner who rules the entire wing from his cell (replete with numerous comforts).

Eric is involved early with an incident and gets on the radar of a volunteer counselor who runs a regular group meeting for some of the more hot-tempered convicts. The interaction of the therapist and his group is one of the many strong points of the film - there aren't any platitudes or easy answers, there's always a step back after good forward progress and respect is earned within the group. Eric sees something of value in the group, but he'll always have impulse and rage issues and struggles to keep his distance from his father (who tries to scuttle any outside influence his son receives), the boss of the wing and the evil warden who is convinced he is and always will be a burden on society. If there's a weak bit in the film it lies with that cliche warden since he is the sole character without any subtlety or complexity. Otherwise, the film is nigh on perfect in its depiction of not just brutal life in the slammer, but of the different ways men desperately crave respect (in all its forms) and the lengths to which they will go to get it.

Thursday 19 September 2013

TIFF 2013 - Intruders

If you can generalize about a single country's cinema, I think the safest statement you might be able to make is "Korean films blend genres better than anyone else". Whether it's comedic dark crime thrillers, melodramatic heist films or goofy family drama monster movies, Korea's filmmakers seem to have a natural desire (perhaps even a need) to morph genres, combine them or simply blow them apart - sometimes within a single scene. Of course, like any other generalization it doesn't always hold, but it does draw me to their films on a regular basis. Hence my immediate curiosity to see Intruders. Once I realized it was directed by Noh Young-seok (whose previous film Daytime Drinking was one of the best hidden gems from TIFF several years ago), it became a must see.

Like Daytime Drinking, Intruders begins with a young man from Seoul trekking up North by bus to spend some time in the cold and snowy mountainous region of South Korea. While he just wants to get to his friend's currently unused resort to focus on finishing some writing work, he's a bit out of place there and this doesn't go unnoticed by the locals. He manages to grab the attention of a recently released convict who insists on giving directions, providing uncalled for assistance and doing his best to get a good solid drinking session going. The humour is deadpan and is based on the city's guy's baffled reactions to the rural guy's odd yet still friendly behaviour. Unlike the previous film, our city dweller this time manages to avoid too much heavy drinking at the outset, but it's not like he's any better focused. He's a champion procrastinator and keeps finding other ways to waste time and avoid his writing, including traipsing through the woods out back, discovering trapdoors in the woods and running into a bunch of other people - all of whom seem to be just a wee bit off...

But remember this is a Korean movie, so as soon as you think you're getting comfortable with the rhythms, pace and parameters of Intruders (ie. "city boy meets odd country folks" riffing), things might be about the shift on you. And that's certainly what you get after our hopeful screenwriter runs into some "hunters" in the woods. Slowly but surely, more suspense is added as he begins to believe there's a threat around him. He's heard gunshots and footsteps around the little cottage he's in, so when a small group of skiers ask for lodging, he agrees in order to gain some additional protection. His ex-con buddy shows up again as well and through misunderstandings, bad decisions and sudden dark turns in the story, we start wondering who the intruders really are.

The radio and TV are always blaring the latest escalating tension between the North and South (amped up by the U.S. involvement in missile tests), so there's always a sense of unease about things. Noh's use of long takes while two characters converse keeps things feeling spontaneous and this just adds another level of tension. As things go from bad to worse for the writer, a new character shows up, the space under that trapdoor is explored and the suspense continues to rise. Meanwhile that quiet humour keeps popping up in the oddest of places as everyone in the film keeps assuming things about everyone else. As funny as many of the situations are, those assumptions may be a big reason why the writer asks at a low point "Why is this happening to me?". The film succeeds on all levels - it entertains, it engages and it questions. Is it any wonder why Korean cinema is producing some of the most exciting films out there?

Thursday 12 September 2013

TIFF 2013 - Gravity

The biggest complaint I've heard about Gravity is that it doesn't feel like a film. In other words, it's more like a video game or an amusement park ride than something you would normally see in your local movie theatre. You certainly can't get away from the fact that there are gobs of CGI in it and that there are obvious reality-stretching thrill ride aspects. There are sequences specifically designed to ratchet up the tension to new levels of intensity - so much so that you might still be unclenching your toes hours later. So what's wrong with that you ask? Well, nothing...

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (in its non-IMAX 3-D version at least) is a wholly immersive experience. It's sole purpose is to put its two high-priced charming stars into impossible-to-escape scenario after impossible-to-escape scenario upping the ante each time to see if you can hold your breath a few seconds longer and grip that arm rest a little tighter. From that point of view - especially if you enjoy that kind of thing - it's an astonishing success. That aforementioned tension steadily increases from the use of exceedingly long "takes" - a Cuaron trademark, but certainly much more stitched together than ever before here - and a raging score and sound field. It has the effect of dropping you into their desperation and panic without promise of getting out the other side.

When I say "their", I really should qualify that to only Sandra Bullock's character Ryan Stone. She is accompanying a space shuttle crew to perform some of her experiments, but only has about 6 months of training under her belt. George Clooney plays Matt Kowalsky, one of the astronauts who coolly jet packs around the shuttle during the opening spacewalk of the film and stays equally as cool throughout the pandemonium that follows. So Stone's reflexes, ability to calm her breathing and ease with the jet pack are somewhat less than Kowalsky's - which plonks us right there into her space boots (especially when the camera goes in and then back out of her space helmet). Though it took me a few minutes to settle into that opening spacewalk (getting attuned to the 3D surroundings, adjusting to what I felt were a few wonky CGI bits, etc.), I was fully engrossed by the time the first Houston warning of some potential danger came. And then, with still yet a single cut in the film, we're thrown into crisis mode. Though that first 10-15 minute single "shot" is actually composed of hundreds of different pieces, the planning and orchestration of it is a phenomenal achievement.

Of course, that shouldn't mean anything when it comes to your enjoyment of the experience. Did you get sucked in? Did you feel nervous? Were you there with Bullock? That's what Cuaron is trying to do and it worked in spades for me. There are several moments that don't work as well - Bullock's howling with the dogs moment doesn't work and Clooney is just too damn charming sometimes - but for me it was all easily forgiven. The ebbs and flows of tension are timed to give you just enough of a rest - but not too much - before the next wave of crisis arrives. The score is perhaps overpowering at times, but it served its purpose exceedingly well. Like a great amusement park ride you've just been on with your friends, I (and many other people) wanted to get right back in line and do it all over again. I just needed a few extra minutes for my muscles to relax and my toes to get back to normal.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

TIFF 2013 - Like Father, Like Son

If you know any 6 year olds, you know that responding "It doesn't matter" when they ask "Why?" is pretty pointless. Regardless of any context, the comeback is bound to be circular in nature. So it says a lot about the parental experience of Ryota (one of the fathers in Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest film Like Father, Like Son) when he does just such a thing. After learning that his 6 year-old son was switched at birth, he, his wife and the other two parents decide to try exchanging the boys for a few weekends to judge whether they should make the swap permanent. When little Ryusei (his weekend guest) pesters him with a barrage of questions, you'd think Ryota would have had enough experience to properly handle them. The fact that he doesn't is how Kore-eda enters into his exploration of what it means to be a father.

In the director's honest Q&A following the screening, he admits that he based the rarely-home and work-focused Ryota on himself. As he realized that he had missed some crucial moments in his own daughter's life, he began to work out the details of this affecting story of these two families. Ryota is a man driven by success, status and money. He feels that if one cannot be the best at something, well, why bother even doing it. To reinforce this point with his son Keita, Ryota sends him to cram school solely in order to pass an interview for private school. Though diligently following the rules of the household, Keita never quite measures up to Ryota's expectations, so when he and his wife learn of what happened six years ago, he mutters "Now it all makes sense...". It's almost a relief to him to hear that Keita isn't his true flesh and blood. If there was any doubt that Ryota has a warped view of fatherhood, it's dispelled in that moment. The movie doesn't necessarily brand him as a terrible person though - after all, he's surrounded by male role models (his father, his boss, the strongly patriarchal society) that believe in the preservation of status roles and the importance of respect while also discouraging emotion and kindness. Ryota's own father even counsels him to quickly make the exchange of the boys and then never to see that other family again.

That other family comes from outside the city and live in much more modest means than Ryota's wealthy apartment dwelling. They have an additional two kids (both younger) and a very different parenting style. Mom has pretty much equal say and the father Yudai is far more fun-loving and positive in his approach with the kids. He's not perfect (as evidenced by the behaviour of their kids sometimes) but he's more concerned with giving them a childhood of warmth and comfort - as messy as that may be occasionally. He's involved in their play, fixes their toys (something that brings out the jealousy in Ryota since he sees Yudai as being part of a lower class) and gets a great deal of enjoyment out of simply spending time with them. Perhaps I'm biased due to my own approach towards imperfect parenting, but it feels like the film says we should aspire to be more like Yudai. Not in the specifics, but in his approach to life and how he raises his kids through tenderness and love. This may be why we spend so much more time with Ryota - Kore-eda is trying to make the same journey.

The film excels in its little moments - the grandmother who will defend sweet bean cake until her dying breath, the way Yudai always talks with his mouth full, the wink Ryusei's Mom gives Keita and most of all just about every moment with the two adorable boys. They are natural, cute, funny and slightly mischievous. In short, Kore-eda perfectly captures the 6 year-old boy on screen. Keita's big observant eyes and Ryusei's random shouts of "Oh my Godt!" pull you straight into the lives of these people - something that's always been key to Kore-eda's films. No matter what subject or theme he is considering, he always manages to bring real and interesting people to his stories with whom you kind of want to stay in touch - even the terribly misguided Ryota. Despite his father's view that being a Dad is solely about the genes you pass on, the film - and by extension Kore-eda - is very clear that there's far more involved. After all, "Blood alone does not make the connection".

Wednesday 4 September 2013

TIFF 2013 - This year...I'm killing it

After a few pre-fest festivities tonight, the 38th Toronto International Film Festival kicks off on Thursday - and I'm gonna be there every single day. This year I'm going full tilt and packing in a - at least for me - whopping 50 movies in the 11 days of the festival. This includes blocking off Monday night for a mid-fest pub rendezvous with local and out-of-town bloggers and writers, a quiet final Saturday due to family commitments and an early end to the final Sunday to do a post fest pub rendezvous.

I'm not sure it's all in the best interest of my sanity or my health, but I felt I needed to go whole hog at least once. Anyway, I know a number of people who have built even bigger schedules (including critics and press folks who actually started their fests weeks ago), so cut me some slack, OK? I don't promise I'll be doing it again next year...

Here's my lineup (also documented here at the wonderful and wondrous TIFFR):

Thursday September 5th

A Story Of Children And Film
Exit Marrakech
All Cheerleaders Die

Friday September 6th

What Is Cinema?
Love Is The Perfect Crime

Saturday September 7th

Palo Alto
12 Years A Slave
Palestine Stereo
Like Father, Like Son

Sunday September 8th

Dallas Buyers Club
In Conversation With Spike Jonze
The Sacrament
Sex, Drugs & Taxation

Monday September 9th

The Lunchbox
Night Moves

Tuesday September 10th

The Unknown Known
Starred Up
Under The Skin
We Are The Best!
The Stag

Wednesday September 11th

Salvation Army
Blue Ruin
The Immoral
The Dinner
El Mudo
Rigor Mortis

Thursday September 12th

The Dick Knost Show
Attila Marcel
A Touch Of Sin
The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears

Friday September 13th

The Fake
Thou Gild'st The Even
Why Don't You Play In Hell?

Saturday September 14th

American Dreams In China
Can A Song Save Your Life?

Sunday September 15th

The Wonders
Cold Eyes

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Scribblings Of A Random Nature #25

With TIFF just days away, I thought I'd clear out a few screenshots I've gathered and say a few words about some recent films watched. I really should do this more often...

Ferpect Crime (2004 - Alex de la Iglesia) - It's pretty impressive how de la Iglesia walks several fine lines throughout this sharp and stylish comedy. On top of his two main characters being both reprehensible and still somewhat sympathetic, he also manages to craft a story that occasionally borders on misogyny while also being a strong female empowerment tale. OK, that last point isn't perfectly handled (maybe it's only ferpectly handled?) due to some assumptions about what female beauty is considered to be, but even that is handled as a stereotype and played up. Guillermo Toledo (even better in the great Only Human - one of my favourite "movie you've probably never heard of" titles) is perfectly suave and slimy as Rafael - a manager of a women's lingerie department who builds his own empire by hiring (and seducing) only the sexiest of assistants. Until the one remaining "unattractive" woman starts to get the upper hand. Clever on just about every front.

Love In The Afternoon (1957 - Billy Wilder) - Though I still have some classic Wilders left to see, I had to go and choose this...Granted, I was certainly able to fill up on a big dose of Audrey Hepburn (always satisfying - note that she's in just about every screencap below), but I also had to stomach the rather bland Gary Cooper (I'm coming to the realization that I'm just not a big fan of the guy...). Worse, though, was the charmless plot, very few moments of humour, a love story with no spark and a wretched ending that kinda made me a bit angry. I know I'm watching the movie through lenses calibrated 56 years later on, but any sympathy I had built up for the characters was washed away in several moments. All of it was quite depressing actually. Except for Audrey that is...

Defending Your Life (1991 - Albert Brooks) - Easily my favourite Brooks directed film so far. Not that I was complaining about the other efforts I've seen by him, but this had a great concept (a holding ground after you die where you review key scenes of your life and defend your decisions in a trial format to see where you are headed next) and what felt like a zippy pace. Brooks lands just about every one of his jokes and gets to play off a lovely Meryl Streep. Every supporting role, no matter how small, seems perfectly cast which leads me to think that this is a big component to successful comedies - stack your cast with people who can steal scenes. As much as I enjoy seeing Brooks on screen recently, I'd love to "see" him back behind the camera again.

Side Effects (2013 - Steven Soderbergh) - Though I eagerly anticipate any Soderbergh release, I didn't rush to the theatres to see Side Effects when it debuted. Part of it was because I wanted to delay seeing the last of his films (though I guess Behind The Candelabra fits that description better), but in reality the plot of the movie as I knew it from the trailer and descriptions just didn't quite grab me. I figured it would be fine and I very much like Rooney Mara, but something held me back from being excited. Silly me - why did I doubt Soderbergh? The tale is snappy, it throws some decent unexpected turns (though I admit I stayed away from any further description of the plot after I thought I had the initial concept) and boy does it look great. Not just the cinematography, but I especially love the framing throughout the entire film and the way it moves Mara's character around to all the different corners. A fine way of portraying her scrambled ideas. Can't wait to see Candelabra - and this time I won't hesitate.

Sunrises & Sunsets #12

Night Tide (1961 - Curtis Harrington)