Friday, September 7, 2012

Most Anticipated Films of the Rest of 2012

As I sit here the evening before I watch my first film at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), my head spins with the impeccable line-up of movies programmed at the festival. As Roger Ebert likes to say, TIFF has become the unofficial launch pad for the awards season, where films of any serious reckoning start building buzz with the hope of getting to a deafening clamor by the end of the year. Pedigreed filmmakers and renowned casts from what seems like hundreds of films are all vying for our attention. Many prestige movies will get celebrated. But many others will disappoint. Some will come out of nowhere and stake a claim in popular consciousness. And others will fade away with the ignominy of having hewed too close to mediocre.

Even before I started considering the festival line-up, here were the 2012 unreleased films that were most highly anticipated by me. They are all on my "Please God, Don't Have This Film Suck" list.

1. Cloud Atlas

A film directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings (the Matrix trilogy). With that cast (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant). Consider me sold.

I avoid watching trailers of movies as much as I can. But with Tykwer and the Walkowski siblings at the helm, I could not resist. And the funniest thing happened; the first two minutes of the trailer so lit up that part of my brain that responds to movies, that I had to click the trailer shut half-way, because I did not want to ruin my pleasure of watching the actual movie. The film scans across several centuries, and loops across time and space and seems the kind of go big or go home concept film that will either amaze or embarass. I do not even care if this film is an awful mess. I just want to show my support for ambitious, sprawling, probing, visionary films. So that the success of such films can encourage the big studios from making one less stupid horror movie aimed at teenagers.

2. Django Unchained
Tarantino in a script he has said has been his most challenging yet. Dicaprio as the bad guy. Nuff said.

3. Hello, I Must Be Going
There is something about this film that, again, ever since I first heard about it, tapped the right spots in my brain. Yes, it is a small unknown indie film with mostly unknown actors. But much of it screams that it is the kind of movie I will love. I hope I am not wrong.

4. Argo
I was one of few people to think that The Town, the previous film directed by Ben Affleck, was one of the best movies of 2011. Behind the camera, this guy's the real thing (sometimes in front of the camera too, but all too inconsistently). I am intrigued by the story, loosely based on real events, around the unbelievable-if-it-were-not-true effort to rescue American hostages from Iran in the late sixties.

5. Looper
I'm a sucker for time-travel and sci-fi films. This one looks like a doozy. And stars the cant-go-wrong right now Joseph Gordon Leavitt. And Bruce Willis. Don't betray my hopes, Rian Johnson (director of Brick and The Brothers Bloom).

2012 Halfway Mark: Best Films

I often hear the complaint that few good films get released in the first half of the year, and that studios deliberately withhold the better movies until Oscar season later in the year. But I have always found that be an over-generalization. There’s always fine films released earlier in the year, many that eventually get awards consideration. Below are five movies from January – June 2012 that were at the top of the class for me.  

1. Prometheus
This is a film with ambition to burn. There’s more wonder and imagination in the first ten pre-credits minutes of this film than most entire movies. Yes, the film bites off more than it can chew, daring to ask some big questions (nothing less than where, as humans, did we come from?) even when it fails to answer some of them convincingly. I say, better to be messy and probing than to be obvious and rote. If there is justice in the world, Michael Fassbender, and perhaps even Charlize Theron will get some awards season recognition for their work here. Offering some of the best examples in film of masterly pacing, particularly in a must-discussed scene of gestational termination that is the stuff of nightmares, this is a magnificent, visionary, flawed, and visually grand film.

2. Your Sister's Sister
I want to hug this film until it suffocates, I like it so much. It builds a loose story around three characters - a man, his friend, and her sister - and then lets the marvelous actors who play them run with it. And Emily Blunt, Rosemary DeWitt and Mark Duplass are note-perfect here, never an abstraction but also never less than fully dimensional, playing contradictory, flawed, and deeply human individuals. This is also the rare film that gets sibling relationships perfectly. You love your siblings, respect and admire them. But with the possible exception of your parents, you also have the longest history with them compared to anyone else on the planet, and hence they can also affect you the most, get you where it hurts the most. I want to grab strangers on the street and beg them to go see this film. 

3. The Grey
On the surface this is a survivalist film, of a group of men stranded in the arctic cold after their plane crash-lands into a wilderness populated by predatory wolves. To make it through, they need to learn not only to combat their lethal surroundings but also each other’s behaviors so they can work together. We have seen this man versus nature story before, but what elevates this film is how it finds the means to fold in some remarkably effective philosophical musings. Are we destined to simply play out a fate written for us, or can we willfully change the future? Lost without any chance of external help and suddenly on the food chain of larger beasts, some men find the fight for survival futile, comical even and others are willing to fight to the last breath. Best of all, the movie finds in its last act, something approximating grace, a poetry of despair. Not bad for what might seem like a standard-issue Liam Neeson action movie.

4. Jeff Who Lives At Home
This movie is a quiet valentine to those who stand and wait.  The film begins with Jeff as a character that is aimless, unemployed, and adrift and spends the rest of its time in finding a bit of the heroic in him. Jeff as played by Jason Segal is neither pitiable nor transparently noble. He is just a schleppy guy who has an absolute belief in certain karmic patterns within the universe. This sort of material can fall flat a hundred ways. But the movie holds together remarkably well, in spite of an deus ex machina twist toward the end. The film has the good sense to recruit Susan Sarandon as Jeff’s mother, who demonstrates, in a sub-plot that would have defeated a lesser actor, why she’s one of cinema’s greats. Nothing about this film should have worked, but it all marvelously does.

5. Friends With Kids
There’s a scene in Friends With Kids where Jon Hamm, seated at a dinner table with a group of longtime pals, and having had a little too much to drink, says the one thing that a person should never say to a best friend. And it stings like a slap in the face.  The film has many such recognizably real observations. Many wrote this movie off as a chick flick with slightly upgraded wit, but I found it to be uncommonly perceptive in relaying the tensions that are always lurking in the underbelly of even the most tightly knit group of friends. When writing about the startlingly good turn from Michelle Moynahan in the film Trucker, Roger Ebert mentioned that there are likely so many great actors who go unnoticed in movies because filmmakers never give them a chance to reveal their deep talents. Well, Jennifer Westfeldt, the director, writer, and star of Friends With Kids, deserves credit for selflessly trusting Adam Scott to demonstrate that he has the chops to shoulder a complicated lead role.

Others movies from the first half of 2012 deserving worthy mention: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Bully, Crazy Stupid Love, The Five Year Engagement, and Salmon Fishing In The Yemen. 

In the next post I will be discussing movies I am most looking forward to during the rest of 2012. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Child's Play: 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival

[Note: An original version of this post appeared on]

At Thanksgiving every year I update a list of one hundred things in life that I am grateful for. The list evolves. I have something to include in my 2012 update: film festival press accreditation. The three Moviewallas obtained press accreditation for the Los Angeles Film Festival this year. The ability to watch any movie playing at a film festival at zero cost and no standing in lines is something to be grateful for in life. Very grateful.

So there we were over two weekends trying to watch as many films as humanly possible. The struggle to pick from every manner of cinematic presentation - foreign films, documentaries, short film programs, Hollywood premieres, Question and Answer sessions with actors/directors/cinematographers, cult films, old classics.... is the cinephile's wet dream. And we sampled to our heart's content. As the days wore on, and as I made my way through yet another screening, feeling the best kind of exhaustion there is [that comes from having watched too many(!) films], a theme began to emerge. Across the films I had sampled during the festival the common theme was of exceptional, honest performances from child actors. One film after another amazed me with startling, unaffected performances borne of a naturalism that is all too often missing from the portrayal of children in cinema. 

The adage goes that filmmakers would do well as long as they steer clear of child actors and animals. And yet, the makers of so many films I saw bravely embraced the uncertainty - and what is likely a high level of difficulty with working with children - and brought something of meaning to the screen.

The Swiss-Italian production Summer Games
The first movie I saw, Summer Games (Jeux D'ete, directed by Giorgio Gobi, the official Swiss submission to the Foreign Language Film Category at this year's Academy Awards), is one thing on the surface and many things underneath. At a run-down coastal town in Italy frequented by less than affluent tourists, many arrive during summer to camp out for a few days around the beach. Which causes for unexpected interactions amongst strangers. Tenuous at first, an unlikely clique develops between five pre-teen and teen kids from very different economic, social and ethnic backgrounds. The initially innocent games the kids devise - in which the loser has to submit to what the victor demands - start to, over a period of time, wander into increasingly dangerous territory. The connections between the five unravel and reform constantly, influenced as much by the behavior of their adult guardians as their own shifting loyalties. The movie is as much about the adults, but one of the joys of this film is to see how effortlessly it captures the ebbing shifts in power and affinities between the kids in this group. Yes, we know that kids of a certain age can be remarkably cruel. And fearless in walking headlong into danger, because what child of a particular age cares about mortality.  The near impossible feat this film accomplishes is in depicting one of the more dangerous and slippery things in cinema: teenage sexuality. The movie breathes and aches with a sensuality that is never prurient and as natural as the water in which the five kids spend so much of their time. Grappling with feelings they do not know how to process, and raging with contradictory, self-destructive behavior, the kids do what kids do. And the movie only holds a mirror to them, without judgment. The film is of course immensely helped by the natural performances from the lead child actors who wondrously bring all the complexities of being not-quite-an-adult to life. This is a film to seek out.

Thursday Till Sunday (De Jueves A Domingo, by first time director Domingo Sotomayor Castillo) is a Chilean film that covers a road trip taken by a couple, their daughter, and young son over four days.  The movie is seen, for the most part, through the eyes of the teenaged daughter. Approaching neorealism, this is a work of stark austerity, which may tempt a viewer to assign it hastily to the genre of films where nothing happens. The studiedly documentary feel, the naked abandon of traditional plotting and story arc, and the patient, unrushed, lingering of the camera over these four characters, may at first seem unsettling. But when one stops trying to deduce the film on a minute by minute basis, one settles into its rhythms. And you realize this is a film that trusts the intelligence of the viewer enough to not provide easy answers. And demands that the viewers bring their own experiences to glean what they will from this story. Slowly the cracks in the relationships come into focus, sometimes ever so briefly. More than anything else the movie evokes a sense of nostalgia - about a time, when being a child meant not having the tools to decipher what the behavior of the adults signified. The young daughter is never precocious, or all knowing, and the actor who plays her (Santi Ahumada) brings an effortless naturalism that belies any knowledge of a camera being around her, and captures all the complexities of being a teenager: distracted, self-involved, impatient but always well-meaning. In the Q and A after the film, the director revealed that the four-year old who played the younger brother was obviously not up to acting in the traditional sense, and the other actors learned to ad-lib and work around his natural behavior on camera. No wonder the film evokes a feeling of purity about it.

Not all films with children had the same effect. Crazy and Thief, a film of less than an hour, made by Cory McAbee, stars the director's seven year-old daughter and two-year old (!) son, as the titular characters who have adventures as they wander through the streets of a city. Their experiences straddle the line between reality and fantasy, the obvious and the mythological. This movie elicited the strongest reaction I had of any film I watched at the festival. And it was not the good kind. Precious to an extreme (much of the two year-old's warbling is indecipherable and sub-titles tell us what he is saying), and constantly trying to be more than it is, the film for me, was ultimately undone by some unforgivable choices. I have a problem with films that depict children in peril with the specific intent of eliciting a quick emotional rise from the audience. And this film has many scenes of the two unaccompanied minors being put into all manner of danger. Yes, I realize that much of the film is meant to be surreal, but when the two kids get into the car of a perfect stranger, and then into his home, the ugly possibility of pedophilia hanging over the premise was too disturbing for me to shake off. I question the ethics of making a film such as this.

Armando Bo, the first-time director of the The Last Elvis (El Ultimo Elvis) has no trouble coaxing an altogether believable performance out of Margarita Lopez, who plays in this film, the young daughter of an Elvis Presley impersonator in Argentina. But it is John McInerny, playing Carlos, the lead, who impresses most by managing to transcend the kitschiness associated with celebrity impersonators. He plays a blue collar worker struggling to make ends meet while dealing with an ex-wife who does not think much of him, and a daughter who is uncommunicative. On the side, he plays Elvis tunes at local gigs, and the film makes it clear from the very first scene that this is not a man lacking in talent. His single-minded admiration for Elvis is so complete as to be entirely immune to irony. Or pity. Or perverseness.  This man simply believes in Elvis. And it is to the director and lead actor's credit that this character never becomes laughable. Carlos is 42 years old, the same age as when Elvis died, and things spiral even further out of control as a set of events leave him having to become the primary caretaker of his distant daughter. As he labors to stay afloat, the movie quietly shifts into an uncompromising character study of a man under duress. And the final scenes of the film, invested with a sense of inevitability, cunningly hint at a mystery left for the viewer to solve. The kind that should trigger a reconsideration of all that has transpired earlier in the film. The day before the screening of the movie, we were fortunate to run into the completely disarming young director of the film, Armando Bo (who previously co-wrote the film Biutiful). Please come see my film tomorrow and tell me afterward whether you liked it, he said. I have been doing one better than that, Mr Bo. I have been telling anyone who will listen to find a way to see this uncommonly accomplished film. And I can hardly wait for what Armando Bo does next.

In the short films program that I saw, it was the 11-minute feature Fireworks that finally gave me that transcendent experience one gets only so rarely when watching films. Directed by the twenty-something Victor Hugo Duran, this is the story of two young boys in South Los Angeles who go about trying to get their hands on fireworks on July 4th one year, in order to impress two girls. That's it. Beautiful, simple and sublime, this film shows that it does not take much to reflect truth on film. In the Q and A session afterward, the director revealed that during filming he abandoned the original character names and let the child actors use their own names and voice the dialog in their own words. And the film was shot in a day! This short is a tremendous achievement. In another short feature Big Man, a boy in Nigeria can't help being a kid and playing pranks on his younger brother, until one day things go too far. Everything relies on the camera capturing the contradictions of being a child, wild and unbridled, but also good and regretful. And the film is up to the task.

Another short film, Paraiso, is an observation of men who wash the windows of Chicago skyscrapers from the outside, suspended from rooftop wires. It provides voice to the deeply philosophical musings from these men who are all too aware of the personal peril they face during almost every minute of their job. As with the best documentaries, this short demonstrates that there is much to learn about life, if we only know put the camera on the right subjects. The short Laura Keller, NB (non-breeder), reiterates that all good science fiction is about ideas and concepts (and not aliens and spaceships). With minimal resources, this 16-minute feature creates an entirely credible vision of a future world that is disturbing in its political implications.

Besides all of the films that underlined the theme of amazing child performances, there were other movies at the 2012 LA Film Festival that made an impression. The fest had a rich roster of documentary films. All of the ones I saw were memorable, in turns entertaining, angering, insightful, and educational. This included Reportero, La Camioneta: The Journey Of One American School Bus, Bestiaire, and The Queen Of Versailles (the latter is playing in a cinema near you right now, and is worth the trip there; we discussed it in a recent Moviewallas podcast). And I didn't even get to see well regarded docs such as The Iran Job, Searching for Sugarman, Call Me Kuchu and Words of Witness. Lest one might wonder if the festival only featured serious fare, many mainstream Hollywood films were also screened, including Magic Mike, To Rome With Love, People Like Us, and Celeste and Jesse Forever, all of which have since had theatrical distribution (and discussed in Moviewallas podcasts). But the one standout in the festival program of relatively mainstream films was Its A Disaster (directed by Todd Berger and starring Julia Stiles, David Cross and America Ferrera). Likely at the top of the class in the recently minted genre of the End Of The World films, this movie has the distinction of being bitingly funny; it would be criminal if this film did not find distribution and show up for wider consumption soon.

We always say "Too many films, too little time" on our podcasts. Nowhere is this more obvious than when attending a film festival. Next stop, the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival where further delights await.