Saturday, October 13, 2012

2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) - Update Five

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

Here's my final update from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. You arrive eagerly in Toronto one Friday night, you watch three to four films a day, and before you know it, the last movie on your list is rolling its end credits. And its time to say goodbye to the festival, and get on a plane and head back home. There could have been a hundred other combination of films I could have picked to watch during my time in Toronto (there are more than 400 films screening this year at TIFF). But by all accounts, the ones I chose left me fully sated and then some.

There are three TIFF offerings to discuss in this final update. One greatly anticipated film that did not live up to expectations. One relatively unknown film that knocked my socks (and my shoes, and my shirt, and my pants...) off. And a program of short films whose quality covered the spectrum of everything in between.
2012 TIFF still, '7 Boxes'
Almost every year, a movie comes out of nowhere, and becomes part of the popular consciousness. If there is justice in the world, 7 Boxes will be that film this year. TIFF prides itself on discovering what it calls 'the next big film', citing Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech as examples. The kind of movie that gains traction through word of mouth, opens in arthouse cinemas, and then rapidly expands to mainstream theaters. 7 Boxes more than deserves this fate.

Here is the premise of 7 Boxes (directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori): in a teeming shanty market in Paraguay, seventeen year old Victor is one of many people making a living by carting merchandise on wheelbarrows through the maze of busy streets. One evening he is asked to deliver 7 wooden boxes to a location he will be informed of at a later time. Hoping to finally be able to afford the used cell-phone he has been lusting after, he accepts the task. And thus begins what will be the breathless remainder of the film as Victor realizes that there are many who will go to any extreme to get their hands on the 7 boxes. If this film sounds like a Premium Rush knock-off, let me assure you this is a far smarter, grittier and layered movie that is as close-to-the-ground unpolished and hard-scrabble as they get. The more relevant comparison would be with Run Lola Run which also featured a protagonist persistently on the run against time. 7 Boxes features an ingenious plot (wait till you find out what's in the boxes) that expertly weaves together more than a dozen characters who interact in unexpected ways in a story that is as labyrinthine as the market streets through which Victor dashes with the seven wooden crates tethered to his wheelbarrow. Every actor here achieves a reality to their character that makes it impossible to imagine them in other roles.

2012 TIFF still, "7 Boxes"
We have seen movies like this before, but ultimately what elevates this film is the notes of cleverness that are liberally scattered throughout; this is the work of unquestionable talent. To give an example, there is a scene in the film where in the middle of his running, running, running, Victor stops outside an electronics shop to catch his breath. There are multiple televisions in the storewindow, each fitted to a camera. As he sees his face projected through multiple perspectives he can't help but stare, probably seeing his face from so many angles for the first time in his life. Something terrible has happened immediately before this scene, but Victor stops for a moment to stare. To be a kid. To be a human being, suddenly fascinated by something simple. It is touches such as this which demonstrate that this is the work of a gifted filmmaker. All of the pieces of the plot ultimately snap together with a pleasing click, and the movie has a final scene so perfectly rendered it had me cheering at the screen. To discover a movie like this is the reason one goes to film festivals. Unpredictable, frenetic and utterly entertaining, this folks, is how you do it.

2012 TIFF still, 'Arthur Newman'
If the idea of a film with Colin Firth and Emily Blunt excites you (and it should) then it may be best to skip to the next paragraph in this post, because there is no way to talk about the film Arthur Newman without giving away key plot elements. Okay, consider yourself warned with the requisite Spoiler Alert. Arthur Newman is a film about two disaffected souls who bond. With the hazy, occult, undefinable connection between two strangers as its main focus, Arthur Newman evokes Lost In Translation set in small town southern america. But this film has an even more melancholic tone, if that’s possible. In A Ladder Of Years, an Anne Tyler novel, one day a woman leaves her family, drives to a new town, and sets up a completely new life there. This movie starts with the Colin Firth character, a one-time accomplished professional golf player, doing something similar, i.e., he devises a plan that would lead the world to believe that he may have taken his life and drives off to another town after taking on a new name: Arthur J. Newman. We find out as the film progresses as to what might lead a person to abandon their existing identity and willfully take on a new one. Blunt plays a woman coming undone; she has a car crash while drunk, is arrested and then needs to be hospitalized to be revived. She joins the Firth character on a road trip to Texas where he is headed to set up a new life. We will find more details about their lives as the film progresses. I thought I would never see the day but Emily Blunt is miscast in this role. I realize that she cannot always play the adorable ingĂ©nue in film after film and her risky, brittle, broken performance here is commendable, but the deliberate dimming of the considerable charms of this actor somehow seems wrong. This is a fairly dark film, and even its moments of levity are tinged with bitterness. I admired the meditative, despondent feel of much of the movie but the pervasive grimness of tone may make the film a hard sell. I was also disconcerted by the fact that even the most basic information about the lead characters is withheld through much of the first half of the film. The deliberate choice to only slowly reveal more information about them, may come at the cost of the audience’s patience. Overall I realize this is a brave film with a unique voice and resolute tone but it came across as a slight disappointment.

2012 TIFF still, 'Life Doesn't Frighten Me', short film
Planning to attend the Short Films program at a film festival is always a smart choice because you get the buffet experience: one gets to taste a little bit of everything. The short film compilation program I attended (Short Cuts Canada Programme #2) included seven short films. Hmong Sisters (13 minutes) focuses on an American tourist visiting rural Vietnam and comments on the adaptation and abuse of cross-cultural interactions. Struggle (Faillir, 24 minutes) brings honesty, an admirable lack of judgment, and clear-mindedness to a difficult subject matter: the sexual tension between two siblings. I was impressed by the naturalness of the performances, and the maturity in dealing with a topic that is frequently treated as untouchable. Life Doesn't Frighten Me (14 minutes) about the coming of age of a young girl who lives at home with her grandfather (played by the invaluable Gordon Pinsent) is effortlessly heartfelt, and was hands down the best short in the collection. The difficulty of doing a lesson-of-life type of film without coming off trite or obvious or fake or sentimental cannot be overstated. There are two moments in the film that pack a powerful emotional punch and the fact that this is achieved with remarkable economy of time speaks to everything that this short gets right. Asian Gangs (9 minutes) is a faux-documentary that hits every one of its funny marks. It works wonderfully (the audience was doubled over with laughter) because of the disarming sincerity of the lead actor (and co-director). The premise, to be seen to be believed, must have seemed so slight, so silly on paper, but what is captured on film comes out a winner. Tuesday (14 minutes) is a cute short about a young girl who is getting gypped in life at every corner, but her love of dogs will ultimately save her. Vive La Canadienne (3 minutes) is wordless and frothy and delightful in its simplicity. I have great fondness for films that play like the silents, and do not need dialog or cultural context to make their point and this film of barely a few minutes achieves that. Nostradamos (9 minutes), about a small Canadian town believed to potentially survive the end of the world, uses the same faux-documentary tone as Asian Gangs, but with a far more straight-faced tone.

And so comes an end to the films I watched at TIFF 2012. Is it too early to start counting the days until next year?

2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) - Update Four

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

The Toronto International Film Festival was in progress when 9/11 happened. TIFF takes place in the first two weeks of September, and since 2001 the festival has showed a short two minute memorial prior to every feature screened on September 11th. Over the years, the short has changed, but it has always been a well crafted piece consisting of reactions to 9/11 from the film community. And 2012 was the first year that the festival chose not to show a 9/11 tribute. There was some curiosity around this amongst a few people I spoke with today.  Most individuals, including myself, believe this was a deliberate decision, to demonstrate a small manner of healing that has occurred since the events of 2001. And that while 9/11 can never be forgotten, the world has learned to move on a little bit. This is oddly comforting.

All of the films I saw today seemed to deal with matters of the flesh in some form or another.
2012 TIFF still, 'Byzantium'
Byzantium, the latest from director Neil Jordan (The Company Of Wolves, The Crying Game, Interview With A Vampire, The End Of The Affair) stars Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Atherton as contemporary blood-suckers. For a film about vampires, I found the movie oddly bloodless. To be clear, there is a surfeit of blood and gore on screen, but the film seemed to me lacking in dramatic tension. I respect the decision to have the movie be as much about atmosphere as the plot, but the terminally sluggish placing seemed a peculiar choice. The movie dips back periodically to a back-story set two hundred years in the past, but the back and forth in chronology isn't effective since that origin story about the two vampires is not particularly compelling. I am hardly an expert on the mythology of vampires, but I am fascinated by the belief that vampires in literature have always been a metaphor for all those in the world who are patently different. And therefore subject to scorn and hatred. This theory also explains the need for vampires to stay in dark. It has been suggested that vampires in early literature were meant to represent lepers. There has been discussion that the vampires in Anne Rice's books represent homosexual repression. Others have suggested that the reaction to vampires has long represented racism in the world.  Considering that the director of Interview With A Vampire is returning 20 years later with Byzantium, I was hoping he had something more to add to the mythology of blood-suckers. But I struggled to find any meaningful insight in Byzantium and surprised to see it be so toothless. Yes, he comments on how vampires have traditionally been male and the two female protagonists in this film are pariahs even within the vampire clan. But even that protest comes across a bit outdated. Saoirse Ronan is one of the more intriguing screen presences in current cinema and does a very able job here but even so seems underused. This is a technically accomplished film, but considering that it is clearly meant to be more than just pure entertainment, it was a bit of head-scratcher for me.

2012 TIFF still, 'The Sessions'
The Sessions comes to TIFF already having gathered buzz at prior film festivals as the movie guaranteed to earn acting nominations for John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. I am not going to argue about that having seen the film. In fact, it is best if this film is seen with the minimum of expectations. This is a small-scale film that evokes some big issues. The movie is based on the real-life story of Mark O'Brian, a Berkeley area poet/journalist, who after being afflicted with childhood polio, needed to live in an iron lung and had no useable motor movements below his neck. Confined to a stretcher all his adult life, and with caretakers around him to help him with everyday activities, Mark O'Brian went on to obtain his degree. Obviously unable to do many things that others can, he realized in his mid-thirties that the one thing he could not live without having accomplished in his life was to have a physical relationship. The movie begins at this point in his life, and covers his relationships with those around him,  chiefly with the sex-therapist who tries to assist him with fulfilling his desire to lose his virginity. Helen Hunt plays the therapist in a fearless performance, depicting the complexities of a woman with a husband and son who, as part of her professional career is required to get physically intimate with others. John Hawkes, that menacing and charismatic actor from Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene is unrecognizable here in the lead role as a man constantly  shrunk down to size in the presence of the medical equipment around him. The film features some stellar writing, especially when it gets into decidedly unchartered territories, and performances that make you forget that you are watching actors. What I liked most about the film though was how it successfully makes the case, on multiple occasions, that many issues that we may consider as being uniquely specific to the physically disabled are actually remarkably universal; the impediments we face in life are not that different regardless of our physical status. This story is also rife for assessing the particular considerations of a professional sex-therapist. What are the ethics, motivations and conflicts associated with a person whose trained work involves having sex with clients and who receives monetary compensation for it  (Hunt's character makes it clear, repeatedly, that she is a therapist, not a prostitute)? And when a sex-therapist builds necessarily difficult relationships with the person being treated, how can the physicality of it not bleed over into emotional dependencies? The film explores this to some extent - notably with the shifting attitude of Hunt's husband who initially believes his wife is a saint for what she does to help people, but over a period of time starts resenting her for the same thing - but I wished it had plumbed this further. After all is said and done though, this is an original, intimate, and affecting film.

2012 TIFF still, 'My Awkward Sexual Adventure'
Truth in advertising! The movie, My Awkward Sexual Adventure, is exactly what the title indicates. This is a silly little sex-comedy, which can sit in your Netflix queue along with the American Pie films. Did I laugh during this film? Yes, many times. And it is perhaps a notch above the sort of teenage raunchfests thrown at us from time to time. In this genre, nobody is looking for high art, or even exceptional insight, and as long as the film isn't inept or does not insult the audience, it is already ahead of the others in the race.  The plot involves a man whose girlfriend declines his marriage proposal claiming she finds him boring and his physical skills in bed severely lacking. Through a turn of circumstances, he strikes a deal with a stripper (with a heart of gold? what do you think?) who promises him education with lovemaking in return for him assisting with her failing finances. A homegrown Canadian effort that took almost a decade to bring to the screen, the film is harmless fun. Although the movie does up the ante substantially in the raunch department, the writer and lead actor Jonas Chernick and director Sean Garrity keep things energetic, and the committed actors make this not an unworthy entry in this genre.

Sadly, I have only one more day left at TIFF and will be filing in my final report tomorrow.

2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) - Update Three

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

My third day at TIFF 2012 involved the watching of three films, all of them rewarding in their own way.

The Impossible, starring Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and the impressive young actor Tom Holland, is the sort of movie that gives melodrama a good name. The film is a harrowing account of a family’s experiences during the South Asian tsunami that occurred several years ago. It is based on the true story of these individuals vacationing at a resort in Thailand when the tsunami hit. While the film is majestic in its scope, by choosing to stick close to this one family during the aftermath of the tsunami, it invites the audience to be more internally involved with the things enfolding on the screen. For sure the film ought to win awards considerations for Sound Design. Perhaps it was the magnificent Princess of Wales theatre in which I saw the movie, but I experienced some of the best sound in film; each shake, each vibration, each rumble in the movie was perfectly captured and rendered without distortion, further personalizing - and intensifying - the experience.
2012 TIFF still, "The Impossible"

What I meant by melodrama earlier is that this movie is not scared of going big with its emotions. In fact it relies on them. And while this approach fails in most movies (we are told subtlety should be the mantra for every filmmaker) this film achieves such an unquestionable sense of authenticity with the main characters that it earns the right to draw on grand-scale emotionality. While a film such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close came off seeming insincere using 9/11 as its premise, The Impossible, because of its honesty, stays clear of such concerns. In the screening I attended, this wrenching and raw film brought most audience members to tears and many left the cinema feeling sore. I know this film is being written off in some circles as being manipulative and overwrought, but then so was Gone With The Wind, and so was Schindler's List. This is the best film I have seen at TIFF so far.

2012 TIFF still, 'Thanks For Sharing'
Thanks for Sharing, tells a story of recovering sex-addicts living in Manhattan. This is a premise that we have not seen explored much on the screen, and there is a lightness of touch to how it is handled here, avoiding moralizing or judgment. To be sure this is not Shame, but the movie feels honest even when some of the stories do not work as well as others. With an enviable cast consisting of Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Robbins, Joely Richardson, Josh Gad, Alicia Moore and Patrick Fugit, the film circles around three prior addicts (Ruffalo, Robbins and Gad) and the people in their lives.  Stuart Blumberg, making his directorial debut with this film is an accomplished writer, having penned The Kids Are Alright, a movie that could be used to teach scriptwriting in Film School. And expectedly, the writing in this film dazzles with funny stingers that always make a good landing, particularly coming from Tim Robbins’ character. There are parts of the film that get dangerously close to contrivance, and not all of the pieces fit together perfectly. However I believe the film’s greatest strength is in its ensemble cast. These are all steadfast actors, who know how to get the job done. Mark Ruffalo always brings a low-key authenticity to his roles. Gwyneth Paltrow is warm, believable, conflicted and real. Alicia Moore (Pink) makes an auspicious film debut with an impressive monologue early in the movie. And Patrick Fugit and Tim Robbins, playing son and father, take a slightly overused story arc and relieve it entirely from clichĂ©. This could have been a great film, but for what it is, good, is good enough.

2012 TIFF still, 'Ghost Graduation'.
If your list of comfort-food movies invariably includes films from the eighties, you will be sure to love Ghost Graduation (Promocion Fantasma). This is a light-hearted piffle of a film that only exists to get as many laughs as possible as it (re)visits the John Hughes universe. The director of this Spanish-language film, Javier Ruiz Caldera, mentioned in the Q and A after the film that the plot emerged from the premise of what might have happened if the characters from The Breakfast Club never got out of detention but died and were stuck as ghosts in their high school for the next twenty years. In this film, a school teacher who can see the dead has to help these ghosts resolve unfinished business so they can move on and stop haunting the school. The reason why Joss Whedon was the apt choice to make The Avengers is because he is a geek about the universe of these comic books and he gets these characters. A filmmaker who taps into his own outsized love for a particular story or genre will always do a better job than another who does not have that love, no matter how technically accomplished the latter may be. Well, here is a filmmaker who gets those seminal films from the eighties and he nails that sensibility in his own directorial debut. At the TIFF screening, he got a long round of applause at the end of the film. Sometimes all you need to do is make a film about something you love, and the rest takes care of itself. Incidentally, I wonder if John Hughes will be someone whose cache will continue to grow in the coming decades. He is not typically invoked during mention of the cinema greats. We will find out, but I suspect time will be kind to the legacy of John Hughes films.

2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) - Update Two

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

Immediately prior to the showing of any film at TIFF there is a notification that comes up on the screen warning viewers that the illegal recording or any other form of reproduction of the movie they are about to see is subject to criminal prosecution. And at that precise moment, someone in the audience inevitably always yells "Arrrwff". I am not making this up. Of course all festival attendees are staunch supporters of anti-piracy measures, and hence the guttural canine utterance is not a sign of protest. Rather it is just a vestigial TIFF legend passed on from year to year since who knows how long. The sound of the "Arrrwff" always brings me comfort because it reminds me that I am doing one my favorite things in the world: about to start watching a new film at TIFF.

TIFF 2012 still, 'Love Is All You Need'
Not all movies need to be high art. Sometimes putting a film together is like organizing an event. If your guests leave having had a good time and having eaten well, and if they speak fondly afterward about it, then it has been a job well done.  This is the case with Love is All You Need , the latest film from Susanne Bier (After The Wedding, In A Better World) which stars Pierce Brosnan, Trine Dyerholm and Paprika Steen. The plot involves extended families getting together for a wedding. Pierce Brosnan plays the groom's father  who has immersed himself completely into work since his wife's death. Trine Dyerholm plays the bride's mother, who has recently come off chemotherapy treatment. The wedding, scheduled in an old villa in Italy that is owned by Brosnan's character, brings members of the two families together.  And the plot writes itself. This is a full-bodied, well-constructed film that respects its characters; the kind of mainstream film that is increasingly rare these days. Yes a person can be cynical and find this movie rote and unoriginal and complain that they have seen it all before. And yes the movie is predictable from the turn of the first reel. But that does not take away from it being a thoroughly enjoyable ride all the same. I bought into this movie from the start, found it  genuine, and believed in these characters. And I was within the movie through its running time instead of watching it from the outside. I suspect many will find it a piffle, a distraction, but this is the kind of film that resonates with me. Its a highlight of my TIFF experience. [By the way, I wish the original Danish title of the film, The Bald Hair-Dresser, had been retained in English too].

2012 TIFF still, 'Out In The Dark'
If one purpose of film (or any art form, for that matter) is to depict our greater contemporary conflicts, the movie Out In the Dark provides a striking example of what separates us now as human beings. Director Michael Mayer sets his story at the crossfire of one of the more unresolvable political impasses of our time, the Israeli-Palastinian conflict. What are the repercussions of the bonding between two people, one from Israel, and the other from Palestine? The filmmakers add an additional dimension to this conflict by  layering it with something else that has the contemporary world currently divided: same-sex relationships. What if the bond in question was between two men who deeply love each other, but are from opposing sides of the geopolitical border?  Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) is a Palestinian student who is granted a permit to travel daily to a Tel Aviv college in order to study with a noted professor. Roy (Michael Aloni) is a successful lawyer living a comfortable, affluent life in Israel. Both are surprised at the strength of their affinity for each other when they meet. Against their judgment, and knowledge of the imminent danger, both fall in love. As unplanned but all consuming as their bond is, how are the two to find a tenable logistical solution for them to co-exist. So repellant does Nimr's Islamic family find the concept of homosexuality that they lack the ability to understand his dilemma. And Roy is having to contend with the Israeli Secret Service nipping at his heels with the knowledge of his association with a Palestinian man. Although the film occasionally gets heavy-handed with its approach, and weaves its narrative thread across too many secondary characters, I liked the matter-of-fact, unfussy handling of this material. And the urgency and barely restrained anger simmering under the telling of this story. Ultimately I admired most how the movie telescopes the current Middle-Eastern situation through the lens of these two individuals.

2012 TIFF still, 'Thermae Romae'
The film, Thermae Romae was the most profitable film of the year in Japan, the TIFF program informs us. And I can see why; it is a goofy, big-budget, time-travel adventure that is single-minded in its aim to entertain the audience. And indeed it was a crowd pleaser at the TIFF screening I attended. The movie plays with particularly broad humor, done with so much greater zest and wit in Mel Brooks' History Of The World, Part I. The movie, based on a rabidly popular comic book of the same name, tells the story of an architect in ancient Rome with a special acumen for  building bathhouses intended to comfort the Roman emperor and army generals. Having lost enthusiasm with his job, he one day slips underwater and gets sucked, literally, through the space-time continuum to arrive in modern day Japan. Marveling at the inventions of contemporary Japan, he brings the modern inventions back to ancient Rome to achieve much acclaim. Much of the film's humor is derived from the fish out of water situation each time the protagonist travels to the modern day Japan. The audience I was watching this film with enjoyed the film a lot more than I did. Maybe it was because I kept trying to see past the moment by moment gags in the film. And after a while the back and forth travel in time got tiresome. The lead actor, Hiroshi Abe, so nuanced and finely tuned in Still Walking, is asked here to play the character so broadly that he is left with doing not much more than providing exaggerated reaction shots of surprise. This is the kind of film that may go best combined with a beer on a Friday or Saturday night.

2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) - Update One

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

The 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is off to a great start. The usual cinema venues, the usual running from one screening to the next, the usual sprints along the familiar blocks of Yonge Street and King Street with stops for caffeine on the way, the usual enthused audience members eager to tell others about what amazing films they have just seen - is what makes TIFF what it has always been: one of the most accessible and well programmed film festivals. In a perfect world, TIFF would be on every day of the year. But while being in Toronto for the few days that I am, I am determined to make the most of it.

TIFF 2012 still, Frances Ha
The first film I saw, Frances Ha, is delight manifest on the cinema screen. The movie is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, he of the dark, aching 'comedies' Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding, and The Squid and The Whale. His latest effort carries an entirely different blueprint. For one thing the movie is shot in gorgeous black and white, which renders Brooklyn and Paris that much more romantic. An audience member at the Q and A after the film asked Baumbach as to what besides The French New Wave and Woody Allen were his inspirations for this film. "Those two pretty much sum it up", he replied. The movie is also co-written by the gamine Greta Gerwig who plays the lead role. Maybe its because of her greater investment in this film with her contribution to the script, but Gerwig is the most delightful she has ever been on camera - and this means something considering that here is an actor who has made a name for herself by being delightful in films. It would be reductive to call this simply a coming of age film. As Gerwig mentioned during her response to a question, this film interested her because it is based on something seldom seen in movies: unrequited love between two people who have a relationship that is not sexual. The film is of course nothing if not a showcase for exceptional writing. The dialog here is pitch-perfect. Laugh too loud at a line and you will miss the next piece of dialog. The completely spontaneous feeling of the movie, we learn from the director and cast, came from tedious repetition of takes based on a tightly scripted story. You will also have to see this film to find out the explanation for the title of the movie in the last scene. This is an immeasurably witty and wise film.

TIFF 2012 still, Everybody Has A Plan
Everybody Has A Plan (Todos Tenemos Un Plan), is an Argentine film that takes film noir and carries it through its fullest possibilities. Viggo Mortensen demonstrates that he is just as compelling an actor when he is speaking in another language. He plays the dual roles of Agustin, a well to do Buenos Aires pediatrician coming undone from his wife, and Pedro, his far less fortunate twin brother who lives in the impoverished water-logged islands (El Tigre delta) away from the city and who has his hands dirty with involvement with the local crime leader. The poverty-stricken islands in the movie bear a strong resemblance to the setting of the recent Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Throw in a younger lover, hard-scrabble criminals who will stop at nothing to recover their money, switched identities, and bee-keeping as a metaphor for the perils of getting too close to something dangerous. And you have a sticky, steaming brew of noir set in South America. What is surprising is to find that this accomplished film is made by a first time director, the young Ana Piterbarg.

TIFF 2012 still, 90 Minutes
The last film I saw in the day was the Scandinavian production 90 Minutes. It came advertised as a movie that tries to understand the possible pathology behind the 2011 mass shootings in Norway. The film toggles between three seemingly unrelated fictional stories, which start off from a place of the abjectly mundane, but only gradually reveal the undercurrent of impending malefic forces: a wealthy businessman who is having to make some major adjustments in his life, a police officer spending an evening with his family and starting to sense the displeasure from the mother of his children, and finally a third man watching television in a empty apartment before we are suddenly exposed to the unthinkable horror around his existence. The movie depicts literally, the last 90 minutes in the lives of three individuals. And makes a case for the often very unremarkable basis for the genesis of terrible violence. This is technically an accomplished film, with masterful shot compositions. And heightened, crystalline sound that effortlessly makes the amplification of everyday noises (a dishwasher being loaded, a baby crying) summon anxiety and impending doom. For all its merits, the movie was ultimately, for me, impossible to watch. And there were steady walkouts during the screening, starting from almost the first half hour. I recognize the choice of a filmmaker to take a brutal, in your face, approach to depicting the horrific. But at what point does the end stop justifying the means? In its effort to drive home its (what seemed to me, somewhat oversimplified) tenet about what leads individuals into doing the unthinkable, the movie is willing to cross any line. As inured as we are to seeing the shocking and the violent in cinema, I still could not stomach this film. Perhaps the very fact that this film has engendered this much discussion within my head may speak to its potency. I need to continue to consider this film in the coming days.

Another three films on the schedule for tomorrow; other movies to revel in. Until the next update, then.

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.