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The Torontonian Tips Cannes

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

It’s Egoyan vs. Cronenberg, Miller vs. Jones, Pattinson vs. Stewart, and Leigh vs. Loach at this year’s Festival de Cannes, which this morning announced their 67th line-up of films vying in the prestigious Palme d’Or Competition.

In sticking with the Festival’s longstanding tradition of programming veterans in Competition, 13 of the announced 18 films are from returning auteurs. Eighteen is a small number for Cannes, though, so expect one, two, and possibly even three more films to be announced in the coming weeks.

The five Palme newcomers include Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Alice Rohrwacher (Le Meraviglie), Adderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu), Damian Szifron (Wild Tales), and Xavier Dolan (Mommy).

Dolan has made incredible progress (and very quickly), to be one of the youngest filmmakers in Competition ever, debuting nearly all of his films in the South of France (Tom at the Farm, however, went to Venice last year).

Mauritanian director Sissako, a veteran of the Festival but not of the Competition, will finally seek glory after two Un Certain Regard bows, three jury seats, and an Out of Competition premiere.

Rohrwacher debuted her first film Corpo Celeste in the 2011 Director’s Fortnight, and as filmmakers typically graduate to Un Certain Regard before jumping straight to Competition (the last time I recall this happening was in 2012, where Jeff Nichols vaulted the gap to premiere Mud in Competition), there’s reason to expect her follow-up is very strong. Rohrwacher is joined by Japanese auteur Naomi Kawase (Still the Water) to break up the Boy’s Club of the Palme d’Or race.

Mapstothestars

Mia Wasikowska in Maps To The Stars.

Fans of Twilight will surely enjoy the latest Robert Pattison and Kristen Stewart connection. Stewart, as part of Olivier Assayas’ film Clouds of Sils Maria, faces off against Pattinson in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, two features that were tipped for Cannes months ago—not a surprise, but still something to look forward to.

Mr. Turner

“Mr. Turner.”

Also hardly surprising are the inclusions of certain Cannes regulars, such as Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep, or Hibernation, as Google Translate insists), and Ken Loach (Jimmy’s Hall). You have to hand it to Loach: Jimmy’s Hall marks his twelfth appearance in Competition, but he’ll have to debut something meatier than the 2012 romp The Angels’ Share if he wants to win a second Palme. Still, the fact that Loach has mooted that this may be his last fiction feature could factor into deliberations.

Deux-jours-une-nuit

Marion Cotillard in the Dardennes’ “Deux Jours, Une Nuit.”

Speaking of two-time Palme winners, filmmaking frères Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes are back in Competition. Spoiler alert: these brothers almost always take home some hardware, so it’s all eyes on Two Days, One Night to see if their success persists.

captivesThe Canadian contingent this year is unprecedented, with Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and Xavier Dolan representing Ontario and Québec. This echoes the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, where Cronenberg and Egoyan faced off with A History of Violence and Where the Truth Lies. Egoyan saw poor critical success with his most recent feature, Devil’s Knot, as yet unreleased in the United States, whereas Cronenberg is sharper than ever.

But American cinema isn’t exactly under-represented, with Tommy Lee Jones’ second Western The Homesman and Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher set to debut. Miller’s small filmography is varied, and Jones’ love of the frontier seems an inherent aspect of his dour disposition.

It’s also nice to see Jean-Luc Godard back in Competition. The man hilariously bailed on his Film Socialisme premiere in 2010—who can tame this Swiss lion?—but word is he’s promised to be there in person for Goodbye to Language.

110

JLG shoots pocket 3D.

Finally, The Search, Michel Hazanavicius’ follow-up to 2011’s The Artist will premiere in Competition, again featuring his wife (and Cannes mainstay) Bérénice Bejo. If Hazanavicius arrived on the world stage when he was handed his Best Picture Oscar, there’s definitely some pressure for The Search to be something special.

The Jane Campion-led jury will have much to consider when the Festival kicks off May 14. I’ll continue my annual “Countdown to Cannes” series, writing snapshots of the 19 directors (possibly more) in Competition.

The Torontonian Reviews THE RAID 2

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

The relative failure of the Star Wars prequels is due to the fact that they more or less strayed from what made the original trilogy really cool. A New Hope is that classic Bildungsroman of a young farmboy becoming an unbelievable hero, while The Phantom Menace and the ensuing sequels are really really concerned with trade federations, the Senate, and other galactic politics that make my eyes glaze over pretty much instantly.

This is not to say that the sequel to 2012’s The Raid (originally subtitled Berandal) is comparably bad to any of the Star Wars prequels. It’s not. Rather, it is clear that Gareth Huw Evans, the writer and director of The Raid 2, has committed Taboo: Naboo, and the follow-up to one of the greatest action films in recent memory seriously suffers as a result.

The problem: there’s a lot of plot behind The Raid 2, but not only is it definitively difficult to follow, it is more importantly uninspired and far too drawn out. Where The Raid was relentless, The Raid 2well, relents, over two-and-a-half hours, to tell a convoluted tale of underworld crime families and corruption. The dialogue here is workhorse at best, as the lines service the most basic of character expositions and motivations. Plenty of talky action films are at least funny or filled with amusing bravado; in the likely event you don’t speak Indonesian, the subtitles are a particularly uninteresting read, and I can recall perhaps only a single juicy quote.

8This expansive story gets lost, both in translation and in location, as the film quickly sprawls all over Jakarta, jumping from set piece to set piece. But this paint-the-town-red approach is yet another unfortunate difference from the single-location devastation of the original: certainly, Evans takes advantage of new environments by incorporating their various elements into the fighting formula, and it’s definitely neat to see the fighters interact with the unpredictability of a public space. That said, I can’t help but think the contained and claustrophobic action of The Raid’s apartment block was a large aspect of its success. Of these set pieces a muddy jailhouse brawl and a highway car chase are two of the film’s major winners, but others are less inventive or visually striking (though the feats of camera trickery in the highway sequence are rather astounding).

18 copyIn terms of the indoors fighting, The Raid 2’s violent vignettes range from repetitive to very exciting. On the tiresome side is the now chock-a-block close-quarters ass-kickery, where Rama (Iko Uwais) takes on a dozen thugs singlehandedly. I don’t want to downplay the impressive choreography of Evans and Uwais when it comes to these sequences, as they are still assuredly entertaining. But 150 minutes sees a lot of similar encounters.

On the other hand, the film gets it extraordinarily right with Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man, two assassins that stand out a la Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Hammer Girl, with her namesake akimbo weapons, is dressed to kill and delivers absolute destruction in a memorable subway scene. Meanwhile, Baseball Bat Man’s blunt instrument of choice is able to send a homer directly into his target’s skull, dragging his club behind him as he struts. When these killers finally catch up to Rama, the resulting clash is cataclysmic and very thrilling, and it’s a shame there isn’t more of these characters wreaking havoc.

When the longwinded mayhem finally comes to its (somehow) rushed conclusion, the initial issue remains ever-present: Evans spread his ambitious sequel much too thin, and there’s little narrative payoff to the vastness of his story. The waveform of The Raid 2 has nadirs of tedium that simply weren’t present in the original, and even then, some of the apexes feel overwhelmingly long. A one-on-one fight scene late in the film feels endless and becomes exhausting to watch, and it’s disappointing to admit that the same is generally true for the feature itself. If there is a third Raid film to come (and I imagine there probably will be), the scope will have to be reined in considerably for me to get excited for a sit this excessive again; any larger and this franchise will soon lose all semblance to its origin.

The Torontonian Reviews: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

budapest1Having continuously refined his style to the point where it is now immediately identifiable, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel sees the American auteur’s signature meticulousness at its highest level of detail and affectation, and fans of his work will know that that is a Very Good Thing. If you’ve previously found these affectations to be pretentious instead of cute, you may be out of luck here; otherwise, this picture is very, very funny. Speaking strictly in terms of dialogue, it’s clear that Hotel’s Ralph Fiennes is to Wes Anderson as Christoph Waltz is to Quentin Tarantino, which is another way of saying that both directors have found the perfect actor to deliver their stilted monologues with comedic panache.

The Grand Budapest Hotel frames its narrative like a Matryoshka doll, nesting the main story inside two other ones. At the top of the film is a girl clutching a book with the same title as the movie; coincidentally, this book tells about an author’s (Jude Law) fateful dinner with Zero Moustafa, who at a much younger age was the lobby boy to flamboyant hotel proprietor Gustave H. (Fiennes) in the 1930s. A caper surrounding a fictional painting brings Gustave and Zero closer together as friends, and we watch with pleasure as the two pair up to investigate the murder of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) and the sensitive matter of her estate. Like Moonrise Kingdom before it, the latter half of the film proceeds to break loose and gain speed, toppling Anderson’s house of cards with precise theatricality.

17-the-grand-budapest-hotel-2As we slip between the present to the past (1960s) to the older past (1930s), Anderson opts to switch between three distinct aspect ratios. Whether or not this accomplishes anything artistically productive will be up to you; personally, it’s kind of neat to watch a film primarily viewed in 1.33. Ultimately, however, the decision to shoot each timeline differently echoes the same obsessive rigidity seen elsewhere in Anderson’s ordered chaos, and in that sense it works. The aspect ratio is just one element to the film’s magnificent production design, which riffs on 1930s history and holds some gorgeous, striking set pieces. It’s a lot of fun to fall into.

If over his filmography Anderson’s characteristically juvenile protagonists have slowly matured or simply become smarter, it is an aspect of his authorial style that has evolved for the better. Fiennes’ Gustave H. is an excellent Anderson archetype; his snippy air of superiority is undercut by a childish sensitive side, and the contrast is typically very humorous and witty. Fiennes does an impeccable job with the material here, which is long-winded but very quotable. Similarly, it will be well-deserved when Tony Revolori, the young actor playing Zero Moustafa in the 1930s, enjoys a break-out following Hotel.

For every casting decision The Grand Budapest Hotel gets right, though, it would seem that one of the biggest things holding Anderson back is his insistence to work with the same pool of actors. Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum—it’s not that these players aren’t great in most everything they do (Anderson’s past films included), but the American accents peppered throughout this movie seem out of place, too self-referential, and perhaps a little lazy. Each of these actors are suitable, but the rich, textured accents heard here by Ralph Fiennes, Mathieu Amalric, and Léa Seydoux remind that the American cameos could have been better than just “fine” or “okay” in a movie set in a fictional European country, and I’m wondering if Wes Anderson is limiting himself by playing the family reunion game with each outing.

Still, the casting here is a minor issue—these are cameos, after all. Everything else about The Grand Budapest Hotel is so finely tuned that if you don’t enjoy it, it’s unlikely because of an underwhelming script, miscalculated pacing, or anything else that generally poisons a production. Rather, this feature is one of the rare, justifiable examples of filmmaking where you can point to one person and feel entirely comfortable blaming solely them, claiming that his approach just isn’t your cup of tea.

If Anderson’s fastidiousness isn’t your thing, I’d nevertheless make a point of seeing this film anyway. What is most interesting (and important) about his work is that even his weakest features include things relatively forgotten in American cinema, like a mastery of mise-en-scène, engaging camera pans and tracking, and dollhouse master shots. I am more or less tired of the tautological maxims offhandedly summarizing Anderson’s career (paraphrased as “Wes Anderson makes Wes Anderson movies”) but admittedly, Hotel is his most recognizable work to date. Fortunately, it’s also one of his grandest.

Divining Cannes 2014

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

It may seem premature to discuss the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, even before the Oscars 2013 ceremony. But there’s less than 100 days before some of the world’s greatest filmmakers hit the Croisette. So what can we expect?

The Palme d’Or Competition is historically programmed with Cannes veterans. Out of 2013’s slate of 20 Competition films, the Festival only welcomed five new auteurs to the club: Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Amat Escalante, Abdellatif Kechiche, Asghar Farhadi and Alex van Warmerdam. That means the remaining 15 films in Competition were by returning Competition directors. That’s a 75% margin, and echoing that number is 2012’s slate, which had 16/22 films by returning filmmakers (or ~73%).

2014 will not be different. Approximately three out of four films competing for the Palme d’Or in May will have been crafted by Competition alumni, and you can mix and match your favorites below.

Armed with an IMDb Pro account, I looked up the 155 Competition filmmakers of the last 11 Festivals (2003-2013). Below are three lists: the raw list of alumni, the list of alumni who have upcoming projects, and the list of alumni likely aiming for a Cannes debut.

Cannes Competition 2014 – The Likely Suspects

Akin, Fatih – The Cut (2014, Tahar Rahim)

Amalric, Mathieu – The Blue Room (2014)

Assayas, Olivier - Clouds of Sils Maria (Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche, Chloe Grace Moretz)

Bonello, Bertrand – Saint Laurent (2014, Lea Seydoux)

Cantet, Laurent – Retour à Ithaque (2014, post-prod)

Ceylan, Nuri Bilge – Hibernation (2014)

Cronenberg, David – Maps to the Stars (2014)

Dardenne, Jean-Pierre and Luc – Two Days, One Night (2014, post-prod, Marion Cotillard)

Egoyan, Atom – The Captive (2014, completed, Ryan Reynolds and Rosario Dawson)

Fincher, David – Gone Girl (October 2014)

Hazanavicius, Michel – The Search (2014, post-prod, Annette Bening and Berenice Bejo)

Hsiao-Hsien, Hou – The Assassin (2014, post-prod) (David Bordwell reports at least another year of post is required)

Iñárritu, Alejandro González - Birdman (2014, post-prod, Michael Keaton, Emma Stone)

Jaoui, Agnes – L’art de la fugue (2014, completed)

Jones, Tommy Lee – The Homesman (2014, post-prod, Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank)

Kawase, Naomi – Still the Water (2014, filming)

Leigh, Mike – Mr. Turner (2014, post-prod)

Loach, Ken – Jimmy’s Hall (2014, post-prod)

Malick, Terrence – Voyage of Time or Knight of Cups (2014, post-prod)

Miike, Takashi – Kuime (2014, completed)

Miller, Frank and Robert Rodriguez – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014, post-prod)

Mundruczó, Kornél - White God (2014, post-prod)

Ozon, François - The New Girlfriend (2014, post-prod)

Téchiné, André - L’homme que l’on aimait trop (2014, post-prod)

Vinterberg, Thomas – Far from the Madding Crowd (2014, post-prod, Juno Temple, Carey Mulligan)

Wenders, Wim – Every Thing Will Be Fine (2014, post-prod, Rachel McAdams, James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg)

Zvyagintsev, Andrey - Leviathan (2014, filming)

Some notes:

—Héctor Babenco, Amos Gitai, and Emir Kusturica (all recent Competition alumni) are attached to Words with Gods. This compilation film is an excellent bet for an Out of Competition or Un Certain Regard slot.

—Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City played in Competition in 2005; it’s reasonable to think the upcoming sequel could as well.

—It isn’t clear if Jane Campion as President of the Jury means a stronger showing of female auteurs in Competition. If I had to guess, though, I would be optimistic about such an outcome.

—Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys strikes me as a film that would play Out of Competition, given the material and the tone.

—Guessing how or when Terrence Malick’s anticipated projects will be released feels like an absolute crapshoot, but his Palme d’Or win in 2011 may encourage him to take either Voyage of Time or Knight of Cups to the Croisette this year.

—Vincent Gallo (of The Brown Bunny infamy) has completed his latest film, April, but it remains to be seen if it will emerge from his private vault.

—Angelina Jolie is a red carpet favorite at Cannes, and her film Unbroken (2014) is undoubtedly being courted by the Festival.

—Had I included 2002’s Festival in my research, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice would appear above. The film is indeed expected to debut at Cannes.

—Coincidentally, Gavin O’Connor’s Jane Got a Gun is set to be released on August 29, 2014—exactly two years after the theatrical release of John Hillcoat’s 2012 Competition film, Lawless. Seeing as The Weinstein Company is responsible for both of these Westerns, Jane Got a Gun is almost assuredly going to Cannes—assuming they follow the same release strategy as Lawless.

Competition Veterans (2003-2013) with Listed or Upcoming Projects

Akin, Fatih – The Cut (2014, Tahar Rahim)

Amalric, Mathieu – The Blue Room (2014)

Arcand, Denys – Le Règne de la Beauté (2014)

Asbury, Kelly – Kazorn (2014?)

Assayas, Olivier – Hubris (2014, script), Clouds of Sils Maria (Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche, Chloe Grace Moretz)

Avati, Pupi – Un ragazzo d’oro (2014, filming, Sharon Stone)

Bellocchio, Marco – La prigione di Bobbio (2014)

Belvaux, Lucas – Pas son Genre (2014, French release in April)

Babenco, Hector – Words with Gods (2014, segment, post-prod)

Bonello, Bertrand – Saint Laurent (2014, Lea Seydoux)

Cantet, Laurent – Retour à Ithaque (2014, post-prod)

Cedar, Joseph – Jerusalem, I Love You (???)

Ceylan, Nuri Bilge – Hibernation (2014)

Coixet, Isabel – Learning to Drive (Oct 2014)

Coppola, Sofia – Fairyland (2015)

Cronenberg, David – Maps to the Stars (2014)

Dardenne, Jean-Pierre and Luc – Two Days, One Night (2014, post-prod, Marion Cotillard)

Dominik, Andrew – Blonde (2015)

Eastwood, Clint – Jersey Boys (2014, June 20 release)

Egoyan, Atom – The Captive (2014, completed)

Fincher, David – Gone Girl (October 2014)

Gallo, Vincent – April (2014, completed)

Garrone, Matteo – The Tale of Tales (2014, pre-prod)

Gitai, Amos – Words with Gods (2014, segment, post-prod)

Gray, James – The Lost City of Z (2015, pre-prod)

Greenaway, Peter – Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2014, filming)

Haneke, Michael – Flashmob (2015)

Hazanavicius, Michel – The Search (2014, post-prod, Annette Bening and Berenice Bejo)

Hillcoat, John – Triple Nine (2015, pre-prod)

Honore, Christophe – Metamorphoses (2014, post-prod)

Hsiao-Hsien, Hou – The Assassin (2014, post-prod)

Inarritu, Alejandro Gonzalez – Birdman (2014, post-prod, Emma Stone)

Jaoui, Agnes – L’art de la fugue (2014, completed)

Jones, Tommy Lee – The Homesman (2014, post-production, Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank)

Kawase, Naomi – Still the Water (2014, filming)

Kaufman, Charlie – Anomalisa (2014, filming)

Kiarostami, Abbas – Horizontal Process (no date, script)

Kelly, Richard – Corpus Christi (no date, script)

Kusturica, Emir – Words with Gods (2014, segment, post-prod), The Bridge on the Drina (2014, status unknown)

Leigh, Mike – Mr. Turner (2014, post-prod)

Liman, Doug – Edge of Tomorrow (2014, post-prod), Reckoning with Torture (2014, post-prod)

Loach, Ken – Jimmy’s Hall (2014, post-prod)

Loznitsa, Sergei – Ponts de Sarajevo (2014, post-prod)

Maiwenn – Rien ne sert de courier (2015, pre-prod)

Malick, Terrence – Voyage of Time, Knight of Cups (2014, post-prod)

Mamoru, Oshii – The Last Druid: Garm Wars (2014, post-prod), The Next Generation: Patlabor (2014, post-prod)

Martel, Lucrecia – Zama (2015, pre-prod)

Meirelles, Fernando – Rio, I Love You (2014, filming)Miike, Takashi – Kuime (2014, completed)

Miller, Frank – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014, post-prod)

Moretti, Nanni – Mia madre (2014, filming)

Mundruczo, Kornel – White God (2014, post-prod)

Nichols, Jeff – Midnight Special (2014, filming, Kirsten Dunst and Michael Shannon)

Ozon, Francois – The New Girlfriend (2014, post-prod)

Rodriguez, Robert – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014, post-prod)

Sang-soo, Im – Rio, I Love You (2014)

Seidl, Ulrich – In the Basement (2014)

Sokourov, Alexander – Francofonia: Le Louvre Under German Occupation (2014, post-prod, Bruno Delbonnel cinematography)

Sorrentino, Paolo – Rio, I Love You (2014), In the Future (2015, pre-prod)

Techine, Andre – L’homme que l’on aimait trop (2014, post-prod)

To, Johnnie – Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (2014, filming)

Van Warmerdam, Alex – Schneider vs. Bax (2015, pre-prod)

Vinterberg, Thomas – Far from the Madding Crowd (2014, post-prod, Juno Temple, Carey

Mulligan)

Weingartner, Hans – Der Taucher (2015, script)

Weerasethakul, Apichatpong – Cemetery of Kings (no date, script)

Wenders, Wim – Every Thing Will Be Fine (2014, post-prod, Rachel McAdams, James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg)

Zviaguintsev, Andrei – Leviathan (2014, filming)

 

Alumni of the Palme d’Or Competition: 2003-2013

Adamson, Andrew – n/a

Akin, Fatih – The Cut (2014, Tahar Rahim)

Almodovar, Pedro – n/a

Amalric, Mathieu – The Blue Room (2014)

Anderson, Wes – n/a

Arcand, Denys – Le Règne de la Beauté (2014)

Arnold, Andrea – n/a

Asbury, Kelly – Kazorn (2014?)

Assayas, Olivier – Hubris (2014, script), Clouds of Sils Maria (Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche, Chloe Grace Moretz)

Audiard, Jacques – n/a

Avati, Pupi – Un ragazzo d’oro (2014, filming, Sharon Stone)

Beauvois, Xavier – n/a

Bellocchio, Marco – La prigione di Bobbio (2014)

Belvaux, Lucas – Pas son Genre (2014, French release in April)

Blier, Bertrand – n/a

Babenco, Hector – Words with Gods (2014, segment, post-prod)

Bonello, Bertrand – Saint Laurent (2014, Lea Seydoux)

Bouchareb, Rachid – n/a

Breillat, Catherine – n/a

Caetano, Israel Adrian 2 – n/a

Campion, Jane – Jury President

Cantet, Laurent – Retour à Ithaque (2014, post-prod)

Carax, Leos – n/a

Cavalier, Alain – n/a

Chang-dong, Lee – n/a

Chan-wook, Park – n/a

Cedar, Joseph – Jerusalem, I Love You (???)

Ceylan, Nuri Bilge – Hibernation (2014)

Coen, Joel and Ethan – n/a

Coixet, Isabel – Learning to Drive (Oct 2014)

Coppola, Sofia – Fairyland (2015)

Costa, Pedro – n/a

Cronenberg, David – Maps to the Stars (2014)

Dardenne, Jean-Pierre and Luc – Two Days, One Night (2014, post-prod, Marion Cotillard)

Daniels, Lee – n/a

Del Toro, Guillermo – n/a

Desplechin, Arnaud – n/a

Dominik, Andrew – Blonde (2015)

Dumont, Bruno – n/a

Eastwood, Clint – Jersey Boys (2014, June 20 release)

Escalante, Amat – n/a

Egoyan, Atom – The Captive (2014, completed)

Fincher, David – Gone Girl (October 2014)

Folman, Ari – n/a

Gallo, Vincent – April (2014, completed)

Garcia, Nicole – n/a

Garrel, Philippe – n/a

Garrone, Matteo – The Tale of Tales (2014, pre-prod)

Gatlif, Tony – n/a

Giannoli, Xavier – n/a

Gitai, Amos – Words with Gods

Giordana, Marco Tullio – n/a

Gray, James – The Lost City of Z (2015, pre-prod)

Greenaway, Peter – Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2014, filming)

Haneke, Michael – Flashmob (2015)

Haroun, Mahamat-Saleh – n/a

Hazanavicius, Michel – The Search (2014, post-prod, Annette Bening and Berenice Bejo)

Hillcoat, John – Triple Nine (2015, pre-prod)

Honore, Christophe – Metamorphoses (2014, post-prod)

Hopkins, Stephen – n/a

Hsiao-Hsien, Hou – The Assassin (2014, post-prod)

Inarritu, Alejandro Gonzalez – Birdman (2014, post-prod, Emma Stone)

Jarmusch, Jim – n/a

Jaoui, Agnes – L’art de la fugue (2014, completed)

Jones, Tommy Lee – The Homesman (2014, post-production, Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank)

Kawase, Naomi – Still the Water (2014, filming)

Kaufman, Charlie – Anomalisa (2014, filming)

Kaurismaki, Aki – n/a

Kar-wai, Wong – n/a

Khoo, Eric – n/a

Kiarostami, Abbas – Horizontal Process (no date, script)

Ki-Duk, Kim – n/a

Kitano, Takeshi – n/a

Kechiche, Abdellatif – n/a

Kelly, Richard – Corpus Christi (no date, script)

Koreeda, Hirokazu – n/a

Kurosawa, Kiyoshi – n/a

Kusturica, Emir – Words with Gods, The Bridge on the Drina (2014, status unknown)

Larrieu, Arnaud and Jean-Marie – n/a

Lee, Ang – n/a

Leigh, Julia – n/a

Leigh, Mike – Mr. Turner (2014, post-prod)

Liman, Doug – Edge of Tomorrow (2014, post-prod), Reckoning with Torture (2014, post-prod)

Linklater, Richard – n/a

Loach, Ken – Jimmy’s Hall (2014, post-prod)

Loznitsa, Sergei – Ponts de Sarajevo (2014, post-prod)

Luchetti, Daniele – n/a

Maiwenn – Rien ne sert de courier (2015, pre-prod)

Makhmalbaf, Samira – n/a

Malick, Terrence – Voyage of Time, Knight of Cups (2014, post-prod)

Masahiro, Kobayashi – n/a

Mamoru, Oshii – The Last Druid: Garm Wars (2014, post-prod), The Next Generation: Patlabor (2014, post-prod)

Martel, Lucrecia – Zama (2015, pre-prod)

Meirelles, Fernando – Rio, I Love You (2014, filming)

Mendoza, Brillante – n/a

Mihaileanu, Radu – n/a

Miike, Takashi – Kuime (2014, completed)

Mikhalkov, Nikita – n/a

Ming-Liang, Tsai – n/a

Miller, Claude – RIP, 1942-2012

Miller, Frank – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014, post-prod)

Moll, Dominik – n/a

Moore, Michael – n/a

Moretti, Nanni – Mia madre (2014, filming)

Mundruczo, Kornel – White God (2014, post-prod)

Mungiu, Cristian – n/a

Nadjari, Raphael – n/a

Nasrallah, Yousry – n/a

Nichols, Jeff – Midnight Special (2014, filming, Kirsten Dunst and Michael Shannon)

Noe, Gaspar – n/a

Nossiter, Jonathan – n/a

Ozon, Francois – The New Girlfriend (2014, post-prod)

Paronnaud, Vincent – n/a

Polanski, Roman – n/a

Ramsay, Lynne – n/a

Resnais, Alain – n/a

Reygadas, Carlos – n/a

Rodriguez, Robert – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014, post-prod)

Ruiz, Raul – RIP, 1941-2011

Saleem, Hiner – n/a

Salles, Walter – n/a

Sang-soo, Hong – n/a

Sang-soo, Im – Rio, I Love You (2014)

Satrapi, Marjane – n/a

Seidl, Ulrich – In the Basement (2014)

Schleinzer, Markus – n/a

Schnabel, Julian – n/a

Soderbergh, Steven – n/a

Sokourov, Alexander – Francofonia: Le Louvre Under German Occupation (2014, post-prod, Bruno Delbonnel cinematography)

Sorrentino, Paolo – Rio, I Love You (2014), In the Future (2015, pre-prod)

Suleiman, Elia – n/a

Tarantino, Quentin – n/a

Tarr, Bela – n/a

Tavernier, Bertrand – n/a

Techine, Andre – L’homme que l’on aimait trop (2014, post-prod)

Tedeschi, Valeria Bruni – n/a

Thomas, Daniela – n/a

To, Johnnie – Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (2014, filming)

Trapero, Pablo – n/a

Van Sant, Gus – n/a

Van Warmerdam, Alex – Schneider vs. Bax (2015, pre-prod)

Vernon, Conrad – n/a

Vinterberg, Thomas – Far from the Madding Crowd (2014, post-prod, Juno Temple, Carey Mulligan)

von Trier, Lars – n/a

Weingartner, Hans – Der Taucher (2015, script)

Weerasethakul, Apichatpong – Cemetary of Kings (no date, script)

Wenders, Wim – Every Thing Will Be Fine (2014, post-prod, Rachel McAdams, James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg)

Winding Refn, Nicolas – n/a

Xiaoshuai, Wang – n/a

Ye, Lou – n/a

Zhangke, Jia – n/a

Zviaguintsev, Andrei – Leviathan (2014, filming)

Sundance 2014 Review: What We Do In The Shadows

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

000036.25264.WhatWeDointheShadows_still4_TaikaWaititi__byKaneSkennar_2013-11-25_09-37-17PM-1Fans of New Zealand’s premiere comedy export “Flight of the Conchords” have much to look forward to in Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, which toured Sundance 2014’s midnight program as the “vampire mockumentary”—a tagline that initially felt more like a warning than an enticement.

The film is one of the festival’s most pleasant surprises because it’s gotten to the point where certain horror tropes are dead or dying: recent zombie movies have been more shambling than exciting; vampires in general have become anemic and fangless (shout-out to the Twilight series, driving nails into the rhetorical coffin).

It’s clear that Waititi and Clement (who are triple-threats here, writing, directing, and acting in the film) have similar issues with the vampire mythos going six feet under, inspiring them to create something that situates the folklore revenant into something contemporary and hilarious. They’ve turned the monster on its head, finding levity in darkness.

Things are batty at home for vampires Vladislav (Clement), Viago (Waititi), and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who are flatmates in a dilapidated Wellington mansion. Opening with a fake intro video crediting the film to the New Zealand Documentary Board, What We Do in the Shadows follows these vampires through their night-to-night lifestyle, including eating humans, going dancing, and antagonizing werewolves (the alpha-male of which played by Rhys Darby, who played band manager Murray on “Conchords”). Joining the trio is Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a recently-turned vampire who recklessly enjoys the powers bestowed upon him, and it stretches the patience of his fellow flatmates.

There’s also an arc leading up to an annual event that the various ghouls of Wellington all attend—the “Unholy Masquerade Ball”— but the focus here is in the mundanities of eternal life—ages of which are spent with idiosyncratic roommates (“Do your bloody dishes!”). To that end, Clement’s signature unsmiling cynicism as the swarthy Vlad perfectly offsets Taika Waititi’s optimistic and cheerful Viago. Brugh’s Deacon is a wildcard with a penchant for fashion; his familiar and human servant Jackie (Jackie van Beek) cleverly reveals how juvenile these ancient vampires actually are. Nick’s carelessness is the catalyst for some of the film’s funnier gags, and he brings along his best friend Stu (Stuart Rutherford), a straight-man mortal who the vampires all love the company of. For reasons unknown, Jemaine Clement’s “Conchords” singing partner Bret McKenzie is nowhere to be seen; whether or not he was asked to participate isn’t clear—oh well.

There are lots of jokes to be made about vampires in the digital age, but the film resists making the easy ones. The majority of the comedy relies heavily on wry equivocation humor and vampire-out-of-water ignorance, which you may think carries a certain amount of obviousness. But Clement and Waititi prove this to be a very good idea, and the directors have timed things brilliantly. There are more than a few lines that will make you laugh minutes after they’ve landed because of how stupid (smart) the pun actually is:  “I’m going to stay in and do my dark bidding,” Vlad says. “What are you bidding on?” Viago replies. Vlad turns around from his computer and it’s revealed he’s on eBay: “A table.”

There’s also a Spinal Tap-esque knowingness to What We Do in the Shadows, and it’s a welcome comparison. Curiously, there are no songs to nod along to—a fact that is rather unlike Clement’s career—but the film’s mockumentary approach to the premise is a fun one; executed well with personal interviews and run-and-gun shots a la reality television to keep things engaging (alongside some very creative editing, stitching together cuts to fake a single take). In terms of the script, there’s little to criticize other than a bit of sag in the fracas of the “Unholy Masquerade Ball.” This (un)deadpan Kiwi comedy is memorable, entertaining, and very, very funny; a bonafide, blood-red gem of this festival.

Sundance 2014 Review: Boyhood

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

000040.2776.Boyhood_still2_EllarColtrane__byBoyhoodInc_2014-01-10_12-13-48PMA little after 1 AM on Monday, January 20, 2014, in a 1,296-seat high school auditorium in Park City, Utah, a piece of cinema history was made: the lights came up on the world premiere of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a film  in production for more than a decade.

Boyhood is, undeniably, a landmark achievement in cinema. Shot on 35mm film on 39 separate days over a 12-year span, the film captures the real-life maturation of child actor Ellar Coltrane as he portrays Mason, a boy we watch grow into a fully-developed adult through the course of an astonishing 161 minutes. Coltrane is 19 now; he was six when filming began. I’ve seen a lot of movies, but I’ve never seen anything like this.

We become uniquely attached to Mason and his family through their visible aging and relative milestones. Year in and year out, the wrinkles and cycles of domestic drama are believable, relatable, and perfectly acted. Of course, this is to be expected after Linklater’s Before series, which more than showcased the director’s ability to remain centered on a saga with restraint and focus. There is not a false performance to mention (praise be to Coltrane for carrying such a picture), save for a single scene involving some underage drinking on a weekend trip with friends. It’s the lone example of lesser dialogue, but even then, it still holds moments of truth.

With Boyhood, Linklater ran the risky possibility of constructing a film based on a gimmick; as if chronicling something of this magnitude was the end, not the means. In other words, if the finished product had been trite or maudlin, we would be praising Boyhood as an accomplishment in its experimentation, not as a story. I am overjoyed to report that the leap of faith from everyone involved paid off: the narrative is served by this production “gimmick” in a way that other films simply are unable to, and it’s overwhelming.

From the outset, it’s immediately clear that Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) don’t have it easy. Their underemployed mother (Patricia Arquette) has a history of dating men that she is too good for; these suitors have either an unhealthy problem with alcohol or simply difficulty maintaining a regular job and schedule. Inevitably, through the course of Mason and Samantha’s life at home, a number of moves and divorces fragment their family unit, though their biological father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) remains in the picture (albeit on the sidelines).

It’s on these weekend visits—camping trips, bowling excursions, etcetera—where we see Mason Sr. and Mason Jr. develop their father/son relationship. Outside of these paternal cameos from his senior, however, Mason Jr.’s various stepfathers at home never seem to click with him, so he’s forced to do a lot of learning on his own. It’s in this learning, this living, that the film becomes something that is so true to life. Watching it summons a tidal wave of personal memories, and as I had the distinct privilege of watching Boyhood alongside my father, there were several times throughout the screening where we shared laughs and knowing nods as the film struck a chord. Whatever role you play in your current family dynamic, there is much to relate to here; oftentimes it feels like Linklater cribs directly from your life itself.

“Life Itself.” Funnily enough, that’s the name of another film here at Sundance (a documentary on the life and times of the inimitable critic Roger Ebert) but it’s a title that feels wholly appropriate here. Let it register for a second that before our eyes, Mason—and Ellar Coltrane—transforms from a precocious child into a brooding adolescent until finally a handsome high school graduate. The transitions from year to year to year are seamless, and there is immense pleasure in trying to situate yourself in the innate passing of time through haircuts, top 40 songs on the radio, technological innovations, and major cultural issues. Linklater lets you piece together on your own the timeline of the last 12 years, and it’s awesome to reminisce where you were during certain touchstones. Did you attend a midnight “Harry Potter” release? Did you argue about the possibility of a seventh Star Wars movie? Otherwise, it’s with fondness and sadness and nostalgia that we revisit certain points of our lives vicariously through Mason and his family.

This film is a cinematic time capsule, and Linklater has again proven he is one of the greatest American filmmakers working today. I want to say it is a miracle that this movie is as superb as it is, given how many years it took (just think of the institutional memory required to come back to this project year after year). But calling it as such, I think, undermines Linklater’s masterpiece. This is not luck. This is something organic and powerful and unstoppably beautiful, sculpted meticulously by an artisanal storyteller’s vision and utterly sublime direction.

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Sundance 2014 Review: I Origins

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

000038.2766.IOrigins_still1_MichaelPitt_AstridBergsFrisbey__byJelenaVukotic_2013-11-27_05-27-51PMTeaming again with Brit Marling as a follow-up to 2011’s prize-winning Another Earth, director Mike Cahill returns to Sundance with I Origins—a mature and sensitive science fiction drama that aims high but falls short of its potential. Though brimming with promise and vivid cinematography, the overlong sentimentality and frustrating pace of the film act as a cataract, blunting the impact of some key metaphysical elements.

Michael Pitt (“Boardwalk Empire”) plays Dr. Ian Gray, a molecular biologist specializing in ocular evolution. At his side is lab partner Karen (Marling), an ambitious first-year who is far smarter than most. With Karen’s help, Gray is convinced he can put to rest the notion that eyes are irreducibly complex, silencing those pesky intelligent design proponents for good. “Why do you want to disprove God?” Sofi, Ian’s girlfriend (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) asks him. “When was he proven in the first place?” Ian responds. And so it is that the precarious balance between science and spirituality becomes the film’s main interest, a theme that is initially explored and later overplayed.

The acting, while fine, never really rises beyond a monotony that serves the rational eggheads that Pitt and Marling play. There’s some eye-popping photography, though, both in the cornucopia of iris close-ups and some on-location images as the film travels to rural India. Striking shots of eyes abound here, and they’re smartly compared to galaxies to fly through. To be sure, it’s in the slick and well-planned production design of I Origins that makes it an agreeable sit, and there’s enough to chew on for some stimulating contemplation.

Unfortunately, the science fiction is told around a lagging and clouded drama. To start, Ian’s relationship with Sofi is an unbelievable match between two people that seem to have very little in common; their romance is also bookended by events that are equally implausible. We’re subjected to a certain cosmic flukiness about this passionate love interest that feels less mystical and more forced, and certainly the idea that life works in mysterious ways is touched upon by these unlikely catalysts. It’s just that they come across as half-baked, and frankly a little goofy.

Somewhere through I Origins, though, and the various breadcrumbs fall into place: Cahill’s fully-realized premise comes into view as Ian and Karen discover something astonishing about the nature of the human iris. There are some really interesting grand narrative implications here, suggesting a life of rigorous science is blind to some of the more arcane secrets of the universe. Of course, their discovery arrives after an hour or so of Gray’s dull and overlong interactions with Sofi, which retroactively become an extended foreshadowing device.

To be fair, when the film’s megaton secret finally drops, there’s a brief, fleeting sense of aha. What Cahill is hinting at here is a unique and creative look at hard science fiction, and there’s an exciting sense of possibility. This is a big, ambitious film, and the clichéd first half of I Origins becomes worth the slog. The pace quickens and we can’t look away.

But then it happens again: Cahill takes his eyes off the prize. His protagonists, while brilliant scientists, take far too long to piece together the clues that are gifted to them through further contrivances and other lucky accidents. It gets to the point where the film’s conclusion is espied and telegraphed far before it hits, spoon-feeding every audience member in the process. It’s here that Cahill’s on-the-nose (poke-you-in-the-eye?) approach to exposition is disappointing, especially given how clever the overarching idea is. A puzzle film this is not, despite some genius flashes that seem akin to Shane Carruth, Cahill’s Sundance sci-fi contemporary. Finally, the theme of science versus spirituality is driven home repeatedly; executed without that same spark and imagination that sets up the plot. The connections or links between the two rarely go beyond the obvious, including an ending stinger that feels out-of-place and again, kind of goofy.

 

Sundance 2014 Reviews: Overnighters, Whiplash

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

OvernightersIt’s enough to describe The Overnighters as a documentary portrait about the efforts of Jay Reinke, a pastor of a local church in Williston, North Dakota. His “overnighter” program, where Reinke welcomes blue-collar men into house and home as they try to find work in an emerging oil boom, has both positive and negative ramifications, and it’s putting a strain on the community.  Zooming out from Reinke, though, and we see the town of Williston as part of a bigger picture. In essence, Williston is a nexus and meeting ground for some of the most critical problems plaguing the United States, giving director Jesse Moss the chance to weave a more tangled web of substance abuse and criminality, unchecked capitalism, and the limits of forgiveness. In short, The Overnighters is a snapshot of broken America, seen through the lens of a small town as it grapples with burgeoning industry. It’s fascinating.

In its exploration of Williston, The Overnighters creates a continuously evolving subject out of Reinke, spanning a range of emotions and revelations that dramatically change how we perceive his motives as the film progresses. Throughout the first act, Moss depicts the pastor as a modern saint; a man who literally sings God’s graces and goes out of his way for his fellow man. Initially, it’s extremely humbling to watch someone selflessly practice the virtues of “loving thy neighbor.” Potential overnighters can stay at Reinke’s church, and the most he asks of you is to come to mass and avoid spilling coffee on the carpet. It’s his biggest pet peeve.

Then again, even in these scenes of heartwarming fraternity, there’s always this nagging feeling that Reinke’s generosity is perhaps misguided and downright bizarre, as if there’s something unhealthy or otherwise unspoken that drives his desire to help these men. Many of the overnighters have questionable pasts, though, so either Reinke has a habit of harboring drug addicts and sex offenders, or this problem coincides with the greater concern of a ravaged national economy and unskilled laborers being forced to move out-of-state for reliable work. Later in the film we’re pulled by an ethical tug-of-war of wanting to help others versus maintaining a safe society and a stable family life, and it’s a lot to think about.

Inevitable secrets emerge and the town council gets involved, and it’s more than reasonable that citizens of Williston would be upset by a surge in squatters who live in parking lots and walk the streets drunk. Of course, this raises the question: if Christianity (or simply being a good person) involves love and forgiveness, when does accepting the sins of others become inherently dangerous? Moss follows Reinke as he explains himself door-to-door, and it’s clear that many families have difficulty looking past the unsightly mobile homes and undeniable sketchiness of living around the corner from known sex offenders. Their perspective isn’t at all unexpected, but there’s enough success stories coming out of Reinke’s charity to make this ultimately a tough call. “I’m broken. We’re broken. Broken people need love,” Reinke says at one point.

As a film about the extent of this program, The Overnighters succeeds brilliantly in showcasing Reinke’s particularly interesting Catch-22. Looking at Williston as a by-product of national issues, however, and the film reminds us of that troublesome intersection between NIMBYism and goodwill in a time of severe unemployment. This is a standout documentary at Sundance 2014, and one that has far more in its constitution and its relevant subtexts than originally anticipated.

 

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If Sundance is a festival known for igniting careers overnight, then let it be so: Damien Chazelle’s opening-night stunner Whiplash unleashes a new momentum to his name and his work (known previously for 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), and deservedly so. In the process, Miles Teller comes away from last year’s Sundance gem The Spectacular Now with an even higher profile. JK Simmons’ accomplished portfolio is topped again with a high note.

Based on the Sundance 2013 short by the same name, Chazelle tells a fuller version of his prodigy story: Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a gifted jazz drummer at New York City’s prestigious Schaffer Academy, is discovered practicing one night by the sociopathic Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), Schaffer’s Studio Band conductor. Seeing in him a vast potential, Fletcher pushes Nieman to the limits of his wits, his patience, and his ability, trying to find within Nieman the Next Great Musician. In the process, however, Fletcher vaults the lines of appropriate conduct, throwing objects, shouting profane insults, and axing members of his band for good with little to no warning. In other words: if you’re out of tune or not on his tempo, you had better duck—or be prepared to prove your ability until your hands are literally bleeding.

But Nieman’s no pushover, willing to sacrifice family, friends, and romance to fly his drumming career into the stratosphere. We watch with great pleasure as an immovable object meets an unstoppable force, and the interactions between Nieman and Fletcher are rarely calm. The dialogue exchanges are sharp, not flat; Chazelle’s script is filled with as many one-liners are there are drumlines. Simmons’ range of rage (and ability to turn it off) is a thrill to watch, while Teller’s facial contortions as he drums like a madman are simply excruciating. And how the film manages to make Miles Teller look like a legitimate drumming ace is an achievement in something, be it creative cutting, special effects, or what-have-you.

While the steps Chazelle takes to set Nieman’s prodigy arc in motion are sometimes contrived, the performances and energy from Teller and Simmons are more than enough to make up for the fact that Whiplash has (very) predictable beats, save for an ending that strays from convention into something that is relentless, fast-paced, and utterly astounding. Comprising much of the film, the extended scenes of talented musicianship—solo or otherwise—treat us to some of the finest fictional music montages we’ve ever seen.

On that note, the editing in the film is incredible. Paying attention to every instrument in the Schaffer Studio Band, Chazelle shows the action from a multitude of angles and depths. Macro close-ups of everything from reeds to spit valves to Nieman’s bloody high-hats make Whiplash just as visual a feast as it is an aural one, and it works so very well. This direction style isn’t limited to the instruments, however, as Chazelle employs a similar style of elliptical editing and unusual camera angles to quicken the pace and provide some extra (and appreciated) detail.

Returning to the performances of Miles Teller and JK Simmons, as their excellence makes the film what it is: both play their head-butting parts in perfect concert, feeding off their characters’ stubbornness to create electrifying drama. For better or for worse, though, Whiplash hardly ever stops to catch its breath. That said, I’d argue this sells the film’s larger theme of going big or going home in a way that’s observable both behind and in front of the camera, as the talent on either side is most assuredly going big. It’s hard to look elsewhere for a fiction film this strong about drumming, let alone music; going further, the archetypal story of becoming the very best at something is served with strength and style.

14 Must-See Films at Sundance ‘14

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

While the Sundance 2014 line-up has been out since late November, it usually takes me until I have a physical program guide in my hands before I know exactly what it is I need to pay attention to. (The information, while available online via the festival website, is just far easier to digest in print). Now, having spent the past days combing through the catalogue, I’ve found several films that have me more than excited to return to Park City. I steered clear of rubber-stamping Sundance regulars, or the latest Joe Swanberg venture (Happy Christmas), Kristen Wiig drama (The Skeleton Twins) or either of the Phillip Seymour Hoffman films (God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man). Not that those films don’t sound just fine, mind you.

The following is grouped by programming section. My must-see films are primarily American, but as Sundance is the premiere festival for American independent cinema, it’s expected.

US Documentary Competition

THE CASE AGAINST 8 – Directed by Ben Cotner, Ryan White

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One of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had at Sundance was a public screening of 2010’s 8: The Mormon Proposition (nary a dry eye in the house). And given Utah’s recent marriage equality gain (Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage was ruled unconstitutional on December 20), it now seems especially prudent to take in a documentary about the subject. The Case Against 8 follows a team that took the first Californian marriage equality lawsuit to the Supreme Court, and it’s sure to be affecting.

IVORY TOWER – Directed by Andrew Rossi

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I love when documentaries are described as “urgent.” Ivory Tower looks at Harvard University and ties it back in to the financial crisis, painting “an urgent portrait of a great American institution at the breaking point.” With looming tuition costs and crippling student debt across the country, is going to college really worth it? As a recent university graduate, I’ll be sure to see this film and update readers on this pressing question. (Kidding aside, the film sounds fascinating.)

FED UP – Directed by Stephanie Soechtig

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There’s a common theme in the upcoming documentaries I want to see. Alongside The Case Against 8 and Ivory Tower and their respective crises, Fed Up focuses on an issue that is currently paramount in the United States: obesity. The film promises to reveal a “thirty-year campaign by the food industry, aided by the US government, to mislead the American public, resulting in one of the largest health epidemics in history,” which is a lofty, damning claim. Whether or not the film pays off, though, is something else entirely.

Sundance Premieres

LITTLE ACCIDENTS – Directed by Sara Colangelo

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I’ve been interested in small-town mysteries ever since binging on “Twin Peaks” last summer, so I’ll be making sure I catch Little Accidents. The film looks at a tiny American industry town coping with the disappearance of a teenaged boy, and as the drama unfolds, three residents are sucked into a “web of secrets.” Sold. The film also gives us the chance to check in on Jacob Lofland, the child actor of Mud who played Neckbone.

THEY CAME TOGETHER – Directed by David Wain

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I’ll be honest: as a big fan of offbeat comedy troupe Stella (featuring the stylings of David Wain, Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter), I’m looking forward to They Came Together solely because it’s a project written by Showalter and Wain. Wain reteams with Paul Rudd (having worked previously together on 2012’s Wanderlust), while Amy Poehler, Ed Helms, and Cobie Smulders tag along in this New York City-based subversive romantic comedy. Michael Ian Black makes a cameo.

YOUNG ONES - Directed by Jake Paltrow

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First glance at the program book: is that Michael Shannon holding a rifle? Yes; yes it is. A quick Google search later and I learn that Young Ones is a science-fiction Western by a director I’m not familiar with. But it doesn’t really matter what this film is about in the slightest, because director Jake Paltrow had me at “Michael Shannon with a rifle.” I hope that’s what the initial pitch to producers boiled down to.

THE RAID 2 – Directed by Gareth Evans

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I was going to avoid putting this film on my must-see list because it’s kind of a no-brainer. But since I saw The Raid at TIFF’s Midnight Madness world premiere and was present for a sneak-peek Midnight Madness clip of The Raid 2 back in September 2013, it’s safe to say that I need to see this film as soon as I possibly can. Reportedly, the running time is a hard-punching 148 minutes.

THE VOICES – Directed by Marjane Satrapi

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Whenever I see the term “genre-bending” in a Sundance programme book, I’m immediately interested. Then I notice The Voices features an “evil talking cat” and a “benevolent talking dog” in a live-action film by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and I say to myself, “oh look, Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick star in this.”

I ORIGINS – Directed by Mike Cahill

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You’ll remember director Mike Cahill from Another Earth, winner of Sundance 2011’s Alfred P. Sloan prize. He’s back at the festival with I Origins (again starring Brit Marling), a film that features two molecular biologists who discover “startling evidence that could fundamentally change society as we know it.” For better or for worse, the premise reminds of something like Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (which played Sundance’s Park City at Midnight program in 2010) but as Cahill’s film is playing in the Premieres section, we can expect a more dramatic sci-fi.

HITS – Directed by David Cross

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David Cross (Tobias of “Arrested Development”) joins Sundance for his feature directorial debut. Hits looks at a small town in upstate New York obsessed with the realm of YouTube fame, featuring a major turn by Matt Walsh (of the Upright Citizens Brigade) and a small role for Wyatt Cenac (one of the best “Daily Show” correspondents in memory). Cross is following the path of his “Arrested Development” co-star Jason Bateman who recently debuted with the fairly funny Bad Words, so it should be interesting to catch Cross’ chance at bat.

Sundance’s “Next”

PING PONG SUMMER – Directed by Michael Tully

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Michael Tully (of HammerToNail.com) brings us what could a part of a Computer Chess double-bill: Ping Pong Summer sounds awkward, it sounds funny, and it’s set in the 1980s. Add in summer love, rap music, and some misunderstood adolescence, and you’ve got the makings of a potential Sundance gem. And look at that: Susan Sarandon’s in it!

US Dramatic

KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER – Directed by David Zellner

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The summary for Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter reads like a bizarro Nebraska: “a lonely Japanese woman becomes convinced that a fictional satchel of money is, in fact, real. Abandoning her structured life in Tokyo for the frozen Minnesota wilderness, she embarks on an impulsive quest to search for her lost mythical fortune.” That cache of money? We (and Kumiko, apparently) last saw it in Fargo. It’s a 105-minute long solo show (Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi plays the title character) and it sounds fantastic.

THE SLEEPWALKER – Directed by Mona Fastvold

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The set-up: when a young couple is violently interrupted at their home by some unexpected guests, The Sleepwalker “transcends genre conventions and narrative contrivances to reveal something disturbing.” And this movie isn’t in Sundance’s Next program? Count me in for something unique with this Norwegian-American co-production. With songs by Sondre Lerche; co-written by co-star Brady Corbet (Simon Killer).

World Cinema Dramatic

BLIND – Directed by Eskil Vogt

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Scandinavian cinema is often some of the craziest. Blind sees a woman who has recently lost her vision face her deepest fears and repressed fantasies as she navigates her house, alone with her husband. There’s surely more to this movie than its vague summary in the Sundance guide, as director Eskil Vogt helped write Joachim Trier’s excellent Oslo, August 31st. I don’t know what to expect other than something striking.

For more Sundance as it happens, follow @Jake_Howell on Twitter.

The Torontonian Reviews GRAVITY

Friday, September 20th, 2013

GRAVITYFrom open to close, Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi survival drama is a technical and visual achievement.  Indeed, in the 3D cinema game, Gravity is currently king. But what starts as a casual space stroll between Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) soon becomes a series of unfortunate events, and the result is weightless entertainment. The 3D IMAX magic of it all reveals itself to be little more than eye candy, and it’s disappointing that a film this ambitious stimulates only certain parts of your brain.

If you are okay with ignoring the silliness of it all, Gravity is really, really cool. And while the film’s spectacle is indisputable, I nevertheless feel compelled to argue how goofy some aspects of this movie truly are. Throughout the experience—and it is one, to be sure—I was never challenged philosophically by the premise, never moved by the events, and most importantly, never swayed emotionally by the characters in any meaningful way.

This criticism is derived from an inexcusable handling of character development. Gravity is full with clunky dialogue exchanges that break the immersion, because we know they are artifacts of the screenwriting process. We have to have some background information, right? Certainly, but at the same time, we don’t want our hands held. Consider an early moment where Kowalsky attempts to calm down a rattled Dr. Stone: “Where is home?” he asks, pointing at our planet below. “Where are you from?” If you can buy that this question had yet to come up (maybe back home, in a NASA bar somewhere?), great. But this is not the only example of how blatantly Cuarón and his co-writer son Jonas attempt to provide us with narrative bread crumbs.

Around the middle act, another fragment of Dr. Stone’s background is revealed: the poorly fleshed-out mention of her late daughter, an “angel” who Stone finds the strength to continue from. This comes out of nowhere and is wholly underwritten, coming across as Hollywood cliché. It’s a shame that what holds this film down is something that could have been changed far before they went to set.

It’s also bizarre that the writing is so overtly visible, because most everything else is seamless. Through some special effects trickery, Cuarón manages to sneak the camera in and out of space helmets without cutting, and you’re left scratching your head in disbelief. “How did they do that?” you’ll ask, trying your best to ignore how conspicuous the dialogue is.

When it comes to survival films, the current entry to beat is J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost (coming later this fall), due to Robert Redford’s profoundly excellent solo performance and the movie’s conceivable premise. Gravity, on the other hand, is more concerned with visual splendor than it is telling a believable tale. But allow me to give credit where credit is due: Bullock’s performance is very strong (Clooney’s, somehow, is a throwaway) and the actor lives up to her 2010 Academy Award.

The issue here is depth and a screenplay that has bigger problems than typical coincidences and photo-finish escapes (which are more or less forgivable for this type of movie). In terms of these obstacles, the film does a fine job selling you the same sense of emergency over and over, and just about every way you could die in space is hinted at. It’s definitely very entertaining. Maybe a little repetitive, too, but at least Cuarón asks for only ninety minutes of your time.

Finally, there has been some rhetoric online that Gravity is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. I don’t exactly agree, but I can see why the sentiment is being tossed around. Fans of Cuarón’s earlier work and accomplished direction (the tracking sequences in Children of Men continue to stand out) will find much to appreciate here, and the film’s 13-minute opening shot is worth the price of admission alone. At the end of the day, however, the film is comparable to James Cameron’s Avatar: both films deliver astonishing 3D visuals on a debatable script, and it’s up to you to look past it.

The Torontonian Reviews UNDER THE SKIN

Sunday, September 15th, 2013

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Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a film that knows very much what it wants to be, and through making the film such a profoundly evocative and stylistic experience, Glazer succeeds—perhaps not as an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, but certainly as its own piece of work entirely. Rooting itself exactly where the title threatens to go, the film features a quiet Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress consuming her victims in the process.

Glazer’s filmography includes a variety of music videos (at the helm for tracks like Radiohead’s “Karma Police”) and this background is undeniably drawn from here. Peppered throughout the film are “seduction sequences” that feature Scarlett Johansson’s character undressing in front of various men in a black void of space, and as she removes more and more articles of clothing, her victim follows with erect intention towards their fate. As they approach her, they walk deeper and deeper into a pool of ethereal water, and we can only watch these men become completely submerged in the midnight darkness; their floating bodies reduced to ghostly hulls of skin.

These scenes don’t have any dialogue, but accompanying the visuals is music by English singer and composer Micachu (born Mica Levi), whose experimental score uses stark and piercing string instruments above a one-two beat to establish an overwhelming sense of trance. The music is so intense and the images are so arresting that I can only describe the result as remarkable, and Glazer’s representation of seduction is so abstractly manifested that screening the film feels akin to attending an exhibition of video art than it does experiencing an adaptation of Faber’s text. So be it. This is creepy stuff, but horror and beauty share more in common than we’d like to think.

For the most part, the film lives or dies depending on how these seduction sequences play to you. There is a distinct tediousness to Under the Skin that is largely due to Glazer shooting long and taking his time between each seduction scene, and we’re stuck waiting for what feels like the next music video to take the screen. Cruising in a van around Scotland, the dialogue between Johansson’s alien and the men she meets is more or less one-sided, with potential suitors babbling mindlessly as she works her wiles. There is one particular seduction, however, with a disfigured “elephant” man, and the loneliness from his face and words makes it that much harder to watch the alien take advantage. The writing here is poignant and difficult to forget, as it underlines just how terrifyingly deceptive this alien can be.

Despite the general wandering of Under the Skin’s plot, there is still much to pore over in the frame. For example, Glazer’s decision to light the film with heavy chiaroscuro makes getting lost in the ambiguity sexy and mysterious, and it’s rare that you see the fullness of a character’s face. There is almost always something obscuring the skin or hiding the face of both prey and predator, which makes the shadows and confusion a bewitching result. There is plenty of nudity here—both male and female—but it is both implied and expressive, capturing the physicality of our species in an extraordinary way.

I should also mention that the film’s ending is potentially a frustrating one, but given how artistic the rest of the film treats the subject, the speechless conclusion should come as no surprise. The payoff here is bizarre, anti-climactic, and just as visually striking as the seduction scenes are—so, in other words, things are par for the avant-garde course. This shouldn’t be an issue, though, because the film works on the strength of Glazer’s previous influences alone. Meaning that even if the “story” puts you to sleep, I can’t help but think Under the Skin wanted to hypnotize you anyway.

The Torontonian Reviews PRISONERS

Friday, September 13th, 2013

PRISONERS

Rarely does a director have two films at one festival, and a year or two from now, it might be that 2013 was Denis Villeneuve’s start to directing celebrity. Here in Toronto with not one but two films starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners and Enemy have debuted with much buzz), the French-Canadian director is fast on his way to being a known quantity in the United States.

Prisoners resembles the likes of your above-average beach read (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and the mystery unfolds in a similar way. The universally understood hook—the sudden disappearance of two small girls—takes hold almost immediately, capturing our attention with stomach-churning horror. The run-time teeters at two and a half hours, so there are red herrings, deductions, and interrogations that emerge before the grand reveal of where these girls are and what has happened to them. But it’s hard to look away or quickly hop to the washroom, as every scene holds a piece of the puzzle.

An unspoiled viewing of the film is so completely engrossing that every little clue or tidbit rattles and teases us. But the best mystery films are often those that withstand repeated viewings, for we watch these movies again and again to revisit how expertly handled each revelation is and how the characters react to them. Prisoners is this kind of mystery movie, though some may find its meaty length to be tolerable only once. Perhaps, but the title of the film is just as thematic as it is literal, and there is much to analyze here.

Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard play the fathers of the missing girls, while Maria Bello and Viola Davis are their respective wives. “How far would you go?” asks the film’s tagline, which speaks to the desperation of distraught Keller Dover (Jackman). When Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) struggles to find answers in that critical first week of the kidnapping, Keller takes matters into his own hands, using unethical approaches to gain new information. A prime suspect (Paul Dano) becomes the focus of Keller’s attention, and what happens next is a morality test for everyone involved (the audience included). Jackman and Gyllenhaal make some excellent dramatic turns here, and the cast in general feels pitch-perfect. Similarly, while Dano’s mentally challenged character says very little, his facial expressions do not.

Writer Aaron Guzikowski has also woven some Christian overtones into the script, which may both divide and intrigue audiences. The film opens on a wintry forest scene: a deer stands majestically in the woods, and the camera pulls back slowly before revealing the end of a rifle. The Lord’s Prayer is narrated by Jackman’s character before the deer falls, providing venison for Thanksgiving dinner. The film has many moments like these featuring overt Christian themes, though I found they only added to the three-dimensionality of the morals in flux. It rounds out the film nicely, adding an extra layer of character development to the players in this story of small-town America.

There are so many directors who could take this script and do a decently crafted job of it, but hopefully some readers remember 2010’s impeccable Incendies, Canada’s foreign-language entry for the 2011 Academy Awards. That film was exemplary in proving Villeneuve’s restraint and mastery of pace, but its box office numbers make it clear Villeneuve has yet to reach the amount of eyeballs his work deserves. Prisoners has the strength and profile to significantly boost Villeneuve’s international visibility, because the director has shown he is just as capable with a studio budget as he is with an independent one. He simply doesn’t let the film’s sprawl get away from him, and the final product is exquisitely cohesive.

When it is released, Prisoners will be popular because of its narrative accessibility, its unpretentious approach to sensitive and artistic filmmaking, and its A-list cast that fires on all cylinders. The film is great and totally worthy of a major splash, and if you enjoy Prisoners in a big way, I implore you to go back to Incendies for more. Villeneuve is breaking through, and this realized potential is great for all movie fans—not just those interested in Canadian film.

PRISONERS

The Torontonian Reviews PARKLAND

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

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While much has changed since November 22, 1963, what hasn’t is the world’s fascination with the assassination that happened that day. Fifty years after the fact, we are given the underwhelming Parkland, Peter Landesman’s dramatization of side narratives that emerged after President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot. These mini-stories—perhaps better suited for a television series—include the hospital unit working at Parkland Memorial Hospital (to treat the bodies of both JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald), the life-changing footage captured by Abraham Zapruder, and the family Oswald left behind.

Written for the screen by Landesman (also making his directorial debut), the film features a curious cast of Zac Efron (Jim Carrico, a young doctor at Parkland Memorial), Paul Giamatti (Abraham Zapruder), James Badge Dale (Robert Oswald) and Jacki Weaver (Marguerite Oswald). None of these roles own the show, however, as they all support their individual arc. There are a large number of players—far too many to list—but only Giamatti’s Zapruder and Badge Dale’s Robert Oswald are worth paying attention to. Even then, their stories would likely be far more interesting in a written format, like Vincent Bugliosi’s “Four Days in November,” the book from which the film is adapted. The acting is acceptable, but the performance average suffers from a surprisingly ineffective Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens) and Efron’s dubious turn as a surgeon.

As is usually the case with lesser historical pictures, the most compelling sequences come not from the dramatization but from newscasts and archival footage that punctate the background of the chaos. While it’s hard to compete with a defeated Walter Cronkite announcing the death of the President on national television, Parkland‘s emotional heft comes almost entirely from images like that, and especially the Zapruder film, and Landesman adds little to their impact. Coasting from beat to beat (when will Oswald get shot? Oh, there it is), the film piggybacks off the assassination’s universal intrigue, hoping to squeeze tension from underwritten characters.

The film’s period setting also feels like an afterthought. The majority of the action is captured in cramped rooms and with a variety of angles (with the cuts and shaky close-ups you would expect from poor choreography), and there are only a handful of master shots throughout. Moments of clarity are a relief from the unintentional claustrophobia of Parkland, but there isn’t enough in the details for Landesman to really sell the early 1960s as anything other than when the tragedy happened. Set design? Forget it. For that reason alone, the film doesn’t work. But when you add a lagging script with contemporary gimmicks that add artificial drama, well… when the surgeons attempt CPR on President Kennedy, relentlessly trying to revive a man who won’t come back, you get the sense the film is attempting something similar.

The Torontonian Reviews BLUE RUIN

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

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“Did you just come out of Blue Ruin?” asked a breathless Toronto film programmer one day back in May. “No? What a really tight revenge thriller.”

He looked overwhelmed by what he had just seen.

Written, directed, and shot by Jeremy Saulnier (2007’s Murder Party), and on a successful Kickstarter budget to boot, the film is about as independent as they come. Fortunately, the quality of the end result transcends any stigmas or misgivings you may have about low-to-no-budget independent film, thanks to Saunter’s impressive triple-threat efforts.

As much as I love Quentin Tarantino—likely the authority of contemporary revenge films—some audiences may have found 2012’s Django Unchained bloated, with scenes that stretched long and indulgences that had a smaller payoff than we’d want.

Blue Ruin, on the other hand, clocks in at a crisp 92 minutes and is gripping for nearly all of them.

It’s unclear if knowing as little as possible is the ideal approach to experience Blue Ruin, but hearing it described as a “really tight revenge thriller” was plenty to pique my interest. Nevertheless: lusting for revenge, the vagrant Dwight (Macon Blair, Hellbenders) learns that a bad man has been released from prison. With only a dilapidated blue Pontiac and the last vestiges of his humanity, Dwight hits the road to close a chapter of his history.

There’s plenty more narrative for Saulnier to keep us guessing, but the set-up and ensuing narrative kinks are believable and devoid of contrivances. More importantly, Blue Ruin comes bearing zero frills attached: the action is streamlined and exciting, the comic relief is perfectly timed, and the lead-foot pace maintains its acceleration before peaking at a bloody climax. Think lean and mean—then add some laughs and surprises for good measure. There’s also a glimpse of commentary on U.S. gun culture, but it isn’t too heavy to outright hijack the film’s primary thrills. This is first and foremost a great story, and one that is told well.

Given how much solo screentime his character has, Macon Blair’s Dwight is especially taciturn, and the film becomes a character study via the facial expressions of a desperate man. The dialogue that Dwight does have, however, is delivered with the requisite depression you’d expect from the character, and the result is a sadness that earns our sympathy (and our winces, when things get gory). Blair, who also helped produced the film, should be commended for carrying such a physical role.

I must also praise Saulnier’s gorgeous cinematography—a directorial achievement in and of itself—but there’s a sequence with Dwight driving along a misty stretch of forest highway that has been embedded in my memory for quite some time now. The images are captured high up and far behind Dwight’s Pontiac from what must have been a camera mounted to a bus, and we get the feeling that he is driving into the unknown with palpable purpose. It’s a masterful shot, and it’s just one example of balanced and visually striking use of color, from the indelible blood stains on Dwight’s white shirt to the Pontiac’s blue tint whizzing past forest greens.

It should be enough to say that Blue Ruin is a top-notch vengeance thriller from start to finish, but its artistic merit is just as striking as its violence. When it was posted last year, Saulnier’s Kickstarter pitch assured the project was “a revenge film equally suited for art house cinephiles and die-hard genre fans,” and I can do nothing but agree with the highest of recommendations. The film now sits comfortably amongst my still-forming top-ten list of this year, but it’s not likely to be ousted by the end of December.

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Routing Cannes 66: A Wrap

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

In an unprecedented move, the Steven Spielberg-led jury awarded the Palme d’Or to one film and three individuals: Blue is the Warmest Color, by director Abdellatif Kechiche with actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux.

This skirted the festival’s rule of preventing a sweep, as a film in Competition at Cannes cannot win both a major award and an acting prize. A respectable decision, as Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle) is a cinematic achievement in exceptional performance. Do not miss it.

Remember the name: Adele Exarchopoulos. An actor since 2007 (2007’s Boxes, 2010’s La Rafle), the 19-year-old has managed to secure one of the film world’s most prestigious awards with her staggering role as La Vie d’Adèle’s title protagonist. It’s the biggest, most important film at this festival, filled with life and political relevance. A true opus; one that needed to win, some say, to avoid censorship (the film locks in at a three-hour runtime, avec explicit sex). Ideally, the version shown for Cannes audiences is the same version eventually seen outside of the Croisette (unless Kechiche makes his own trims, as has been rumored).

The other winners are just as fun. The Grand Prix—second place—was given to Inside Llewyn Davis, presumably because of the wonderful Oscar Isaac and the meticulous direction by the unstoppable Coen Brothers. Let it be known that their newest film has cracked my personal top-three list of their work.

There’s always a surprise at the Cannes awards, and this year’s shocker was the winner of Best Director, Amat Escalante. Heli, Escalante’s third feature, was probably the subject of a political move: poorly-received by most critics (myself excluded), the film’s depiction of Mexico’s tragic drug violence struck a chord with the jury. No matter: Heli is a fine film, regardless of its difficult scenes. (Escalante’s mentor, Carlos Reygadas, won the same prize last year for Post Tenebras Lux.)

In third place is Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Like Father, Like Son, winner of the Jury Prize. The film was an expected favorite, especially given its themes that many thought were sure to please Steven Spielberg, a man of family narratives (as well as a large family). It was a safe bet, too: with great acting across the board (including the kids, who really needed to sell the picture more than anyone else), it seemed impossible it would walk away from the festival empty-handed.

Best Script was given to Jia Zhang-Ke, director of A Touch of Sin. Highly critical of contemporary China, Zhang-Ke’s intertwined quarter of narratives was a violent, broadly appealing film and the most “mainstream” venture in his filmography. A justified win, even though most thought him to win the Best Director prize. Given its boldness, A Touch of Sin had to win something.

The Best Actor race was all but sewn up: with fantastic performances from Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Matt Damon and Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra), the front-runners were clear. But the Jury decided to laud Isaac (and the Coens) with the Grand Prix, thus barring Isaac from the acting prize. Instead, the jury went elsewhere, awarding the sweepstakes to Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Dern does a fine job as Nebraska’s lovable codger.

In truth, Best Actress was one of the hardest awards to call. There were many excellent female performances, including Hadewych Minis (Borgman), Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Marine Vacth (Jeune et Jolie) , Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant), Kristin Scott Thomas (Only God Forgives) and even June Squibb (Nebraska). The critical front-runners, however, were Bérénice Bejo (The Past), Emmanuelle Seigner (Venus in Fur), and the leads of Blue is the Warmest Color. The finest female performances were indisputably in the latter (leading to a Palme d’Or win), so the jury went for the César-winner Bejo. Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to A Separation is expectedly very strong, and Bejo’s performance did much for the film’s success.

Finally, I want to thank you for reading, whether it was the neurotic pre-festival write-ups or my reviews as the festival played out. I’m happy to report that somehow, the most impressive movies this year in Competition were given the awards and international press they deserved. One can only hope these highlights find distribution near you very soon.

À la prochaine.

Other winners:

Short Film Palme d’Or: Safe, by Byoung-gon Moon

Short Film special mention: Whale Valley, by Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson.

Camera d’Or: Ilo Ilo, by Anthony Chen (playing in the Director’s Fortnight).

Palme d’Or Winner Review: La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color)

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color is a staggering motion picture, so big and so important and so full of life. It represents a milestone in on-screen sexuality, putting another nail in the coffin of old-world ignorance and prudishness, but it’s also a cinematic achievement in acting. In short, it’s a true opus.

Abdel Kechiche’s three-hour film adapts Julie Maroh’s award-winning French graphic novel of the same name. (The filim premiered at Cannes 2013 under its French title, La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitre 1 & 2). There’s been debate on the film’s different titles, and while the English title, Blue is the Warmest Color works better both in terms of marketing and staying true to Maroh’s original title (Bleu est une couleur chaude), La Vie d’Adèle is a decidedly appropriate title. Spanning the course of a number of years, the film depicts Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos—remember her name) and her journey through a sexual awakening, beginning in high school and continuing as she matures into a fully-functioning adult. More than that, though, this is a film about life itself: eating, talking, drinking, kissing, laughing, loving, smoking, crying—each of these actions are highlighted through intense close-ups and Kechiche’s adherence to realism. The film has an oral fixation in a number of ways, but the idea here is that life is lived through the mouth, via communication, consumption, and sexual expression.

The saga that is Blue is the Warmest Color begins when Adèle hooks up with an eager garçon from her class, and Adèle is depressed by the experience and embarrassed from the ensuing gossip storm. Her assumed heterosexuality is rocked when a girlfriend kisses her for fun; further shaking her identity is a blue-haired enigma (Léa Seydoux) who passes Adèle on the street. They eventually meet (her name is Emma, we learn) and they share a tender moment of flirtation, culminating later in the first of many sex scenes. With the set-up complete, the film’s remaining two hours depicts the trajectory of their relationship, with the orgasmic ups and the tumultuous downs that accompany any blooming love.

The much-discussed lesbian sex scenes—which are long, graphic, and apparently unsimulated—will be a sticking point for some viewers, but those who have a problem with these extended moments of groping and tribadism may be missing the point (and to be sure, the problem exists within them, not the film). Make no mistake: Kechiche is not fetishizing the naked bodies of Seydoux and Exarchopoulos, nor is he obsessed with lesbian sexuality. The sex in Julie Maroh’s original graphic novel is laid bare, and Kechiche has translated it the screen with no punches pulled.

Are these marathon sex scenes justified? Unequivocally yes. Adèle’s fight to understand her sexuality is just one story in a society that prefers men and women being together, and offended audience members (especially those who enjoy the privileges of heteronormativity) can and should sit through these scenes with sensitive patience. The explicit sex is shown at length as a payoff for the characters, not the audience; they are included to counterbalance the trials homosexual couples must go through just to receive the same pleasures hetero couples are inherently entitled to. In other words, dismissing these scenes as “indulgent” or “pornographic” is wholly unfair. These scenes are a critical element in the film, and removing them would lessen the overall impact of their romance (especially when straight sex scenes are a dime a dozen).

The true revelation of Cannes 2013 is Adèle Exarchopoulos, who is, in no uncertain terms, astounding. There has been a diversity of strong female performances at this year’s event, but then there is Exarchopolous, whose emotional range sets the bar for uplifting highs and heartwrenching lows. She has given everything to her director Kechiche, who in turn has given everything back to her. Seydoux is also marvelous, and it should be made clear that she is not a footnote to Exarchopoulos but an equal. If you thought Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was led by powerhouse male performances, La Vie d’Adèle invites you to reassess your definition of incredible two-handed acting. (An especially moving scene near the two-hour mark had audience members in tears.)

Cannes festivalgoers were subjected to a film that was so fresh that it likely came out of the editing bay only days before it played the Croisette. This is clear because there weren’t any opening credits; the closing credits were equally minimal. Indeed, early word on the film was that Kechiche was still toying with the picture’s length close to the premiere date. If the film is edited post-Cannes, we can only hope it is tempered very little. La Vie d’Adèle is an astonishing film, its three-hour run-time flying past as it captures a universal human experience despite sexuality atypical for epic screen treatment. It’s not often a romance drama weighs as much as a Lord of the Rings installment, but when duration is used effectively—if there is a reason to go deeper emotionally and narratively than most stories can afford—Kechiche proves the result can be a masterpiece.

Cannes Out-Of-Competition Review: All Is Lost

Friday, May 24th, 2013

J.C. Chandor’s bold sophomore feature All is Lost, the follow-up from 2011’s Margin Call, is something extraordinary in the literal meaning of the term. A one-man show featuring a titanic Robert Redford, the film is a shipwreck narrative that rises above genre expectations (if there is a ship-wreck genre in the first place), with inspired work from everyone involved. This is some of Redford’s finest acting since 1973’s The Sting, and is sure to prove buoyant in the coming  awards season. Chandor deserves credit too; his directorial hand is firmly on the rudder in a venture that shouldn’t work but absolutely does.

Carrying the film with the strength of Atlas, Redford plays “Our Man,” a recreational yachtsman who is both a savvy sailor and a strong improviser. On a solo cruise afloat the Indian Ocean, disaster strikes: there’s a gaping hole in the hull of the Virginia Jean, which has collided with a floating shipping container (possibly a dig at globalization, given the contents inside). Our Man gets that sinking feeling as his living quarters take on major amounts of water, and the film charts its course from there. Before that, however, we’re treated to All is Lost’s first of only two instances of dialogue: opening the film from black, Redford’s tired voice plays over images of that blasted shipping container, his somber tone in tune with a letter of spiritual surrender. The meaning of the film’s title is self-evident—at this point, all has been truly lost—but we flash back eight days earlier as things begin to go wrong.

Early skepticism surrounding All is Lost boiled down to “how are they going to fill a feature-length film with no dialogue and only one actor?” to which the film replies, “by showing everything this protagonist endures in precise detail.” Indeed, if there is a connection between All is Lost and Margin Call, it’s that Chandor has written another procedural, wanting us to see events with meticulous attention instead of elliptical editing or any other chronological distortion. This is a style commonly associated with extraneous footage, but Chandor’s microscopic focus is the key to propelling the film’s eight-day ordeal. Like a Macgyver of the sea, Redford’s character never stops handling crises; his damaged boat a constant struggle against treacherous weather and churning water. He moves from problem to problem with remarkable calm, fixing issues as they arise with nautical ingenuity and the unflappable will to survive. Whether it’s procuring fresh water or salvaging the last of his supplies, everything Our Man does is given ample screen time, and it’s riveting.

All is Lost is less concerned with what this story is “about”  and more with how it all goes down (to be sure, the picture could be summarized in a single sentence). Rather, the actions and subsequent emotions are the narrative here; the expressions on Redford’s face speaking volumes despite the film’s outright lack of dialogue (though a perfectly-timed F-bomb wreaks havoc in the second half of the film). The only thing we don’t see is Our Man’s dreams, hinting that when he shuts his eyes, his thoughts are empty and alone—a reading in sync with the film’s overall feeling of desperation and linear editing.

The passion on display from both Chandor and Redford is palpable, the 76-year-old Sundance founder ignoring his age to deliver some of the best physical acting in his storied career. Also excellent is the sound design and Alex Ebert’s swelling score: the former textured with creaks, booms, and other noises of foreboding dread, the latter cresting at just the right moments. Notable, too, is the adroit, nimble cinematography, which captures the interiors without feeling cramped and the exteriors with artistic respect to the elements.

Do we know how the film will end? Sure: if you think about it, there are only two real options for a ship-wreck story to play out. But Redford’s lead performance is so nuanced in its emotional range that the film never capsizes from expected beats or cliché, and it’s most certainly not Cast Away or Life of Pi. Against the tides, All is Lost somehow exists as its own breed of survival narrative; one with silent reverence to nature and an adherence to the small-scale that results in overwhelming grandeur.

Cannes Competition Review: Only God Forgives

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Conked out on Quaaludes and projecting colors at the screen in lieu of a legitimate narrative, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is nothing like the sensation that was Drive—and while it’s not fair to expect a sequel of that film, audiences anticipating Refn’s latest as something similarly electrifying (as online clips have hinted) are in for a severe disappointment. Embracing style over substance (often Refn’s go-to, emphasized here to a fault), the Ryan Gosling gong-show the film could have been is instead tedious; filled with thousand-yard stares, macho-man gesturing, and comatose blocking.

If there is a plot to Only God Forgives, it is essentially the nastiest highlights of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” and Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” wrapped around a revenge dance tête-à-tête, an equation that could have been more than the gratuitous, hyper-violent indulgence on show. Nevertheless: when Julian’s brother is killed, a chain reaction of subsequent slayings begins with the ruthless Chang, an ex-cop known as the Angel of Vengeance (Vithaya Pansringarm). In the middle of this is Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who flies to Bangkok to claim the body of her dead son and coerce Julian (Gosling) into doing something about the situation.

One of the film’s more lamentable tragedies is the pacing, and the film’s positively glacial speed is due to the way Refn’s characters walk, talk and stalk. These characters are androids on the fritz; their movement jerky and slow as if everyone wore ankle weights to train for the shoot and forgot to take them off. Ryan Gosling’s Julian is particularly ridiculous, his deer-in-headlights character standing in doorways and looking blankly down hallways with little to do and nothing to say (Gosling has fewer than 20 lines). Post-Drive, Julian is approaching a sort of Gosling parody, and it’s depressing to think Only God Forgives may retroactively spoil memories of The Driver.

Composer Cliff Martinez, back with Refn after his head-bobbing Drive contribution, does a suitable job instilling the film with a soundtrack that features the requisite ambience and downbeat thumpers you’d predict. And while there’s no stand-out track here like Kavinsky’s “Nightcall,”  there are some karaoke performances by Chang that may prove memorable. For better or for worse, though, the music is not much of a factor here, despite that being one of Drive’s strongest selling points.

There are two distinctly excellent aspects to Only God Forgives, but neither is given the prominence needed to propel the film to greatness. The first is Kristin Scott Thomas, here uncensored and spewing just the filthiest things Refn could write; the other is Refn’s mise-en-scène, his backdrops consistently artistic and screensaver cool (a dragon-inspired lattice lit with crimson is one of the film’s more striking images). Likely due to his claimed color-blindness, Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut) imbue the film with a blue-and-red contrast palette that feels like old school 3D, setting the stage nicely with a slick and neon chill. (But seriously, can’t someone turn on a light or something?)

But the consistent visual effectiveness of Refn’s backgrounds is part of the reason why Only God Forgives is so disappointing: the action doesn’t match the drapes. Scott Thomas’ dialogue is somehow far more outrageous than the actual violence, which is relatively tame and one of the film’s more overt failures. If these characters weren’t reduced to abstract forms of emotion, it’d be another thing; as it stands, it’s hard to be shocked by fake violence enacted upon robotic human shells. Scott Thomas aside (her role is a uniquely terrific one), the performances here are devoid of anything human; rather, they are pawns moving in slow motion to emphasize the film’s general expressionism (working, perhaps, for fans of Refn’s earlier filmography). Sure, people in this film bleed and bleed—Refn drops a bomb on the cast—but it’s not because it’s a movie that we know the violence isn’t real. It’s not real because we aren’t given anything other than lifeless characters in an immobile stage play—a juvenile reading of Greek tragedy—for the damage to be dealt effectively.

Cannes Competition Review: Behind The Candelabra

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

“Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

Resembling the face of Liberace himself, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra is a dazzling albeit saggy film, made competently and with sincere respect to its topic despite losing steam in its second hour. Had this not been Soderbergh’s purported swan song, it’s unclear if Candelabra would normally be required viewing; nevertheless, the picture is entertaining and altogether a safe bet, debuting next week on HBO in the U. S. May 26. (The statistics on who watches will make for a very interesting post-mortem.)

Adapting Scott Thorson’s 1988 memoir “Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace,” Soderbergh rejoins frequent collaborators Matt Damon and Michael Douglas to dramatize the affair between Liberace (Douglas) and his substantially younger lover (Damon). The film drops at a time when same-sex marriage debates are turning into real results, with twelve states having extended marriage laws (and the inherent legal benefits) to include gay and lesbian couples. In that way, Behind the Candelabra is certainly relevant; exacting the reality of what happens to relationships—straight or otherwise—if the proper paperwork isn’t signed or agreed upon. The film also wrestles with the idea that things would be different had Liberace and Thorson met today, but Soderbergh likely could have said more here; using his critical authority visible in his recent “State of Cinema” keynote speech to advance the politics further would have been welcome.

Audiences will boot up Candelabra expecting a film about Liberace, but this is really Scott Thorson’s story and specifically Matt Damon’s chance to shine. It’s easy to focus on Douglas’ performance as Liberace and extol it as the film’s biggest showcase, but Soderbergh gives Damon the opportunity to play and experiment: Thorson’s emotional barometer wavers far more than Liberace’s does. Damon’s wide-ranging performance aims high and succeeds, digging deep and going for broke in the film’s more desperate scenes. So while Douglas embodies Liberace with indisputable skill and showmanship, the picture trains not on the star-studded spotlight but immediately outside of it, keeping Thorson’s perspective front and center at all times (not unlike 2011’s My Week with Marilyn). Supporting the pair is Rob Lowe as a squinting plastic surgeon, his inert facial expressions stealing the show with big laughs.

Like Brokeback Mountain before it, the film should put another dent in society’s homophobia, which seems partly the reason why Soderbergh wanted to make this picture (eventually taking it to HBO because of Hollywood rejection). Commendable. It’s certainly an engaging story (and sold perfectly by Damon and Douglas), but things run out of steam by the second half, the relationship becoming too by-the-numbers to engage like the first hour does. The cycle of Liberace’s lovers—Adonises on a conveyor belt in-and-out the door—is touched upon, working to underline a clinching jealousy that Damon channels so well in the spacious run-time. But because of the lagging pace, Behind the Candelabra is not a great movie but a competent Soderbergh picture; existing as most competent Soderbergh pictures do in his filmography (and there are a lot of them). While the nostalgic set pieces and character performances are indelible, the film’s stretched thin to diminishing returns, proving too much of a good thing isn’t all that wonderful—just a little flat.

Cannes Competition Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

The songs, the laughs, the emotions, the cat—it’s easy to summarize the newest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, but the picture’s many layers cement it as something so much more. The take-home message: this is a superb film; easily the finest to debut at Cannes thus far. Going further down the line, it’s also a Coen brothers best, sure to upend fans’ established list of favorites.

Based loosely on the Dave Van Ronk memoir “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” the story dramatizes the New York City folk scene in winter 1961, following the off-kilter Odyssey of singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). The frosted, muted backdrops are captured by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Amélie,” “Dark Shadows”), who steeps the film in faded bloom. It’s a gorgeous, misty visualization sure to instill nostalgia for those too young to have haunted locales like the Caffe Reggio or the Gaslight Café. As for Oscar Isaac’s performance, it’s hard not to simply babble superlatives.

Similar to Van Ronk, Llewyn Davis is the also-ran of folk music: he’s the bridesmaid, never the bride; the talented-but-unsuccessful minstrel just trying to catch a break. In his world is Jean (Carey Mulligan, a brief, wonderful role that reveals a comedic prowess), his now-bitter romantic interlude from the past, while Justin Timberlake plays Jim, Jean’s husband and singing partner. Just two of the many supporting roles to later dissect, Jim and Jean play a larger role in Llewyn’s trajectory: Jean is pregnant (and we’re not sure who’s the father), while Jim invites Llewyn to sing on a new track, the immensely enjoyable “Please Mr. Kennedy” (but as he opts for cash-in-hand, Llewyn won’t be getting royalties if it’s a novelty hit).

 

Rather than dwell on these wrinkles—these caveated boons—the Coens only touch upon them; including them to draw a larger picture of Llewyn Davis without forcing sympathy from the audience. As it stands, it’s abundantly clear Llewyn is unable to play the long game in any capacity, living always in the here-and-now. His plight is one that we care about, but the Coens’ grounded treatment of things reminds us that Davis is partly the author of his own misfortune. As Jean says to Llewyn, “Everything you touch turns to shit. You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother.”

Living paycheck to paycheck and couch-surfing every night, Davis wakes up one morning with his host’s ginger cat in his face, a playful little guy who follows him out the (now-locked) door. Despite some of his shaggier exploits, deep down Llewyn is a decent guy and certainly not one to abandon a cat outside of its apartment. He takes the cat with him, unable to immediately get him back to its owners. Named “Ulysses,” the cat leads our drifting singer through snowy New York, later tagging along for an impromptu jaunt to Chicago.

If the success of YouTube is any proof, cats are a winning addition to most anything—but Ulysses is a special animal, his name a nod to both Homer and O Brother, Where Art Thou?  He’s the perfect catalyst (sorry) for a movie like Inside Llewyn Davis to begin, as the animal shares a lot in common with our protagonist, hardly anything tethering them to a single spot in the world. To be sure, Ulysses steals the show—but he also remains one of the only sincere connections Llewyn has. When their paths eventually diverge, the Coens leave us with a tender moment of subtle genius.

The film’s road trip between New York and Chicago is an engaging and out-of-the-way loop, but it resembles the way Llewyn traverses life through cycles. The trip is focused on Llewyn playing for music producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), who may be the figurative golden ticket for him to escape the spiral of casual gigging. Sadly, Grossman’s not buying: “I don’t see a lot of money in this,” he says after Llewyn delivers one of his finest folk tunes.

That’s a line sure to leap to the top of all-time Coen quips, but Grossman’s conclusion ties into the film’s historical relevance, because we know Bob Dylan blew the doors open for folk music. The Coens make sure to capitalize: the stunning final scene exists as their interpretation on that fabled winter’s night, when a reporter from The New York Times went to a show at the Gaslight Café. Who will be mentioned in the eventual write-up? Given the reality of who emerged from the folk scene still intact, it’s a scene destined to be played back over and over again by those who wish to crawl inside the screen and never leave its fleeting glory.

Finally, the songs: a film about music better make sure the aural experience works, but worry not: peppered throughout this journey are folk classics arranged by musician-producer T-Bone Burnett, winner of the 2010 Best Original Song Oscar for Crazy Heart’s “The Weary Kind.” Inside Llewyn Davis’ finest quality is the authenticity of the music; it flows from the mouth and fingers of Oscar Isaac without any noticeable enhancement or movie magic, his fellow cast-members (Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, Carey Mulligan) playing beside him with equally harmonious skill.