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Sundance Review: THE BRONZE

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

It was unreasonable to expect the opening night U. S. Dramatic film would play as well as 2014’s electric Whiplash for a curtain-raiser to Sundance. Still, the festival has begun, and there are already titles buzzing with “must-see” status (having been turned away from The Witch this morning, which is receiving rave twitter reviews, I am already playing catch-up).

Still, there are some thematic similarities between that film and this year’s regrettable opener, The Bronze, a film that is centered around wanting to be the very best at something – or at least remembered appropriately for it.

Written by Melissa and Winston Rauch and directed by Bryan Buckley, The Bronze is a clichéd and predictable sports-competition film that you’ve seen a million times: from Bring It On to Air Bud, this film follows beat-for-beat the narrative of training for an important competition, and it’s up to the denouement to see if our protagonists come out on top.

But what’s different here from most sports films is the script and writing tone, which is an obnoxious filth-fest and a poor Diablo Cody imitation (think Young Adult, but while snorting an accelerant). Co-writer Melissa Rauch plays Hope Ann Greggory, a has-been bronze-medal gymnast clinging to her former glory in a small town still willing to celebrate her ten years later. Hope steals, she swears, she offends, she goes on detailed and painfully specific rants about … taints. She punches her protective and concerned father (Gary Cole) in the face. She needs a job, and she’s predictably offered one in the form of the redemption trope: train an up-and-coming younger, cuter gymnast to compete in a world-class event, and will Hope be able to restrain her explosive, caustic personality in the process? Will she find true love in her awkward co-trainer (“Silicon Valley”‘s Thomas Middleditch)?

I’ve never been a huge fan of Diablo Cody, so those who are may enjoy this knock-off piece of priss. But Cody’s work is at least nuanced, and narratively The Bronze is just all very obvious. And while playing to a successful formula will net a film decent points with a broad audience, if the jokes aren’t funny – or they simply come across as irritating, like so many of these cloying, in-your-face one-liners – then this movie sorely botches the dismount as a festival opener.

Six Films To Watch At Sundance

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Sundance 2014 was one of the most exciting film events in recent memory, and of the festival circuit I attend—which annually includes Cannes and TIFF—many of the films Sundancers saw a year ago are still largely in the conversation today. And that’s not just because of Boyhood: last January I saw a number of films that ultimately made my top ten or twenty of 2014, including Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, The Overnighters, Love is Strange, The Voices, Whiplash, What We Do In The Shadows, Appropriate Behavior

I could go on. Attending Sundance this year means personally jumping through a lot of difficult hoops to make it happen, but this festival is becoming legendary—2014’s iteration eclipsed both Cannes and TIFF combined—and I simply couldn’t skip this year.

Here are just six enticing movies that I am both eager to see, and to see how they play out:

The Witch US Dramatic

“New England in the 1630s: William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life with five children, homesteading on the edge of an impassable wilderness. When their newborn son vanishes and crops fail, the family turns on one another. Beyond their worst fears, a supernatural evil lurks in the nearby wood.”

What a simple yet incredibly effective title, shortened from its original: The Witch of New Canaan Woode. Buzz from Sundance brass (namely John Cooper) on this title is shit-hot, especially as it sounds both excellently eerie and dramatically nuanced. It’s not in Sundance’s Midnight category, which means it’s probably more the latter than the former, but it still sounds pretty wild—especially since, well, when did you last see an indie film based in the 1630s? Written and directed by Robert Eggers.

Station to Station New Frontier Films

“A high-speed road trip through modern ideas, the formally innovative film Station to Station is composed of 61 individual one-minute films that feature profiles shot before, during, and after the trip, and capture indelible moments of the journey such as Beck performing with a gospel choir in the Mojave desert.”

People all over the world, join hands: Doug Aitken started a love train. Station to Station sounds like the perfect film for an artistically-inspired festival like Sundance, an event which celebrates that Bohemian commitment to always chasing fresh ideas. Rocking and rolling across the United States with creativity in every caboose, Aitken invites artists, musicians, filmmakers, poets, writers, and storytellers aboard an LED-adorned locomotive to create 61 one-minute short films, linked together with the momentum of a train travelling from the Atlantic to the Pacific. At just over an hour, it sounds perfect.

The Wolfpack US Documentary

“Locked away from society in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Angulo brothers learn about the outside world through the films that they watch. Nicknamed the Wolfpack, the brothers spend their childhood re-enacting their favorite films using elaborate homemade props and costumes.”

I’m just going with the hype on this one, because from the program notes alone this film sounds nuts. Aside from the really interesting irony that director Crystal Moselle has created a film about a family who re-enacts films, the idea that there’s some sort of real-life Dogtooth scenario happening in… Manhattan? Yeah, that seems way too bizarre to not investigate further.

Take Me To The River NEXT

“Ryder, an artsy teenager, travels from California with his parents, Don and Cindy, for a family reunion in Nebraska. Upon their arrival, Ryder’s impish nine-year-old cousin, Molly, leads him to a barn to show him a bird’s nest. What happens behind barn doors makes Ryder the sudden target of suspicion and unearths a long-buried family secret.”

Over the past few years, Sundance’s NEXT program has been really successful in broaching evocative perspectives and presenting new voices, and Matt Sobel’s debut feature—a part of this special section—looks to have that sort of vibe from another Sundance hit, Martha Marcy May Marlene. While they’re assuredly different, Take Me To The River should surprise with its look at disturbing family dynamics, beautiful on-location photography, and a brooding tension that is invoked by breakout performances—both by Logan Miller (Ryder) and Ursula Parker (Molly), who as we know from Louis CK’s “Louie” is a seriously talented child actress. It’s the kind of film that sounds like it could really swing for the fences in its thematic ambiguity, and I’m hoping its inclusion in the NEXT program means that is does.

The Nightmare Park City at Midnight

“Following his exploration on the deep effects of cinema in his feature Room 237, director Rodney Ascher now investigates the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. In this documentary-horror film, we experience the terror that a surprisingly large number of people suffer when they find themselves trapped between the sleeping and waking worlds every night.”

Room 237 was something else, and I really dig that Sundance didn’t describe Rodney Ascher’s previous documentary as the film about The Shining. It is, but it’s kind of not. It’s a study of cinematic obsession, which in itself can be frightening—especially given how far some fanatics can go. Ramping up the fear factor, The Nightmare is currently my number-one to see at Sundance. Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis? It happened to me maybe six months ago. I could hear someone moving my stuff in my room and pushing around my really squeaky chair beside my bed, but I was unable to open my eyes and see who—or what—was fucking with me. That feeling of helplessness vulnerability was shit-your-pants terrifying. (These types of hallucinations are associated with sleep paralysis, I promise.) Either way, I’m there.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl US Dramatic

“Minnie Goetze is a 15-year-old aspiring comic-book artist, coming of age in the haze of the 1970s in San Francisco. Insatiably curious about the world around her, Minnie is a pretty typical teenage girl. Oh, except that she’s sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend.”

2014 was a year for movies about boys, men, boys-to-men, and man-boys. While I’m not necessarily complaining, I’m pretty eager to see something that takes us far away from that, and the possible arrival of a striking new lead in Bel Powley (Minnie)—in a film set in the wavy days of 1970’s San Fran—sounds like just the antidote. I can’t put my finger on why this film sounds as good as it does, but its inclusion of Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård definitely helps. Written and directed by debut filmmaker and actress Marielle Heller, based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.

The Torontonian reviews This Is Where I Leave You

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Like a middling episode of House-Arrested Development, Shawn Levy’s This Is Where I Leave You—adapted from the Jonathan Tropper novel of the same name—is a dysfunctional family dramedy lacking in laughs and an emotional punch to really bring it home. The film gets by on its likable cast, but the fact that this film merely passes despite such a talented crop of comedic talent should speak to a general failure, or at least a sense of disappointment.

Starring as Judd Altman (the surname not a nod to the iconoclast director), Jason Bateman here more or less reprises earlier iterations of Michael Bluth, the straight-man glue that holds his clan together. He’s been good at this character for years, and while I’m beginning to think he’s now typecast as such, Bateman’s focal point leads are usually strong. This film is no exception.

But this is an ensemble comedy, so acting beside Bateman are Tina Fey (sister), Adam Driver, Corey Stoll (brothers), Jane Fonda (mother), Rose Byrne, and Timothy Olyphant (external love interests). Following the death of their father, the Altman family is finally reunited under the same roof to sit Shiva, a seven-day ordeal that raises tensions and blood pressures for everyone involved. It’s an inoffensive premise that you’ve seen before and will continue to see again.

There are a few other actors here (Kathryn Hahn plays Stoll’s flighty wife), but in terms of talent squandered, there’s no flaw more glaring than underwriting a Tina Fey character. Fey’s turn in This Is Where I Leave You as a grinning alcoholic is, sorry to say, lamentably dull. Ben Schwartz steals what little show there is as “Boner,” the hip-with-it rabbi who despises his nickname the Altmans gave him in the past. It’s fun to see Jane Fonda’s matriarch get some laughs with her new “bionic” breast implants, but it’s a bit juvenile and attributes to the film’s overall tonal unevenness. Case in point: to relieve its half-hearted attempt at tackling serious family drama, this is a film where a running joke includes a toddler who loves to carry his potty around in the darnedest places and most inopportune times.

The kernels of sadder, more depressing family problems are all here—pecking-order in-fighting, the inability to have children, alcoholism, superiority complexes—but they’re all tinged with a wink and tongue-in-cheek asides, so it’s hard to really feel compelled to care. It’s odd, because this film isn’t funny but it’s not dreadfully unfunny, so we’re left in this shrug-worthy state of: yup, it’s harmless and watchable, which is true of many Shawn Levy films.

The Torontonian reviews It Follows

Friday, September 12th, 2014

f9e3029b8cade0793e6c3d738ddfa8f2One of the most enjoyable aspects of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows—alongside its brilliant cinematography and chilling scares—is the inventive premise, which is as much to fun to describe as it is to watch (tell your friends about the “sexually-transmitted ghost” movie and watch their faces turn from disgusted to wildly amused).

Also appearing in The Guest, another Midnight Madness film at TIFF, Maika Monroe plays Jay, a girl living in Detroit suburbia with her friends and family. Jay’s a typical American girl that likes to go on dates to the movies, and the boy she’s currently seeing is the strong and silent type. They haven’t, well—y’know—yet, but after a bizarre detour and a casual dinner, they finally go somewhere private and get down to business.

Moments after having sex with this dude, Jay is introduced to the “rules” of It Follows: she’s now the target for a haunting spectre that can take many forms—an old woman, a naked girl, a lumbering giant—and will now relentlessly walk towards her until it sees her dead. If it kills her, it will then go up the chain and begin to haunt the person Jay most recently had sex with—in this case, the beau from earlier—making this movie a terrifying game of sexual hot potato. It’s an idea that’s high-concept and low-budget.

Other horror films have ghouls that are more agile than what stalks Jay in It Follows—or faster, for that matter—but Mitchell uses the slow-and-steady ghost premise to chilling effect. In one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, Mitchell sets his camera on a panoramic 360-degree tripod and spins around the hallways of a school as Jay rifles through some yearbook archives to find out who it actually is she just had sex with (her mysterious suitor was not who he said he was, it seems). As the camera repeatedly cycles around, we through a window both a field teeming with people and a hallway with students, but is the ghost outside or in the school? Because Mitchell opts for master shots in establishing his environments, there’s a lot of fun in trying to spot the apparition in his backgrounds, and this scene is one of the creepiest examples of this approach.

In terms of character motivations and oh-my-god-you-know-that’s-a-bad-idea, sure—there are a number of genre clichés and plot holes here, but the film is far too pretty to look at for those things to really matter (and yes, Mitchell answers the glaring question of “why don’t they just hire a prostitute?”). With excellently eerie lighting and an adherence to wide angles, we get a great sense of how even open areas like a park or a beach can remain claustrophobic—especially when you always have to look over your shoulder. There’s also a synth-heavy score by Disasterpeace that adds a thumping presence of dread behind every sequence, and the result is something original and really frightening.



The Torontonian reviews Good Kill

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Based on actual events and unapologetically anti-war, Andrew Nicoll’s Good Kill is an effective if slightly overlong look at the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as military lightning strikes and the psychological toll the violence takes on the men and women who “pilot” them, especially as the drone program evolves into something they never signed up for.

Continuing with what will likely be the biggest year of his career, Ethan Hawke plays Major Tommy Egan, a booze-chugging veteran who has seen multiple tours of combat but finds himself in the middle of his third drone tour. That means he spends a lot of time in an air-conditioned trailer on a military base in Nevada, Starbucks in hand, piloting a drone that is 7000 miles away, which is about as detached from the dangers of war as you can concievably get. But the real world impacts of his missiles are rending flesh and blood, and the film opens with Egan’s eye flitting back and forth as he looks for his latest target. His partner lasers the impact zone, Egan fires the trigger, and moments later—halfway across the world in a remote location in Afghanistan—hellfire rains down upon a supposed terrorist.

Egan, like godly Zeus, throws bolts from the blue. “Good kill,” he confirms, scanning the desolation.

Desensitized from the violence yet nonetheless damaged by his job, Egan’s life at home is turbulent, and his loyal wife (January Jones) feels like her husband is more vacant than he was when he was actually overseas. “Does he ever get mad?” a friend asks, watching Egan barbecue mutely after coming home from wiping six Taliban from the face of the earth. “When he gets mad, he only gets more quiet,” his wife says. The film unravels this now-broken marriage to middling effect.

Written by Nicoll and riddled with all the appropriate military jargon like “rules of engagement” and “painting the target,” his script compliments the disconnected horrors of these drone strikes by underlining the ironies of this cyclical, cynical conflict. Lines like “I’ve been a pilot before Pontius” keep us engaged throughout the film’s terrible everyday scenarios, like when Egan and company witness a local Afghan—not related to the Taliban or listed in any of their intel—repeatedly rape and beat a woman. Though they’re able to eliminate the rapist in a split second with a missile right between his eyes, Egan’s commander (played by Bruce Greenwood) says: “he’s a bad guy, but he’s not our bad guy.”

The film takes an uncomfortable turn when the CIA takes control of the drone program, requesting target strikes that continue to feel more and more unjust. “Sir, was that a war crime?” Egan’s morally-sober assistant Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) whimpers at one point. A monotonous voice in the form of a speakerphone—referred to only as Langley—requests orders that leave the drone pilots questioning everything about their job. Later, Egan refrains from uttering “good kill” after his strikes entirely.

This is the kind of movie you’d only watch once, given its heavyhandedness. That said, when Bruce Greenwood states that drone piloting “isn’t goddamn Playstation” to a horde of new recruits, you know the film is touching on some murky, real-world gray areas about the future of warfare. Except the future of warfare is actually the here-and-now of warfare, and Nicoll’s film assists in a layman understanding of the program (along with Wikileaks footage you may have seen). Egan’s failing marriage may be a lackluster B-story, but Ethan Hawke’s characteristically strong performance as a emotionally distanced drone pilot is worth your attention.

The Torontonian Reviews Sunshine Superman

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

sunshine supermanThere’s a range of buzzed-about nonfiction films at TIFF this year, but after asking the documentary programmers about their personal favorites in the selection, I was directed towards Sunshine Superman, Marah Strauch’s documentary debut that follows the life and times of gregarious BASE jumper Carl Boenish (“rhymes with Danish”). Before his untimely death in 1984, Boenish was a founding father of jumping from things he probably shouldn’t be—including Troll Wall in Norway, the craggy mountain that would eventually kill him—yet this tragedy only bolsters the film as an engaging love-letter to living life to the extreme.

BASE jumping—or building, antenna, span and Earth jumping—wasn’t a thing before Carl Boenish appeared, but because of him it’s now the liberating (read: insane) act of parachute-controlled freefall that was never really regulated or understood by the authorities as anything other than a liability. That includes park rangers who keep watch on El Capitan, the massive cliff in Yosemite Valley that Boenish and his fellow freefallers in the 1970s routinely scaled and flung themselves from, despite the fact that it was illegal. Detaining them wasn’t exactly going to stop them (let’s face it: if they’re jumping off cliffs, they’re not exactly too worried about a slap on the wrist), so Boenish organized a charge to make compromises with government officials with a cheerful attitude and his goofy, never-ending smile. In short, he caught more flies with honey, and it made him a natural figurehead for the activity.

Because Boenish was an avid cinematographer himself, Strauch has a wealth of spools from Boenish’s personal archive, which often includes the freefalling perspective of Boenish’s helmet-mounted camera. Much of it is exhilarating: taking to the skies and filming from great heights alleviates any potential talking head syndromes other documentaries suffer from, and the title of the film feels wholly appropriate. There are also flashes of Gimme Shelter here; Strauch includes footage of Boenish reviewing his own film, commenting on and laughing about what he’s documented, and it adds to the film’s vibrancy and joie de vivre.

There are contemporary interviews from the people involved with Boenish, including his sunny wife Jean, who alongside Carl quickly became a spokesperson for BASE jumping as a way to express the capabilities of mankind’s curiosity and freedom. That theme—the idea that life is something to make the most of and death isn’t something to be afraid of—is touched upon to compelling effect here, as the film ultimately culminates in the 1984 accident that claimed Carl Boenish’s life. Strauch catches up with Jean decades later to reflect on her late husband, and her sentiments aren’t that she regrets Carl jumped from something he knew was a poor idea. Rather, Jean extolls the virtues of Carl’s ambitions, and closes the film with a speech that reiterates the saying that no one leaves this mortal coil alive.


The Torontonian Reviews NIGHTCRAWLER

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

d5af7aba5d2a53a20c3e5aeca8e25192Currently my favourite film at TIFF, Nightcrawler is so refreshingly original that it’s surprising to see it’s also screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut. But it is, and that’s fantastic, because the film goes places and takes risks I wish were more common in North American cinema. The result is a memorable, even great first feature.

Finding himself in what feels like an especially twisted episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a sallow, greasy-haired sociopath who can’t find a job—or an unpaid internship, a frustration mined here for laughs—no matter how many employers he harangues with self-help psychobabble. Giving up on the idea of working for someone else and witnessing a brutal accident on the freeway, Lou is inspired to “nightcrawl,” which means combing the streets of Los Angeles for footage of crime scenes to sell to local news channels. It’s the type of work that another cameraman describes as a “flaming asshole of a job,” because who wants to shove a camera in the face of someone bleeding out in a crashed car?

Lou Bloom does! Or at least he doesn’t give a shit. That’s good news for us, because it’s morbidly riveting to see him snake inside active crime scenes to get footage of mangled bodies that the morning news is dying to showcase, paying top dollar for images of white-collar corpses. A character to remember, Lou is as enterprising as Howard Roark, as intense as Timothy Ferriss, and as batty as Cosmo Kramer. As he improves his craft and grows his business—Lou self-identifies as a “quick learner”—he takes on Rick (Riz Ahmed), an illiterate and homeless twentysomething who wants to get paid any way he can. Rick assists in the navigation and parks their car when they get to a crime scene, and seeing Lou in an employer capacity is wonderfully fucked-up.

Gilroy’s wife Rene Russo plays Linda, Lou’s cougar contact at the television station, and when she outlines what kind of footage she’s looking to purchase she reminds Lou that the newscast needs to resemble “a woman running down the street screaming her head off.” That means in terms of cable news, instilling fear in the viewers at home is paramount, and the critique of institutional racism and the maxim “if it bleeds, it leads” here is a bigger indictment on Los Angeles than David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, and Dan Gilroy has written something even more depraved than Bruce Wagner’s script for that movie. Nightcrawler is tastelessly sick in the best way possible, and Gyllenhaal is hilarious as a slimy creep with sunken eyes. (“I like to say that if you ever see me, you’re having the worst day of your life.”) There’s something to be said about the effectiveness of this movie’s tone: we don’t see very much action (the violence is mostly shown via its aftermath) and we don’t see any sex at all. But those cinematic pleasures are still found in Nightcrawler’s are-they-actually-going-there narrative and intense sexual tension, compliments of Gilroy’s excellent witty, cynical script.

The Torontonian reviews Eden

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

Mia Hansen-Løve’s fourth feature Eden, like some of the dullest and least distinctive electro tracks, is repetitive, noisy, and plays far too long. If there is a selling point to this film, it’s because outlets like BuzzFeed describe it as “the movie for the DJs who never quite became Daft Punk,” where Daft Punk is this ever-growing, ever-present phantom of success in the Parisian EDM scene but still show up to nightclubs to support their contemporary DJs. Sure enough, the buzz at TIFF is that Eden is the “Daft Punk” movie. It’s admittedly reductive to call it the “Daft Punk” movie in queues as the shorthand reference to what the film is about; Hansen-Løve is a name I respect more than that. But after seeing the film, though, I realize it’s the only salient thing. Case in point: I’m listening to 2001’s “Discovery” as I write this, and it’s the silver lining of the experience.

Beginning in the 1990s and stretching across 131 minutes to the current day, the film follows the inception and years-later failure of “Cheers,” a garage-house DJ act that for whatever reason are unable to tap into the success and formula that Daft Punk are enjoying simultaneously. Félix de Givry plays Paul, the front man of Cheers, and he’s more or less a loser. He can’t reliably pay rent, he’s addicted to cocaine, and his taste in women is lamentable. Greta Gerwig is in this movie for all of ten minutes, playing Paul’s first girlfriend who moves from Paris back to New York to move on with her career. Years later when Paul sees her again, she’s pregnant, in a healthy relationship, and lives in an enviable apartment, underlining the fact that Paul simply can’t—and didn’t—win as a DJ. Sure, he gets gigs, makes music, and attempts to uphold the image (buying graphic t-shirts is more important than groceries), but at a certain point his career as a DJ is untenable.

Kind of like this movie. It’s not terrible, and the film is briefly interesting when we see people in the scene who know Daft Punk whisper about their success in that astounding way witnessing the growth of legends first-hand can bring. Yet Eden is split into two parts, likely because of the screenplay’s origin as two separate movies. But when the film’s decent opening half ends, we’ve had more than enough scenes of dancing in loud nightclubs, scenes of snorting cocaine, scenes of high-tempered affairs, scenes of Paul’s mother lecturing him about his career, etcetera. Nevertheless Hansen-Løve double-dips and subjects us to “Lost in Music,” essentially an extended remix of the opening section, but with an update on the people from the 1990s and what they’re doing in the 2000s and beyond. This unnecessary second part is far too long and did absolutely nothing for me, other than the fact that this timespan covers Daft Punk’s discography up to “Random Access Memories,” which gives Hansen-Løve the opportunity to use some of their best tracks in just the right moment. I haven’t seen a film where “Veridis Quo” feels so poignant and well-timed.

But that’s Daft Punk. Daft Punk is like maple syrup or peanut butter; their music pairs well with pretty much anything, and I can’t say much else about Eden’s fleeting moments of cinematic paradise if they’re all related to the songs I know and love. Paul’s story is a series of cyclical non-events, but I suppose his life is more compelling when “Within” plays overhead (“I am lost, I can’t even remember my name / I’ve been for some time looking for someone, I need to know now / Please tell me who I am”). Sure, it’s inherently neat to see a movie that has actors playing Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter—watch them try to get into some night clubs!—but this isn’t enough to cover the film’s major issues: repetition, uninteresting protagonists, and a long-play B-side narrative that simply will not end.

Cannes 67 Wrap-Up

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

Cannes 67 – c’est fini.

After dozens of screenings, predictions, and an endless series of queue debates, we have a Palme d’Or.

Presented by a jury led by the inimitable Jane Campion (in terms of grace, eloquence, and the smile on her face, one of the best Presidents in recent memory), the film that receives the most prestigious prize in world cinema is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep.

In my May 6 snapshot of Turkish director Ceylan, I wrote: “Ceylan is essentially three for four in his Cannes career… do not be surprised if 2014 marks Turkey’s second Palme d’Or win, after Yılmaz Güney and Şerif Gören’s golden The Way (1982).”

Both before and after the film screened early in the Competition slate, it was the critical (and bookie) favorite to win the Palme.

Ceylan’s long-form style is unapologetically his own, despite it leaving some audiences cold (in the same snapshot a commenter snarked Ceylan is “a horrible, pretentious director”). I don’t begrudge folks for feeling outright alienated by the auteur’s lengthy films, but to claim they are without merit is certainly misguided.

Tuck yourself in for Winter Sleep, which clocks in at 196 minutes. It’s a reflective, deliberately-paced meditation that is choreographed much like a piece of theatre (which I mention because of the film’s relevant subtexts). The sets look and feel like stages. Shakespeare is referenced (in the dialogue—but then again, a major locale is the Hotel Othello). Boundaries are stretched. You may take an intermission (read: nap).

It’s a major winner, and one that was probably overdue (2011’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is pretty great). While it didn’t do as much for me as some of the other films in Competition, there’s still plenty for me to admire here. But that’s the beauty of subjectivity: one person’s masterpiece is another person’s walk-out (or conk-out). Moving on.

Meet your 2014 Grand Prix winner: one of the unsung gems this festival is the enigmatic and beguiling Le Meraviglie (The Wonders), directed by sophomore filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher, who debuted 2011’s Corpo Celeste in the Director’s Fortnight. People don’t typically jump from that program immediately to the Palme d’Or Competition with their follow-up film, so expectations were high for The Wonders.

Based on some autobiographical elements from Rohrwacher’s life (the film also stars her sister Alba), The Wonders looks at a rural family of beekeepers in the sun-kissed Umbrian countryside who join an artisanal produce contest that has echoes of ancient Etruscan agriculture—emphasis on the culture. “I cried at the end,” jury member Nicholas Winding Refn said at the awards ceremony. The film has a conclusion that will have you talking—possibly also mystified, but talking just the same.

On to the Jury Prize, or Prizes. There are two this year, as Xavier Dolan shares the stage with an absent Jean-Luc Godard for Mommy and Adieu au Langage 3D, respectively.

Québécois auteur Dolan, only 25, is just killing it. He’ll return to the Cannes stage soon enough—hell, maybe in 365 days from now (he’s that prolific)—and when he does, he’ll come gunning once again for that Palme, which his home country of Canada has never won. Mommy, his 2014 entry, was as passionate as it was mature and thoughtful. The film portrays a difficult relationship a son has with his mother, shot in an intriguing (yet justified) 1:1 aspect ratio. It’s quite good—in fact, press booed when it only won the Jury Prize. There are a lot of people where who thought it should have won the gold, and it’s very likely you will too.

Godard is much older than Dolan, yet seems more playful than him. To get a sense of what Goodbye to Language is like, please read my oh-so-scholarly article that pays homage to this wonderfully funny essay film. Earlier today Cannes was one of the only major film festivals that hadn’t yet given one of the original modern auteurs a prize, but his 2014 Jury Prize rectifies that. Not that Godard gives a damn, mind you. Goodbye to Language is Godard at his most eccentric, and it’s a lot of fun.

Best Director went to the always solid Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher, the handsome, brilliantly-acted nonfiction dramatization led by Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo. Many press here claim it’s an Oscar prizefighter in the making (does this mean the race has begun? Oh god), but MCN’s very own David Poland thinks otherwise. For my money, however: a strong movie, proficiently told.

Winner of the Best Script award is Andrey Zvyagintsev’s massive Leviathan, a picture that gets bigger and bigger the more I ruminate on it. Except that this year that title seems like a throwaway: the masterful direction and cinematography of Leviathan are far more salient than its dialogue, but I suppose I’m happy that it got recognized in one way or another. It’s a superb picture; ironic and complex, capturing some knockout performances.

Speaking of the players: the Best Actor prize went to Mr. Turner’s Timothy Spall for his portrayal of the master British painter JMW Turner, an award that seem clinched in the opening days of the entire festival. Working with director Mike Leigh over three decades and surviving leukemia in the process, Spall ends his “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” streak with a well-deserved honor.

Finally, my favorite surprise of the night: Julianne Moore, Best Actress. Her screen time in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is an energizing highlight of the film (she ultimately steals the show). She plays the rude and crude Havana Segrand, a fading Hollywood star haunted by her past as she attempts a return to the business. Smart money was on French favorite Marion Cotillard, tipped to win for her expectedly strong turn in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night, but Moore’s role was far more memorable.

As always, thank you for reading. It’s a pleasure to come to this event and it’s a privilege to cover it.

À la prochaine!



Friday, May 23rd, 2014



That is a pun


Cannes Film Festival


Can film

Can film actually festival?


Godard was not present

To present his present film essay

Which I would call a present

Where am I going with this?

Here’s a .gif I made

adieu oh langage

The film is in 3D

There’s a dog also

3D dog’s life

Dog’s breakfast 3D

The dog is Godard’s dog

But it is our dog too. And there are people

The people are preoccupied with language

They talk a lot

The dog says nothing.


I like the dog the most

But yeah the people

One guy takes a dump with the door open

Also the dog takes a dump in the woods

I laughed at both of those moments.


The naked human body… in glorious 3D

Male gaze?

Female gaze?

There’s even a shower scene

Godard’s 3D Choose Your Own Adventure, where:

Closing an eye reveals more than both eyes open.


Things in 3D I’ve never seen before


Godard is more playful here

It is a very funny movie

As the French would say

C’est très drole


As the French would say



I internalized much of the experience

Though it is an essay film, I listened to myself instead

I wrote thoughts to myself quietly

I found more meaning in these moments than other films at this Festival

In that sense

Can film?

It Cannes

Godard didn’t Cannes

But he still Cannes.


Cannes Competition Review: Leviathan

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Leviathan a“Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? Or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?”
—Job 41:1

Returning to the Palme d’Or race after a brief segue in Un Certain Regard (where 2011’s Elena won the Jury Prize), Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is one of the finest, if not the finest film, in the 2014 Competition; other films may match it in terms of meaning, but the level of craftsmanship and the delicate form on display here is unrivaled. Described by its producer Alexander Rodnyansky as a “story of love and tragedy experienced by ordinary people,” Leviathan is one of the final titles here at Cannes 2014, and its utter immensity is proof that this Festival does indeed sometimes save the best for last.


The narrative—rapt in poignant beauty and steeped in true irony—is witnessed in the Euro-Arctic town of Kirovsk, a hilly, chilly locale exquisitely photographed by Mikhail Krichman, Zvyagintsev’s usual cinematographer. Penned by Zvyagintsev and regular writing partner Oleg Negin, the film was initially described as a contemporary retelling of the Book of Job (which certainly raised intrigue), but it’s simpler to dissect it as a story of one man’s Ahab-like struggle with broken family and municipal corruption. Set against the merciless Barents Sea, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) faces the loss of his house and business due to the shady practices of Vadim Sergeyich, the vodka-swilling, red-faced Gargantuan mayor who resorts to threats and violence to remain in power (with flashes of a certain crack-using Toronto politician). Trying his best to stay afloat, Kolya employs the help of Moscow lawyer Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to navigate the legal situation, and it’s the trust he places in him that begins the collapse of everything, his family included, that Kolya knew (though outlooks are similarly bleak for most in this representation of Kirovsk).

As Leviathan is Zvyagintsev’s biggest production to date, the film weighs in with a populated cast that is uncharacteristic of the director’s previous work. While it is a trick at the top of the film to get a handle on all the names and family members amidst the exchanges, each character eventually receives the treatment that hints at a number of engrossing tales written into this diegesis; Zvyagintsev presents a universe that is established with sublime restraint, and the storytelling of the supporting players strikes a balance that adds to the emotional impact of Kolya’s situation, rather than distract from or muddle it.

Leviathan BSpeaking of Kolya: many reports out of this Festival have extolled Timothy Spall’s acting in Mr. Turner (myself included), but Aleksey Serebryakov owns, by far, the most compelling male role in this entire Competition. There’s never a scene where Kolya doesn’t have a myriad of issues weighing on his mind, and these are visible in Serebryakov’s pained, tired facial expressions and believable portrayal of alcoholism (to be sure, Leviathan is boozier than two or three Hong Sang-soo films combined). While the entire cast is assuredly great, we see a major range in Serebryakov’s exploration of Kolya, and it’s a deeply affecting performance.

Finally, Zvyagintsev’s construction (and eventual deconstruction) of visual space is really quite astonishing. Both indoors and out Krichman employs dolly tracks that often follow a curved trajectory, allowing the camera to turn corners in domestic scenes or capture a wider shot of the imposing landscapes. At all times the film looks gorgeous, often haunting; whether it is the poetic image of a half-buried whale skeleton or the frigid hillsides of northwest Russia, there are scenes in this film that are simply incredible. One unforgettable example: tracking back-to-front the length of a courtroom during one of Kolya’s hearings, in a single take the camera slowly approaches a woman speed-reading legalese as fast as she can, done so to make a point about the confusing, whirlwind bureaucracy that laymen like Kolya have no chance in besting. It’s this kind of artistry that makes Leviathan such a giant: modest, accessible, yet deeply complex and expertly accomplished.


Cannes Un Certain Regard Review: Lost River

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Lost RiverIf Lost River is the film Ryan Gosling wanted to debut as his first film—and you only get one first film—then I’ll be the first to admit that I had him pegged (artistically speaking, anyway) as someone entirely different.

There are always one or two movies at Cannes that are prematurely tossed aside by critics immediately after the initial press screening, and it appears Gosling’s film is an example. It’s not the deepest picture at this festival by any stretch of the imagination—and it is self-indulgent to a fault—but this film is certainly an experience, albeit an avant-garde one; while I didn’t gain anything meaningful from the narrative aspect of Gosling’s fable, there’s no denying Lost River is primarily a strong visual offering, replete with striking compositions, arresting images, and a nuanced color palette.

One part urban fantasy, one part body horror “macabaret,” and two parts the hipster fringes of Instagram, Gosling’s film is a fairytale of sorts set in the ghostly ruins of Detroit. Billy (Christina Hendricks), single mother of two sons—a toddler named Franky and a teenager named Bones (Iain De Caestecker)—live in a house they can’t afford for much longer, and to make ends meet Billy begins working in a decadent sex club that offers a “bloody good time.” The family lives next to Rat (Saoirse Ronan), essentially a quiet, rodent-carrying manic pixie dream girl for Bones to admire; outside of this narrative bubble is the rampant anarchy spread by Bully (Matt Smith), the self-proclaimed king of town. Bully scours the nightscapes with his disfigured crony looking to bury Bones, and it’s a race to see who will end the other first.

Lost RIverIf you go into an avant-garde film expecting a cohesive narrative, there is little to do but remind yourself that this is experimental work and continue from there. Elliptical editing, filtered lighting, unusual camera angles—hell, even different modes of camerawork (Gosling takes a GoPro for a spin)—this is what you can look forward to (or dread) in Lost River, and it’s juxtaposed against a soundtrack that sounds similar to the atmospheric, thumping, generally crepuscular music the Chromatics did for Drive (but of course). Yes, Drive. And even Only God Forgives. These films come to mind not simply because of Gosling’s lead performances in them, but because of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s distinctively electric aesthetic that Gosling is certainly inspired by here. But countless filmmakers pay shameless homage to the auteurs they admire, so this is par for the course, and it’s critically inconsistent to criticize Gosling for doing so himself.

Lost River boasts some memorable pictures (burning buildings, sunken highway lamps, a faceless woman), and though they may have come from Gosling’s pen, these images owe much to cinematographer Benoît Debie, the lens-genius behind Spring Breakers and Enter the Void. The same is also applicable to production designer Beth Mickle (who also worked on Drive), and to his credit, Gosling lists their names and many more with massively-sized font flair at the top of the film. Lost River has a remarkably strong artistic department, so while the plot may be a little too metaphorical to mean much of anything (and remember, Gosling isn’t actually in the movie), this is an admirable outing—and an intriguing first feature—nonetheless. Hell, it’s better than anything James Franco’s ever churned out.


Cannes Review: The Salvation

Monday, May 19th, 2014

MadsMikkelsen__2__S_929301mKnown as a member of  Dogme 95, Danish director Kristian Levring (2000’s The King is Alive) returns to the Croisette with out-of-Competition title The Salvation, a film Levring calls a “tribute to the classic American Western.” And it is: Levring’s directorial repeater shoots at all the marks and repeatedly hits the bulls-eye, nailing the tone and tropes of the genre. It’s one of the slickest, most entertaining entries in recent memory.

The tagline for The Salvation: “bad men will bleed.” That’s a fairly basic, epitaph-sounding plot summary for films in the Western canon; here, it summarizes a revenge narrative that pits Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) against a posse of villains who are terrorizing the fictional town of Black Creek. Acting more with his eyes and less with his lines (not a criticism), Mikkelsen as quiet immigrant Jon recalls Viggo Mortensen’s Tom Stall in A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s 2005 portrayal of a man hoping to move on from his vicious past. As for The Salvation, the Great Dane’s Jon, an ex-soldier, is a gunslinger first and a family man second, and when tragedy befalls his wife and son, so begins the gritty elimination of the men responsible. Word gets to the odious outlaw Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) that Jon has killed his brother, and the scene is set for a showdown that is pitch-perfect from beginning to end.

It isn’t a Western without the West looking its very best, and Levring’s trusted cinematographer Jens Schlosser frames visually stunning images here. The film looks and feels remarkably like Monument Valley, where Black Creek is ostensibly set (with its looming sandstone buttes as the backdrop), yet the production was shot on location in South Africa—an accomplishment that reminds of The Salvation’s dead-on design. But of all the visual elements that make this a outstanding oater, most important is to mention that the color contrast here has been cranked way, way up: Sin City and other graphic novel reference points immediately come to mind, with deep grainy shadows and vivid reds boasting beautifully through the action. Surprisingly, these crimsons rarely come from blood and brains, and in terms of the gun violence there’s less gore than expected (oh, but there’s so many deaths). Rather, the costumes, environments, and lived-in sets are wet with glorious color, and this aesthetic richness works wonderfully for the homage pastiche Levring is going for.

Levring and his co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (who won an Oscar in 1999 for his short film Valgaften) make no bones about their revenge narrative. There’s a very minor subplot of the West’s history with oil and how that affects man’s inner greed, but it’s woven around 100 minutes of Winchester headshots, stagecoaches, and thousand-yard stares. This is an unpretentious, straight-up blast of frontier fighting, and while I wasn’t able to discern a bonafide Wilhelm scream, The Salvation does, of course, come complete with the requisite Searchers shot. Yeah, this film rocks.

Cannes Competition Review: Maps To The Stars

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

Mapstothestars“I infect my work with madness, then let it settle,” Bruce Wagner told LA Weekly in 2005 when his satirical Hollywood novel “Dead Stars” was released. “The story is infected by something, like in David Cronenberg’s films.”

As a screenwriter and a relatively prolific novelist, Wagner has built his career on taking shots at the ironies and hypocrisies of Hollywood and popular culture, and he continues to ply his trade in Maps to the Stars. Wagner’s searing script is sick,  twisted and also very funny, driving a knife deep into the ugly side of the entertainment industry and the Western world at large.

Enter Cronenberg.

The Baron of Blood’s ever-evolving canon is in the middle of his latest phase: discursive, cerebral, nihilistic cinema that has moved away from the body horror for which his earliest work was notorious. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s interesting to see masters explore different facets of their inspirations. Scholars already connect A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars as a sort of series, and it would be an appropriate link; if you hated Cosmopolis or found it cold and distant, there’s little reason for you to unfurl Maps to the Stars expecting something wholly different. That said, this is easily more entertaining than Cronenberg’s previous two features, as Wagner’s script is a work of brilliant cartography; this is a film where we watch Julianne Moore’s character take a dump and wipe her ass, simultaneously cracking jokes about all the pills she’s taking. (“I’m all blocked up from the Vicodin.”)

cusack map to the starsMaps to the Stars charts the stereotypically-Hollywood Weiss family, where mother (Olivia Williams), father (John Cusack), and child actor Benjie (Evan Bird) have cut their teeth on the serrated edge that is show business. For reasons we learn later, estranged Weiss daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) rejoins the family in Los Angeles after taking a personal assistant job under Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a wilting actress in denial, and supernatural chaos begins to ensue. Literal ghosts from the past are returning uninvited, and it’s almost Shakespearean (“Oh, my prophetic soul!”) to see them haunt these fame-obsessed, narcotic-addled characters, driving them to insanity.

Cronenberg is an outspoken proponent of the new digital era, and his perennial cinematographer Peter Suschitzky has done an excellent job in capturing the beauty of Los Angeles (and the exquisite interior design of LA mansions), despite the festering hideousness that lies beneath the city. His slow dollies capture the Cronenbergian creepshow perfectly.

Because Wagner’s script calls for actors to do and say depraved things with a straight face, the film couldn’t have been made—in this current form, anyway—without Cronenberg’s history of directing violence and dissecting the psycho-bizarre. Every player, especially Julianne Moore, surprises with their eagerness to go with the flow of debauchery. Mia Wasikowska is crazier here than she was in Stoker, and that’s saying something. Robert Pattinson, Cronenberg’s oddly appropriate muse, no longer needs to prove his authenticity as a proper actor. Finally, we need to see more of Evan Bird, witnessed here in his breakout role as a hilarious asshole narcissist. To be sure, Cronenberg’s navigation combined with Wagner’s pen (“it’s a fucking art film!”) make Maps to the Stars both a standout of Cannes 2014, and the best film the director has made since 2005.

Cannes Competition Review: Wild Tales

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

relatos_salvajesWhen Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux first brought Damián Szifrón’s Competition title Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales) to our attention, he described it as “very unique, personal and different cinema that should wake up the Croisette.”

While this may have been a cheeky joke (Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 196-minute Winter Sleep had screened just a day prior), Frémaux’s sentiments are accurate: lively and engaging, Wild Tales—a title that’s plural for good reason—is one of the most broadly funny films the Festival has programmed in Competition in recent memory, albeit a little uneven.

Argentine Szifrón, known for his career in comedy television, aims high with his biggest budget to date: Wild Tales intertwines six separate narratives, and the film is primarily successful in finding humor in its theme of ordinary people pushed to their limit. All of these stories include common banalities that grow into fantastic scenarios of violence and revenge, and as the film’s summary relates, these characters “cross the thin line that divides civilization from brutality.” The large ensemble cast that includes some of Argentina’s biggest actors—including Ricardo Darin, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Dario Grandinetti, and Erica Rivas—have fun with the material, and there’s not a dud amongst the performers. Szifrón’s bold use of color, too, fuels the energy in his multiple canvasses.

relatos_salvajes_1It would be unfair to explain each of these stories outright (going in blind is probably the best way to experience these vignettes), but the general consensus here at Cannes is that the film bats four for six. While your mileage may vary, at least two of these episodes (possibly more, possibly less) are too long, overstay their premise, or simply don’t get to the punchline on time; that said, all of these sketches are unique and most importantly creative, showing off Szifrón’s dark and cunning satire.

Pedro and Agustin Almodóvar’s El Deseo is a coproducer, appropriate because the campy, over-the-top comedy here is totally within Pedro’s purview. There’s also flashes of social commentary that are comparable to Larry David (and other comedians of the everyday frustration), but Szifrón’s background in crime comedy keeps things visceral, explosive, and surreal.

The film also features a great opening credits sequence. Staying in the theme of “wild,” each cast and crewmember receives a sort of “spirit animal” image that coincides with their title, with the Almodóvars as the proud lions and writer-director Szifrón as the sly fox. With the image of the fox in my head, I continued to imagine Szifrón’s creative process as such; slinking and winking with lots to say, but keeping cool while saying it. Wild Tales is distributed by Warner Bros. on home ground, and Sony Pictures Classics in the U.S. So while this should be a Spanish-language winner (and box-office grosser), the script’s ambitious creativity and the largely successful execution are auspicious signs for future projects.

Cannes Competition Review: The Captive

Friday, May 16th, 2014

TheFilmFarm_TheCaptive_2013_01Because this is the likely the first question on many minds, here’s the good news: Atom Egoyan’s The Captive has very little in common with Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, 2013’s $61-million-grossing kidnapping thriller that sounded similar on the page. Nope, it’s its own film.

The bad news: The Captive is yet another major misstep for Egoyan, who so desperately needed a successful debut here at Cannes following his just-released, poorly-received Devil’s Knot.

Flashing across a timeline of eight years, The Captive depicts the abduction of the young Cassandra (Alexia Fast) and the efforts made by her loose cannon father Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) and bitter mother Tina (Mireille Enos) to find her (the parallels to Prisoners end here). To add a bit of intrigue to the mix, Egoyan and co-writer David Fraser play with the chronology of their plot structure, moving back and forth from the kidnapping to the present-day aftermath, where Cassandra’s parents are still looking for her. Also in the present: the twisted pedophile Mika (Kevin Durand), who over eight years has established a strange and curious relationship with the now-teenaged Cassandra, locked in his basement. Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman play good cop, bad cop, respectively, in their hunt to end child pornography rings on the internet. Mika, obsessed with hidden cameras, films his subjects to entertain subscribers to his sick “reality” show.

The blurring of truth and fiction is a fairly standard theme throughout the director’s filmography, and much of Egoyan’s career is recalled in The Captive (even his recent attachment to Mozart finds a cinematic home here). In terms of narrative ambiguity, though, this frostbitten script has a blizzard of silly inconsistencies, like asking Scott Speedman’s cowboy detective to incessantly and needlessly question the motives of Matthew. Is Matthew lying, or was his daughter actually stolen from him? This is just one of the many failed attempts to artificially heighten The Captive’s tension, and when Matthew eventually pops Speedman’s character in the face for being so ceaselessly obnoxious, it’s as if the script is apologizing for allowing this character to waste so much screen time. Thematically, the title of the film doesn’t just apply to abducted Cassandra—these characters are all held captive by something, tangible or otherwise—but this idea was better explored in Prisoners, and here it is far too on the nose to work again.

It’s clear the film wants to obfuscate the truth (is it the past, or is it the present?) and fool us off the scent (how will these dozen loose ends be tied up?) but these mechanisms are unintentionally more confusing than they should be, because they rarely make a lick of sense. Obsessed with peppering in small details that aren’t at all necessary, the script features a myriad of minor characters, like an assistant detective who has the almost supernatural ability to piece together intricate images in his head (we see this for a single scene). Clichés abound: everyone has a dark past or a criminal record, background notes that are hinted at with expository dialogue that is the epitome of unsubtle.

The Captive isn’t dreadful. Reynolds can and does hold his own here—he’s the best thing about this film—and Enos is equally strong. A car chase late in the film is also well-choreographed, and Egoyan’s go-to cinematographer Paul Sarossy captures the snowy Niagara Falls backdrop effectively. Tapping into many of his previous tropes—voyeurism being one of the most prevalent in this film—Egoyan could have had a successful marriage of thriller intrigue and artistic complexity, but on the icy highways of this story, the screenwriting fishtails out of control and never regains it.

Cannes Competition Review: Mr. Turner

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

mr turner“I wanted to make a film about [J. M. W.] Turner, the personality,” director Mike Leigh said in a recent interview commissioned by the Tate Modern. And that is  what he did with Mr. Turner, writing and directing the second film in Competition at Cannes 2014, one that kicks off what will likely be a tight race for the festival’s Best Actor prize.

Joining Leigh for the sixth time is Timothy Spall as the beloved British artist, and as seen in 1996’s Secrets & Lies, the Spall/Leigh combination is a great one. Spall’s nuanced performance as the grunting, guttural Mr. Turner carries the film throughout its hefty, noticeable 149-minute running time. “He is so complex, and there’s so much of him to get your head around,” Leigh said of the painter, and his film is certainly a testament to that; the same is abundantly true for Spall’s ability to really tap into the character.

Looking at the final decades of Turner’s life, the film compresses a quarter-century of narrative  to create a portrait of the artist as complex as he truly was. A survey of the events: Turner paints, he travels, he loves, and he counsels with members of the Royal Academy of Arts (played to perfection by a cast of Leigh regulars, including Lesley Manville as Scottish polymath Mary Somerville). By his side is the pitiable Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), Turner’s housekeeper who is utterly ignored by the man despite loving him unrequitedly. Jumping late into his life, we see what makes the artist tick, what inspires him, and what eventually kills him. There’s also an interesting intersection between art and technology here, as the science of light and optics is introduced to the artist in the twilight of his years (a thoughtful scene depicting Turner’s first self-daguerreotype is just one example).

The film’s art department, and Leigh’s trusted cinematographer Dick Pope, are to be commended. The mise-en-scène and dramatic blocking of Mr. Turner are inarguably exquisite; the latter of which being typical of Leigh, whose  background in theatre is confidently called to play here. In populated scenes, we always see the faces of each actor in frame; their angles and positions relative to each other are classic to the stage but work brilliantly here, too. Long takes and deliberate dollies allow us to pore over what is definitively inspired set design, with many of the tableaux directly adapted from Turner’s catalog. It may take a trip to the Tate and a second viewing of the film to catch all of these visual references—some of them more obvious than others—but this homage is a subtle yet excellent use of the medium, and deepens the film thematically.

Though much of the film is immaculate, the sum total lacks an emotional weight to lift the biography off the canvas. A whining score and Turner’s grouchy disposition add to the difficulty to feel “moved” by his life’s events, of which there are a lot of. The artist is aging and that is a sad reality, but there’s nothing truly affecting about this inevitability; moreover, certain threads are harped on more than once, generally overstaying their welcome.

Turner’s relationship—or lack thereof—with his housekeeper is an exception, and I found myself more interested in this character than Turner himself. His sexually abusive behavior towards her leaves Hannah miserable and confused, and it’s one of the only emotionally compelling aspects to the entirety of this biography. Her character is a reminder that Mr. Turner is primarily a well-acted, well-shot dramatization of non-events, though that truth doesn’t necessarily detract from what remains an accomplished tribute to the painter of light’s mastery—or, for that matter, Spall’s proficient portrayal.

Countdown To Cannes: Mike Leigh

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

mr turnerThe last in a series of snapshots outlining the nineteen directors in the 67th Palme d’Or Competition.

Background: English; born Salford, Greater Manchester, England 1943.

Known for / style: Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), All or Nothing (2002), Vera Drake (2004), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), Another Year (2010); a playwright in addition to writing and directing films; improvised and / or organic approaches to character creation; unassuming realism; regularly and repeatedly working with some of the United Kingdom’s greatest actors; depicting London on film.

Mike leigh secrets and liesNotable accolades: Winner of the Palme d’Or in 1996 (Secrets & Lies), Leigh has been nominated for a total of seven Oscars (five times for his writing, two for directing). He’s won a handful of BAFTAs, a British Film Institute Fellowship, and also Best Director at Cannes (Naked, 1993). Also at Cannes are two Ecumenical Jury wins (Another Year, 2010 and Secrets & Lies). Leigh, who has been lauded by film societies the world over, also won Venice’s Golden Lion in 2004 for Vera Drake.

Film he’s bringing to Cannes: Mr. Turner, a biographical depiction of J.M.W. Turner, a British artist. Joining Leigh for a sixth time is Timothy Spall as the title protagonist, and the film looks at the “last quarter century of the great if eccentric” painter. From the Cannes program book: “Profoundly affected by the death of his father, loved by a housekeeper he takes for granted and occasionally exploits sexually, he forms a close relationship with a seaside landlady with whom he eventually lives incognito in Chelsea, where he dies. Throughout this, he travels, paints, stays with the country aristocracy, visits brothels, is a popular if anarchic member of the Royal Academy of Arts, has himself strapped to the mast of a ship so that he can paint a snowstorm, and is both celebrated and reviled by the public and by royalty.” Leigh’s again hired his go-to cinematographer Dick Pope to shoot the film. The cast is filled out with Dorothy Atkinson and frequent Leigh collaborators Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, and Ruth Sheen.

Could it win the Palme? Mike Leigh will be competing against his British realist contemporary Ken Loach—also a fellow Palme d’Or winner—and if either of these directors are to double-dip in gold, it’s Leigh. The cast is stacked with a host of classically trained actors and Leigh’s patient, sensitive approach to drama just might hold the ticket. Timothy Spall and Mike Leigh are also a golden combination at Cannes, with the Spall-led Secrets & Lies winning the Palme in 1996.

Why you should care: “I wanted to make a film about Turner, the personality,” Leigh said in a clip commissioned by the Tate Modern. “He is so complex, and there’s so much of him to get your head around. Turner was a compulsive artist. Turner had to paint, had to draw, all the time. It was an obsession.” What’s more, Leigh has also gone to lengths to recreate certain Turner paintings for the picture, with certain in-film tableaus inspired by real works from the artist’s catalogue.

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Previous Entries:
Tommy Lee Jones
Atom Egoyan
Bennett Miller
Xavier Dolan
David Cronenberg
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Naomi Kawase
Ken Loach
Michel Hazanavicius
Jean-Luc Godard
Bertrand Bonello
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Andrey Zvyagintsev
Abderrahmane Sissako
Alice Rohrwacher
Olivier Assayas
Damian Szifron

Countdown To Cannes: Damián Szifron

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

wild-talesThe penultimate in a series of snapshots outlining the nineteen directors in the 67th Palme d’Or Competition.

Background: Argentinean; born Ramos Mejía, Buenos Aires Province 1975.

Known for / style: El Fondo del Mar (English: The Bottom of the Sea) (2003), Tiempo de Valientes (English: On Probation) (2005), TV series Los simuladores (2006), TV series Hermanos y detectives (2009); writing and directing television series in addition to feature films; buddy-cop comedies that focus on crime and investigating criminality.

Notable accolades: Mainstream comedies don’t typically translate to art-house festival success, despite Szifrón’s impressive local box-office numbers. Still, San Sebastian honored him with a Horizons Award (special mention) in 2003 for The Bottom of the Sea, a film that also took the French Critics’ Discovery Award at the Toulous Latin America Film Festival. At the 2006 Peñíscola Comedy Film Festival, On Probation snagged Best Film and Best Director.

Film he’s bringing to Cannes: Relatos Salvajes (English: Wild Tales), an action-packed Spanish-language comedy thriller. Described by festival head Thierry Fremaux as “very unique, personal and different cinema that should wake up the Croisette,” the film is comprised of six stories and is Szifrón’s largest budget film to date (the film is distributed by Warner Bros.). From the official program guide: “Vulnerable before a reality that can suddenly be modified and become unpredictable, the characters cross the thin line that divides civilization from brutality. A story about love deception, the return of the past, a tragedy, or even the violence contained in an everyday detail, appear themselves to push them towards the abyss, into the undeniable pleasure of losing control.” The film stars Ricardo Darin (The Secret in Their Eyes) and other high-profile Argentinean actors (Rita Cortese, Oscar Martinez, Dario Grandinetti, and others). Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain) scored.

relatos_salvajesCould it win the Palme? Judging by the distributor (Warner), the trailer (which dropped summer 2013), and the fact that the film has a tagline (”all can lose control”), it’s safe to say this is primarily a commercial piece of cinema. While Wild Tales looks to be a more thoughtful picture (and there’s a place at Cannes for films that both excite and inspire), the most likely prize is something like the Prix du Scénario—not a Palme—if Szifrón’s multi-pronged narrative is strong. A directing nod would also seem appropriate, especially if each of his six stories are distinctly worthwhile.

Why you should care: Though it’s a Spanish co-production, this Argentinean film is the only South American work in Competition. Known primarily for his work in television, Szifrón’s latest film is certainly ambitious, given its budget, scope, and well-known cast. If Wild Tales is good—hell, if it does well internationally—his projects may simply continue to grow bigger and bigger.

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Olivier Assayas

Countdown To Cannes: Olivier Assayas

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-Photo-©-Carole-Béthuel_IMG_9419The sixteenth in a series of snapshots outlining the nineteen directors in the 67th Palme d’Or Competition.

Background: French; born Paris, France 1955.

olivier2Known for / style: Demonlover (2002), Clean (2004), Summer Hours (2008), Carlos (2010); accomplished film criticism in addition to screenwriting; a narrative filmography that includes a number of documentaries; a wide-ranging catalogue that ranges a spread of both genres and modes of storytelling; themes of youth and self-exploration; works that are steeped in autobiography; working with and writing for Juliette Binoche; notably strong female characters; collaborating, most recently, with cinematographer Yorick Le Saux.

Notable accolades: A major component of his career, Assayas’ screenwriting is formidable; his script for Something in the Air took home Venice’s Golden Osella in 2012. His miniseries Carlos also did very well, winning LAFCA’s Best Director and Best Foreign Film awards. Carlos was also a second place runner-up at the National Society of Film Critics awards (Best Director).

Previous Cannes appearances: Attending the Festival first as a journalist and later as a filmmaker, Assayas debuted his first film Laisse Inachevé a Tokyo in 1983. His screenwriting later brought him to the Festival with André Techine films Rendez-vous (1985) and Le Lieu du Crime; he joined the festival’s Un Certain Regard program with 1996’s Irma Vep. He was invited to the Competition in 2000 with Les Destinees Sentimentales, following up with 2002’s Demonlover and 2004’s Clean in the same slot. Assayas has also debuted Boarding Gate, Chacun son Cinéma (both 2007) and 2010’s Carlos out of Competition. 2014 sees his fourth Competition title.

 Film he’s bringing to Cannes: Clouds of Sils Maria, one of the starriest debuts in the 2014 competition. The plot summary, from the distributor’s website: “At the peak of her international career, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years ago. But back then she played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young girl who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Now she is being asked to step into the other role, that of the older Helena. She departs with her assistant (Kristen Stewart) to rehearse in Sils Maria; a remote region of the Alps. A young Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal (Chloë Grace Moretz) is to take on the role of Sigrid, and Maria finds herself on the other side of the mirror, face to face with an ambiguously charming woman who is, in essence, an unsettling reflection of herself.” Rounding out the cast are Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, and Brady Corbet.

CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-Photo-©-Carole-Béthuel_IMG_4763Could it win the Palme? While Assayas is due for a major win at any festival, it’s foggy on whether or not Clouds of Sils Maria is one of the heaviest hitters at Cannes 2014. It’s star-studded, there’s no doubt about that; also positive is the film’s strong female characters, a truth that’s sure to play well to Jane Campion’s jury. Juliette Binoche, meanwhile, is an acting powerhouse on the Croisette, which may translate into a prize for her performance. That being said, the Competition is incredibly strong this year, and there are other films—on paper, of course—that seem more likely.

Why you should care: “Technique is dangerous, that’s the way I’ve always seen it,” Assayas said in 2013 in an interview with Black Book. “I always try to break it.” Whatever cinematic skies Clouds of Sils Maria is hiding, it’s assuredly going to be worthy of a conversation. Stewart, in need of a refreshing role, may have something here with Assayas, who is known for his strong female protagonists. Binoche agrees, saying the following about the director at a recent Q&A: “When we were shooting [Clouds of Sils Maria], I was thinking: I’m just living my dream. [Assayas] is really daring, he’s been writing for women, he’s been beyond what I expected. It gives me so much satisfaction.”

Follow Jake Howell on Twitter

Previous Entries:

Tommy Lee Jones

Atom Egoyan

Bennett Miller

Xavier Dolan

David Cronenberg

Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Naomi Kawase

Ken Loach

Michel Hazanavicius

Jean-Luc Godard

Bertrand Bonello

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Andrey Zvyagintsev

Abderrahmane Sissako