Saturday, September 29, 2007

Getting Back in the Groove

Hello again. I'm back in action and determined to finish this thing off, something I failed to do last year. I've got just a few more days to fill in, then I'll probably write some more substantial pieces to tie it all together. Or not. I'm notorious for promising more than I deliver, so we'll see.

Now to the family emergency. On Friday afternoon, my wife started receiving cryptic calls from her brother, alluding to "something wrong with our father." We came to learn that he'd suffered a major heart attack the previous day and they'd had considerable difficulty contacting us. Needless to say, this pretty much wiped out the remainder of the festival. There was no way we were going to sit through four more films while my father-in-law was being prepped for open-heart surgery. I mean, I'm not that much of a jerk. So we packed up our things and headed home first thing Saturday morning, for a fairly harrowing trip back (my wife drove, usually as fast as she could legally get away with).

For the record, it's all been resolved. His surgery was successful and he's healing at near-supernatural rates. We're now safely home and trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to recuperate and get back in the groove. We've got some new perspective thanks to this ordeal, and we're hoping it will push us to take bigger chances in our lives. Or we'll forget everything we've learned and sink back into our usual rut. It's either/or right about now....

Anyway, that's about it. Thanks for letting me ramble and be sure to look for updates in the next few days.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Delays and Such

Sorry about the delay. I fully intended to keep the blog running, but a family emergency popped up Friday afternoon, completely leveling the rest of our TIFF. Reviews will resume once the
situation has stabilized and I can blog on a regular basis.

Friday, September 14, 2007

TIFF 2007: Day 6

Playing catch-up....The festival's hitting its stride and I'm hitting the wall.

Jellyfish (Shira Geffen, Etgar Keret) - 8/10

Beautifully staged series of surreal episodes, all centering around a core set of modern Israelis. Quirky, but not (too) cloying, it's also really, really difficult to describe without making it sound like any other festival entry. Sweet and funny, with an absurdist edge, it's well worth one's time.

Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-Sheng) - 5/10

Essentially a Tsai Ming-Liang film, but too earnest by half. Lee Kang-Sheng has an eye for striking compositions, surely, but the film left me scratching my head.

Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike) - 6/10

Typical Miike: half-sloppy, half-brilliant. There's not enough spaghetti western to the whole thing, with only the opening sequence displaying any of the wit and style of Leone & company (and it looks and plays like a parody of Tears of the Black Tiger). The rest is intermittently fun, but I still wish Miike would try to make a good film again.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

TIFF 2007: Day 5

A little more for the day. Though this makes me hypocritical, I believe I'm going to drop out of Lee Myung-Se's M, which has been getting some of the most poisonous reviews I've seen at the festival. I'm a fan of his work, but when other fans start talking about walking out, I just can't justify wasting a precious festival slot on it. We'll see...

Man from Plains (Jonathan Demme) - 6/10

Deeply ordinary and unfocused, Demme's ode to Jimmy Carter gains force entirely for what it doesn't do. By showing a president who gives his all before, during and after his term, who tries to change the world for the better, he creates an excellent critique of the current administration and their failings. It's a little too reverent, but Carter wears through your defenses. His strength and honesty are positively infectious, and give this minor film a slight boost.

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog) 8/10

Herzog scores again, this time with a look at Antarctica and its oddball inhabitants (of all animal varieties). Strange and beautiful, with some positively stunning nature footage alternating with interviews with the strange folk who find their way to the very end of the world. His ideas gradually gain force and by the end, it feels like an elegy for mankind itself. Wonderful stuff.

Run, Fat Boy, Run (David Schwimmer) 6/10

Relentlessly conventional, though better than it has any right to be, thanks to Simon Pegg and Dylan Moran, who give completely committed performances. David Schwimmer pulls off one particularly nice scene towards the end (Pegg finally hitting the runner's wall), but plays it safe throughout, which works for the film. Bonus points for the best Q&A of the festival so far, with a funny Pegg, a drunk Thandie Newton, an outburst from Nick Frost, and the Mayor of Toronto, the single most obnoxious audience member I've seen this year.

Monday, September 10, 2007

TIFF 2007: Days 3 & 4

A few reviews in between vain attempts to get away from the Pitt/Jolie juggernaut. I mean, seriously, there were people lining up outside the Elgin theatre for nearly twelve freaking hours! They closed the street and put up barricades so people would be held back. Did I mention twelve hours!

The confusion actually gave us our favorite moment of the fest so far--watching TIFF head Piers Handling attempt to get through the Brad Pitt barricade, as a recalcitrant volunteer held him up. Runner-up: the anti-smoking rally by earnest college students, right outside the Scotiabank. With all the fucking problems in the world these days, smoking is what gets these kids angry?

Anyway, here's some reviews:

Saturday, Day 3

Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon (Eric Rohmer) 7/10

A 21st century take on a 17th century audience's understanding of a 5th century story. At first coming off like a high school production, it eventually reveals its slyness and wit, using the sheer distance from the source material's inception to comment wryly on the whole genre. Sounds like a bore, but it becomes more interesting as it goes along, leading to an absolutely sublime final scene, on par with the ending of Before Sunset for swoony, well-deserved happiness.

The Man from London (Bela Tarr) (walk-out...but it's not what you think)

The first hour, filled wall-to-wall with Tarr's standard long, long, looooooong takes, was mesmerizing, the deep-focus black & white photography never boring to watch (many did not agree--Tarr currently holds my 2007 record for most walk-outs). But then it goes downhill after the hero steals a bus and tries to ram the villain's taxi off the road, or whatever it was that happened after I left the theater afraid I was going to vomit. Seems I've picked up a bug of some sort, and it's winding through my system left and right. The good news: it seems to have passed. The bad news: I missed the rest of the Bela Tarr, which I was enjoying a great deal. Oh well.

No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen) - 9/10

Terrific neo-western from the Coens, who appear to be done with crappy, work-for-hire comedies. I don't think I can add anything to the largely glowing reviews it's gotten since Cannes. A must-see.

Diary of the Dead (George Romero) - 5/10

Intriguing premise, nearly wrecked by insistent voice-over which wildly over-states the film's themes. Look: I know it's supposed to be a college student's fake documentary. But was it so hard to just show us the footage and not spruce it up with Philosophy 101 bullshit about the camera as the window of our world, or something like that. Everything said in the voice-over is conveyed quite well in the rest of the film, leading me to wonder if the whole thing didn't start out as a Masters of Horror project, artificially expanded to full-length. Still, better than the Argento, though more disappointing.

Sunday, Day 4

The Orphanage (J. A. Bayona) - 7/10

Though slow to get started, this is ultimately a rewarding ghost story, though not without flaws. There's very little subtext at work, at first glance--just good solid chills, especially a handful of scenes near the film's ending. Not a classic, but it'll do.

Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway) - 8/10

Greenaway tackles Rembrandt, art history, the nature of art, naked people, etc. Lots of walk-outs, grumbles, shrugs, and the like, but I found it fascinating, even with my limited knowledge of art and art history. And Martin Freeman, as Rembrandt, is fantastic, carrying the film through its occasional dull patches.

With Your Permission (Paprika Steen) - 6/10

Review coming soon.

Friday, September 07, 2007

My Winnipeg

A quick one, while I'm awake...

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)

Maddin's latest is a pure joy, whether or not you're familiar with Winnipeg or Canadian history. Presented as a "docu-fantasia," Maddin takes the documentary form and makes it thoroughly his own--anyone who's seen one of his films will feel right at home here. He also manages to add a few new tricks to his usual form, particularly in a handful of scenes shot in the style of an overheated Sirkian melodrama (it will be surprising to none of his fans that he has a clear knack for it). It's also perhaps his most purely funny film. He's always had a sly, offhand wit, but never to this degree of directness. Great, original fun.

8/10 (though probably higher)

TIFF Reviews: First Day, etc.

Hi, from here in lovely Toronto. It's been a pleasant couple of days so far--pleasant, that is, if you enjoy ridiculous 90 degree weather while standing in the harsh, unblinking sun. I've had enough of this weather back home, so I certainly didn't expect it up here. The good news, though, is that it's not supposed to last much longer. Cooler weather will swoop in soon, though it will be bringing some thunderstorms (maybe).

Anyway, enough about the stupid weather. How about some films? Here's a couple of quick reviews:

Jar City:

Slow, stately Icelandic murder-mystery. A man is murdered in a dingy flat in Reykjavik, and the investigation slowly reveals deeper mysteries and darker secrets. Not a bad premise for a solid thriller, but somehow director Baltasar Kormakor finds multiple ways to falter. Most damningly, the solution is a no-brainer, especially thanks to a far-too obvious framing device that makes the culprit ridiculously easy to pick out. Worse, Kormakor films even the most dull, mundane moments as though they're high tragedy. From the washed-out visuals, to the wall-to-wall choral music, the film builds a level of high-drama it doesn't even try to live up to. Some nice performances, but mostly a bore.


The Mother of Tears

Argento wraps up his Three Mothers trilogy, with mixed results. The acting is bad (which was expected), the story is nonsensical (also expected) and the dreamy logic of the first two is largely missing, save for a handful of scenes (highly unexpected). It's still sort of fun, especially when the crazed monkey/witch/familiar is running around, or when the film takes a left-turn into crazy-town. And there's a weirdly misogynistic subtext just waiting to be analyzed and explored in this thing. I mean, I know Argento's been criticized in the past for his misogyny, but this film seems to take it to such an extreme, it almost seems like a parody or response (as De Palma did with Body Double).


You, the Living

Roy Andersson's follow-up to the amazing Songs from the Second Floor is only a disappointment in comparison to that film--by any other standard, it's a terrific piece of work. Following an assortment of people living in a (presumably) Swedish city, it's filled with amazing sequences of tableaux, strange interludes, hilarious and poignant dream sequences, and the pastiest cast of characters I've personally ever seen. There's no real plot to describe here, just a central idea, explored in every possible permutation--the many ways humans live, cope, and clash in the world. The best deadpan absurdist comedy you're likely to see this year.


That's it for now. Starting tomorrow, the festival kicks into high gear for me, with at least three films every day from now to next Saturday. I'll try to pop in with some reviews, though I can't guarantee they'll be anything more than blurbs from here on out.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

My Current TIFF Schedule

After much wrangling, I've finally confirmed my picks for the festival. I still haven't received an email confirmation, but the very kind people at the TIFF box office told me in no uncertain terms that these were the films I got.

So, here we go...

Jar City / 7:45-9:18
The Mother of Tears / 11:59 PM-1:37

You, the Living / 9:15 am-10:50
My Winnipeg / 8:00 PM - 9:30

Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon / 9:00 am-10:49
The Man from London / 12:45 PM-3:00
No Country for Old Men / 6:00 pm-8:02
George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead / 11:59 pm-1:34

The Orphanage / 12:30 PM-2:20
Nightwatching / 6:00 pm-8:21
With Your Permission / 9:30 pm-11:10

Man from Plains / 3:30 pm-5:30
Encounters at the End of the World / 7:00 PM-8:39
Run, Fat Boy, Run / 10:00 Pm-11:41 (strictly for Simon Pegg)

Jellyfish / 2:30 pm-3:48
Help Me Eros / 6:00 pm-7:43
Sukiyaki Western Django / 11:59 pm-2:00

The Exodus / 12:00 pm-1:34
M / 3:30 pm-5:20
Mister Lonely / 6:30 pm-8:22
The Tracey Fragments / 9:45 pm-11:02

Dr. Plonk / 9:30 am-10:54
Sad Vacation / 6:15 pm-8:31
A Gentle Breeze in the Village / 9:15 pm-11:16

Glory to the Filmmaker! / 9:00 am-10:44
Mad Detective / 3:00 pm-4:29
Chaotic Ana / 6:15 pm-8:15
Dainipponjin / 11:59 pm-1:52

Ploy / 3:00 pm-4:47
The Sun Also Rises / 6:00 pm-7:56

A lot of that may change in the coming days. For example, if tickets become available, I'd probably switch from Chaotic Ana to Eat, for This is My Body, which sounds considerably odder and more interesting. Regardless, I'm looking forward to getting up there and enjoying the hell out of the festival. See you there!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Festival Flashback : 2005

In the absence of any news or discussion in the days leading up to the festival, I'm going to hop in the wayback machine and take a look at TIFF in 2005 and 2006.

'05 was a heady year for my wife and I. Somehow, we got it into our heads to travel hundreds of miles to attend a fairly expensive and elaborate film festival. I say this not out of regret, but out of odd admiration. I still can't quite believe we do this every single year. The first day of the 2005 festival was definitely one of the best days I've had, starting as it did with a new Terry Gilliam film (Tideland) and following up with a brand-new Quay brothers film (The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes). Yes, it's absolutely one of the highlights of my filmgoing life.

Anyway, before I start getting too deep in the nostalgia here, I'll get this thing going:

Six Favorite Films of 2005 TIFF:

6. The President's Last Bang (Im Sang-Soo)

Imagine JFK crossed with Dr. Strangelove and you might get near the oddball tone of this political thriller. Equal parts hilarious and disturbing, it's the story of the assassination of the South Korean president in the early eighties, in all its half-bungled glory. Great stuff.

5. Cache (Michael Haneke)

Haneke's film has one scene--and those who've seen it know which one I'm talking about--that elicited the best reaction I've ever seen in a packed audience. I won't divulge the moment--it's too shocking to spoil--but I've never heard such a reaction from a group of people before. It was a wave of gasps and screams that lent the moment a credibility and power that no solo viewing could provide. Oh, and the film itself is also pretty damned good.

4. Duelist (Lee Myung-Se)

Confession time: I didn't like this the first time I saw it. The trailer gave the impression that this was a straight-up action flick, sort of a Korean take on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The movie, though...oh, lord, the movie. Never before have I witnessed a film so distant from its marketing. I guess I knew it was gonna be a change of pace when a marketplace chase turned inexplicably into a slow-motion football game. Or maybe it was when a standard "catch the bad guy" scene included sped-up, Benny Hill-esque running and mugging. Or...well, I could go on, but I'll spare you. It's one of the weirdest movies I've ever seen, with a tone that refuses to play straight. On first viewing, I assumed this was a problem, and hated it accordingly. On further viewings, however, one can see that the narrative hiccups are deliberate, borne out of a need to riff on the very nature of narrative. If one's up for the ride, it's a wonderful experience.

3. The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (Brothers Quay)

A real audience-divider, this is one of my favorite film viewings of all time. Allow me to set the scene: you've been traveling since 6:00 am that morning. You've flown hundreds of miles, driven a hundred or so more, ridden buses and subways, and raced from hotels to box offices to restaurants. You've just watched a very difficult Terry Gilliam film and raced to yet another theater you've never been to in your life to make it to your next screening. Simply put, you're freaking exhausted. And now, you're being asked to process a truly bizarre Brothers Quay experience. Strangely enough, utter exhaustion is actually the best way to watch the Quay's latest oddity. I think it's about a mad scientist who hires a piano tuner to fine-tune his oddball tableaux, and the love that blossoms between the tuner and an amnesiac opera singer the scientist has kidnapped, but I'm not sure. Regardless, there's nothing--nothing--that compares to the experience of nodding off, only to find yourself staring at a gigantic stop-motion doll in a boat, or an entire scene where half the onscreen cast is walking and talking backwards. Pure celluloid madness, through and through.

2. The Proposition (John Hillcoat)

Nick Cave's super-brutal anti-western had the second most memorable audience reaction of the festival: a single "how-did-they-do-that?" gore shot that made the entire audience gasp in unison. The film itself is not bad either. It's got a particularly grungy poetic sensibility that's light years from what Westerns have been producing for the last decade or so.

1. The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-Liang)

The world's first long-take intensive, post-apocalyptic porno-musical. That description doesn't really do this amazing film justice. In telling the story of a Taiwan gripped by drought and the slow-burn relationship simmering between two lost souls, Tsai pushes his distinctive style to the breaking point, punctuating his extended scenes of cooking, walking and sex with brash musical sequences that emphasize the distance between his character's dreams and their reality. Dazzling and unforgettable, with a jaw-dropping ending that manages to cram an entire movie's worth of emotions into a handful of shots.

Worst Film:

Neverwas (Joshua Stern)

AKA, oh, good lord, what was I thinking? The Fisher King meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, if they were made by idiots. The festival's nadir, without a doubt.

Film I Most Regret Not Seeing:

The Wild, Wild Rose (1960, Wang Tianlin)

A one-of-a-kind opportunity that I just couldn't find the room for, a phenomenon that is all too common at a festival the size of TIFF. A musical, much of it's soundtrack was used ironically in The Wayward Cloud. And, it was followed by a dialogue with Tsai Ming-Liang, who apparently loves the film. Oh well...

Best Q&A:

Nick Cave, mumbling, shuffling and cracking jokes after The Proposition. Runner-up: Lee Kang-Sheng, also mumbling and shuffling, following The Wayward Cloud.

So that's about it. I could really go on and on about 2005's festival. Nearly every moment is etched in my brain, even two years down the line. It was a great, great experience and I'm going to try to replicate it every year for as long as I can.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Update: Waiting, Waiting, Waiting...

Sorry for the lapse. The release of the full schedule killed all of my attempts at blogging. There's nothing like spending every waking hour carefully combing a color-coded schedule for the mathematical equation that'll allow you to see all the movies you desire in the time allotted to put a damper on your social life. It's pretty hellish, to say the least, but this year was actually fairly painless. I was able to arrange nearly every one of my most desired, with maybe one or two omissions (biggest casualty: I'm Not There, which at least is getting a release by the end of the year).

Now starts the waiting process. Every year, this part seems to get worse. In 2005, I promptly received an e-mail Saturday afternoon, detailing every film I'd successfully secured. Last year, I had to go to the TIFF site to find out if we'd been successful, even though our tickets had been processed the previous day.

This year's no better. I've looked up the order on the website and it appears to have been confirmed last night at 10:01, but for the last 24 hours, I've been given no confirmation from TIFF. I wonder if it has anything to do with my order going through the online process. If any online purchasers are having a similar problem, let me know in the comments.

Anyway, that's about it for now. I'll be back later with some miscellaneous pre-TIFF posts and my schedule (or at least what I hope is my schedule). In the meantime, ignore that gnawing sound--it's just me devouring my fingernails...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Most Anticipated: Visions

Midnight Madness may have the more exciting line-up this year, but Visions is probably my favorite programme of the festival. It's like the Midnight programme's intellectual older brother--still weird, but more respectable, and definitely smelling less like bongwater and Cheetos (not that there's anything wrong with that). In the past two years, some of my favorite films of the festival have been in this programme, though this year's line-up seems heavier on the "personal journeys" angle, and lighter on the "what-the-hell-am-I-watching?" angle. Regardless, it's a pretty interesting group of films. Let's get on with it...


M (Lee Myung-Se)

His last film, Duelist, played the festival in '05, and to say it divided the audience is putting it mildly. I remember watching the trailers and thinking it was going to be a generic action flick, only to be taken aback by the sheer, willful strangeness of the actual film. Myung-Se mixes styles, tones and perspectives with an anarchic glee that hovers somewhere between genius and lunacy. His films are high-wire acts and what, on first glance, appears to be a poor sense of narrative, gradually reveals itself to be a love for it in all its myriad forms--a love frustrated by traditional narrative's limitations. If you can't tell, I'm something of a fan and I can't wait to see what he pulls off with the horror melodrama genre.

You, the Living (Roy Andersson)

Songs from the Second Floor is brilliant and this is (allegedly) its less somber mirror image. Should be amazing.

Could Be Interesting:

Dans la Ville de Sylvia (Jose Luis Guerin)

I think the "mostly wordless" description is what excites me most. It's acceptance at both the Venice and New York Film Festivals doesn't hurt.

Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer)

A modern silent film that appears to perfectly replicate the look and feel of 1920's silent cinema. Could be a nice palate cleanser in the middle of the festival's heavier offerings.

Ploy (Pen-ek Ratanaruang)

I'm probably the only person who really liked Invisible Waves (the director's last film), but everyone says this is much better and more in line with his much loved Last Life in the Universe.

Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)

The critics have almost universally praised this one, with most giving raves. Good enough...

Silent Resident (Christian Frosch)

This one's a conundrum. It's in the Visions programme. The description sounds intriguing. And yet...I've seen not one image or non-TIFF synopsis or discussion that excites me in any way. Wait and see, I suppose...

The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald)

Another conundrum. The synopsis screams out "emo," but the visual conceit--the screen divided into fragments, each one filled with visual information--is the kind of gimmick I support, even if it could just be an exercise in frustration.

That's that. If anyone has ideas or info on any of these, feel free to had your thoughts in the comments.

Next: Vanguard

Most Anticipated: Midnight Madness

Now that the festival is finally gearing up, it's time to make decisions. There are around 275 films at the festival, and only 30 slots for me to fill, so some tough choices have to be made. My personal method is fairly simple. I start by choosing no more than ten must-sees. Then, I research the films and highlight as many interesting options as possible. I separate those into two piles, which I arbitrarily call first and second tier (because it makes me sound professional). Then, when the actual schedule comes out, I cry for three straight days and randomly insert films as best I can. Or at least that's how it usually feels.

Seriously, the schedule itself is the main reason I don't just choose thirty films and wash my hands of the whole thing. If I chose thirty films right out, there would be absolutely no way to fit them all in. Inevitably, the full schedule frustratingly puts similar films in direct time competition with one another, resulting in at least one or two agonizing decisions each and every year. To fight this, I've found it's best to keep an open mind and take some chances. Skip the film that'll be in every theater in a month and see the small film that'll be lucky to get a DVD release in its home country.

Anyway, most of the people reading this probably know all this, so I'll move on to the Midnight Madness programme.


George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero)
The Mother of Tears (Dario Argento)

Really, do I have to say much? Sure, both will get a theatrical release somewhere down the line, but why pass up the chance to see them with one of the most exciting crowds in the world. It also helps that, despite their spotty records of late, they're still two of the greatest horror directors of all time, and I'll always make time for them.

Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike)

Miike is a TIFF tradition, so I can't miss his latest.

Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto)

The wild card of my MM picks. This superhero satire is reportedly very dry and very, very odd, which sounds like the perfect prospect to me.

Also interesting:

All apologies to Colin Geddes, but this year's selection definitely outshines last year's (though The Host was admittedly amazing). Indeed, I'd probably catch all of these if I had the time. Best looking of the rest is Stuart Gordon's Stuck, which looks fairly intense; Wilson Yip's Flash Point (since his SPL in 2005 was tremendously entertaining); and Xavier Gens' Frontieres, which has an intriguingly grungy, political premise.

Next up: Visions. And if anyone has any suggestions or insight regarding the Midnight Madness films, leave a comment. They're always welcome.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Allow Me to (Re)Introduce Myself...

Hi! It's been nearly a year since last year's updates, which I never actually finished. Oops. As should be obvious right about now, I'm not very good with blogs (or podcasts--sorry Mamo). Despite that fact, I've decided to give this thing another go. Call me a masochist, but, just call me a masochist and leave it at that.

A little introduction, I suppose: I'm a writer based in Tennessee, attending my third TIFF. I like kittens, Asian food, kittens in Asian food, and, naturally, film. Last year, I tried to make this blog an introduction to the intricacies of TIFF. I was not very successful. Doing a much, much better job than I ever could is Darren, over at 1st Thursday. He's also from Tennessee and has been running a terrific primer to TIFF for several months now. The conversation is lively and he posts frequently. It's a great site and I recommend starting there if you have any questions or concerns about the festival.

Rather than covering old territory, I'll focus on individual films, programmes and any other topic that pops into my head. It should be exciting, which means it probably won't be. Sorry.

Anyhow, enough of my jibber jabber. Let's get this thing started...