Saturday, September 13, 2008

TIFF 2008: Day Nine & Ten

I'll just group these together, since I'm trying to quickly get them on here. We leave the festival Sunday morning and this is my last stab at finishing off these little reviews. It was a great festival for us this year, with nearly every film being at least worth catching. I don't know if I've softened critically, or if I just got lucky, but all the talk about this being a really bad year just didn't pan out for me and my wife. Anyway, I'll put up a proper assessment of the festival in a day or two. Here's how the last two days worked out for us:


Che (Pts. 1 & 2) - 7/10

Tokyo Sonata - 6/10

That grade is deceptive, because this has to rank as the festival's biggest disappointment for me. I'm a big fan of Kurosawa's other films, so I had high hopes for this one. And for a while, my expectations were met. For all the talk of this being his first non-genre film, all the elements of horror and dread were there, only drained of their supernatural explanations. At least that's how I saw it--much of the rest of the audience seemed to find it all hilarious, for some reason. Still, it was compelling and depressing stuff. And then...well, I can't really say. Let's just say that Kurosawa sort of takes one thread of the film into outright comedy, which absolutely deflated me. It's fascinating, but it just doesn't work, and even the sublime ending couldn't shake my frustration with the movie.

Parc - ?/10

Here's a conundrum: this movie was terrible. Absolutely, 100%, top-to-bottom, terrible. It has some beautiful compositions, a great opening, good musical cues, and one of the stupidest freaking stories and executions I have ever seen, festival or not. But: because of this, it is wildly entertaining. I was never bored and by the end, I was enjoying the film a great deal. This is badness on an epic scale. Stupidity so bone-deep it shocks you into submission. This is the real "so bad it's good" that everyone talks about, but never finds. So how do you rate it? All I can really do is separate the rating. It gets a 1/10 for quality, but a 7/10 for misguided entertainment.


The Sky Crawlers - 6/10

Burn After Reading - 7/10

Thursday, September 11, 2008

TIFF 2008: Day 8

Now's the time of the festival where I start to re-think my grades on the previous films. See, let me explain something about my grading system: I don't really have one. Yes, I give a score on a one to ten scale, but it's mostly relative. In other words, these are my grades within this particular festival. If I give something a ten, it's not better than, let's say, The Godfather (Pt. 1 or 2)--it's just the best thing in this particular festival.

I could give you all sorts of convoluted, needlessly drawn-out explanations for why I do that, but it's really simple: I hate grading movies. Hate, hate, hate. I hate trying to sum up the experience of watching a film mere hours (or minutes) after watching it, as though any great film can be properly processed in that short a time span. This isn't to say that some people don't have a knack for using grades to summarize their movie experiences--it's just that I don't, not even a little. Plus, for me, there is nothing more damaging to my film experience than trying to dissect it, chop it up and neatly package it into a grade. I recognize the need for it as a shorthand, but I hate with a passion.

So,'s some grades for today's movies:

Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone) - 7/10

Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufmann) - 10/10

My favorite film of the festival so far and one of the best things I've seen all year. What's weird about it is that I can understand why a lot of people hate it (and a lot of people really hate this thing, if my crowd is any indication). For one thing, it's strange. Very, very strange. And all the strangeness is played perfectly straight, which makes it wildly funny (at times, it's Kaufman's funniest film). But then, as things start to descend further and further into weirdness, it starts to get more serious. All of which leads to an ending that socked me (and everyone else with me) and left me reeling, tears in my eyes. I can't say much more without spoiling it, so I'll leave it there. See it.

Les Plages d'Agnes (Agnes Varda) - 7/10,

35 Rhums (Claire Denis) - 7/10

Tomorrow: Revolutions! Sonatas! Suburbia (maybe)!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

TIFF 2008: Day Seven

Hey, somehow Day seven slipped away from me. Oops...

La Silence de Lorna (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) - 8/10

Un conte de Noel (Arnaud Desplechin) - 8/10

Plastic City (Yu Lik-Wai) - 2/10

I cannot believe the festival found room for this and not...oh, the countless other movies that could have been here. And that this thing was in competition at Venice. It just boggles the mind, since this thing is as inept a movie as I've ever seen at the festival and that's saying something. It's almost as though the director deliberately tried to make the most boring, cliche movie he could about Chinese gangsters in Brazil. And the ending...oh dear lord, the ending. Think Tropical Malady, but really, really stupid.

Tears for Sale (Uros Stojanovic) - 7/10

TIFF 2008: Day Six

Gotta sleep. Early morning. But first, here's some reviews.

Genova (Michael Winterbottom) - 6/10

Understated and subtle, and therefore really easy to get lost in the festival shuffle, which favors the bold and straightforward. It's a good film, with every actor doing excellent work, but at first glance it seems so slight. I appreciate the lack of histrionics, but the movie is almost all a slow burn that builds up to nothing much.

Birdsong (Albert Serra) - 7/10

Absolutely beautiful and often very funny, but for some reason my screening had a weird alternate soundtrack, with ambient noise replaced by the sound of people shoveling fistfuls of popcorn into their mouths and chewing loudly, and others coughing loudly for minutes on end. Oh wait...that wasn't the soundtrack, that was the freaking audience. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING kills a serious, nearly silent film like a roomful of people making obnoxious noises. So take the above rating with a grain of salt, since it's likely to go up when (or if) I get to see the film again.

SIDE NOTE: This had the most walk-outs I have ever personally seen at any of my four TIFFs. Just a steady stream of people bolting as the characters wandered and wandered across the screen. I guess it takes a certain kind of filmgoer...

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson) - 9/10

Positively the most charming film I've seen in ages. Less controlled than a Wes Anderson film, and often less emotional, but every bit their equal in terms of charm and wit. And I had no idea Rachel Weisz could be this great--she completely nails indie cinema's most overused, underdeveloped character types (the manic pixie dream girl), and makes it look easy. It's messy and often very goofy, but loads of fun. Highly recommended...

Tomorrow: Algerian brides, French dysfunction, Brazilian Chinese, and Serbian fairy tales!

Monday, September 08, 2008

TIFF 2008: Day Five

Hunger (Steve McQueen) - 9/10

Phenomenal. I went into this one with slight reluctance and a slight shrug, but found it compelling from frame one. Ostensibly the story of Irish Republican Bobby Sands and the hunger strike that took his life in 1981, it's really the story of bodies--how easily they damage, how they can be used and abused, and how they can also be a battleground. My favorite film of the festival and probably the year, hands down.

Ashes of Time Redux - 7/10 (though this will probably change)

Review coming soon

Tomorrow: Italian hauntings, the three wise men and con artists...

TIFF 2008: Day Four

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt) - 8/10

Unsentimental and honest, this is a fantastic film. Reichardt takes a simple story--poor woman loses her dog in a small town in Oregon--and drains it of all sentimentality, leaving only the harsh, unforgiving reality of being penniless in America, and all without the use of explicit politicizing (that would come later in the day). Heartbreaking and beautiful.

The People Speak - No rating

Not a movie, sort of, thus no rating, but my wife and I just had to see Howard Zinn in person, as he's one of the genuine great American historians. Then we found out Matt Damon was going to be hosting the talk, and suddenly realized that this was going to be one of those "mobbed" screenings, which can be really annoying (though the girl with the poster asking Matt to be her prom date was kind of funny). Thankfully, we entered before the stars, so we missed the excitement (though I did nearly get run over by Tim Robbins entering the theater, which wasn't actually his fault)

(SIDE NOTE: Is anyone else fascinated by celebrity heights? Tim Robbins was freakishly tall, while Ron Perlman, two years ago, was exactly my height, which is only about 5'10". Which is weird, 'cause that guy's Hellboy. Sorry for the digression...)

Anyway, the thing started super-late, so we probably got robbed of about ten minutes of further discussion, but it was excellent and slightly more star-laden than anticipated, as Marisa Tomei and Viggo Mortensen showed up as well. The footage they showed of the documentary was a mixed bag. The first bit peppered history lessons on the American Revolution with brief snippets of readings of letters and speeches by Hollywood stars. Their performances looked decent, but were too brief, with the film falling all over itself to present as much material as possible at the expense of interesting material. The second set of footage was considerably better, as it focused on longer performances and more immediately relevant issues (labor, equal rights, racism, sexism, etc.). It needs work, but it looks like it could molded into something interesting and timely.

Of Time and the City (Terence Davies) - 6/10

I know that score is some kind of critical blasphemy, but I'm standing by it. The film is at its best when Davies gets angry, such as when he rants about Betty (Queen Elizabeth) or the Beatles (who he hates). Much of the running time is taken up by documentary footage of Liverpool past and present, with classical music and the occasional pop song playing over it. Some of this is intoxicating, but often, I felt the images and music failed to coalesce into something grander than themselves. Many will find this film astounding (many already have), but I can't shake the feeling that it's missing something vital that keeps it from greatness. (I should also say that the Q&A slightly skewed my views, as it made me wish that Davies had spoken for the entire film--his Q&A was absolutely charming, the best of the fest so far).

Next: Hunger strikes and flying swordsmen...

Sunday, September 07, 2008

TIFF 2008: Day Three

Day three was a good day. I had a mild stomach sickness on day two, but it passed; I got plenty of rest after the previous night's midnight; and the movies were all uniformly interesting (though not uniformly good, unfortunately). Let's dive in:

Sauna (Antti-Jussi Annila) - 7/10

Bleak, existential horror films seem to be the black sheep of the horror community, but I'm a pretty big fan of them. This one, from the director of the much-loathed Jade Warrior, is a good solid one from start to finish. Some have said it too closely resembles the endlessly recycled J-Horror films, but this has an undercurrent of sadness and remorse that is all its own.

Vinyan (Fabrice du Welz) - 9/10

Much to say, but must process...

Pontypool (Bruce McDonald) - 5/10

Despite its initally exciting premise, this bizarre linguistic zombie movie never quite finds a focus. Taking place almost entirely in a radio station in the basement of a church, the film starts well, with the minor and sometimes funny workings of small-town radio giving way to more sinister events. But there's no build, and no time for the actors to find their footing as the world slips into chaos around them. Side note: Stephen McHattie is amazing in this, reminding me of Lance Henriksen before he descended into straight-to-DVD hell. Why isn't this guy given more starring roles?

Deadgirl (Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel) - 5/10

Surely the most instantly controversial film I've ever seen in the Midnight Madness category, and not always in a good way. Two teenagers stumble upon the dead body of a beautiful, naked woman in the basement of an abandoned asylum. Upon realizing that she's not dead (and can't be killed), one of the teens decides to...ahem...take advantage of the situation. If you can't tell, this is definitely not a film for everyone. My wife, normally a pretty serene go-with-it filmgoer has ranted for two days about how much she hates this thing. Some people are going to find it extremely offensive. There's more than meets the eye here, however, and some of it is very interesting, especially what it has to say about the male psyche. But I'll save that for a later review...

Next: Missing dogs, Howard Zinn and Liverpool.

Friday, September 05, 2008

TIFF 2008: Day Two

I seem to finally be in the groove of this, since it took me forever to find decent wi-fi this year. Thankfully, Starbucks has been very, very good to me. Now, on with the reviews:

A Film with Me In It (Ian Fitzgibbon) - 7/10

Good black comedy is extremely hard to get right--see Edison & Leo in the previous post--but this one is an exception. On occasion, the film's dark sensibility threatens to overwhelm its funny side, but the filmmakers somehow keep the balance straight. They're greatly helped by the two leads, Mark Doherty (who also wrote the film) and Dylan Moran, whose contrasting reactions to the increasingly absurd situation ground the film. Good nasty fun...

Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain) - 8/10

The story--about a man whose attempts to win a Tony Manero look-alike contest grow increasingly disturbing--could almost be the basis for the next Will Farrell film, all slicked-back hair and bad seventies fashion. It almost sounds fun. Transfer that story to late seventies Chile, however, and it becomes something entirely different--a bleak, mean dissertation on the soul-destroying effects of American pop culture. More later...

Detroit Metal City (Toshio Lee) - 5/10

I generally prefer my comedies more deadpan than wacky, so I may not be the target audience for this mugging, flailing comedy of extremes. Still a lot of fun at times, especially when it ventures into more absurd territory (nothing made me laugh harder than the "Metal Buffalo" bit).

Tomorrow: Horror day with Finnish ghosts, creepy children, linguistic nightmares and necrophilia. Fun, fun, fun!

TIFF 2008: Day One

Hello all! The festival has begun and its as great as expected. Lots of stuff to talk about, but I'll keep to the plan. Here's Thursday's reviews:

Edison & Leo (Neil Burns) - 5/10

A weird, gothic stop-motion animated film, the first ever funded entirely in Canada, best described as Guy Maddin by way of Tim Burton. But with only half the wit and wonder of those two. The problem is that the film never finds a solid tone, lurching from wild flights of fancy to sub-kids' flick romance and back again. Though on paper it sounds like prime melodrama, with lost mothers, distant fathers and remorseless enemies, it never finds the tone that would make those elements cohere into something solid. Still, there's some worthwhile touches here and there.

JCVD (Mabrouk El Machri) - 8/10

I was worried about this one since I saw the first footage online. My concerns were entirely unfounded. This is easily one of the wittiest, most assured films I've seen in quite some time. The premise is simple: During the course of a very bad day, Jean-Claude Van Damme finds himself embroiled in a real-life robbery. From there, El Machri finds several quite clever wrinkles in the meta-fiction genre, mainly by allowing his star to be the quiet, put-upon center of an increasingly absurd situation. Not to be missed.

Tomorrow: Dylan Moran! Tony Manero! And Japanese death metal!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Schedule (mostly) Confirmed

Sorry for the radio silence. I've been hunkering down in prep for the festival and haven't had a chance to write anything. My schedule got confirmed yesterday afternoon, and it was mostly a success. I did miss out on two screenings--Thursday evening's Tony Manero screening and the screening of At the Edge of the World--which are weird misses, if you ask me (I expected to lose Ashes of Time or The Brothers Bloom, not those two). Anyway, here's my schedule, at least until I find some alternates to shore it up:

Edison and Leo - 7:45 PM
JCVD - 11:59 PM

A Film with Me In It - 2:15 PM
Detroit Metal City - 11:59 PM

Sauna - 12:30 PM
Vinyan - 3:15 PM
Pontypool - 8:00 PM
Deadgirl - 11:59 PM

Wendy & Lucy - 12:45 PM
Mavericks: The People Speak - 6:30 PM

Hunger - 9:00 AM
Ashes of Time Redux - 3:15 PM

Genova - 11:45 AM
Birdsong - 5:00 PM
The Brothers Bloom - 9:00 PM

La Silence de Lorna - 9:45 AM
Un conte de Noel - 12:00 PM
Plastic City - 4:45 PM
Tears for Sale - 9:15 PM

Gomorrah - 9:00 AM
Synechdoche, New York - 12:15 PM
Les Plages d'Agnes - 6:15 PM
35 Rhums - 9:15 PM

Che - 9:00 AM
Tokyo Sonata - 2:15 PM
Parc - 7:30 PM

Achilles and the Tortoise - 9:00 AM
The Sky Crawlers - 12:15 PM

I like my list quite a bit this year, gaps and all. It feels like I've finally hit the proper balance between my serious side and my thrill-seeking side, which is always a challenge for me. I've still got some weirdo midnights in there, but I'm also looking forward to stuff like Wendy & Lucy, which sounds like an incredible movie.

That's it for now. If anybody has some recommendations on what I could use my two extra vouchers on, feel free to pass it along. In the meantime, I've got some packing and preparations to attend to.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

My Take on the TIFF List (Sort Of)

Warning: What follows is insanely self-indulgent and overlong. Yes, even for a blog. This isn't my actual list, nor does it cover all the films I'm interested in. If it did, it would be twice as long, with me repeatedly saying "I think this looks interesting," followed by useless information you already know. And I care too much about you, the reader, to do that. Ok, it's because I'm lazy.

Umm...I've forgotten what I was gonna say. Anyway, here's some movies I randomly chose to talk about. Enjoy.

Note: This wouldn't have been possible without the following, extremely useful resources: TOfilmfest, 1st Thursday and Twitch. Also, for all the stuff I don't discuss, I recommend visiting The Evening Class, where Michael Guillen is painstakingly giving info on every single film at the festival.


The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson)

Johnson's follow-up to Brick, which I loved. If that one was Coen Brothers influenced, this one has Wes Anderson written all over it: bright colors, oddball art direction, whimsical characters, estranged brother protagonists. As a huge Wes Anderson fan, I can say I'm definitely excited about this one.

Genova (Michael Winterbottom)

Reasons this is on my short-list: 1) My wife needs to restore her Colin Firth-crush after Mamma Mia! nearly destroyed it. 2) Winterbottom's almost always interesting. 3) It's described as a cross between Don't Look Now and Stealing Beauty. What the hell does that even mean? Seriously, where's the connective tissue between those two, wildly different films? So I guess I'm strangely curious about this one.

Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater)

I'm a big fan of Linklater, but I only feel half-compelled to see this one, which is odd, since the only film I haven't really liked of his was the Bad News Bears remake from a few years ago. I might have to override my reservations and catch this one.

Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

I loved Hana two years ago and I know that Kore-Eda is considered one of the great Japanese fillmmakers. But this might be one dysfunctional family get-together drama too many for this festival, joining as it does A Christmas Tale (must-see), Tokyo Sonata (another must-see), Summer Hours (supposedly excellent), and Service (the chaotic, porn theater variation on the theme). We'll see...

Synechdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)

Sure to be the most mind-blowing movie of the festival and possibly the year, Kaufman's film has a number of high-profile detractors, but an equal number of defenders. Even if it's terrible, it won't be like anything else at the festival, that's for sure.

Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)

Unique, absolutely gorgeous animation that looks stunning in stills, but stiff and unconvincing in all the trailers I've seen. It's sure to be interesting, but I'm not convinced, and the fact that it'll be released sometime in the future by Sony Pictures Classics means that I should have plenty of opportunities to catch this later.

The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)

Here's the thing: I don't really like Darren Aronofsky's films. Everybody goes crazy for them, but I just can't get into them. Maybe it's me--I don't know. So I'm not terribly motivated to catch this one, especially since it's going to play the Elgin and will therefore be a very difficult ticket to get. Having said that, I have to also consider this:

Tell me you don't want to see the movie that image comes from. Because, oddly enough, I do. Though probably not here.


PA-RA-DA (Marco Pontecorvo)

I understand that the actual PA-RA-DA troupe is doing good work in getting kids off the street in Europe, so please don't take my following statements the wrong way. But watch this and tell me how I'm supposed to take this seriously. I mean, I know context can change one's perspective, etc, but this clip has to be one of the most mindbogglingly misguided things I've ever seen. As far as I know, this isn't a horror film, so I can't imagine how any sane, rational human being can see this and think "heartwarming." I almost want to see the movie, just to understand how this makes any sense.

Pontypool (Bruce McDonald)

Apocalyptic horror from the legendary Bruce McDonald. I've only seen his last film, The Tracy Fragments, and wasn't terribly impressed (unique editing and use of split-screen notwithstanding), but this one sounds fascinating. It's a horror drama that takes place in a single location (a low-rent radio station), and centers on a zombie-esque uprising that transmits itself not through physical violence, but through language. As someone who's had a long interest in linguistics, the concept alone makes this a must-see.

Sauna (Antti-Jussi Annila)

Finnish horror about two men who do dastardly things and are then haunted (literally) by what they've done. I don't know much else, but at least it looks creepy and very, very atmospheric--some stills and production art can be found here.

Tears for Love (Uros Stojanovic)

There's a promo for this on the Twitch TIFF 2008 Trailer Park (a must-visit for those of us seeking info on these films), but I don't recommend watching the long one, as it seems to reveal far too much. What's there, however, looks a lot like Gilliam and Jeunet (lots of whipping cameras, bright colors, etc.). It also makes the film look very loud and amped-up, but that could just be the way the trailer's put together.


Birdsong (Albert Serra)

The story of the Three Wise Men, shot in black and white, with natural lighting and dialogue entirely in the Catalan language. Looks absolutely beautiful.

The Sky Crawlers (Mamoru Oshii)

Ah, Mamoru Oshii. I remember watching Ghost in the Shell many years ago and being utterly defeated by it. Now, I'm a fairly smart guy. Not brilliant, mind you, but smart enough. And I've watched plenty of out-there animes in my time and enjoyed most of them. But that movie beat me. I understood what was happening, for the most part, but by the end, I was utterly, hopelessly lost. Since most people who watch it seem to love the damn thing, I guess I need to watch it again. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention that day.

Anyway, this new one sounds really interesting, but every trailer I've watched drips with emo melodrama, which isn't automatically a bad thing, just very easy to overdo. But the reviews have been good, and seem to indicate that the sentiments are earned.


Krabat (Marco Kreuzpaintner)

Based on a fantasy novel, this will likely be dismissed as the German Harry Potter, but the trailer looks decent. Plus, the Twitch people have been very positive about it so far.


I'm actually very interested in most of the Reel to Reel program this year, but I don't actually have a lot to say about most of them. Here are the few that I can comment on:

The Dungeon Masters (Keven McAlester)

The story of several adults who play Dungeons & Dragons regularly. As a teenager who dabbled in the game, I'm intrigued, but as an adult who's seen at least a few of these types of movies, I'm worried. Will the filmmakers make fun of these people for our amusement? Or will there be some respect for their eccentricity? It's a fine line, but very few films tread it well. Here's hoping the presence of Richard Linklater's longtime cinematographer will tip it in the right direction.

Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner)

I read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation a few years ago and nearly became a vegetarian because of it (why I didn't is better saved for another time). I have a feeling this documentary, which takes both it and The Omnivore's Dilemma as its launching point, might do the trick. This is good, important stuff and I hope many people decide to see it. But it's a tight year and I'm not sure I'll be able to work it in.


Detroit Metal City (Toshio Lee)

I missed last year's Dainipponjin, so this looks like my chance to compensate. Though likely wackier than that film, this one looks like a lot of fun.

JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri)I haven't quite been sold on the trailers (too much of that now-cliche washed-out cinematography for me, I suppose), but I'll still probably try to catch this, if only to see if it lives up to all the buzz.

Not Quite Hollywood
(Mark Hartley)

I'm not sure I want to use a festival slot to catch this one, but it does look like a lot of fun. Plus, as someone who's fascinated by exploitation cinema, it's nice to see someone shining a light on a new facet of it (Bonus points for the fun website).

Eden Log (Franck Vestiel)

Positive: I like science fiction and this looks like a unique take. Negative: It's French sci-fi, which is very hit or miss. Positive: Many reviews are very impressed by its look and non-conventional take on familiar themes. Negative: Many reviews find its conventional aspects too familiar. Plus, the word 'boring' is tossed around a lot. Diagnosis: Probably better than its reputation, but not likely to wow the Midnight Madness crowd, who tend to prefer more visceral fare. Maybe worth a non-MM slot, though I'll likely just skip it altogether.

Martyrs (Pascal Laugier)

Absolutely the movie of the year in horror circles, though everyone else should definitely proceed with caution, as this one takes the torture cycle to new extremes. What makes the difference, at least with its early defenders, is that it's much, much smarter than usual, and uses its extreme violence to explore controversial ideas. At least, that's what they say. I have no idea, nor am I likely to see this at the festival, since my wife would likely never speak to me again if I subjected her to it. Gotta think about the big picture...


Achilles and the Tortoise (Takeshi Kitano)

The annual film from Office Kitano, and the final one in his trilogy of self-absorption (after '05's Takeshis' and last year's batshit insane Glory to the Filmmaker!). This one's about a man who takes up painting late in life and brushes against the world's indifference. I'm sure I'll end up slotting it somewhere, but I'm much less enthusiastic than I have been in the past.

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Kurosawa made Pulse, the rare horror film more frightening for its ideas than for what actually happens in it (though that's not too shabby). So any film by him is worth scheduling, in my view. It doesn't hurt that this one's considered one of his best, a domestic drama where the horror is completely non-supernatural in nature.


$9.99 (Tatia Rosenthal)

Stop-motion animation, focused on the odd happenings of an Australian apartment complex. I'm primarily interested due to the writing involvement of Etgar Keret, who co-wrote and co-directed last year's standout, Jellyfish. That film wasn't perfect, but I really enjoyed its odd blend of darkness and whimsy. This clip, which may or may not be from the film, is a good example of that particular tone.

Parc (Arnaud des Pallieres)

This might be a great film. I don't know. What I do know is that the two main characters are named Mr. Nail and Mr. Hammer. Seriously, those are the surnames of the film's antagonists. No film that's not a comedy or a bad 80's action movie should have characters named Hammer and Nail and expect me to take it seriously.

Tony Manero (Pablo Lorrain)

Bizarre-sounding story of a sociopath in 1970's Chile, who worships Tony Manero, John Travolta's character from Saturday Night Fever and will do anything to win a look-alike contest. I know, it sounds boringly cliche.


A Film With Me In It (Ian Fitzgibbon)

Irish black-comedy in the vein of The Ladykillers, as two screenwriters attempt to pitch their way out of a sticky predicament. Early word is good, but I'm mostly interested because it co-stars Dylan Moran, one of the funniest people on the planet.

That's it for now. I'll probably throw up another post Tuesday or Wednesday to add anything that stands out when the full descriptions get released (there's usually a handful). See you until then.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

TIFF List Drops, Frustrating Many

The final list of films dropped today, along with a couple of frustrating bombshells. I wasn't expecting anything spectacular, but I assumed TIFF saved some unexpected announcements for the end. Apart from Burn After Reading and the Mavericks presentation with Howard Zinn, there isn't anything that catches the eye. Of course, it could be because they haven't even put out the full announcement online for the Contemporary World Cinema additions. Still, the list of films announced prior to today is good enough to moot my concerns.

No, the real bombshell today is the release of the VISA Screening Room and Gala schedule. I'm not too put out by it, but I think a lot of pass-holders are going to be pretty pissed. For those who haven't read my previous post, the VISA Screening Room will no longer be part of the ticket lottery, which sets a whole lot of films off-limits for the rest of us. Here are the affected films from the Special Presentations and Gala programs (note: 'second screening' refers to Gala presentations)

Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique
Blindness (two screenings)
Burn After Reading (second showing)
Burning Plain
Che (Part 1 and Part 2) (two screenings apiece)
The Duchess (second showing)
Easy Virtue (two screenings)
Empty Nest
Fauborg 36
Flash of Genius
Ghost Town
The Good, the Bad, the Weird (second screening)
Heaven on Earth
Inju (two screenings)
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (second screening)
The Lucky Ones (second screening)
Miracle at St. Anna (two screenings)
Nothing But the Truth (second screening)
Rachel Getting Married (second screening)
Woman in Berlin
The Wrestler
Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Now, it's entirely possible that TIFF intends to screen all of these films at least once outside of the VISA screenings. But if they get only one screening, expect those showings to be very difficult to attend. I would pay particular attention to The Wrestler, in that regard. The two screenings of Aronofsky's The Fountain, two years ago, were some of the hardest tickets to score at that TIFF.

As I said, I'm not too angry about it this year, since two of my most anticipated--The Brothers Bloom and Synechdoche, New York--will both premiere somewhere else (most likely the Ryerson). But I am angry about this in general, because it's yet another step towards further undermining the egalitarian nature of the festival. Frankly, I'm not too confident about that.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Random Pre-TIFF Thoughts

So the festival is less than a month away (!!) and the announcements have been dribbling out ever so slowly. That means it's time to start compiling some thoughts on the current state of TIFF 2008. Or maybe it means it's time to shave my head, stuff eggplants in my pants and dance like an 8-year old on a sugar rush. I'm never sure about these things.

Anyway, here's some thoughts:

  • The Elgin (a.k.a. the Visa Screening Room) is ineligible for the ticket lottery this year, which leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was the home of my first TIFF experience, Terry Gilliam's Tideland, and it screened a number of my subsequent highlights, including Pan's Labyrinth, Brand Upon the Brain!, and No Country for Old Men. On the other hand, the theater has become a real pain in the ass to attend, especially for those of us without Visa Platinum cards. Without access to the Visa lounge (which allows Platinum members to get early access to the theaters), it's been almost impossible to find a decent seat. Add to that the lack of Q & A's, the poor sound and the fact that most of the films shown end up in first-run theaters within months anyway, I suppose it's not much of a loss after all. Never mind...
  • Much more frustrating is the news that festival donors will have their tickets processed before the non-donors, with priority given to the highest donors. For the festival, it's win-win: happier donors, more money, all good. And since festivals are notorious money pits, who can blame them for wanting to increase the cash flow. Unfortunately, it's lose-lose for those of us on the low-end: less chances to get into the popular films and all the while, the festival takes another step towards becoming a glorified trade show (Cannes with a handful of public screenings, or a slightly less obnoxious Sundance). The festival's not that bad, yet, but every time I see something like this (or the Elgin situation), a part of my love for the festival starts to wither away...
  • Of course, my class-based agitation might just be a cover for the realization that my three-year lucky streak in the lottery (90 for 90) might be about to crash and burn, thanks to the donors. No, it couldn't be something that petty...
  • As an inveterate and often impatient follower of the yearly announcement trickle, I can't help but notice that this year's film announcements have seemed unusually slower and more...trickly (yeah, it's a word). But then when I went to the press releases from 05, 06 and 07, I was surprised to see that it's always been like this. So now I wonder why I feel this way. I suppose it's the lack of an instant must-see in the announcements thus far. By this point in '05, I knew about Tideland; '06 was particularly front-loaded: Pan's Labyrinth, The Host, Rescue Dawn, and The Brand Upon the Brain!; and '07 was even more so: No Country for Old Men, Diary of the Dead, Mother of Tears, The Orphanage, and Encounters at the End of the World. This year...well, I'll save that for another entry.
  • I don't really have a fourth thought. Why is that? Do I not have enough ideas to sustain a single blog post? Are my weak concepts a microcosm of the general weakness of the TIFF slate thus far this year? Or is this post simply circling the drain, seeking an exit, unable to break free...
Well, that's it for this round. Coming soon (I hope): a piece by piece look at the TIFF programmes and the films in them that interest me so far. Should be delightful.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Greetings and Salutations!

Since I've re-resubmitted this blog to the TIFF website, I guess it's time to make some re-introductions.

Hi. name's Chris, but people call me Crunchy Squirrel. Yeah, don't ask, it's a long story. This will be my fourth TIFF and I'm pretty psyched, as always. My favorite color is green and my turn-ons include...

Oh, maybe that's too much information. Sorry.

I'm glad you've stopped by and I hope you stay or at least bookmark me or something like that. If you don't, that's cool. I've got a thick skin. I'll try very, very hard to make this blog a teensy bit more interesting this year. I might even update more often (though that's unlikely). Feel free to hang out, leave comments, insults, etc. Again, thick skin.

That's about it. I'll have a real post any day now. Thanks again.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Good Old-Fashioned TIFF 2007 Roundup - The Hell?!

Man, I'm really not up to this blogging thing. Ouch. Regardless, I promised myself I'd finish this damn thing, even if it took me a year or two. You can just skip this and move on to one of my relevant posts, somewhere around here. (I think I've written a relevant post...) For anyone foolhardy enough to stay, here's my thoughts on the last batch of TIFF 2007 films--the "Did-I-Just-See-That?" collection. Enjoy:

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

Two of cinema's greatest horror filmmakers, both with new films at Toronto--how could it go wrong? Spectacularly, that's how. Argento has been coasting for years, so it's no great shock that his latest is pretty weak. But working in the "Three Mothers" world should have inspired him, or at least that's the lie I wanted to believe. Sadly, there's nothing here, not even a "what the hell is he thinking" setpiece like Inferno's flooded basement scene. Instead, it's a boring little head-scratcher that's never scary and is filmed and edited so poorly, it could have been made by Uwe Boll.

As sad as Argento's film was, Romero's was twice the disappointment. The buzz surrounding this one was that it was Romero's return to form. Romero was thrilled with the final product and the early word was that it was as good as his first two zombie films. Instead, it turned out to be the least interesting zombie film he's ever made. The zombies are dull, the cast is obnoxious (and not deliberately) and the film never quite goes for the jugular in any significant way. But the worst offense, the absolute nadir, is the film's narration, which drones on and on about what the zombies represent, how images can't convey truth, etc. It's Romero 101 and it's presented with absolutely no artistry whatsoever. A colossal step down for a once-great director.

The Exodus (Pang Ho-Cheung)

I had zero expectations for this, but was intrigued by the TIFF catalog's description. The idea of a film about a secret society of women, plotting to destroy men in the various bathrooms of the world certainly showed potential. Would this be a serious rumination on the war of the sexes? Or a dark, twisted satire, with flashes of grim humor?

Well, it's sort of the worst of both worlds (By the way, I'll try not to spoil this too much, but it may be necessary). The film opens with a bang. We fade onto a picture of Queen Elizabeth, hanging on a wall. As the camera slowly pulls back, more details are revealed. Standing next to the Queen's picture is a half-naked man, dressed as a frogman (i.e., snorkelling gear, not as a large, green frog). The camera continues its deliberate pull and slowly reveals utter chaos: a group of men, all in frogmen outfits, surrounding a bloodied, terrified man, who keeps trying to crawl away from them. They leap about, all in slow-motion, and beat the man with phone books, as the camera (and the Queen), look on, distant, dispassionate...

It's such a searing sequence, so intense in its absurd details and rich subtext that it actually kept me from realizing that the film was a bust for a good thirty to forty-five minutes. It was only then that I realized that the film had become a serious slog. Rather than explore the satiric potential of the scenario, the movie instead gets bogged down in an interminable romance that slowly goes nowhere and generates no genuine heat or interest.

And then a funny thing happens. The film suddenly snaps back to attention and rallies for a surprisingly sad/funny finale, a montage that fills in the history of a major character and deepens the situation, while allowing the film to end on a suitably dark, satirical note. It's a rousing ending, but it's simply not enough to save the film, which is a damn shame.

Mister Lonely (Harmony Korine)

Korine's heartfelt ode to the outsider might not be the strangest film I saw at TIFF, but it's a contender. Taking place mostly in a commune for celebrity impersonators, it strives to replicate the feel of a weirdo 70's film like THE NINTH CONFIGURATION or KING OF HEARTS, but ends up a pale imitation at best. Still, there's a lot to like, particularly Samantha Morton's performance as a lonely Marilyn Monroe impersonator. The oddball tone may grate at times, but at least it's not boring. Bonus points for the Werner Herzog / flying nun sequences that intersperse throughout.

Eat, for This is My Body (Michelange Quay)

A weird, personal exploration of Haiti and the difficulties it's experienced dealing with its French "ownership." At times, the much-vaunted strangeness is fairly transparent, but then you're knocked back by a scene that refuses easy understanding--the mesmerizing elderly DJ scene, the "Merci" sequence, the daughter's hypnotic walk into the center of the village. I'm not sure I could explain the whole thing, but a large part of me never wants to understand it, at least not completely.

Glory to the Filmmaker! (Takeshi Kitano)

The strangest film of the festival, no contest. Like Takeshis', this is Takeshi Kitano exploring his own relationship to film and attempting to make sense of it. But that does nothing to convey the sheer insanity of this thing. The first thirty or forty minutes consist of a series of genre spoofs, with Takeshi attempting to make a film, but failing miserably when he can't find inspiration. The spoofs are sometimes funny, but are mostly dull and obvious. But then the film settles on a story (sort of) and a central set of characters, and it quickly changes into...well, something else.

This is the part that seemed to lose much of the audience, but the group I was with laughed like crazy. It's not all funny and the funny stuff is so ridiculous and so silly, it might not be funny to every viewer, but I had a lot of fun with this and recommend it to anyone interested in weirdo Japanese flicks.

Chaotic Ana (partial) (Julio Medem)

We had to leave Medem's film prematurely, so we missed the (reportedly) bonkers ending, but the bits leading up to it were pretty incoherent. Ana, a young, pretty girl who lives in a cave with her father, is invited to join a prestigious art school by Charlotte Rampling, where she meets a handsome painter and attends hilariously pretentious art shows. In the meantime, she begins to recall past lives, all of which seem to have ended prematurely and very badly. It's a pretty silly film and it takes itself far, far too seriously. I just regret not seeing the ending, which sounds like it would have been the single most bonkers thing I would have seen at the festival.

That's all. I'm done. Any questions, comments, etc. just leave them in the box. It's about time I started writing about this year's festival.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Good Old-Fashioned TIFF 2007 Roundup - The Meh

Hello again. Here's part 2 of my massively delayed 2007 roundup.

These are the films I met with a hearty shrug. Most of these aren't bad movies--they just didn't do anything for me. On with the show...


The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald)
A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Nobuhiro Yamashita)

Two contrasting takes on modern teenage life, both of which made me thank the heavens I was no longer a teenager. Honestly, neither film is bad. THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS distinguishes itself with a supremely chaotic design, where the film's editing reflects Tracey's fragmented mind. Thoughts, stray words, weird images, imagined conversations, all compete within a single frame for our attention. It's often very arresting, particularly in a heartbreaking scene where Tracey has sex with her school crush--her fantasies dominate the moment, but soon, the unromantic reality takes precedent and all she's left with is something cold and meaningless. It's a great scene, an authorial commentary seeping into the frame almost in spite of Tracey's desires. But the film lacks the distance that might have given it a sharper edge. Instead, we're mostly left floundering in Tracey's mind, and after a while, that becomes almost unbearable. That might have been the point, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating.

A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE focuses on a very, very different teenage girl--an innocent and naive girl living in a rural province in Japan. Her life centers around her school, which only has a handful of students left, most of whom share a single classroom. Into this simple existence comes a boy, who moves to the town from Tokyo. Thus begins a slow-burning, chaste romance that never elevates above hand-holding and a single, halting kiss. There's not much more to it than that In truth, there's nothing really wrong with this film. But a year after having watched it, I find it difficult to remember any highs or lows, anything truly memorable, as though the movie was itself a gentle breeze, enervating in the moment and forgotten the next. (Ooh...poetic!)

Jar City (Baltasar Kormakur)

Lots of little things bugged me about this one, but I don't feel like dragging them out. Mainly, it's an interesting premise presented in a mostly uninteresting manner. I don't want to drag spoilers into my arguments, so let's just say that the film's concerns with family history, while often emotional, don't quite go far enough to address the larger ideas the film presents. At least by my estimation--your mileage may vary.

The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona)

Why didn't I like this more? It's got a creepy house, masked ghost children, some ferocious scares, a downbeat ending, good performances, a on, so forth. In short, it's everything I love about classy ghost stories. So why didn't it work for me? Why did I spend half the film frustrated by the husband's stubborn refusal to accept the supernatural? Why did I find the resolution both satisfactory and underplayed? Why could I not stop nitpicking the back story and the character's actions? Regardless, it's worth a look, if only for the moments when it comes alive (particularly when the scares kick in).

With Your Permission (Paprika Steen)

Not bad, with a seriously twisted sensibility, but the eventual mix of sentiment and black comedy doesn't quite work. Often very funny, sometimes genuinely affecting, but never wholly successful.

Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains (Jonathan Demme)

Great man, so-so documentary. Its biggest strength lies in the contrast between a former president's tireless and arduous effort to improve the world and the current president (unseen and mostly unremarked upon), who, in eight years of office, has yet to show one scintilla of Carter's passion or compassion.

Run, Fat Boy, Run (David Schwimmer)

Awful romantic comedy, but it definitively proves that Simon Pegg and Dylan Moran can make even the most simple-minded, poorly executed comedies tolerable just by showing up.

Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-Sheng)

Weird, boring, pretentious, sad, silly, fascinating--Lee Kang-Sheng's film is all these things, sometimes simultaneously. What it is not is a terribly good film. Like most of them on this list, it's not necessarily bad--it's just...missing something. Something crucial that would give the whole thing focus. Without it, the string of deeply depressed and repressed characters, grasping desperately for any kind of sexual gratification they can find, becomes wearying rather than enlightening. That said, anything this unusual should be given a chance regardless.

Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike)

Dear Takashi Miike,

Hi! I like your movies. They are weird and sometimes very fun. They often get a little boring, but then something awesome happens and then I am happy. Still, something weird is happening (weirder than your movies, if you can believe it). What's happening is this: I'm kind of getting tired of your movies. They are still kind of cool, and the awesome parts are still kind of awesome, but...that's it. These days, it's like there's nothing else there. Maybe it's just this one, which starts out awesome, but quickly gets dull. And what's with the length, man. You're not Sergio Leone and this isn't Once Upon a Time in the West. This story didn't need to be dragged out forever and ever. Anyway, keep making movies, only make them better.

Crunchy Squirrel's Inner Twelve Year-Old

Mad Detective (Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai)

Another great premise / iffy execution film. I'm still puzzling through this one, so look for a future installment dissecting this and something else sometime later.

That's it for now. On to part three: The Hell?!

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Good Old-Fashioned TIFF 2007 Roundup - The Good

Here we go. It's my roundup of last year's TIFF, only nine months late. Woo hoo! I've split it into three parts, because it's easier and I like things that come in threes. And I'll do some larger write-ups of some of the more interesting films at a later date (if I remember, of course). Anyway, I'll shut up now.


You, the Living (Roy Andersson)

Not quite the revelation that Songs from the Second Floor was, but still a singular experience. Funny, but not quite a comedy; sad, but not quite a drama; strange, but grounded in real human behavior. It kind of stumbles on occasion, especially in a long stretch where Andersson trades out the offbeat humor for straight-up pathos, but it's worth it for the ingenious newlywed sequence, a bracing combination of deep sadness and "how'd-he-do-that" dazzle. Bonus points for the bleakly funny ending.

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin) / Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)

I'll review these soon. Short take: they're wonderful, two of the best of the fest.

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

The 21st century interprets the 18th century interpreting the 16th century. As strange as that sounds, it plays even stranger. Deliberately wooden acting and lengthy speeches about love and virtue make it slightly off at first, but the film gradually wears you down with its exceedingly dry wit and sincerity. And the ending is terrific, the best of its kind in a romantic film since Before Sunset.

The Man from London (Bela Tarr)

I didn't finish the film, but the half I did see was mesmerizing. Agonizingly slow and methodical, yes, but mesmerizing too. Deep down, I know I should find Tarr's humorless, ponderous filmmaking to be pretentious wankery, but there's something about his style that I find deeply compelling. Perhaps its the attention to detail, best represented here by the ridiculously complicated opening scene of the film, depicting the incident that sets the plot in motion. Whatever it is, I can't resist it.

No Country for Old Men (Ethan and Joel Coen)

Ah, hell, everybody's seen this already. Nobody needs my review.

Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway)

Let's be honest: Greenaway can be a wee bit pompous. He's the only filmmaker at TIFF who would introduce his film with a mini-lecture on Rembrandt and the age he lived in, as though the assembled audience was a classroom of students. No matter--the man has an eye like no other. and a deep-seated wit that keeps his work from becoming too self-indulgent. This one's one of his best recent efforts, thanks mostly to Martin Freeman's terrific central performance. It's a little long and a little off at times, but I was pretty enthralled by the whole thing.

Jellyfish (Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret)

The post-festival reviews have been mixed to negative, but this was a nice breath of fresh air in the middle of a busy, loaded week. Lightly surreal, it follows several Israeli men and women, whose lives connect in unusual ways. Admittedly, that description makes it sound like the sort of arthouse film that has choked the cinemas in the last ten or so years, but this one finds a tone of sweet cynicism that elevates it above the rabble.

Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer)

A pitch-perfect recreation of silent cinema, fused with a dash of social satire. It shouldn't work, yet it often reaches giddy heights, especially in the wild, Keatonesque chase that closes the film.

Sad Vacation
(Shinji Aoyama)

I'm not quite sure about this one. For one thing, it has one of the most baffling endings I've seen in ages--a raspberry sent directly towards audience expectations. For another, it's a semi-sequel to earlier films Shinji Aoyama made, none of which I've even seen. And yet....the whole thing has a strange power, a weird sensibility that I've tried to parse since watching it and haven't gotten any closer to understanding. I know writing this makes no sense to anyone who hasn't seen the film, but I can't explain it any better right now. Maybe I'll write the thing up at a future date....

OK, that's it for now. Also good, but going in a later write-up, for reasons that will become apparent: Glory to the Filmmaker! and Eat, for This is My Body.

Next up: The Meh

Sunday, June 15, 2008

New Beginnings for 2008

Hello out there. It's time to dust off ye olde website and start preparing for TIFF 2008. If there's anyone out there at all, you might recall that I made all kinds of grandiose claims last year about "finishing what I started" and all that. Hell, you could just scroll down and see where I say that over and over again. Well, as you can see, that didn't happen.

I guess I should confess something: I'm not a very good blogger. I hope that isn't a huge shock to anyone. I don't have the internal drive and need to communicate that seems to be a prerequisite for serious bloggers. I'm lazy, I procrastinate madly and I mix up my metaphors like a dog driving a car through a plate glass window.

Here, however, is the real confession: I hate writing. Maybe I should clarify that: Writing frightens me. There's something so naked and personal about expressing yourself in a forum like this that makes me shrivel up inside. It's silly, it's irrational and it's strange behavior for someone who at least likes to pretend that he's a writer. But there it is and I can't avoid it or make it go away by magic.

So I will instead try to make it go away by writing more. I know what you're saying. "For the love of god, don't make any promises, you moron!" Well, here it goes: I promise to write more on this blog for the 2008 festival than I did last year or the year before. I also promise to make this a more wide-ranging blog than it has been, by focusing on more than just the festival and Toronto. Hopefully, you'll stick around. If not, oh well.

As ever, leave your thoughts or insults in the comments. They're always welcome, even if I never seem to respond to them. Sorry.

By the way, if you've been here, but haven't been to 1st Thursday, you should definitely go there now. Darren does what I've tried to do, only successfully. It's the best TIFF website you'll find anywhere.