Friday, September 30, 2011

Bunraku Brings Beauty to Hollow Puppets


Bunraku premiered at last year’s TIFF as part of the Midnight Madness program. The film’s first screening received very positive reviews so I went in to the second screening with rather high expectations. As it was the last film I watched at the festival that year, I was ready to sit back and enjoy the ride. Unfortunately, while a visual treat, I could not fathom what caused the rave reviews that I had heard going into the film? After spending the last year touring the festival circuit, Bunraku is finally hits theatres today in limited release.

A mishmash of both the martial-arts and western genres, Bunraku focuses on a nameless man, referred to as Drifter (Josh Hartnett) who has strolled into town looking to exact revenge on the notorious crime lord Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman). In a world where guns have been banned, Nicola uses nine specific assassins to do his bidding. To get to Nicola, Drifter must team up with a samurai, Yoshi (Gackt), who has his own score to settle, in order to bring down Nicola’s reign. However, one assassin in particular, Killer No. 2 (Kevin McKidd), is determined to ensure that Drifter does not succeed.

Normally I will rally behind any action film that has a unique style, Bunraku has this in spades. You could take several frames from the film and easily convert them into a beautiful poster. Visually speaking, the film is just wonderful. Director Guy Moshe clearly has an astute eye for colour and detail. The set design alone, especially in the jail break scene, is worth seeing.

What hinders Bunraku though, is that the film offers nothing more than pretty visuals. Sure the fight scenes have good choreography, but they are not thrilling. The fights also become repetitive rather quickly. If you are making an action film with a thin plot, you better make sure that the action sequences are outstanding. Sadly only one of the fight scenes is somewhat memorable.

The talented cast is underused for the majority of the film. While it is clear the actors are having fun with their roles, their characters are extremely one dimensional. There is really no reason for Demi Moore to be in the film. Her character, Alexandra, is only there to show that Nicola has weaknesses, which is something that could have easily been established without her. The real standout actors in the film are Woody Harrelson and Kevin McKidd. Harrelson brings a comedic touch to the film as the wise bartender who teaches Drifter and Yoshi how to co-exist. McKidd is fantastic as the cold-blooded Killer No. 2. He brings both style and swagger to the character. Besides the great visuals, McKidd’s work is the only other highlight in Bunraku. If you are expecting something more than pretty visuals, Bunraku is not the film for you.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Which is Better?

Aaron Eckhart
10 sample films:

In the Company of Men
Thank You for Smoking
Erin Brockovich
The Dark Knight
Any Given Sunday
The Core
Your Friends & Neighbors
The Black Dahlia
Rabbit Hole
Battle Los Angeles


Sam Rockwell
10 sample films:

Matchstick Men
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Charlie’s Angels
Galaxy Quest
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Cowboys and Aliens

Which do you prefer? Let us know in the comments section

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Blow Out the Candles: Naomi Watts

Naomi Watts
Born September 28, 1968

Naomi Watts’ filmography is one of great variety. Since she wowed critics and audiences alike in her role in David Lynch’s psychological thriller, Mulholland Drive, she has appeared in several films, all very different from each other.

Mulholland Drive launched Watts’ career, bringing her out from under the radar and into the consciousness of filmmakers and moviegoers.
She’s a subtle actress, yet she possesses a powerful screen presence, holding her own next to heavyweight actors and consistently executing both quiet and bold performances in many genres of film.

No film showcases Watts’ range as an actress as in her breakthrough role in Mulholland Drive. In a way, Watts could identify with the character she plays in the film since one of the film’s various plot lines revolves around a young Hollywood starlet (played by Watts) trying to fulfill her dreams of movie stardom.
Before landing the role, Watts was trying to do just that in her own life.

Watts didn’t have it easy trying to forge a film career and an identity for herself in the movie industry. She was 31 when she got her first big break in Mulholland Drive, a relatively late start compared to her counterparts in the biz who had established themselves as film heavyweights in their twenties, long before Watts made an impression on David Lynch. But the struggle to make it is where the similarity between Watts and naïve, small-town girl, Betty Elms, whom she portrays in the film, ends.

Watts has managed to star in good movies while remaining out of the glaring spotlight and off the tabloid train. Even after two high-profile romances – a two-year long relationship with the late Heath Ledger and her current long-term union with actor, Liev Schreiber – Watts has avoided becoming the fodder for gossip, and doesn’t seem to set flashbulbs a-popping wherever she goes. She’s achieved critical acclaim as an actress and has brought a character focus to films that could simply have been special effects vehicles (The Ring and King Kong), and she’s made a mark on-screen without personal drama to raise her profile.

She followed her star-making turn in Mulholland Drive with an entirely different kind of film – a remake of the Japanese horror film The Ring. The film is a dark and suspenseful one about a video that brings certain death seven days after you watch it. Although the look of The Ring is good and certain scenes make your spine tingle, the storyline was, in my opinion, a bit absurd and the climax too drawn out. That said, Watts brings a degree of legitimacy to the movie as the female lead and saviour.

Watts played another splendid heroine in the blockbuster remake of King Kong. Although a tad long with some unnecessary scenes with monsters and such, the film is a slick, stylized and entertaining one. Watts delivers the film’s strongest performance by expressing a superb range of emotion in her interactions with Kong, instilling the outlandish premise with a sense of authenticity and believability.

The role that stands out most for me on Watts’ resume is her Academy Award nominated performance in 21 Grams. Watts’ performance as a recovering drug addict, whose stable, happy recovery is derailed by unimaginable tragedy and loss, is gripping and deeply moving. I remember how absorbed I became as I watched Watts’ character set off on a path of renewed substance abuse and revenge.

Watts may not be out there all the time like other actresses, gracing magazine covers every month or headlining entertainment shows, but her work earns her plenty of notice and recognition, and it’s nice to watch a performance by an actress without all of the other outside stuff getting in the way and colouring it.

What performances by Naomi Watts are your favourite? Let us know in the comments section.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

8 ½ in Eight Words

I was originally planning to write about my experiences watching Federico Fellini’s cinematic masterpiece 8 ½ in a regular review. The more I thought about it, I realized that writing about eight specific points that stood out would be more fitting as this film has been analyzed to death. Then my lovely wife suggested that I sum up the film in eight simple words. I told her that it was impossible to sum up a film like in only eight words, but the look on her face clearly implied that the challenge had been laid down. So below is my feeble attempt to sum up my thoughts on 8 ½ in just eight words:

Visually striking dreamlike exploration of memory and film

8 ½ is part of our "The Must See List" series.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Small Bites: Hanna, The Lincoln Lawyer, and Stake Land


Unique take on the coming of age tale. Not quite the action film I was expecting, but I enjoyed it for the most part. The action sequences work well and the set design in the last act is fantastic. There is something a little off about the pacing that irked me. However, I doubt it will be noticeable upon repeat viewings. For her part, Saoirse Ronan does a nice job blending both Hanna’s naivety and her killer instinct. Cate Blanchett is the weak link in the film. She just never reaches the level of her counterparts. Tom Hollander routinely steals Blanchett thunder with his chilling performance as the sadistic Issac.

The Lincoln Lawyer

Just as I was starting to lose faith in Matthew McConaughey’s career choices, he turns it around and reminds me that there may be some magic left. McCounaughey brings his trademark charm to the role of shady lawyer Micky Haller. The film is very reminiscent of Primal Fear though Ryan Phillippe is not as memorable as Edward Norton was in that film. The one major issue I had with the film is that it has multiple endings. The conversation with the mother and the scenes outside Maggie’s (Marisa Tomei) house are completely unnecessary. Last act aside, The Lincoln Lawyer ended up being better than I expected. I would have no problem seeing Mickey Haller in another film.

Stake Land

Although I like to think of this film as its own entity, if pressed I would say it has a Zombieland meets 28 Days Later vibe. The major difference being that this film takes a far more realistic approach to the post-apocalyptic genre. Similar to the zombies in 28 Days, the vampires are the least of mankind’s worries. The real terror in the film comes from the religious zealots whose skewed view causes more damage than anything the vampires can dish out. Director Jim Mickle’s script really shapes the film into a character study about mankind rather than a straight vampire flick. Beside the solid story, it was nice to see both Kelly McGillis and Sean Nelson back on the big screen in prominent roles.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Adventures in Podcasting: LAMBcast #85 - Bande à part

I return to the LAMBcast podcast to discuss Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (Bande of Outsiders). As this was my first experience with Godard I was not sure what to expect. Needless to say the film led to a rather lively discussion. Also in this episode, I test my knowledge of Benicio Del Toro and Dennis Hopper films in the Last Lamb Standing game.

Others who took part in this episode:

Dylan (host) – Man, I Love Films
JamesCinema Sights
Steve1001 Plus
FredoFilm Yarn

Give the episode a listen below:

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sharing the Blogging Love

Wondering what bloggers have been chatting about this week?

Here is Your Reading and Listening Schedule for Today:

10 am: Episode 52 of the Can’t Stop the Movies podcast discusses Drive and Robert Pattinson’s career options after Twilight.

11 am: In Episode 59 of the Cinematic Method podcast, the guys talk about Abduction, Killer Elite and more.

12 pm: The Scarlet Sp1der is holding a poll to see who are the two best movie sidekicks

1 pm: Brett and Ty remind me why I need to see Gymkata.

2 pm: Never Too Early Movie Predictions has their latest rankings for next year’s Best Actor Oscar race.

3 pm: Castor list the six best Ryan Gosling performances.

4 pm: Steven has a great review of Bande à Part. A film I recently talked about for an upcoming episode of The LAMBcast.

5 pm: Aziza reviews Revolutionary Road.

6 pm: Andy shares a few thoughts on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. A film I rather enjoyed.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The unforgettable face of an unforgettable actor

Film just won’t be the same without Pete Postlethwaite. Despite a lengthy battle with cancer, the news of his death in January was still a shock. With his unique name, his rugged, raw-boned face and his resume of versatility, Postlethwaite was a casting director’s go-to guy for conveying characters with brutality and violence as well as those with sweet stoicism and gentle kindness. That’s how I remember Postlethwaite’s roles – supporting characters of opposite poles; at times brutish, bad, menacing and violent; at other times tender, heroic, loving or amused.

I was introduced to Postlethwaite when he played a good guy in Jim Sheridan’s true-life drama about the Guildford Four, In the Name of the Father. In the film, Postlethwaite plays law-abiding, protective and fiercely loyal father, Guiseppe Conlon, on a doomed mission to save his son who is falsely accused of murder. In the end, both father and son are wrongfully arrested for being Irish Republican Army terrorists, and Postlethwaite’s character becomes the sacrificial figure that dies in prison before his son’s release. Postlethwaite’s role was impressive and powerful and it earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

In what has become an iconic supporting role, Postlethwaite played a bad guy in Bryan Singer’s mystery thriller The Usual Suspects. In the film, Postlethwaite emerges as Mr. Kobayashi, an enigmatic, sinister figure who works for the mythical, criminal mastermind Keyser Söze. Postlethwaite’s unconventional looks perfectly befit the role of the shady lawyer shrouded in mystery and guile, suspected at times to be Keyser Söze himself.

One of my favourite Postlethwaite roles is his turn as the good friar in Baz Luhrmann’s modern-day version of Romeo and Juliet. Postlethwaite was perfect as Friar Lawrence, the kind, well-intentioned confidante to both Romeo and Juliet who is always ready with a plan. Postlethwaite’s delivery of the famous “two households” monologue to set the scene was masterful (the iambic pentameter just rolled off his tongue), likely something his Shakespearean stage acting helped to perfect.

In another role as the meanest of men, Postlethwaite portrayed the unrepetant, villainous and ferocious lawyer intent on suppressing evidence of illegal slave-trading in Steven Spielberg's period drama Amistad.

Postlethwaite strayed from period pieces and edgy thrillers when he starred in the action-packed, special effects film – The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The film is a needless sequel after the stellar original, but Postlethwaite’s turn as a wild game hunter tasked with hunting and killing the male Tyrannosaurus Rex makes the film worth watching.

In 2010, Postlethwaite returned to his wheelhouse of playing bad men and delivered a superb performance in The Town, proving that he could do more in a small role than some actors do in a lead one. In the film, Postlethwaite plays Fergie the Florist, a Boston crime boss who works out of his flower shop. Postlethwaite commanded the screen in his few scenes in the film, exuding understated terror as he casually trimmed long-stemmed roses while delivering deadly threats and ultimatums to his lackeys.

His name may have been hard to pronounce, but his face and his work, are unforgettable.

What are your favourite Pete Postlethwaite movies? Let us know in the comments section.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Which is Better?

Amy Adams
10 sample films:

The Fighter
Drop Dead Gorgeous
Sunshine Cleaning
Catch Me If You Can
Serving Sara
Charlie Wlison’s War
Julie & Julia


Michelle Williams
10 sample films:

Blue Valentine
Brokeback Mountain
The Station Agent
Shutter Island
Wendy and Lucy
Prozac Nation
I’m Not There
Synecdoche, New York
Meek’s Cutoff

Which do you prefer? Let us know in the comments section

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Best Picture? What a Foreign Concept!

Over the last eleven year’s TIFF has slowly become a major when it comes to Academy Award winners. Two of the last three Best Picture winners (Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech) were also winners of TIFF’s prestigious People’s Choice Award. 2009 Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, did not win the People’s Choice Award, but it screened at the festival the same year as Slumdog Millionaire. If you look closely at the Best Picture nominees over an eleven year span you will noticed that eighteen of the sixty-five nominated films screened at TIFF. This number increases drastically when you start factoring in all the other Academy Award categories.

One less publicized area where TIFF seems to have an outstanding track record is in the Best Foreign Language film category. In the past eleven years, every winner of this category has screened at TIFF. Despite its track record with foreign language films, TIFF has been unsuccessful in changing people’s perceptions of the Best Picture with respects to foreign language films winning. This year’s People’s Choice winner was Where Do We Go Now? The weeks leading up to TIFF, and especially during, people were speculating which films would win the award and thus become a front-runner for the Best Picture award. Many of the film titles being thrown around featured several well known actors/actresses. Then something strange happened, a Lebanese film was announced as the People’s Choice winner and the mood shifted immediately. No longer were the media outlets talking Best Picture buzz, but almost lackadaisically referred to the film as having a shot in the Foreign category.

The fact that a foreign language film immediately gets discredited from the Best Picture debate is still rather shocking in this day and age. Even more disturbing is that a foreign language film still has not won the Best Picture award. The last two foreign language films to even get nominated in the Best Picture category were Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 and Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006. Both of those films lost to Gladiator and The Departed respectively.

Of course some will point to the fact that foreign language films have their own specific category; others will simply state that not every film can be nominated for Best Picture. However, these are probably the same people who will turn around and champion the merits of Pixar films such as Up or Toy Story 3 winning the Best Picture award instead of being relegated to the Best Animated category. The sad thing is that animated films, while good in their own right, still stand a better chance of snagging a Best Picture award than a foreign language film.

What is it about foreign language films that keep Academy voters away? Maybe the lack of Best Picture support is merely a reflection of the current film going culture. At the end of the day people want to cheer for stars they know. Critics and bloggers now post list of possible award hopefuls well before the actual film is released. Their views are often based simply on the film’s synopsis, director and cast. Clint Eastwood making a film on J. Edgar Hoover with Leonardo DiCapro immediately gets thrown in the Oscar discussion just based on the idea. Whether the film is actually good or not is the last thing considered. Foreign language films on the other hand are usually judged by the strength of their story.

It is a shame that with all the technology we have today, foreign language films are still viewed with a bit of distain. Although access to foreign language films has increased, it seems many are still not willing to look at them as serious Best Picture contenders. No matter how much people love a film like Amélie, at the end of the day films like A Beautiful Mind will most likely walk away with the Best Picture praise.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Summertime at the Movies: Not this Year

It used to be that summertime was my favourite time to go to the movies. I’d go to the theatre on every opening weekend to see the week’s newest big release. I remember great opening weekend releases that I looked forward to with excitement and that delivered on their hype like Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Dark Knight. I found the slate of summer movies this year pretty underwhelming with too few appealing and original films to move me.

The summer movie lineup over the past couple of years has been dominated by too many prequels, sequels, comic book, 80’s cartoon and TV show adaptations, and reboots. I appreciated the comic book genre when it made a major splash by offering up some great film fare like Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman Begins, Iron Man and The Dark Knight. But a good thing was ruined when studios began to flood theatres during summer with substandard adaptations and mediocre sequels and reboots. This summer was the precursor to the upcoming The Avengers movie, so studios gave us Thor and Captain America, and also available was the Green Lantern and the graphic novel adaptation Cowboys and Aliens. Add to that the slew of prequels, sequels and remakes like X-Men: First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Conan the Barbarian, Fright Night, and Final Destination 5, and one cartoon adapted for the big screen, The Smurfs, and there was little left for me to get excited about seeing.
This summer I went to the movies just once and saw The Hangover 2, which was a big letdown. I steered clear of the comic book films because, quite frankly, I’m a little burned out on them. I prefer to remember the cartoons of my childhood as they were – simply animated and classically entertaining – versus the film adaptations of today that take beloved cartoon characters, create a CGI equivalent and place them in a live action world. And films based on television programs have, in my opinion, been the least effective film vehicle adaptation of the bunch. Thankfully, movie audiences were spared this summer from painful, regrettable adaptations of summer’s past like Bewitched.

As a big movie fan that enjoys going to the movies, it’s been hugely disappointing to feel like there is so little in theatres to look forward to. Studios are dragging out franchises to the point where they’re becoming ineffective and unmemorable (like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, for one), and sequels are suffering their usual fate of not standing up to their predecessors (The Dark Knight and Toy Story 3 excluded.) The lack of original material is becoming increasingly frustrating and so is the trend that seems to have emerged – that studios are banking on the safest bets possible by turning out recycled goods and franchises that come with built-in audiences that are easier to sell, and what’s resulted is a dire crop of summer movies. What I hope is that studios will get off this safe track and start taking risks to offer some glimmers of light amidst the unoriginality to move me out to theatres during summer as in the good ol’ days.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Scene Stealer: Boogie Nights

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights is a provocative, complex, risky and memorable film. Boogie Nights is about the adult film industry during a time when movies were shot on film and played in theatres. Jack Horner (played perfectly by Burt Reynolds) is an adult film director who dreams of making adult movies with good stories that will keep audiences watching for more than just the sex.

Boogie Nights has many memorable scenes thanks to its superb ensemble cast and several subplots depicting how the different characters make lives for themselves in the adult film industry and what transpires when they leave it.

One of the film’s finest scenes is a startling one featuring William H. Macy. Macy plays Little Bill, a middle-aged man employed as an assistant director in the adult film industry who is married to a porn star. Little Bill’s wife (played by porn star Nina Hartley) gets it on with every man she can except for her husband and she isn’t shy about it. In one scene, Little Bill discovers his wife having sex in the driveway surrounded by appreciative on-lookers. When Bill asks his wife what she’s doing, she replies “Shut up, Bill. You’re embarrassing me.”

The startling scene comes later at a New Year’s Eve party to ring in the year 1980. Little Bill discovers his wife once again being unfaithful in the house where the party is being held. Driven to the ultimate breaking point from having been humiliated and betrayed numerous times before, Little Bill, dazed, goes out to his car, removes a handgun, and returns to the room where he discovered his wife, shoots her and her lover, then puts the gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

The shot sequence is itself a spectacular presentation of Anderson’s skills as a director as it’s one long steadicam shot. Anderson is a self-made film director without any formal film education, which makes his incredible aptitude of staging complicated camera movements that much more impressive. The long tracking shot is not an easy technique to master, yet Anderson uses it masterfully to film this scene stealer in Boogie Nights. The shot continuity makes the heart wrenching collapse of Little Bill powerfully startling for it’s not until he pulls the trigger that the shot is cut. What is doubly effective about this scene and its execution is how it’s used as the catalyst for the dark times that will engulf all of the characters in the 80’s.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Drive One Thrilling Commute


The rumbling started early in the theatre, at first it was just a few snide comments here and there. By the time the credits started to role the crumbling had reached its crescendo when one viewer yelled out “this is one of the worst movies I have ever seen.” While each person is entitled to their own opinion, it was clear that the majority of the audience was anticipating a completely different film than what they got. The marketing campaign is trying to sell Drive as a film that is in the same vein as The Transporter series, when in fact it is a far slicker film noir that does not mainly rely on “fist of fury” to advance the plot.

Ryan Gosling continues his string of stirring performances as an unnamed man, referred to as “Driver”, who has an unbelievable talent when it comes to cars. Working as both a mechanic and a part-time film stunt-driver, Driver tends to keep to himself. He barely talks to his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston). This all changes when Driver meets and falls for his next door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mother whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is unexpectedly released from prison early. Standard owes money to some men who are threatening to harm Irene and his son Benicio (Kaden Leos), if he does not agree to rob a pawn shop. Fearing for Irene and Benicio’s safety, Driver volunteers to be Standard’s getaway driver. What Driver does not know is that the money they are about to steal belongs to local gangsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman).

Drive is very reminiscent of the action thrillers that the likes of Michael Mann and Brian De Palma use to make in the 80’s. Nicolas Winding Refn infuses the picture with his unique style which allows the film to separate itself from contemporary action films. One thing audiences will notice immediately is how little dialogue is spoken by the protagonist. While Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman play their scenes large, Gosling is always internalizing his emotions. There are numerous scenes in which Refn lets the camera quietly linger on Driver’s face as the character works things out. Having an action film that is filled with more quite moments than heart stopping action is almost unheard of in an age where action films are usually filled with loud explosions.

This is not to say that Drive is devoid of action, in fact the film has several great action scenes. The major difference here is that scenes of violence flourish as a result of the silence that often precedes it. Like most of Refn’s films the violence is brutal and unflinching, but never reaches the point of being gratuitous. Refn also keeps the action leaning towards the more realistic side of things. There is no scene where Driver is in a shootout with eight guys at once, nor is there a scene where Driver is jumping out of a building just before it explodes. The final action sequence may seem underwhelming to those expecting a standard action film ending, yet in the context of the world that Refn has created, the sequence works extremely well.

Refn is meticulous with how he orchestrates both his action scenes as well as his quieter moments. In one tense elevator scene, Driver slowly moves the unaware Irene behind him for safety. The use of lighting in this scene is brilliant. Refn first darkens the elevator to accentuate the pending violence, but then brightens the light on Irene to symbolize her character’s awakening. In the span of a few minutes Irene shares a romantic moment with Driver and also realizes his tendency towards violence. It is moments like these that make Drive such a thrill to watch.

Reel Asian Film Festival presents a FREE movie: WHITE ON RICE - Sat Sept 24

In celebration of their 15th anniversary, the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival is presenting a FREE screening of 2009 festival favourite, WHITE ON RICE!

Things go from bad to worse when 40-year-old Jimmy falls in love with the beautiful Ramona while seeking advice from and sharing a bunkbed with his 10-year-old nephew. Starring Hiroshi Watanabe (Letters from Iwo Jima), Lynn Chen (Saving Face) and James Kyson Lee (Heroes).

Toronto Underground Cinema (186 Spadina Ave)
Director Dave Boyle | USA 2009 | Rated 14A
English, Japanese w/English subtitles
FREE ADMISSION - Tickets are available on a first-come, first-serve basis and will be released at 6:00PM.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

TIFF Review: 11 Flowers

11 Flowers

11 Flowers may be Wang Xiaoshuai’s most personal film to date. Taking place in 1975, a year before the Mao’s death, the film follows eleven year-old Wang Han (Liu Wenqing) as he goes about his daily life in his rural town in southwest China. After displaying a strong work ethic, Han is appointed school gym leader and is told that he should get a new shirt as he will be the one that the students look up to. Reluctant at first, Han’s mother (Yan Ni) spends a year’s worth of cloth rations to get the material needed to make the shirt. After impressing his friends with new attire, Han is horrified when his shirt is stolen by a wounded fugitive, Jueqiang (Wang Ziyi), taking shelter in the woods.

Now a story about a boy and his stolen shirt may not sound compelling, but 11 Flowers is far deeper than its premise leads you to believe. The film is really a tale of a society repressed by its government. Han’s shirt represents a loss of innocence. Whether Han is playing hide and seek with his friends or searching for his stolen shirt, he is constantly confronted with the harsh reality of the time in which he lives. Xiaoshuai shows how the Cultural Revolution impacted every single facet of life.

The era was a time of poverty and widespread violence. Even those fortunate enough to have jobs had to work in less than desirable conditions. This is encapsulated nicely through Han’s father (Wang Jingchun) , an artistic and intellectual person who is forced to leave his job with the Opera to do manual work in the rural town. His father not only gets injured while on the job, but also gets attacked by the Red Guard when he attempts to help a fellow co-worker in distress.

Throughout 11 Flowers, Xiaoshuai shows how people were often forced to take justice into their own hands. The story of Jueqiang is the film’s most fascinating subplot, as his crimes are hotly debated by many of the villagers. While outlandish rumours fly about town, Han discovers what lead Jueqiang to murder a respected factory owner. It is this encounter that really changes Han by the end of the film. While his friends all race to see Jueqiang’s public execution, Han stops and decides to head home. The scene subtly signifies the end of Han’s childish innocence.

11 Flowers is a poignant film that effectively displays the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of a child. Wang Xiaoshuai’s cast does a great job of hitting all the right emotions. His young lead, Liu Wenqing, manages to carry the bulk of the film’s workload while still maintaining Han’s overall naiveté. If there is one knock against 11 Flowers, and it is a minor one, it is that the film feels longer than its actual running time. However, when dealing with such heavy issues as the Cultural Revolution, one should not expect a swift pace. Wang Xiaoshuai’s 11 Flowers offers good insight on what the director experienced as a child growing up in China. The audience sees how the events of Xiaoshuai’s past have shaped him into the director he is today.

Friday, September 16, 2011

TIFF Review: Keyhole


There are some films that reward the audience instantly for sticking with it and then there are others that require multiple viewings before one can truly understand the director’s goal. Keyhole is a film that fits in the latter category. It can be processed in different ways depending on the number of times you see it. The question is how many people will be willing to sit through the film more than once?

Taking its cue from both Homers’ The Odyssey and traditional ghost stories, Keyhole follows a gangster named Ulysses (Jason Patric), who returns to his childhood home in a quest to be reunited with his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini). Aided by Denny (Brooke Palson), a woman who drowned but is now back to life, and a bound hostage, Manners (David Wontner), Ulysses must make way his way through each room in the house. Complicating issues even further, Manners is actually Ulysses’ son, although Ulysses does not realize it. As he makes his way to the bedroom where his wife and the spirit of her father are (Louis Negin), Ulysses slowly begins to recollect all the events of his past.

Those going into Keyhole expecting The Odyssey told as a 30s gangster tale will sorely be disappointed. Even director Guy Maddin himself has stated that he views the film as “an autobiography of a house”. While it is obvious that the house has witnessed a lot over the years, it does not necessarily make for a coherent tale. Keyhole often feels like a piece of art that only the artist, in this case Maddin, truly understands.

Diehard Guy Maddin fans may eat up Keyhole’s artistic excess but most others will find the film impenetrable to decipher. The frustrating thing about Keyhole is that it has the potential to be a very good film. If nothing else, the film is far from boring as Maddin injects the film with humour and several inspired moments. Setting the entire film in the confines of one house does the story a grave disservice as many of Maddin’s ideas are never fully realized.

Despite featuring the acting talents of Patrics, Rossellini, Negin, and Udo Kier, the performances in the film are all over the place due in part to the uneven level of melodrama in Maddin’s script. The actors rarely seem to be on the same page in regards to what the overall tone should be. Again, everything may actually come together nicely upon multiple viewings of Keyhole, but it is tough to think that anyone besides hardcore Maddin fans would want to subject themselves to this mess more than once.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

TIFF Review: Lipstikka

Lipstikka (Odem)

The nature of female friendships can be complicated at the best of times. Throw several external factors in the mix and the intricate web only gets increasingly complex. In his latest film, Canadian-born, Israeli-raised, director Jonathan Sagall examines how everything from love to recollections of the past can damage a friendship forever.

Lara (Clara Khoury) is a Palestinian living in London with her British husband and seven year-old son. Despite being in a loveless marriage, Lara maintains the appearance of leading an idyllic life. When her old friend Inam (Nataly Attiya) arrives unexpectedly, Lara’s life is immediately thrown for a loop. Inam clearly has unfinished business from the past to settle and begins a subtle game of emotional sabotage. As the two women try their best to fake pleasantries, they each reflect on the events that brought their relationship to this strained point.

Sagall’s film utilizes a series of flashbacks to piece together several of the events that impacted Lara and Inam’s relationship. However, by giving both women separate recollections of how the events of the past actually occurred, Sagall provides audiences with a unique insight into the characters and their relationship. It alters how the audience views both women throughout the film as they end up nothing like the mother and whore archetypes that Sagall presents them to be in the beginning.

Lipstikka, at times, attempts to cast too wide a net in regards to its subject matter. The film tackles issues such as abortion, sexual discovery, mental illness, infidelity, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Sagall makes it work for the most part, but the film loses it rhythm in the final act. The last twenty minutes feel like Sagall was desperate to find away to tie up all the loose ends.

Final act aside, Lipstikka is a film that will keep the audience interested throughout. Sagall does a good job of maintaining the mystery of the women’s past by slowly unveiling information. The performances by Clara Khoury and Nataly Attiya are riveting and the actresses make up for the film’s occasional shortcomings. Although the film may not provide the answers audiences hope for, Lipstikka has enough positive elements going for it to make it worth seeing.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TIFF Review: Breathing

Breathing (Atmen)

Every year there are a bunch of films that screen at TIFF which arrive with little to no fanfare at all. It seems even the press seem to overlook these films for some reason or another. The fascinating thing is, once given the chance, that these films often turn out to be hidden gems. They are films so moving that it is perplexing how they got lost in the shuffle in the first place? In many ways Karl Markovics‘, best known for his acting work in the film The Counterfeiters, directorial debut is one of these films.

Breathing tells the tale of Roman (Thomas Schubert) an 18 year-old living in a juvenile detention centre. Roman’s latest parole hearing is coming up and his parole office, Walter (Gerhard Liebmann), is pushing him to secure a job through the day-release program. Roman’s track record with the program so far has been a disaster and his previous requests for parole have been denied. Feared by the other juveniles at the facility, Roman keeps to himself as his short fuse is always one small incident away from igniting. Walter begins to wonder if Roman even wants to be released at all? Considering he is locked up for murder, Walter finds it odd when Roman finds a job moving bodies back and forth to the city morgue. Roman sees it as something to keep Walter from harassing him, but little does he know that this job may be just be the thing he needs to truly start appreciating life.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is that it never travels down the road you expect it to. Instead of falling into the temptation of playing major scenes to the maximum melodramatic effect, Markovics opts for moments that are subtler, and as a result, more powerful. In one mesmerizing scene Roman has a crucial moment with his biological mother, Margit (Karin Lischka) who but him up for adoption years earlier. When Margit reveals why she abandoned Roman it is done is a realistic, and some may argue cold, way. There are no screaming matches and no pleading for forgiveness.

Karl Markovics’ wonderful use of restraint in Breathing can easily be summed up in the character of Roman. Even when he is on the brink of exploding emotionally he maintains a relatively stoic demeanour. For his part, first time actor Thomas Schubert gives an outstanding performance as Roman. He manages to keep the character both interesting and real throughout the film. Having to carry the bulk of the film, Schubert’s work never feels forced. He really brings Markovics stunning script to life. Schubert conveys the same level of trust in Markovics, that Markovics has in the audience.

Markovics’ script is consistently good without ever divulging too much information. He shows trust in his audience by leaving many moments open to interpretation. Markovics provides just enough information so that you have a clear understanding of his vision and the overall story, but lets the audience fill in the blanks. Breathing is a striking debut from a director who clearly has an eye for great storytelling. Once viewed, it becomes clear why Breathing is Austria’s official submission for the Best Foreign film category at the 2012 Academy Awards. Just because it has not received the high profile buzz like other films at TIFF, it does not mean it should be missed.

TIFF Picks - September 14, 2011

Generation P – Victor Ginzburg
TIFF synopsis: “After the fall of communism in Russia a young advertising executive seeks inspiration from hallucinogenic drugs and uses a ouija board to summon the spirit of Che Guevara for advice.

Why I want to see it: A social satire akin to How to Get Ahead in Advertising that features the spirit of Che Guevara.

Screening Times
Wednesday September 14

Thursday September 15
Scotiabank Theatre 2

Friday September 16
Scotiabank Theatre 11

Dark Girls – Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry
TIFF synopsis: “In this emotional and heartfelt documentary, directors Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry set out to examine why skin-colour bias persists among people of African descent, and how it affects the lives of women on the receiving end.

Why I want to see it: I am always interested in documentaries that look at how a particular culture perceives themselves, as well as how they are perceived by others.

Screening Times
Wednesday September 14

Friday September 16
Scotiabank Theatre 1

Sunday September 18
AMC 10

The Student – Santiago Mitre
TIFF synopsis: “The graffitied halls, run down classrooms and surrounding streets of the University of Buenos Aires provides the ideal location for Santiago Mitre’s briskly paced debut, The Student. Mitre brilliantly exposes the backroom dealings and negotiations in the murky world of student politics, a microcosm for the world at large, in this fictional account of a young man’s discovery of his talent for politicking through his seduction of an assistant professor and activist.

Why I want to see it: The film uses school politics as commentary for the world at large. Reminds me of Election though I know the two films are vastly different.

Screening Times
Wednesday September 14

Saturday September 17

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

TIFF Review: A Monster in Paris

A Monster in Paris

Depending on how closely you follow the world of animation, the name Bibo Bergeron may evoke an immediate reaction. Bergeron has worked on numerous animated features but is most well known for his previous directorial efforts in The Road to El Dorado and Shark Tale. His latest film, A Monster in Paris, features Bergeron’s trademark animation style and a few musical numbers that will have you tapping your toes.

Set in Paris in 1910, when the city streets are flooded, the story centres around two friends, Emile (Jay Harrington) and Raoul (Adam Goldberg), who accidentally unleash a monster in Paris. One day Emile, a cinema projectionist, agrees to help Raoul, a delivery truck driver by day and inventor by night, make a few deliveries around town. One of Raoul ‘s stops include the greenhouse of an eccentric scientist who happens to be out of town. Ignoring the rules about not touching anything, the two men fool around with some of the scientist’s potions and inadvertently create a creature that stirs the citizens of Paris into a panic. With the entire city in a frenzy, a corrupt police chief (Danny Huston) is determined to slay the beast at all costs for his own political gains. However, It is only when a cabaret singer, Lucille (Vanessa Paradis), takes the monster in that Emile and Raoul realize that the creature everyone is afraid of may not be what he seems.

Like most of Bergeron’s films, the animation in A Monster in Paris is quite lovely. The city of Paris has a serene beauty that looks expansive when coupled with the 3D animation. The character designs are vibrant as well. Each character has a unique look that really helps to give Paris a distinct cultural, and artistic flavour. Bergeron does a good job of matching the looks of the characters with the actors doing the voice-over work. Speaking of voice work, the cast, which also features Bob Balaban, Sean Lennon, and Catherine O’ Hara, all provide good performance in their given roles. Adam Goldberg in particular really shines as Raoul. He gives the character that special spark which makes Raoul a joy to watch whenever he is on screen.

It also must be noted that the musical numbers are exceptional. Bergeron does not weigh the film down with countless musical numbers like other animated films tend to do. The songs he does include have a distinct Spanish feel and are undeniably catchy. It would not be surprising to see one or two of the songs receive a little recognition come award season.

Where the film falters is in its overall plot. Bergeron has several good ideas scattered throughout but they never seem to form together on the whole. Young children will no doubt love A Monster in Paris regardless, but adults will find the sloppy plot devices and underdeveloped characters rather bothersome. A Monster in Paris could have also used much tighter editing from a story standpoint. For example, there is a tender moment between Raoul and Lucille that arrives at the end of the film. The scene features a flashback to when both characters were kids. While the scene is nice, it is completely unnecessary by that point in the film. Their lover for one another has already been implied much earlier. The scene, or at least sections of if, should have either been introduced earlier or left out all together.

Although an engaging film from a visual standpoint, A Monster in Paris does not have a strong enough story to sustain its 90 minute running time. Many scenes felt like they are loosely tied together just to set up the actions sequences. However, as I mentioned earlier, young kids will eat it up. There are enough fun moments that will keep them glued to the screen. As for the adults, well at least the music will help to block out several of the film’s short comings.

TIFF Picks - September 13, 2011

Hard Core Logo II – Bruce MacDonald
TIFF synopsis: “Bruce MacDonald’s post-modernist, wryly self-conscious Hard Core Logo II, the sequel to his celebrated punk-rock faux doc, doesn’t so much mock the notion of sequels as take a blow torch to it. Protagonist is “Bruce” (McDonald), the director in the original film. He’s been living the Hollywood life in Laurel Canyon, until his series is cancelled and the only gig offered him is a doc for Wiccan TV about a singer, Care Failure, who claims she’s been possessed by Joe Dick, the leader of the punk band Hard Core Logo and the principal in “Bruce”’s doc. The focus here is the filmmaking process, but the film also poses questions about the unavoidably invasive role of the documentary filmmaker -- and, more significantly, friendship and betrayal within the film world.

Why I want to see it: Bruce McDonald always makes interesting films and rarely misses the mark. I am curious to see how much of the film actually links back to the original Hard Core Logo

Screening Times
Tuesday September 13
Scotiabank Theatre 4

Saturday September 17

Damsels in Distress – Whit Stillman
TIFF synopsis: “Back after a thirteen-year hiatus, Whit Stillman returns with Damsels in Distress- a film that is distinctly offbeat, even manic, compared to his classic nineties comedies of manners, and yet retains his precise wit and refined dialogue. Damsels in Distress takes a unique look into the psyche of privileged American youth, focusing on a group of undergraduates at a leafy East Coast university that has only recently begun to accept female students.

Why I want to see it: Finally, after thirteen-years of waiting, a new Whit Stillman film is released!

Screening Times
Tuesday September 13
Visa Screening Room (Elgin)

Wednesday September 14
Scotiabank Theatre 4

Amy George – Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas.
TIFF synopsis: “A feast for the heart and mind alike, filled with tender moments of daily teenage life turned upside-down by clumsy desire and hormonal hiccups, Amy George tells the story of Jesse, the 13 year old only child of Riverdale intellectuals.

Why I want to see it: A coming-of-age film that has faint a The Squid and the Whale vibe.

Screening Times
Tuesday September 13

Thursday September 15

Saturday September 17
AMC 10

Monday, September 12, 2011

TIFF Review: The Artist

The Artist

There is a moment early on in The Artist where silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) tries to make amends with angry wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) by attempting to lighten the tension in the room. George and his dog commence a simple comedic routine in unison that brings a smile to your face. His wife is not amused and merely walks away in disgust. It is at this moment that it becomes clear that the audience is in for a truly special experience.

Taking place between the 1920s and the early 1930s, The Artist focuses on a time in history when silent films were on the brink of extinction with the invention of “talkies”. George Valentin is one of the big stars of the silent film era. He is adored by the masses, including the young up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and he has a lot of clout with the film studios. When the studio head, Zimmer (John Goodman), tells George that the future of filmmaking are films with spoken dialogue, George scoffs at the idea and sees it merely as a gimmick. As the studio movies ahead with their plans to introduce “talkies” into cinema, George soon finds himself on the outside looking in. His career begins to spiral downwards and his only companions end up being his dog and his loyal chauffer Clifton (James Cromwell).

The Artist is a brilliant homage to an era of cinema that is gone, but not forgotten. Director Michel Hazanavicius creates a wonderful film that conveys a strong and moving story despite not having any dialogue. To say that The Artist is a technical marvel would be an understatement. The lush black and white visuals give the film an authentic feel, and the use of sound is simply stunning. For example, the scene where George is confronted by a world in which everything emits sounds but him. The use of sound helps to give the scene both a comedic, and at times horrific, effect.

Although gorgeous to look at, The Artist transcends from a mere homage film due to its depth in plot. This is as much a cautionary tale about the evils of being too prideful as it is a love letter to the cinema. George’s reluctance to accept both change and assistance from others is what leads to his downfall. Dujardin does a fantastic job of using physical gestures and expressions to display George’s state of mind through the various stages of his career. Dujardin has undeniable charisma and his scenes with Bejo are great. The pair really provide the love story with a truly magical feel.

The Artist rode into TIFF on a wave of good buzz from the Cannes Film Festival. While at times the almost defying level of hype can hurt a film, when it does not live up to people’s enhanced expectations, this is not the case here. The Artist delivers on every level as it will make you want to run out and purchase every silent film ever made. The film is a wonderful experience and it is one of the best films you will see this year.

TIFF Picks - September 12, 2011

Coriolanus – Ralph Fiennes
TIFF synopsis: “ As director and star, Ralph Fiennes brings William Shakespeare's visceral history play to the big screen for the first time. Coriolanus is a drama for the ages, a commentary on the precarious draw of war and an auspicious directorial debut from one of the world's great classical actors.

Why I want to see it: If Ralph Fiennes in the director’s chair, tackling Shakespeare, was not exciting enough, the film also features the acting talents of Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Gerard Butler and Jessica Chastain.

Screening Times
Monday September 12
Visa Screening Room (Elgin)

Saturday September 17
Scotiabank Theatre 3

Café de flore – Jean-Marc Vallée
TIFF synopsis: “ Jean-Marc Vallée returns to French-language filmmaking with this powerful and unconventional love story that weaves together two disparate narratives to create a tale of emotion and destiny. The stories center on a devoted mother (Vanessa Paradis) of a young boy with Down syndrome in 1969 Paris, and a successful DJ (Kevin Parent) who is going through an emotional divorce in present-day Montreal.

Why I want to see it: Jean-Marc Vallée is currently one of Canada’s top directors. It is only a matter of time before he becomes a household name in America. If Café de flore is anything like C.R.A.Z.Y. then the film will be a treat indeed.

Screening Times
Monday September 12
Princess Of Wales

Wednesday September 14
TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Headshot – Pen-ek Ratanaruang
TIFF synopsis: “Tul, a hitman, is shot in the head during an assignment. He wakes up after a three-month coma to find that he sees everything upside down, literally. Then he meets a girl that turns his world even more upside down. Who was trying to kill him in the first place?

Why I want to see it: Early buzz from the press screenings claim that this film is not to be missed.

Screening Times
Monday September 12
Scotiabank Theatre 2

Saturday September 17
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Sunday, September 11, 2011

TIFF 9/11: Ten Years Later and It Still Feels Like Yesterday.

The world changed drastically ten years ago today. I know that I have talked briefly about my experiences at TIFF on September 11, 2001 in the past, but it seems especially fitting today. In honour of the ten year anniversary of 9/11, TIFF has commissioned a short film that will be played prior to all of today’s screenings. The film will document people’s experiences at TIFF the day of 9/11. Believe it or not I was asked to take part in the production (huge thanks to Lucius Dechausey!), but my contribution did not make the final cut. I have been told that I still will be acknowledged in the credits though. To be honest, I was just honoured to be asked to participate in a project such as this. Whether my name appears on the screen or not is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. 9/11 is something that has impacted the world, North America especially, like nothing else in recent years. So I will take a break from posting TIFF reviews today in order to once again reflect on my experiences at TIFF during that fateful day.

2001 was my first year attending TIFF, I had just graduated from university and with no job lined up I decided to buy a Day Pass as I thought I may never get the opportunity again. On September 11, 2001 I had two films lined up: Joyride (starring Paul Walker and Steve Zahn) and From Hell (starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham). It was going to be my "Hollywood Day" (i.e. a day of big budget films). When the first plane hit the towers I was in line at the Cumberland Theatre making my way into to see Joyride. I was completely unaware of what was going on in the world. It was only when I left the Cumberland, and was making my way to the Uptown Theatre, that I got the sense that something had happened.

As I was walking down Bloor Street, two fire trucks rushed passed with sirens blaring. When I got to the corner of Yonge and Bloor I saw a bunch of people at the intersection looking up at the jumbotron. There was footage of a building that seemed to be on fire. I stopped for a moment to look at the massive smoke coming from it. It is only when I arrived at the Uptown that I heard about the attacks (this was around 10:30 am). Word spread quickly in the festival line for From Hell about "America being under attack." I, as well as the other people who had come from various other screenings, was stunned to hear about the towers, and The Pentagon being attacked. I remember feeling uneasy when someone in the line mentioned that the terrorists were attacking cities with big skyscrapers. I could not help but wonder what would happen if they started attacking Toronto? Would I be able to make it home safely? Would anyone know where I was considering I was attending the festival alone? Yet my concerns where nothing compared to what the Americans at TIFF were going through. I talked to a lot of Americans in line who were panicking because the airlines and trains (VIA rails, etc.) had stopped running. They had no idea how they would get home.

There was one guy in line near me who had a walkman (yes they still existed then!) with a built in radio. He started to give us the latest news updates. Once we were seated in the theatre, a represented from the festival came out to explain that this would be the last film shown at TIFF for the day as the festival was shutting down. There was no word on whether or not TIFF would go on after that. Even as the movie started, our minds were clearly on the events unfolding in the world. To this day, my memories of the first ten minutes of From Hell consist of the guy with the radio feedings us updates, and each of us in the row passing the information down the line like a game of broken telephone. After the movie ended, I took the train back to North York and watched CNN, CBC, CTV, etc. for the rest of the night and waited for word on if TIFF would continue. The first film I saw when TIFF eventually restarted was Monsoon Wedding. A more perfect film could not have played at 9 am to kick start the festival again. It was an uplifting film and just what I needed to remind me that things would be okay.