Archive for category: Festival Journal

TIFF 2017—10 notable films

28 Sep
September 28, 2017

If you haven’t already, you can check out my five favourite films from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Here are ten others that didn’t make that list but which I saw and can recommend. (Above—my photos from TIFF screenings of: Foxtrot, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, A Ciambra, Black Cop, The Square, Happy End, The Journey, Picture of Light)

Samuel Maoz’s follow-up to 2009’s much-lauded Lebanon has already picked up the Silver Lion at Venice and eight prizes including best picture at Israel’s Ophirs. Its profile has also been juiced by the right kind of controversy, but for me it felt original and genuinely stirring in its (sometimes surprisingly humorous) contemplation of grief, guilt, and, at a key moment, the occupation.

The Killing of a Sacred DeerThe Killing of a Sacred Deer
Yes, it is another darkly humorous high-concept tour-de-force by Yorgos Lanthimos (one that, like the preceding The Lobster, makes excellent use of Colin Farrell), but this one feels maybe a degree closer to familiar tropes of genre thrillers and extremes of dread and tension. It is definitely more unpleasantly physical at moments than its predecessor, and I feared it would go off the rails, but I came away admiring its consummate skill.

A CiambraA Ciambra
Taking method acting to a whole new level, American-born Italian director Jonas Carpignano paints his portrait of Roma people in Calabria by casting marginalized folks he has come to know by living in the region for the past seven years. He takes one of the most appealing secondary characters in Mediterranea (available on Netflix if you care to check out this hidden gem) and turns him into a primary protagonist here. The film feels a little diffuse and overstuffed in moments, but its unique setting held my attention—and now Italy has entered it for consideration for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Black CopBlack Cop
The debut feature from Nova Scotia’s Cory Bowles grapples with an American issue of the moment, but from a Canadian perspective, deconstructing the idea that white supremacy is limited to the other side of the border. It makes brilliant use of a series of urban Halifax locations (without identifying them specifically as such), persuasively alternating between farce, tragic drama, and fourth-wall-breaking soliloquy, framed by bursts of radio commentary presumably inspired by Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. I can only hope it will be as widely seen as it deserves to be.

The SquareThe Square
Watching The Square I felt I finally understood both why it won at Cannes, and also why it was a controversial choice. Director Ruben Östlund throws a lot of elements into this mix—I laughed heartily at nearly all of the jokes, and there basically wasn’t a bad scene, for me, judging each on their merits. And yet I don’t really know if it all adds up to much. At a minimum it is never not entertaining.

Happy EndHappy End
Partially a riposte to Michael Haneke’s own Amour, that seeks to recontextualize the earlier film rather than undo it per se, this was a foray into some dark corners of childhood and old age that mostly persuaded me. My appreciation of Haneke is rather on-again-off-again (I’m on team Caché but not so much into The White Ribbon or Funny Games) but this film clicked with me even if it didn’t blow my mind. And another fine performance from Isabelle Huppert is always welcome.

The JourneyThe Journey
Mohamed Al-Daradji did the almost unthinkable and shot a film entirely in Iraq at a moment when security there was getting drastically worse. Set on the day of Saddam Hussein’s execution in 2006, it goes inside the mind of a female suicide bomber as she prepares to detonate in a train station. The faults of the film are mostly small and it feels churlish to nit-pick a film whose very existence is a small miracle—I will say that the film is largely successful and has stayed with me in the weeks since seeing it.

The Third MurderThe Third Murder
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s departure from exquisite family-based melodrama into the world of crime and punishment is much more methodical, subtle, and deconstructive than I expected. Of the films I saw, apart from Zama, it may be the one that might most benefit from a second viewing. Layers of doubt surrounding a tricky criminal case are laid on until it can be hard to keep track of all of the possible explanations for what has transpired. A challenging film in the best sense.

Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of ArcJeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc
It pleases that this film is a thing that exists in the world, and I generally enjoyed its lo-fi casual charm, but it’s hard to imagine how it will find a wide audience, and it’s sure to be a divider rather than a uniter. I mean, either the sight of twin medieval nuns headbanging on a beach to an “electro-metal” music score is a thing you want to see on the screen, or it isn’t.

Picture of LightPicture of Light
The only cinematic restoration that I took in at this year’s festival, this enduring classic 1994 documentary by Peter Mettler looks and sounds great on the big screen, having been restored and digitally remastered by a number of Canadian partners. The hypnotic, discursive chronicle of a mission to film the aurora borealis in Churchill, Manitoba, with its atmospheric score constructed from the recordings of 1990s musical/production wunderkind Jim O’Rourke, remains sublimely unclassifiable.


my TIFF 2017 top 5

26 Sep
September 26, 2017

At the close of my TIFF experience this year I was waylaid by a flu bug for more than a week, but in the spirit of better-late-than-never, here is the my personal top five from my 18-film binge at this year’s festival in Toronto. (I intend to follow this up soon with a list of some other notables that I enjoyed. Above: my photos from TIFF screenings of picks #5, #4, #3, and #1. Unfortunately Agnès Varda couldn’t travel to Toronto.)

Wajib5. Wajib
“Gives outsiders an insider’s view of Nazareth, and a feel for the politics, with subtlety and grace. v glad I decided to catch it,” was my hot Twitter take after this screening, and on reflection I still stand by that. This film, with its simple narrative structure of a young Palestinian man visiting home—after his successful career launch in Italy—to spend a rather tense day with his father hand-delivering invitations to his sister’s wedding, unfolds deliberately, only rarely feels repetitive, and under Annemarie Jacir’s accomplished direction, very effectively opens a window on a world we rarely see in this light.

First Reformed4. First Reformed
Paul Schrader’s return to form features strikingly inventive stylistic choices, is built around a remarkable performance by Ethan Hawke, and represents Schrader’s most serious exploration yet of the North American Dutch-immigrant Calvinist Christian Reformed Church tradition in which he was raised. It illuminates American evangelical culture from unexpected vantage points, gets serious about the environment, and, yes, revisits Taxi Driver territory—and has the nerve to end with unexpected abruptness. A remarkable, uncompromised film.

3. Call Me By Your Name
So, yeah, it turns out that all it took was a gem of a script of from the master himself, James Ivory, to unlock the full potential of the director Luca Guadagnino. Everyone is talking about Michael Stulhbarg’s remarkable speech as the scene that takes it over the top, but the film really won me over with its wonderful dialog that joyously bounces from English to French to Italian, and back again. It’s a legit criticism that the partners in the central gay romance, played by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, look respectively younger and older than the 17 and 24 years of age specified by the script, but the charm here is irresistible and I bought in fully.

Faces Places2. Faces Places (Visages Villages)
This deserving winner of the TIFF People’s Choice Documentary Award is a remarkable collaboration between veteran filmmaker Agnès Varda, now 89 and, as the film documents, experiencing diminished vision and mobility, and the giant-photo-wall-pasting activist artist JR. It is genuinely touching, irresistibly funny, and grounded in the weight of experience—and still somehow free. There was no other TIFF film this year that I can so confidently recommend to absolutely everyone.

Zama1. Zama
The most opaque and complex film I saw at TIFF was also unquestionably the best, for me. Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, whose previous film, The Headless Woman, drew comparisons to Antonioni, has finally returned nine years later with a follow-up that is more in the vein of Pasolini. With its incredible sound design and elaborate reconstruction of indigenous cultures wiped out centuries ago, this stylized, sophisticated head-trip of a colonial period piece strikes me as a film I will return to again and again in years to come—but maybe not before reading the novel on which it is based, recently, belatedly made available in English translation.

Halifax screening picks — September 14-21 (film festival edition)

14 Sep
September 14, 2017

The Atlantic International Film Festival runs September 14-21. Here are the ten films that I am most interested in (*asterisks indicate that I’ve already seen and I’m recommending personally):


Netflix Canada picks—2017 festival season tee-up edition

19 Aug
August 19, 2017

Some of the hottest directors in world cinema will be screening new work at festivals next month. Here are some defining films by key directors of the season that you can watch right now on Netflix.

Whatever you think of the Atlantic Film Festival renaming itself after the part of the shark that you have to clear when you jump it, you have to like Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name as the pick for 2017’s closing gala—the Italian/American/Brazilian/French co-pro in English, Italian, and French is very much on message with the addition of “International” to the festival name. In North America, Guadagnino perhaps first came to public attention with 2009’s I Am Love, and then convinced Tilda Swinton to return for the wonderful A Bigger Splash by promising her she wouldn’t have to speak.

The newly rebranded festival in Halifax has also booked Mary Shelley, the new film from Haifaa al-Mansour, director of Wadjda, the first feature film in history to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. As fascinating as the production story may be, the film itself is a triumph of narrative skill, brilliantly balancing realism and idealism with a young protagonist you won’t soon forget.

Fans of Sean Baker’s extraordinary Tangerine were elated to hear this week’s announcement that his follow-up The Florida Project will be screening at TIFF in Toronto next month. Famous in part for being shot on three iPhones, Tangerine is in fact a beautifully shot and directed film: “An overt, outrageous comedy, it follows two transgender prostitutes on a day when one of them has a singing gig and the other is on a mission of vengeance to find her boyfriend and crush him for his various infidelities.

Ruben Östlund’s The Square was a surprise winner at Cannes earlier this year, and now it will be making its North American debut at TIFF. His gloriously biting Force Majeure is a little slice of cinematic near-perfection—let’s hope the ill-conceived American remake never actually gets made.

Finally, Hirokazu Kore-eda has a curveball lined up for TIFF audiences this year in the form of crime drama The Third Murder, but 2015’s Our Little Sister is right in Kore-eda’s sweet spot—a carefully drawn Japanese domestic drama, the sort of quietly gripping, insightful film for which you rarely if ever see a North American equivalent.


Atlantic Film Festival 2016 top ten picks

13 Sep
September 13, 2015

Here, briefly, are the 10 films I’m most eager to see at this year’s AFF, September 17-24:


film festival season is TIFFing my AFF

15 Sep
September 15, 2014

The best thing about the two-week marathon that ensues when you do the Toronto+Halifax film festivals back to back as I have this year is the wall-to-wall films. The worst thing aside from the sleep deprivation is the abiding feeling that you’re rather letting down the side by not promptly posting up reviews of every film on your blog.

But as that’s really not been possible, I present, in the place of 17 AWOL film reviews, a series of random festival observations from the past 10 days.

TIFF+AFF is actually a killer pairing. TIFF is really well organized, gets a lot of films that would never play in Halifax, and offers plentiful chances to see, and pose a question to, directors and stars in person. But the Atlantic festival gets a number, this year a large number, of films that are really hard tickets to get in Toronto, and presents them for less than half the price of equivalent Toronto screenings. And it does so all in one multiplex, which makes it dead easy to get from one screening to another. And tickets for the hottest international films are plentifully available, because Halifax audiences are much more interested in regional films than what’s going on elsewhere.

UK English has taken over the subtitling industry. Maybe this has been true for a while, but it seems like every foreign-language film that I have seen so far (and I believe that I’ve seen 7 that were subtitled in their entirety) has been subtitled in UK English. There has been much fancying, significant scoffing—of food, and there have been many lads. This is how I found myself watching a film (Mommy) that was made and set entirely in Canada but subtitled in an English dialect that no native or long-time Canadian would likely use. Perhaps the subtitling will be re-done in time for Canadian or US distribution but this raises an interesting question—does the UK-English-speaking audience at film festivals really significantly outnumber the North American festival audience? If so, that’s surprising to me. Maybe someone who understands the industry better than I do can weigh in with an explanation. I mean, I’m a card-carrying Anglophile so it’s no skin off my teeth. Uh, nose.

While we’re on the topic of subtitling… It is now widespread convention to subtitle even mildly accented English, in English. I am seeing more of this, this year, than I ever have before. Don’t people whose first language is not English find this just a little insulting? And are native English speakers really that thick? I’m talking about perfectly understandable English lines here, echoed as subtitles. I would really like to know more about how this has because a consensus practice.

Goodbye to Language 3D looked way better at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto than it did at Cineplex Park Lane in Halifax and the only reason I can think of is that Dolby 3D is a significantly better technology than RealD. This is something that I have had no time at all to research so I have no idea if there’s a firm basis to this suspicion. If anyone else knows about the difference between these systems I would welcome your observations and links in the comments. This was the first time that I ever saw the same 3D film projected with the two different technologies in the same week, so it’s nothing I had ever thought to consider before.

Movie-going etiquette is sometimes worse at festivals than at regular commercial screenings. This is of course not true across the board but I’ve been amazed how many glowing smartphone screens have disturbed my viewing experience in the past 10 days. And tonight, for example, at a particular slow, quiet and long film (Winter Sleep) I had to deal with a compulsive foot-tapper somewhere behind me. Super distracting. I don’t remember anyone being that asinine at Guardians of the Galaxy but maybe I just couldn’t hear them.

I have come to derive some perverse enjoyment from the exit walk of shame. You know, where people bend forward and move quickly as they try to hard not to block people’s view as they give up on a screening and leave. As a general rule, the more people bail on a screening, the more I am enjoying the film. This year’s champion has been the nearly impenetrable The Color of Pomegranates, a Toronto screening from which literally dozens of attendees exited in bafflement. It was awesome.

Iraqi Odyssey (Samir): first look

08 Sep
September 8, 2014

Twelve years on from the 2002 documentary Forget Baghdad—an essential, if not widely known, film about the tragic dismantling of the Jewish community of Iraq—director Samir is back with the story of his own Iraqi family’s global diaspora.

As with Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, we have a filmmaker interrogating his own family to ferret out its history. Iraqi Odyssey is far less focused than Polley’s film, describing a rather more diffuse family narrative, but with more political weight. Samir takes a rather meandering route to illuminate the circumstances that forced his family to leave Iraq, and how his uncles, aunts, siblings and cousins came to live in such far-flung places as Auckland, Buffalo, London, Zurich, and Moscow.

Without a clear central thesis the early going of the film is rather slow, so much so that I found myself nodding off briefly at the early avalanche of family-specific anecdotes and factoids. But once the film begins to tell the story of rise and fall of Iraqi Communism, and its eventual co-optation by Ba’athism under Saddam Hussein, we begin to get into some fascinating history—including some remarkable injected archival footage of everything from street scenes to classic Egyptian Arabic cinema—that will likely be largely unknown to Western audiences.

Oddly, perhaps, the choice was made to create the film in 3D, which provides a kind of artificial space in which members of the family talk in the foreground while archival photos and film clips appear and disappear behind and beside them. The studio interviews are the only piece of the film that has actually been shot in 3D.

At one point in the film there are some brief but quite horrifying images of torture that happened under Saddam’s regime; later there is a similarly brief but shocking verbal recounting of torture. The film does not dwell on these topics but the abruptness with which they are interjected clearly caught off-guard some members of the festival audience in Toronto.

At its current running length of 162 minutes it does feel like a 90-100 minute film with all of the DVD extras thrown into the main cut. But that main spine of the film was for me a worthwhile reward for spending the time.

The Face of an Angel (Michael Winterbottom): first look

07 Sep
September 7, 2014

Instead of a theory of what really transpired in the death of Meredith Kercher, and what role if any was played in that by Amanda Knox, The Face of an Angel comes at us as a deconstruction of how the media represents such a story. But it ends up being something much different, and this viewer finds himself gnawing on tricky questions of how men represent women in life, literature, and cinema, rather than anything about the media’s relationship with its readers and audiences.

Centred on a fictional film director’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven, the story structure is explicitly modelled on Dante’s Divine Comedy. By moving the scene of the crime from Perugia to Siena, a connection is made with visual directness to Dante’s own time and environs. The hell sequences include decontextualized scenes of rough sex between the director (a convincingly obsessive Daniel Brühl) and a journalist (a smoothly professional Kate Beckinsale)—enough to make us wonder whether we are looking at an assault—but with no discussion after the fact between the principals. (Leaving one to wonder—you show me a man inflicting pain on a woman during sex, and we’re to understand it’s the man who’s in hell?)

Our director-protagonist’s next would-be Beatrice is a fresh and spontaneous young university student and waitress (Cara Delevingne, brilliant casting move), and it is through a rather more platonic relationship with her that he has a hope of gaining a more central insight into this story of murder.

Winterbottom has given us a film of layered complexity that ultimately argues that the worst thing about the did-she-didn’t-she debate about Amanda Knox is that it has robbed the real-life victim, Meredith Kercher, of central status in the story. But does this side-on approach to the material risk doing the same thing in a different way? I expect that will be the most debated point as people dissect this film.

so this is film festival madness, again

25 Aug
August 25, 2014

Last year I attended TIFF for the third time, but it was the first year that I stayed in Toronto through the entirety of the festival. This left me feeling like some kind of seasoned vet. When I started to plan for this year I decided that I would be more efficient, burn fewer vacation days, and head back home on the evening of day 6.

Based on last year’s experience I reasoned that 80% of the excitement is over after the first weekend anyway, and confidently booked my air travel.

Then came the TIFF lineup announcements, along with the news, that I must have missed earlier, that a new rule was in place to keep non-premieres out of those opening days.

The result: a glut of films on Tuesday and Wednesday (Sept 9 & 10) that I really want to see. Because, yeah, previous screenings at Cannes etc may diminish TIFF’s shine on opening weekend, but they tend to rather increase my interest.  I like all that European stuff, I do.

TIFF planning calendar

Now add to the mix the added difficulty of figuring out which films are TIFF only, and which I can see at the Atlantic Film Festival after I fly back to my Halifax hometown, and my planning calendar begins to look like this. Black for Cinematheque screenings, orange for TIFF-only new films, green for films that are also at AFF. (Not shown: red for Toronto gala screenings.)

Guess I’ll be rebooking some air travel? But first, on Tuesday, to pick my 3 TIFF galas, and then on Wednesday to pick 5 other TIFF screenings…

3 things I didn’t like about 12 Years A Slave [TIFF post 3]

19 Sep
September 19, 2013

“The real model for this film is Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, with its relentless depiction of torture, along with every slasher movie that cloaks its intentions in a higher message. Violence has become the measure of verisimilitude. If it’s bloody, it looks real. This illusion allows us to enjoy what violence does provide: pleasure. If it weren’t so exhilarating, it wouldn’t be so popular.”

— Richard Goldstein, “The Backlash Passion: A Messianic Meller for Our Time”

Far be it from me to doubt the artistic merit of the film that delivers the best CGI-bloodspray-enhanced flogging scenes—money shots and all—since Mel Gibson’s cinematic milestone Passion of the Christ, but I think that the bandwagon now carrying Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to apparently inevitable Oscar glory will have to move on without me. There are several problems with this film but let me focus on three.

Bookish prose as film dialogue. Hey, there are no absolutes in film—what works in one might not in another, and so forth. But I feel the question of whether people ever talked in daily life like characters in Victorian fiction has been clearly settled on the “no” side.  So if you’re going to deploy that kind of prose as dialogue in a film, it’s bound to feel awkward unless it’s delivered with a kind of arch deliberateness.  I kind of think that the only way you can get away with that sort of thing now is as a kind of satire or possibly a kind of meta-commentary on the contents of the film.  But this film seems to think it’s being more historically accurate by taking unbelievably meticulously constructed lines of dialogue seemingly verbatim from the source text. The net effect for me as a viewer was to repeatedly push me outside the story.

Psychosis as truth. If this movie proves one thing it’s that Michael Fassbender is the new Al Pacino—a scenery-chewer for the 21st century.  His performance in this film, I will say, is quite remarkable.  But for me the whole character is utterly off-point. As David Cox has trenchantly pointed out in The Guardian, “The cause for which McQueen’s film fights, long ago prevailed. Now, its function isn’t to rub filmgoers’ noses in unacknowledged guilt; it is to let us bathe in self-righteous satisfaction at our moral superiority to our woefully benighted forbears.” And who better to serve as a fulcrum for this someone who is not, shall we say, an “average” or “typical” slaveowner (if he were, slavery would have been over in a generation because all of the slaves would be dead or disabled).  No, it must be an absolute sociopath/psychopath/monster.  This guarantees that we will learn nothing from this cinematic encounter with slavery.  I could branch out from this point to talk about how the movie in general has types rather than characters, but I’m trying to keep this list short.

Violence as truth. Steve McQueen seems to have one core aim with this film—to construct scenes of violence that the average viewer might well experience as some of the most shocking they have ever seen. This is how he cinematically makes the argument that slavery is the worst social institution that humanity has ever invented (and short of actual sociopaths who would ever disagree with that?). The intended effect seems to be that we come away feeling how excellent it is that the full truth of the terribleness of slavery has finally been presented in cinematic form.  Somehow the spectacle of extreme violence has become our contemporary guarantor of truth. That was real, man. That’s what it was really like. We learn nothing, we congratulate ourselves, we anoint our celebrity actors as culturally important. We shower awards. Count me out.