Archive for category: Festival Journal

Atlantic Film Festival 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.

 

the new dissident cinema [TIFF ’13 post 2]

16 Sep
September 16, 2013

The Square (dir. Jehane Noujaim — Egypt)
Omar (dir. Hany Abu-Assad — Palestine)
Ladder to Damascus (dir. Mohammad Malas — Syria)
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (dir. Mohammad Rasoulof — Iran)
Closed Curtain (dir. Jafar PanahiKambozia Partovi — Iran)

While it’s been repeatedly commented that the running theme of this year’s TIFF was torture—and indeed, 10 of the 21 films I saw either depicted or referenced it—that didn’t seem nearly as significant to me as a substantial new wave of dissident cinema. While much of the attention in this genre was soaked up by the Bill Condon directed festival opener The Fifth Estate, the riveting documentary The Square was the deserving winner of the People’s Choice Documentary award.

The film follows six Egyptian revolutionaries from the February 2011 through to the deposing of Morsi—at the post-screening Q&A the Cairo-raised/Harvard-educated director Jehane Noujaim confessed that the film was only finished its edit and delivered the day before the festival. A few subtitle typos and errors are the only evidence of the haste with which it was finished—the film is a thorougly slick, smartly crafted adrenaline rush that literally has the freshness of last month’s headlines. I will not soon forget the passion of the young secular activist Ahmed Hassan, one of 6 Egyptians whose story the film follows, but equally moving and charismatic is Magdy Ashour, who is loyal to the Brotherhood but even more loyal to his conscience.

Of the five films considered here the one that looks most multiplex-ready in terms of production values and genre chops is the suspense thriller Omar, which tells the story of a young Palestinian resistor whose participation in the cold assassination of an Israeli soldier leaves him caught between the resistance, the security police, and the young woman that he loves.  The film was made with mostly Palestinian producers and crew and invites comparisons to last year’s masterful Ziad Doueiri film The Attack, but is perhaps rather less nuanced and more about skillfully ratcheting up the suspense all the way to a shocking climax. And of the many TIFF screenings depicting torture this is probably the only one where the torturers are Israeli security police.

Omar was made almost entirely on location in the West Bank, and the Academy Award-nominated Abu Assad was able to shoot without fear of significant interference, unlike the other films in this category.  Ladder to Damascus, for instance, was made almost entirely in secret by Syrian auteur Mohammad Malas.

The film depicts a kind of Syrian nation in microcosm—a number of people rooming together in one house, Muslim and Christian, working people, intellectuals, artists, even a soldier. The group are threatened by the civil war happening all around the house—Malas finding the suitable metaphor for depicting both an idealized Syrian community—and human lives themselves—under duress.

Permission to shoot was obtained by submitting a false script to the Syrian film authority.  At the post-film Q&A, Malas was asked how the shooting license was policed, and he explained that the resulting film must match the approved script in order to receive a second license—a license to distribute. In the case of this film he never intended or expected to receive the second license—his only hope is that audiences around the world will get to see what Syrians cannot. In order to protect the safety of the actors and crew they never received copies of the script.  The mostly amateur cast were given pages of script on the day of shooting and expected to learn their lines on the spot.

While this approach makes for some rough edges with the performances, the same can’t be said of the brilliant cinematography by Joude Gorani, which is quite simply visually stunning.

The most restrained and low-budget-looking film on this list is Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn, this one also shot in secret, but in Iran. The title, a nod to 1930s Soviet dissident Mikhail Bulgakov, provides a textual link back to previous generations of covertly-produced dissident art.  The film depicts how the Iranian government started using contract killers in the 1990s to assassinate writers and intellectuals under a layer of plausible deniability.  The pacing is slow, the performances extremely restrained, but when the film loops around at the end to retell the opening scene, the payoff offers more than mere plot closure.

The combination of this film and the more brightly-lit but guarded Closed Curtain (described in a previous post) suggests that Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film has touched something off—with today’s digital technology, what cannot be filmed with official sanction can be covertly created to a standard that can touch global audiences via the festival circuit and the internet.

Closed Curtain (and This Is Not A Film) / Shivers [TIFF ’13 Day 1]

07 Sep
September 7, 2013

Before getting on the plane to Toronto I decided to do a little remedial viewing and finally watch Jafar Panahi’s much-touted low-budget cinematic intervention/protest This Is Not a Film. In a manner befitting a film that was shot on a shoestring and smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive, I watched it in a format that is pretty much the opposite end of the quality spectrum from the sumptuous screens at the Lightbox.  I went to this page hosting the film on a pirate website and downloaded it using this free Firefox plug-in, which yielded a 278 Mb Flash video file on my hard drive.  I then processed it into an iPad-friendly file format using HandBrake and loaded it on my aging 1st gen iPad for the trip.

Watching Panahi improvise low-budget ways around the multiple legal restrictions on his filmmaking is inspiring—a strange, low-key partial triumph of the human spirit wrapped within the melancholy of long-term house arrest for a supposed thought crime.   Nothing so shambolic should be so compelling and yet I couldn’t stop watching him watching DVDs of his own films, talking on camera to his visitor/co-filmmaker, visiting websites with his MacBook, and doing some filming of his own with his iPhone.  My compressed/low-def Apple-based set-up seemed like the right way to watch this one.

Closed Curtain

I ended the day with a much more pristine Lightbox viewing of Panahi’s more recent, more filmic, but perhaps less compelling Closed Curtain. His new piece has an interesting, subtle, and nuance intertextual relationship with the previous film, but what This Is Not a Film achieves with simple conversation and serendipitous encounters (and surprise bursts of authentic emotion), Closed Curtain attempts with a kind of murky symbolism that almost makes me think I would put up with something more heavy-handed if only it were more direct.

Clearly Panahi cannot be more clear if he wanted to—his straining at the limits of what he is allowed to say right now is heroic but leaves me with little more than a general concern for his well-being and a fervent wish that he will be able to get back to making the films that he wants to make.

Shivers

On opening day afternoon I was very excited to see David Cronenberg introducing a digitally restored print of his first commercial feature: “an adolescent filmmaking exercise that maybe did some things that hadn’t been done before,” he said, after sharing a tidbit that Dan O’Bannon had seen Shivers before he wrote his Alien script.

The digital print is thick with filmic grain, which will please purists when they view this on what I presume will be a forthcoming Blu-ray release, although I do wonder sometimes, when I see the circular reel-change indicators left in the image rather than extrapolated out, whether the purity thing can be taken just a little too far. Just a quibble really.

TIFF ’13 film agenda

02 Sep
September 2, 2013

Yep, the blog is back after a six-month hiatus—I am getting into gear for another ten days of bingeing on world cinema.  Here are my picks for which  I have locked down tickets so far:

review: Barbara (Christian Petzold)

17 Sep
September 17, 2012

Calling this film “quiet” or “restrained” would be factual enough, but somehow it doesn’t do justice to how truly engaging the story is. Nina Hoss is perfectly cast as the eponymous character, managing the tricky task of seeming both put-upon and above it all. Punished for requesting an exit visa from early-1980s East Germany, Barbara is removed from her advanced medical post in East Berlin and sent to a run-down rural hospital. Here she finds herself attracted to a colleague (Ronald Zehrfeld, relentlessly appealing) whom she suspects may be reporting on her to the police, while deciding whether she should try to escape with her West German lover (Mark Waschke).

This was one of the two screenings I took in at TIFF that was projected in 35mm film format, but it felt like a happy throwback for more reasons than that.  If you need convincing that there is still some life in the classical, jump-cut-free style of filmmaking, moving from medium shot to medium shot, out and in again, keeping the medium itself in the background of the story experience, this is the film for you.  Watching this film I felt a real nostalgia for my early art house experiences with international cinema—films that told me stories that had both the verisimilitude to lived experience that Hollywood films lack, and the exotic power of an open window into another country’s culture and history. What a treat to watch a layered, subtly directed story play out, and not to be sure precisely where it will go. Barbara reminds me why I love the movies.