Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Toronto Film Festival through the years

Toronto Film Festival may not be the oldest film festival in the world, but it is certainly, by today's standards one of the biggest.  In 2010 as well as adding a stunning new venue, The Bell Light box (see previous post) to the program TIFF also had a milestone birthday turning a very respectable thirty five!

When TIFF was created in 1976 it was called THE FESTIVAL OF FESTIVALS and screened only 50 films. 35 years has seen, a name change and the addition of another 250 films to the program, so that this year 300 films were screened over 11 days.

For film goers and film lovers everywhere here are some highlights from years gone by -
1978 - The Censor Board of Ontario threatened to ban the film In Praise of a Older Woman, but the festival ignored them and the screening went ahead without any cuts.
1981 - British film Chariots of Fire wins the people's choice award, the first sign it might be a winner with audiences. It later won the Best Picture Oscar and prompted the famous quote by screenwriter Colin Welland "The British are coming".
1982 - When new directors Atom Egoyan and Bruce McDonald had their films rejected by the festival they set up their own projector outdoors and screened the films on the wall of the theatre to unsuspecting patrons leaving the festival.
1984 - The Cohen Brothers were quite literally discovered. Every studio had passed on their film Blood Simple, but after it screened at TIFF they got a distributor and haven't looked back since.
1986 - Heavy rain caused part of the New York Theatre's roof to collapse during a screening. It is  unconfirmed whether the screening was abandoned or simply postponed.
1989 - Seven years after Bruce McDonald screened his film on the wall of a building he won the best Canadian Feature award for Roadkill
1991- A festival van containing film prints of 21 films - including My Own Private Idaho is stolen, but eventually recovered with all the films accounted for! Phew!
1994 - The Festival officially changes it's name to Toronto International Film Festival affectionately known by the locals as Tiff.
1998 - An Air Canada strike meant many celebrities and media had to fly via to Buffalo and drive to to Toronto. One critic commented 'that it made Buffalo's airport look like a Cannes cocktail party'.
2000 - Animal activists protest the showing of Mexican film Amores Perros because of the depiction of dog fighting, although no animals were harmed during the making of the film.
2001 - The September 11 attacks close the festival for one day.  TIFF continues, but the parties are cancelled.
2007 - An audience of 1,200 sing Happy Birthday to director Dario Argento when he presents his film Mother of Tears.
2010 - Susanne Bier gets a standing ovation for her film In A Better World.

*** The majority of information for this article is taken from the September issue of FAMOUS magazine Canada.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

35 - A good age for Toronto Film Festival (TIFF)

Toronto International Film Festival (or tiff as it is affectionately known by the locals) is one of the largest and most recognised films festivals in the world. 2010 saw it turn an impressive 35.  The milestone was marked with the opening of TIFF BELL LIGHT BOX (on the corner of John and King Streets) a wonderful modern building akin to the National Film Theatre on London's South Bank, which as well as being a stand out festival venue will also be the year round home of international cinema in Toronto.

The Lightbox was made possible by numerous public donations not least of which came in the form of the land on which the building now stands by the Reitman family.  On 12th September there was a dedication and official opening which Jason Reitman  (Director of Juno, Thank you for Smoking and Up In the Air)  attended along with his family, industry and some famous acting faces including Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters II).

The Lightbox has 5 Cinemas, 2 bars, 1 cafe and  2 large exhibitions spaces. The Tim Burton exhibition which was recently a huge success at MOMA and ACMI in Melbourne will open there in October. There is also a free exibition on Essential Cinema. These are the 100 top films of all time, as voted for by Tiff programmers and attendees. These films will screen throughout the year at Bell. So for those based in Toronto you can now see great cinema all year round. And the rest of us will have to made do with the home DVD player until our next trip Toronto bound.

More details can be found at http://tiff.net/tiffbelllightbox

Tiff - Opened it's doors with this question!

And an exihibit showing extracts from the top 100 Essential Films of All Time
A quiet moment before the lines start

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Kids Are Alright - "This film is more than alright"

The Kids Are Alright was the closing night film in the 2010 Sydney Film Festival and turned out to be a real crowd pleaser.  Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko had previously cut her teeth on other quirky and interesting films like Laurel Canyon (which has the sexyist non sex scene ever) and High Art

The Kids Are Alright focuses on two lesbian mums, played by Annette Benning and Julianne Moore bringing up their two teenage children. The kids decide it's time to contact their biological father (Mark Ruffalo), and secretly arrange a meeting with him. The discovery of their father changes the family irreversibly. Cracks in the family dynamic become great caverns. Some how they have to find a way to at the very least plug up the holes and hope the damage can eventually be repaired.

All of the actors give fine performances, but Annette Benning really is the stand out. She steals every scene she's in. Oscar should be nodding for this one.

For a life affirming film about creating a family, getting hurt, picking up the pieces and sticking it out see The Kids Are Alright.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Killer Inside Me - "I can't exactly recommend it, unless you like the feeling of being winded"

For The Killer Inside Me director Michael Winterbottom ( Road to Guantanamo, 24 Hour Party People) adapts Jim Thompson's 1952 novel to the screen in a terrifying and violent roller coaster ride. Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford, the quiet, soft spoken deputy sheriff of a Texas town. As the film unfolds we discover he is also a violent psychopath who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake, including those of his lover played by Jessica Alba and his fiancee Kate Hudson.

It is not the serial killer subject matter which makes this film so shocking. But shocking it is!!!! (You only have to look at the reviews online to see how divided people are about this film).  Let's face it though, there are serial killer stories in abundance on television and film these days. It is Michael Wintterbottom's uncompromising depiction of the violence that really unsettles.  We see Alba's character beaten to a bloody pulp by Lou Ford and when many other director's would move away, cut earlier, focus on something else in the room, Michael forces you to watch it all.

In an interview with Casey Affleck (in the Sydney Morning Herald) he is quoted as saying that Michael Winterbottom was interested in showing the ugliness of violence, to a world which seems so sanitised to it.  And for most of the film he achieves this.  Until the ending, which left me feeling confused and even a bit cheated. Without wanting to give away the end, Winterbottom's message gets blurred here and appears to suggest that violence is sexy and acceptable after all. Perhaps even that violence will win in the end?

This is a very difficult film and I actually can't bring myself to recommend it, despite the excellent acting and slick production values. The brilliant opening credits and music, for instance, are sexy and upbeat lulling us  into a false sense security and then slapping us in the face with the reality.

It is poignant to note that Cassey Affleck also said (in the afore mentioned interview) that his wife was very upset by the message of the film. He wouldn't relate what she actually said, but the sentiment is rather telling.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work "Witty, Wry and Worth it"

I admit before going to see this documentary I knew almost nothing about Joan Rivers. Well I had some vague sense of her being the poster woman (poster child seems too ridiculous when she has just turned 75) for plastic surgery. I'm not even exactly sure why I picked this film from the long list of possibilities at Sydney Film Festival. It could be that I happened to be free on that night, or that I felt I should be seeing more documentaries, but actually I think I was also genuinely curious to know more about Joan Rivers. Who is she really? And this film goes a long to answering that question.

Directed confidently by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, this fly on the wall style film, follows Joan for more than a year. This in itself must have been a massive undertaking. The final finished product is 82 minutes so think how much footage must have been left out after a year's worth of shooting. What they have chosen to leave in is well worth watching. Joan Rivers is surprisingly engaging and really rather interesting.  We find out a little of her history, for instance that she was something a trail blazer for woman in the male dominated world of 1950s/60s stand up comedy.  That she unashamedly swears like a sailor. That she works extremely hard for everything she has. You even get to see her without her make up, something she tells us very few people ever get to see. Until now anyway.

As with people who have lived a long life it wasn't all roses and laughter for Joan. Her husband suffered from depression and killed himself leaving her to raise their teenage daughter by alone. She is philosophical about it now, although obviously after a lot of therapy. The dark times seem to have informed her wry, witty view of the world, as is so often the case with comics past and present. Go on check out this piece of work.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Apart Together "Enjoyable, that's about it"

Wang Quan'an's latest film Apart Together, which screened at Berlin and Sydney Film Festival festivals this year, attempts to look at the historical and political fallout from the 1949 civil war in China by rooting it firmly in personal family drama.

The story unfolds in 1980s Shanghai when Liu Yangsheng (Ling Feng) comes from Taiwan in search of the Yu-e, the woman he left behind there 30 years ago. His wife has recently died and he hopes to take Yu-e back to Taiwan with him. But, as we know the course of true love never runs that smooth and Yu-e is torn by her love for Liu and the loyalty she owes her common law husband. In the end she sacarifices her happiness for his.

It is a beautifully told film and the performances are lovely and subtle. Like a lot of Asian cinema much of the dramatic tension happens around the dinner table. Don't go to this film hungry. Seriously, you have been warned!

The film as a whole though is like $5 steak and mash, it always seems fulling, but in the end is never really that satisfying. Wang brings in the historical context, but fails to really explore it. Leaving those of us not in the know about China's civil war with barely a snapshot of what happened. He also introduces the story lines of supporting characters(like the granddaughter about to break up with her boyfriend)at pivotal moments in the main narrative, jolting you harshly away from the main story and for no discernible reason. Then to top it off he annoyingly doesn't return to these smaller stories. What then is the point in mentioning them in the first place?

So if $5 steak's your thing,go for it. Personally I would rather have the banquet.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Snowman - "A moving personal story"

The Snowman is a moving personal documentary, about Jimmy Graham, an excellent and experienced climber who went to Antarctica with 'Operation Deep Freeze' in the 1970s to train scientists in survival skills on the ice. Three months later he arrived back agitated and paranoid. He said that he had stumbled onto an illegal American nuclear site and that the CIA had given him a chemical lobotomy. He descended into madness. Unable to cope with his frightening behaviour, his wife fled with their two children.

Thirty years later, Jimmy's daughter Juliette, brings this heartbreaking family tragedy to the screen and in the hope of finding the father she has lost. The personal telling of this story is everything. No matter what your family dynamic you can't help but feel touched by this film. It resonates with deep sadness about what had been lost. The loss of a husband, friend and father. The loss of time. The loss of sanity. It is an amazing testament to this family that they allowed an audience to view them warts and all, through hard decisions and difficult moments. They seem to come out the other side a little stronger, wiser and certainly closer.

The only thing that was missing for me is that we never really know, what, if any mental illness Jimmy has. There is some reference to him being vaguely diagnosed with schizophrenia many years ago, but no mention of whether he is now receiving medical help. He certainly seemed to have very lucid moments during the film. Was he on medication? Perhaps it doesn't matter, but for a family suffering and mind diseased, would it not make sense to find out as much as possible about the condition and any possible treatments? The almost total omission of this bothered me.

That aside this film shines a light on what it is like living with mental illness and provides us with a beautiful portrait of a loving family struggling for answers. It has deservedly been nominated for an AFI award.

Honey - "Slow but beautiful"

This Turkish, subtitled film is not for everyone and frankly if you want action forget it. It is a slow creep to the finish line, but not an unpleasant one. That is, if you can manage to stick it out to the end. At the Sydney Film Festival screening I attended at least a ten people walked out and that's an apparently 'world film' savy audience.

is the story of a young boy who is so shy that he can speak only to his father (whom he obviously adores) and only in a whisper. His father, encourages him gently and the little boy does slowly begin to blossom in small ways.

The father makes a living as a bee keeper in an isolated part of Turkey. The film opens with the father attempting to climb an extremely tall tree to retrieve honey from a hive he placed there earlier. In the attempt he falls and is killed. The film then flashes back to tell us more about this man and his son. I understand the reasons for showing the death a the beginning, though I would question the wisdom of it, as I spent the whole film waiting for this to come and when it does come, it feels rather anticlimactic. But maybe that was the point? It is also tragic for the boy because not only does he lose a father, but also the only person in the world he would talk too.

On the plus side, the film is beautifully made and the boy little is so engaging and heartfelt that he carries the film. There's very little dialogue and but lots of soul. If you can stick with it, it's worthwhile.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cairo Time - "A nice way to spend a lazy Sunday"

If you google, top ten Canadian Films of 2009, Cairo Time will be right there at the top of the list. As if that isn't enough, it went on to win best Canadian feature film award at last year's Toronto Film Festival. No small feet, but then the director Ruba Nadda is something of a veteran of Canadian cinema, having written and directed 17 feature films.

Cairo Time has much going for it. Beautiful, exotic locations and an excellent cast, with Patirica Clarkson at the helm. Clarkson (Lars and the Real Girl, The Station Agent) plays Juliette Grant, a magazine editor who comes to Cairo to rendzous with her husband, a UN peacekeeper, only to find him continually delayed by work. Tareq played by Alexander Siddig (Kingdom of Heaven), is a friend of Juliette's husband and is assigned to collect her from the airport in her husband's absence. The pair like each other and slowly develop a friendship, which towards the end of the film blossoms into love.

Patricia Clarkson is, as always, a joy to watch and the pairing of her and Alexander Siddig is charming and believable. The only disappointment was that Clarkson wasn't given the enough to do. The pen ultimate scene in the film, in which we think Clarkson may reveal (to her husband who has unexpectedly arrived in Cairo)that she loves Tareq is brilliant. In those few minutes of screen time Clarkson runs through a gambit of emotions creating a truly exquisite cinematic performance. But it's too brief. The film in general lacks drama and is the poorer for it.

Having said all that if you allow yourself to be swept up in the locations, stunning costumes and charming performances, this is a touching and entertaining way to spend a wet Sunday afternoon. Or indeed any afternoon. Just don't expect any drama.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Messenger "See it for Sure"

This is the directorial debut of Oren Moverman, best known perhaps, for penning the screenplay of the arthouse film Jesus Son. The Messenger certainly stacks up against Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar winning war epic The Hurt Locker as one of a new breed of films discussing war and the fallout from it, in a modern context, not just on the traditional battlefields of the past.

Ben Foster, is outstanding as Sgt Will Montgomery, an Iraq war hero, who is injured in the line of duty and then assigned back in the US, to inform the families of dead soldiers of the fateful news of their own tragedies. His new assignment falls under the instruction of Senior commanding officer Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) a recovering alcoholic.

True this all sounds incredibly depressing, but there are light touches, using Harrelson's practiced comic timing to great effect. And the introduction, half way through, of the widow Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) as the love interest for Will creates another layer to the film. Showing a level of intimacy rarely since these days in love stories. The scene in the kitchen, (you'll know it when you see it) in which the lovers touch for the first time is breath taking in it's simplicity and truth. Oren Moverman obviously trusts his actors and seems to allow them ultimate freedom. In this scene particularly he places the camera in such a way that you almost feel like a peeping tom invading the couple's private moment.

The film does get slightly lost in the second act when Harrelson and Foster go (for no discernible reason )on a mini road trip. It meanders abit at this point, but stick with it, there is some comic relief and Moverman gets the film back on track for a positive and powerful ending.

To end the film there is a final wide shot of Olivia's house with an open door and her son playing just outside. Olivia and Will who have been talking in the foreground go inside. The beauty of the final shot as a piece of storytelling is that so much is suggested about Will's future. That by walking through this open door, new possibilities appear and Will may finally find love and renewal, after all he has been through.

Life During Wartime - "Not Everyone's Cup of Tea, but worth checking out"

Life During Wartime directed by Todd Solondz is the (sort of) sequel to his 1998 cult classic Happiness. I say sort of sequel, because Todd uses the same characters, but played by different actors and continues their stories ten years on. Having only hazy memories of Happiness, viewed far too late one night many years ago,it was a relief to find that Life During Wartime is a stand alone and unique film, dealing in a darkly humorous way with sexuality, pedophilia and loneliness.

The cast which includes Allison Janney (best known as CJ Craig in the West Wing) and Shirely Henderson (Think British cinema,ie Trainspotting, Bridget Jones' Diary, Wonderland etc) as sisters, are excellent. Their performances are adept and detailed. Alley Sheedy (from Breakfast Club fame) also makes a brief appearance as the now famous sister who is sleeping with Keau Reeves. Small aside - You never see Reeves, though do (apparently) hear him in the throws of lovemaking with Sheedy.

Newcomer Dylan Riley Snyder plays Timmy (Allison Janney's youngest son) who is horrified to discover that his father (whom he believed dead) is alive and being released from prison after serving a ten year sentence for pedophilia. Timmy finding it impossible, at 12, to express very complex feelings about his father, instead creates problems for his mother and her new boyfriend, which turn out to be irreparable. As with Happiness there are multiple storylines which intersect showing a world full of pain and doubt.

The script is clever, but simple, never overstating anything. With pangs of sadness and touches of dark humour it's nothing if not original. Not surprising then that the script recently won best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival.