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Aug 26, 2011

On TIFF and other film festival experiences

A few days ago, Nathaniel (from The Film Experience) wrote an article about some of the TIFF films he's looking forward to. Looking at those titles, I noticed some overlaps with the films I've put on my to-watch list at the fest, and commented on the link that:


"I never understand why films like last year's Black Swan or this year's bound to be sold-out The Descendant are SO popular at TIFF. Like, I know, it's nice to watch it before everyone else, but there are more than 200 titles and AT LEAST 100 of them never open in theatres outside the festival circuit. I can always wait a couple more months for something instead of missing out on other films."



This is essentially how I've felt for the past five years that I've been attending the festival. The aforementioned Black Swan opened on December 3rd, a mere three months after its release in the festival, yet, its screenings at TIFF were packed. By comparison, a film like A Screming Man (which was both enjoyable and profound) has not been released in the theatres yet and will likely never be. That's not even one of the smallest films at the festival. It was an award winner at Cannes 2010. There are much less publicized films in the Midnight Madness section (dedicated to horror films) or City to City (introducing films from one particular city every year, this year it's Buenos Aires) that will never see the light of day once TIFF is over. 

Anyway, one particular reader of The Film Experience (Roark) replied to my question and I think the answer was spot-on, so I decided to repost it here:



"Just my own experience, but it seems like festivals, especially big ones like TIFF, are just microcosms of the moviegoing world at large, which means that if there's a choice between a George Clooney movie or, say, the new Pen Ek Ratanruang film, you're probably going to get more people coming out for the Clooney film. Plus, like you say, people like to feel like they're part of something before everyone else, like they're discovering it for themselves, and it's *their* support that is launching the film to its greater success - even if the only reason they feel like they're part of something is thanks to a concerted media campaign to convince them that there's something to be a part of!
On the other hand, by being so mainstream friendly and drawing folks in with the Clooneys and Black Swans of the world, they probably get more accidental viewings of the Ratanruang than another fest that caters solely to a niche (which is what NYFF does) would."


That's only 100% true. Whether films like Ides of March, The Descandants or A Dangerous Method succeed or not, no credit can really be given to the audience who bought into the hype that the media created around these films. Of course, I'm being a hypocrite myself (but only slightly) since the top two films on my list are A Separation and Shame, both of which have found huge publicity in the form of a Berlin Golden Bear win for the former and Hunger reunion and exhibitionist sex scenes (pictured right) for the latter. But I'm gonna cut myself some slack on these two films since they've topped my Most Anticipated of 2011 list the whole year.

Anyway, head over to The Film Experience and read Nathaniel's write-up. If you're attending the festival, he has some really good suggestions.

Aug 25, 2011

Review: Senna

Senna
Director: Asif Kapadia
Year: 2011
My Rating: A

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that one of my two favourite films of 2011 so far had been Project NIM. Little did I know that only a few days on, another film would come along that could dethrone NIM as the best documentary of the year and comfortably become my new favourite film. This is not a knock on NIM of course, which is a film that can stand on its own merits; it’s only a compliment to the latter film: the exquisite and enthralling Senna.

Directed by Asif Kapadia and written by Manish Pandey, Senna tells the story of the eponymous Brazilian Formula One driver who rose to fame in the 1980s and became known as one of the greatest drivers of all time only to end his career tragically in 1994. But if you think this is a typical biographical documentary that lines up the major events of its lead character and highlights the milestones of his life, you need to reconsider.

Considering the subject matter, Kapadia’s approach to the story is a curious one, but it pays off. He hasn’t shot any new material for the film. There are no talking heads. Nothing we see here is what we usually get in documentaries of this type. The only new material is the voice-over commentary given by Senna’s contemporaries and his family members. Instead, Kapadia focuses on archival footage of Senna’s life, stretching all the way back to his introduction to Formula One. These images, sometimes even taken from intimate family home videos, serve to familiarize the audience with Senna with more authenticity than any interview could. Building on this close relationship between the audience and the hero, Kapadia breaks a barrier that could have existed for those not interested in racing (myself included).

This is not to say that there’s a shortage of racing footage or that they aren’t riveting enough to give everyone goosebumps. The intense competitive relationship between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost that is revisited several times and the final encounter between Senna and Michael Schumacher are such a thrill to watch on the big screen. But Kapadia reaches for something beyond these sensational auto-racing thrills. His comprehensive study of Senna’s life allows for an in-depth look into the politics of Formula One and better yet, an emotionally resonant narrative about Senna as a human being, not just a champion. Our familiarity with Senna makes the heartbreaking finale all the more perplexing.

The film’s real ace, in my opinion, is Chris King’s editing. I’m not at all surprised at how masterful he is at creating a coherent narrative from pre-existing footage given that I considered him one of the best editors of 2010 for Exit through the Gift Shop. Here, the task at hand is even grander since there is no Banksy or Shepard Fairey to lead the way. But King nails it again. He knows exactly what order to set the sequences in to control our heartbeat just as easily as our tear glands. He’s smart in gradually cueing us toward the ending without explicitly opening it from the beginning as well.

Sports documentaries rarely aim so high as Senna does. What Kapadia and his team do here is more than a documentary about a champion. Even though they leave the darker details of Senna’s life out of the film, they never fall into sentimentality. They bring Senna’s larger-than-life story to the screen without losing the essence of his life, how important he was to the world of racing and more importantly, to Brazilians. Simply put, Senna is one of the great biographies ever made.

Aug 23, 2011

I'm an short-tempered impatient son of a bitch!

I'm a little late to the party with this news, but better late than never, I guess. Last week we saw two new pieces of promotional material for one of my most anticipated films of the year, Polish maestro Roman Polanski's Carnage. It is adapted from Yasmina Reza's play titled God of Carnage and stars Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly. 

Carnage is about two couples who get together to discuss a fight that broke out between their children at school. I really like the poster as I think it does neat job with the characters, giving them all equal space, and I really like the color scheme and the facial expressions, especially those of Kate Winslet. The trailer does an even better job of conveying both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the film and gives a glimpse of these great actors in action. 

I could hardly be more impatient for this film, but if the trailer and the poster don't do anything for you, let me remind you that the man behind the camera has given us films like Knife in the Water, Chinatown, The Pianist and The Ghost Writer before and Yasmina Reza is the playwright behind Art, one of the greatest modern plays. Throw in those actors and ...



*Carnage will be released in Canadian cinemas on November 25th, 2011 through Mongrel Media. 

Aug 18, 2011

Rating Films

Recently, a friend of mine who’s a reader of the blog asked me about the film ratings I’ve given on the right sidebar. We both agreed that rating films with letters or numbers is arbitrary and doesn’t make much sense. Films, as works of art, create a wide range of emotions and thoughts that cannot be summarized in a letter. Also, definitions of what constitutes a good film are widely different from person to person, or even for the same person, from film to film. Is an original film that doesn’t leave an emotional mark better, for instance, than a formulaic film that is nevertheless well-made and engaging? Which has more value?
The closest anyone has come to capturing the reality of the experience of watching a film through numbers and letters is the amazing Nick Davis’ rating system which uses both variables to explain two different things, and factors in more elements than the quality of the film - elements like originality, visions, etc.
I’m not about to announce that I’m stealing his methodology. If I wanted my blog to be as good as his, I might as well stop writing for good. I’ll stick with my old method of letter grading only. But as an addition to the sidebar, I will now include a ratings legend. This legend is a general indicator of what I mean by a B or a C rating. Hopefully it will give you a better idea of where I stand on a particular film. 

A+
Masterpiece for all ages! No film gets this rating upon release because A+ films have artistic merits and a cultural significance that can stand the test of time and pass from one generation to the next.

A
On par with the best cinema has ever offered. These films are practically flawless and leave a profound personal impact. With time they can take their place among the A+s.

A-
The weaknesses are so insignificant, they can be overlooked. These film leave a lot of room for thinking and discourse and I’d recommend them to everybody.

B+
These works are missing the “it” that A level films have but are nevertheless solid films that deserve conversation and praise.

B
Either ambitious projects that fall a flaw or two short of fulfilling their potential, or projects that achieve all they want but don’t strive for greatness.

B-
Mild recommendation; I had a good time watching these films and I’ll give them another shot, even though I can’t look beyond the shortcomings.

C+
The problems were noticeable enough for me to avoid a hearty recommendation but there were still some good moments here and there.

C
Any quality moment is overshadowed by a flaw of equal measure. Usually a lot of potential is wasted in these films.

C-
If you like these films, you’ll really have to explain to me why. The problems in these films tangibly hurt their functionality.

D+
These films border on being awful. There are very few good things I can point out about them and even those only work separately, not as part of the whole.

D
The only thing saving these films from a total failure is a particular good element: a good performance, an original idea, interesting imagery or some good music.

D-
The only thing saving these films from a failing grade is my personal affection for someone involved in them: a beloved actor, a director I’ve long enjoyed, etc.

F
Offensively bad and insulting to the audience’s intelligence. All negatives should be burnt and the film should never be heard of again.

Aug 8, 2011

Monday's Words of Wisdom

"Meanwhile, Angelina Jolie is too much of a goddess, at this point, to be touched and the movies too determined to be all things to all people to risk the sort of contact that turns PG-13 into R. As for the men? We don’t make many, anymore. We’re now a cinema of dudes, guys, and George Clooney. You’ve seen “Horrible Bosses.’’ The men are running from Jennifer Aniston. A woman’s function in most American movies is to confirm a man’s heterosexuality more through propinquity than participation. She’s a Kinsey scale with breasts."


This vaguely reminds me of the time I mentioned in my review of Black Swan how Aronofsky pulled off every old trick in the book to avoid showing the actual sex in the famous scene. That was in a completely different context, but it was my way of expressing disappointment that sex has left the movies; that even a "sex scene" with so much hype was not actual sex. Not that anyone should go to the movies for sex, but... well, Morris knows how to make the point.

Aug 7, 2011

2011's Halfway Report

I admit that I haven’t been the most active filmgoer this year. In all honesty though, there’s no specific film that I regret missing. I’ve watched a lot of the oldies I wanted to catch up on, and with the exception of Winnie the Pooh, I’ve seen all the “important” releases of 2011 as well. 

Winnie the Pooh, the only film I really regret not seeing yet, mostly for nostalgia reasons.
If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you know that I consider February the beginning of the film year since a lot of the prestige December releases make their way to Toronto a couple of weeks late. So, hitting my release schedule’s halfway mark, let’s take a look at what’s been and gone so far.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve only seen one of the top ten films at the box office, that being X-Men: First Class which sits on the 10th spot. I say unsurprising because 1) I knew almost exactly which ten films would be in this top ten and 2) I have no desire to see sequels to films I hated the first time around and there’s no shortage of those sequels on this list (Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Hangover, Fast Five). Harry Potter is still calling me from the multiplex but I’ve been too busy with other stuff recently.
Putting all this behind, let’s get to the movies that I did watch. Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s long awaited new film was released (my review here) and was definitely the most talked about film of the year. It won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and from cinephiles to theologians, everyone’s been talking about it. Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s not-long-awaited new feature proved to be a surprising delight and was warmly received by critics and audiences alike. It also broke all of Woody’s box office records (not adjusted for inflation) and is still going pretty strong. I enjoyed it very much; I thought it was really funny and the bit players from Paris’ golden age were fantastic. But I don’t think it lives up to the standard Mr. Allen set for himself in the 70s. Then again, he hasn’t made a film that good since Bullets over Broadway, so I’m pretty content. Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s vehicle, was also an unexpected hit at the box office and has also convinced some pundits that it might not leave Oscar nomination morning empty-handed. I thought it was funny enough to justify its ticket sales and Wiig definitely deserves more lead roles, but I’d be surprised if it was recognized anywhere outside the Globes’ comedy categories. 

Project NIM
While I did like all three of these films to different degrees – particularly Tree of Life, which is a unique experience and I can’t wait to dive into one more time – for my money, the year has so far produced only two truly great films. There really has to be a miracle for these two films to miss out on my Top Dozen Favourites List at the end of year. The first one is Project NIM, the new documentary from the man behind the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, and the second one is a festival leftover from last year, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men.
Project NIM is about an experiment performed in the 70s on a chimpanzee called NIM to analyze whether it was possible to actually teach the species to communicate in sentences. James Marsh’s approach to the story is completely impartial. He gets all the people involved in the experiment to sit there and talk for themselves and in there he finds the most poignant and heartbreaking story I’ve seen in a long, long time. Using a combination of archival footage, old photographs and new interviews, we live NIM’s life with him through 26 years, most of which was spent under the cruelty and abuse of humans. As the film goes, we shift our opinion on all the parties involved. It’s sometimes hard to tell who actually cares about NIM and who doesn’t, but the only thing that’s for certain is that intentionally or otherwise, they all hurt him somehow. But painstaking as it may be to watch the extent of their arrogance (and ignorance), Project NIM is superbly cut and its intimate moments are so electrifying that they make for a well-paced and fascinating film.
Equally exquisite is Beauvois’ film about a group of Christian monks who live their lives in peace with Muslim villagers in Algeria in the midst of a civil war. Of Gods and Men isn’t the first film that makes me scratch my head over the excruciating Uncle Boonmee’s win at Cannes 2010, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to enjoy it this much. You may think that a film about old monks is going to be a slow-moving drag and I won’t blame you, but in Beauvois’ hands, this deliberately paced film becomes a compelling study of human relations and an intense close-up of the fragile situation under which these men lived. Of Gods and Men takes its time to grow on the audience with a really patient approach, but it all culminates in a captivating finale. And while there are quite a few people who took issue with the Last Supper reincarnation in the film, I found those Tchaikovsky-laced minutes to be the film’s most mesmerizing sequence. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the entire cast of this film winning Cannes’ best actor prize either, given their harmonic work as an ensemble and their impressive individual characterizations. 

Win Win
Last but not least, there’s one movie I feel obligated to write about and that’s Win Win. I could have sworn I reviewed that film here, but as it turns out, I forgot to post it up. It was a marvellous and charming film and it has the best cast of any film this year in my opinion, led by the ever dependable Paul Giamatti. Based on a smartly written screenplay that avoids all the possible traps for a dramedy of its type, Win Win is a story about the members of a family whose lives are affected by the introduction of an estranged kid and by their own financial difficulties. It’s a character-driven story that spends a fair amount of time fleshing out personalities and building relationships, but it will also make you laugh out loud. Hopefully some awards bodies will remember this little film when they list their nominees at the end of the year.

Anyway, I don’t want to make category-type lists at this point in the year, but if I were to highlight the greatest achievements so far, here’s what I’d have to point to:

Favourite Films
Of Gods and Men
Project NIM
Runner-up: Tree of Life

Directors
Terrence Malick
Runner-up: Xavier Beauvois

Writers
Win Win
Of Gods and Men
Runner-up: Midnight in Paris

Actors
Paul Giamatti (Win Win)
Elio Germano (La Nostra Vita)
Javier Bardem (Biutiful)
Runners-up: Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre)

Technical Categories
Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life, Cinematography)
Peter Zeitlinger (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Cinematography)
Runners-up: 
Will Hughes-Jones, Tina Jones (Jane Eyre, Production Design)
Adriano Goldman (Jane Eyre, Cinematography) 
Mark McCreery, John Bell(Rango, Production Design)

*I only mention Cinematography, Editing and Art Direction in my “awards” at the end of the year – these are the only technical categories I think I can understand enough to make comments on, as opposed to say, music – so I’m sticking with that here as well.  But Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ soundtrack, Tree of Life’s VFX and Jane Eyre’s Costume Design are all noteworthy works.