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by Matt Mazur

12 Sep 2008

The 2008 Toronto International Film Festival has ended, for me, with a sad whimper. There was no single film that took my breath away, proving, I think, that truly superlative achievements are very hard to come by these days. While there was a lot of passion, and a dazzling array of star power shining on the Canadian red carpets, there was a lack of quality, overall and a feeling of slight disappointment in the eyes and on the lips of industry folks I chatted with as well as the ticket-buying public.

I managed to get in a few truly great viewings (The Wrestler and Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale were two of the finest of the fest), several middle-of-the-road tedious films, and only a couple that were truly atrocious. But nothing can beat the overall “festival experience” of being where the celebrities are, where the buzz happens, and where other film fans from all over the world convene to wait in line for hours and hope for a miracle. Sometimes seeing some of these peculiar little films can be an eye-opening occurrence (I’ve Loved You So Long was my biggest surprise this year), while others still can be a total bust.

So, to wrap up my second consecutive year of covering the fest, I have compiled a list of the best and the worst of this festival (not just the films, either!), and ended it all with a spate of five mini-reviews to give you all the low-down on what you should keep an eye out for and others that you should avoid like the plague, as well as a top ten list of what was hot and a quick mention of what just absolutely sucked. Thank God for coffee, Diet Coke, and energy bars.

First, some short takes:

Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long) (dir. Philippe Claudel, 2007, France)

“I was afraid of betraying the prison experience,” said the radiant Kristin Scott Thomas of her role as a woman released from prison after 15 years, in director/author Philippe Claudel’s moving feature debut. The actress talked at the film’s premiere of “fears of being overwhelmed by my own emotion, of having done some terrible crime. I was afraid my own feelings would get in the way of playing the role”. Thomas was nominated for an Oscar 12 years ago for her part in Anthony Minghella’s epic The English Patient, and in a just world, she will be back for her tour-de-force French-speaking portrait of a woman stilted in her grief and regret (Claudel talked of her “delicious little accent”). “I think we all have a fear of isolation and abandonment,” she added. “It’s our job to use it, that’s my job.”

The Other Man (dir. Richard Eyre, 2008, United Kingdom/USA)

The biggest let-down of the entire festival. What should have been a knock-out, with a pedigree to die for (Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Notes on a Scandal director Richard Eyre), was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, even though the film was barely 90 minutes long. Eyre was on hand to talk about how the film was just finished last week, and it shows. Neeson blusters and barks and guffaws with a hammy ridiculousness (“Gucci loafers!” he furiously bellows in one over-the-top scene), and Linney is barely there, but its co-star Antonio Banderas that got the biggest (unintentional) laughs as a playboy who Linney is cheating on Neeson with. He likens himself to “fellow cosmopolitans and fashionistas” in one particularly hysterical scene, as he befriends Neeson’s character, who is out to meet the man who is schtupping his woman. This flop crawls at a snail’s pace and is hopelessly stage-bound, off-kilter, and badly-written and directed. By the time the ludicrous, emotionally-manipulative “twist” happens at the end, I was numb. “How did you find out about me,” whines a transparent Banderas. “You were on a file called ‘love’,” retorts Neeson. Shoot me, please.

Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) (dir. Arnaud Desplechin, 2008, France)

Kings and Queen, which also starred Christmas players Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Denueve, and Emanuelle Devos, is one of the most underrated, emotionally-complicated films of the last few years, so it is no surprise that French master Arnaud Desplechin has crafted a film of supreme emotional maturity, familial tensions and pure invention that gorgeously tells each of the film’s character’s stories and allows for a spectacular acting showcase for each of them. The narrative juggles a towering cast, moments of hilarity and tender, moving drama, that all plays out with surgical precision. As the Vuillard matriarch, Denueve gets her best role in years, while Amalric proves that he is one of the finest working actors in the world. Alternately cathartic, dysfunctional and compelling, American family sagas need to start taking on this modern French sensibility that Desplechin has become so adept at executing. This will be released in theaters by IFC in January, and there is no other way to experience this cinematic magic than on the big screen, so seek it out!

Skin (dir. Anthony Fabian, 2008, United Kingdom/South Africa)

Poor Sophie Okonedo. She’s given two capable performances in two of the biggest duds of the fest, The Secret Life of Bees (which she was the single good thing about), and this tedious small-scale drama set in apartheid-ridden South Africa. What could have been a canny entry into the discussion on gender, race and class, instead devolves into a hot mess of histrionics (courtesy of the over-blown presence of Sam Neil as Okonedo’s white father). Based on a true story of Sandra Laing, and her fight to be classified as a white woman, even though her skin was brown (due to something called “polygenic inheritance”), this film fights to be relevant despite its predictable African inspirational music and long gazing shots of the countryside that we’ve seen a million times in a million better movies. This would be right at home on Lifetime Television, where Okonedo might have at least gotten a little bit of positive attention.

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (dir. Jodie Markell, 2008, USA)

One of Tennessee Williams’ “lost” screenplays has been brought to (surprisingly) vivid life by director Jodie Markell (HBO’s Big Love, Joshua and the underrated indie Sweet Land). Markell has a flair for staging the material, and star Bryce Dallas Howard channels her inner Vivien Leigh, but male co-star Chris Evans, unfortunately cannot act his way out of a paper bag. This doesn’t really tread any new ground -– Williams’ milieu is fraught with melodramatic, mentally-unstable Southern Belles, but if you are a fan of the playwright, this isn’t a bad attempt at conceiving his work for a more contemporary audience and very nicely shot. Howard’s temperamental, sarcastic performance definitely is one of the more exciting actresses of her generation, who keeps choosing great material like this, Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay and As You Like It. Ellen Burstyn, Mamie Gummer, and Ann-Margret co-star as random Southern women with some sort of panic-stricken dilemmas they must face.

Top Ten Things I Loved About TIFF 08

01. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

In what could have been an offensive joke of a performance, Rourke captures hearts with his tender, tough portrait of a man coming apart. Will he capture the Oscar?

02. The Burning Plain

You either love the styles of writer-director Guillermo Arriaga or you hate them (he is responsible for the equally polarizing Babel and 21 Grams), but you cannot deny he is writing more expansive women’s roles than just about any other writer-director out there. He should be applauded, as should Charlize Theron and a career-best Kim Basinger.

03. Cultural Hybridity

Almost all of the films I saw, whether they were period pieces, biography films, or simply daring original works, explored the intersecting themes of borders opening; of lines on the maps being erased. They were beautifully humanist takes on what it’s like to live in a world where everyone’s concept of home is shrinking, and where cultures are bleeding into one another. It’s comforting to see that our modern master filmmakers are perceptively mirroring this global, transient realism onscreen.

04. Star Wattage and Accessibility

Where else are you going to be two feet away from Viggo Mortensen but at TIFF? More than I have seen before, the big guns were brought out for promoting films, for selling films, and for getting the word out there. Be it in the form of press conferences (where I sat directly in front of powerhouses like Queen Latifah stumping for Secret Lifes of Bees), or just walking down the street, there were actors and directors practically littering Yonge Street. Also, the graciousness of these actors and directors to do question and answer sessions with large festival audiences, as well as the frenzied red carpets, and just being present in general at screenings is unparalleled.

05. France

Alors! Staggering in their artistic consistency and integrity, the films from our great French directors at TIFF this year (Olivier Assayas, Phillip Claudel, Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, and Agnes Varda), proved that the country sets the bar much higher for their popular entertainment than we do here, they have a standard of excellence that needs to be emulated. The French directorial vision is typically beautifully art-directed; stunning acted and has, across the board, an emotional pull that is sorely lacking in the American entries this year.

06. Volunteers and Employees

Mostly all friendly and knowledgeable, these tireless enthusiasts had to wrangle not only the public, but the celebrities and the press and industry crowd. A thankless job, where they are paid nothing, but they do it with a smile on their face, for the love of film.

07. Talking to Strangers

Whether it was in line, or on the street to get directions, Canadians are friendly. You are standing in line sometimes for hours to get a decent spot, and are forced, in many ways, to chat up your neighbors. The shocker? They are usually extremely pleasant, excited, and just as knowledgeable about film as you are. A refreshing element to the proceedings that can sometimes be more fun than the films themselves.

08. That Blindness Did Not Stink

People tore this adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel to pieces at Cannes, and critics had their knives sharpened for it here in Toronto, but Fernando Meirelles pulled it off. Don’t be fooled by those who would dissuade you from seeing it; Blindness is brutal, yet powerfully undeniable filmmaking. And between this and Savage Grace Julianne Moore shows (again) that she is the bravest American actress working.

09. The Queen Mother Restaurant

Canadian food is hit or miss, and that’s being polite (poutin, anyone?). Thank god for the Lao-Thai fusion at this quaint café in the best neighborhood in the city. Affordable, delicious, fresh food and no-nonsense, friendly service (inside or out on the patio) makes this the go-to spot for all visitors. Of note, particularly is their phenomenal brunch. I am not even going to tell you how many times I ate there this week.

10. The Return of Debra Winger

She was only in about four scenes of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, but in her scant screen time, she conducted a master class in scene-stealing as the mother of the title character and Anne Hathaway’s noxious Kym. Yes, it may be the “mother” role, but Winger is understatedly elegant, and rock-solid. Here’s to hoping this high-profile release gains her some traction on the awards circuit, in tandem with Hathaway. It’s a small, quietly fuming turn that should be lauded for its poetic simplicity.

The Things I Did Not Love About TIFF 08

01. Jerks on BlackBerrys and I-Phones

Since everyone at the press and industry screenings are apparently so important they couldn’t turn off their phones for five seconds, other people, who were actually trying to work during the festival got treated to a sea of tiny illuminated screens that never went off and, when in combination, produced an obnoxious glow that distracted everyone from everything. At one especially terrible session, a young woman sitting next to me was actually texting on an I-Phone with one hand, and scrolling through her favorite web content with her other hand. This is not an exaggeration.

02. The Lack of Prestige Films

Toronto has been unquestionably known as the launching pad for Oscar nominees. Last year they showed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Juno, and Atonement (among a score of others), to smashing success and a parade of little gold men. In previous years, they brought out such Oscar war horses as Chariots of Fire, and American Beauty and led the way to glory. This year, none of the movies shown here look primed to be contenders. No one really loved the line-up.

There’s always hope for next year.

by Lara Killian

12 Sep 2008

The Wall Street Journal published an article today about a renewed interest in private libraries in the US. In “Why Libraries Are Back in Style”, June Fletcher writes that it’s not exactly a new obsession with books (though they’re still selling well despite the generally acknowledged economic downturn), it’s the comfort factor – the need for an escape within the home from everyday stress.

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image credit: Ottox

Apparently, your cosy home library is not simply a place to keep books, it’s a place to reconnect with memories (via framed family photos) and escape the TV or home computer. I was personally dismayed to read that decorators will hunt for books with interesting bindings at flea markets and used book sales in order to decorate wealthy clients’ ill-used libraries – even buying books in foreign languages that the new owners are unable to read, just because the binding looks pretty. Blasphemy! After speaking with various architects and interior designers, Fletcher sums up their consensus:
Because libraries are public rooms, oftentimes the books are purely decorative and don’t say as much about the family who lives there. The books that people really read, like paperback novels and how-to guides, often are kept out of sight elsewhere in the home.
As long as something is getting read, somewhere, I suppose. In related news, the current issue of Oprah’s O at Home magazine gives readers an “inside look” at the talk show host’s private library, with matching leather-bound first editions galore. Somehow the idea of identically bound Pulitzer Prize winning volumes doesn’t give me a cozy feel, but to each her own! Do you have a library-like space where you can escape from your computer and other distractions to just relax? If not, what features would your dream library include?

by PopMatters Staff

12 Sep 2008

PopMatters Video Premiere


Sonya Kitchell
Borderline - Behind the Scenes Vignette [Video]

Go behind the scenes with Sonya Kitchell to hear all about the recording of “Borderline” from her new album, This Storm. Kitchell blends the sounds of the indie and adult contemporary worlds and has collaborated with jazz giant Herbie Hancock on a number of live events as well as a bonus track for last year’s Joni Mitchell tribute album, The Joni Letters. She kicks off a new tour on 24 September, backed by the Slip.

George Clinton
Ain’t That Peculiar [MP3]
     

Her Space Holiday
Sleepy Tigers [MP3]
     

Common Market
Tobacco Road [MP3]
     

Tomer Yosef
Underground [MP3]
     

by Stephen Becker / The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

12 Sep 2008

Opening Sept. 19:

THE DUCHESS - Keira Knightley goes 18th-century this time, playing the extravagant Duchess of Devonshire, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage.

GHOST TOWN - Ricky Gervais momentarily dies during an operation and gains the ability to talk to ghosts.

IGOR - John Cusack, John Cleese and Eddie Izzard lend their voices to this animated film about a lab assistant who dreams of becoming an evil scientist.

LAKEVIEW TERRACE - A police officer (Samuel L. Jackson) isn’t at all happy that an interracial couple has moved into his neighborhood.

MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL - Jason Biggs, Dane Cook and Kate Hudson star in this story of a man who asks his best friend to take out his ex to show her what a great boyfriend she is missing.

TOWELHEAD - Based on Alicia Erian’s novel, the story revolves around an Arab-American girl who battles a sexual obsession and a tough family during the Gulf War.

by Bill Gibron

11 Sep 2008

Sometimes, an excess of talent can lead to very little in evidence. Put another way, you can overload a film with artistic aspirations, failing to see that several pluses can still create a great big minus. Ten years ago, any film starring Robert DeNiro and/or Al Pacino would have been cause to celebrate - or at least to pay attention. And after Spike Lee’s sensational take on his Inside Man, screenwriter Russell Gerwitz also represents a fairly hefty amount of commercial viability. Toss in a decent supporting cast that includes John Leguizamo, Donny Wahlberg, Carla Gugino, and Brian Dennehey and stick them all under Jon Avnet’s capable if sometimes clunky direction and the results should speak for themselves, right? Well, in the case of the new cop thriller, Righteous Kill, the resulting oration is not exciting. In fact, it’s ordinary at best.

Turk (DeNiro) and Rooster (Pacino) are two longtime partners in the NYPD. Both have seen their fair share of injustice, and when a child killer is set free, the duo decides to frame him. Shortly thereafter, more scumbags start turning up dead, their bodies riddled with bullets, a nursery rhyme like poem left at each scene. With the help of officers Perez and Riley, and forensics specialist Corelli, the pair hone in on the potential murderer. One lead takes them to a nightclub run by suspected drug dealer Spider. Another takes them directly to the door of one of their own - namely Turk. Seems everyone on the case considers this seasoned veteran the prime suspect. After all, he had access, motive, and a means of covering it up. Of course if it does turn out to be a cop, it could be anyone on the squad…even someone himself desperate to solve the crimes.

Righteous Kill is so average that the standard bell curve can’t calculate just how general it is. Locked into the standard crime and punishment paradigm, with a genre mandated twist at the end, this is not so much a missed opportunity as a subpar story making the most of its limited appeal. The pairing of our former powerbrokers, each one covered in the less than appetizing patina of tainted Oscar, has none of the indomitable force we were promised. Instead, as in Michael Mann’s Heat, DeNiro and Pacino play off each other marvelously - and then that’s about it. The script provides inadequate opportunity for the (former?) A-listers to move beyond their basic personalities. Of the two, Pacino comes out the clear winner. His Rooster character is a collection of snarky comments and lightning one-liners. Most of the time, Big Bob is like Travis Bickle with a goiter, indigestion, and a tight fitting truss.

The rest of the cast is really no help. Leguizamo and Wahlberg pull shtick that seems left over from their often spotty resume, and Gugino is given the thankless role of a polished professional who trades it all in once the badge comes off for some dangerous and kinky sleazeball sex. With 50 Cent along for added street cred (which the movie fails to capitalize on, by the way) and various faceless performers playing random felonious archetypes, DeNiro and Pacino are left doing most of the movie’s manual labor. There are scenes where you can literally see the former giants pushing the plot forward. Avnet, for all his hit or miss mannerisms behind the camera, really can’t be faulted here. He’s firm, if a tad too flashy. No, all the flaws extend directly from Gerwitz’s work. The story is less than solid, and some of the sequences definitely needed another trip through the word processor - or a toss in the trash.

Maybe the real reason Righteous Kill is not more engaging is that, as an entertainment, the police procedural has gone the way of the romantic comedy and the erotic thriller. Call it the CSI influence, or better yet, the overexposure of the category via the direct to DVD market, but every time your turn around, another 88 Minutes or Untraceable is stinking up the Cineplex. DeNiro and Pacino would have to be packing major motion picture moxie to reinvigorate the format, and they don’t appear too excited to be taking on the challenge. While not quite the perfunctory payday of some of their recent efforts, Kill does contain enough problems to prevent its straightforward embrace.

And yet, thanks to the inherent nature of the storyline, the desire to get to the end and see how everything wraps up, we more or less stick with this unspectacular stuff. Oddly enough there are some big laughs here, moments where Rooster ridicules his fellow boys in blue with a kind of loveable crassness. We also find some solace in that the victims are all vile, indefensible scum of the earth. But then Gerwitz gives us the aggravating narrative device of having DeNiro appear on screen, right up front, and ‘confess’ to the crimes. It deadens the impact of the true finale. The film would work much better if the story was left open, the eventual lead to a cop coming from hard work and deduction, not a cinematic gimmick. But then we wouldn’t get those meaningless monologues, Turk looking into a surveillance lens and spilling his (or someone’s) guts about the joys of killing.

Because they do work well together, because we get the innate appeal of having the two major league Method actors tumbling within a formula they are familiar with, Righteous Kill gets off easy. Taking away our touted leads and substituting any number of nominal celebrity skins would result in something almost wholly unwatchable. But with DeNiro and Pacino at the helm, and Avnet doing little to get in their way, we end up with a decent, derivative journey through material that should have crackled with sizzling urban suspense. Such lax results couldn’t have been part of the plan. But then again, putting these firebrands together was never a guarantee of success in the first place. Nothing they’ve done since turning in their talent for some trinkets indicates otherwise.

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