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Monday, Sep 8, 2008
TIFF 08: Now with More Celebrities Than You Can Shake a Stick At!

Up until today things were looking pretty bleak here in Toronto, as far as films go. My favorite parts of the festival have been, in no particular order: the new Olivier Assayas film, the food, and the multitude of men in tight pants; including, for the second straight year in a row, the debonair, police-barricade-jumping Viggo Mortensen—but more on him later, because, as we learned last year with Eastern Promises, every Toronto Film Festival must always come back to Viggo.


This has mostly been a banner year for star-spotting: I’ve sat at the feet of Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Dakota Fanning (lol—check out October’s Suffragette City column for a full-length dissection of their film The Secret Life of Bees) and I’ve seen Gael Garcia Bernal get a piggy-back ride from Mark Ruffalo. After all of this star-fuckery, I was thinking it would be great to actually get to see a film that truly moves me, rather than the man-candy proliferating the streets.


The Burning Plain (dir. Guillermo Arriaga, 2008, USA)

Thankfully, I got a chance to catch Guillermo Arriaga’s spectacular directorial debut, The Burning Plain today, which more than satisfied my need for nourishing cinematic sustenance.


Arriaga’s debut follows his much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Babel and is reminiscent, in many ways, of his prior two films with Alejandro Gonzales-Inaritu, Ammores Perros and 21 Grams. Comparably, The Burning Plain tells several distinct, convergent stories that are elliptically inter-connected and are told with a singular energy and dynamism that has come to be associated with Arriaga. 


A master at capturing multiple, parallel perspectives in one film, without it ever feeling overly-full, talky or scattered, Arriaga has also carved an unexpected niche as one of the premiere, go-to screenwriters who is continually exploring unique female characters and women’s themes in a touching, intelligent way. The women of Arriaga’s worldview are amongst some of the most piquant, well-conceived characters in recent cinema history—they are the everywomen who are often thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who are put through their paces by life, and not some fantasy Hollywood ideal of what a woman’s life is, either. They have real problems, which are often crippling.


In 21 Grams, there was the trio of Naomi Watts, Melissa Leo and Charlotte Gainsbourg all going for broke, each giving a superlative, sincere performance (with Watts garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Actress). Babel’s actresses, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kickuchi, of course scored an unprecedented set of Academy Award nominations for their very different women at the ends of their ropes in Mexico and Japan, respectively.  It is not a surprise in the least that our brightest and best are lining up to collaborate with him.


With this new offering, which took 15 years to gestate (“you have to wait until the story is mature enough to be told,” he said in an interview), the director can add four more excellently drawn female characters to this pantheon of gorgeously modern, unforgettable anti-heroines.


The Burning Plain opens in the Organ Mountains in Las Cruces, a place of isolation, where a trailer is ablaze in the middle of seeming nothingness. Abruptly, the point of view switches to Portland, Oregon, where an angry, nude Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is instructing her sleeping lover John (John Corbett) to “get out”. These opening sequences add to the key elements of poignancy, and mystery that run throughout without being overly sappy or arty. It keeps viewers guessing and hanging on for any crumb of a detail that will better orient them to what is happening. You want to pay attention, you want to understand.


Sylvia is a restaurant manager who has a problem with acting out sexually. She’s also a self-mutilator, who, at times when she’s alone, looks like she is about to crawl out of her own skin or even end it all at any second. There is a thrilling, fresh approach to this character that is wisely, masterfully under-played by Theron. When at work, she’s another woman altogether. To the actresses’ credit, she is able to use her own physicality in a creative way: her facial expressions, her guarded body language, and her damaged silence and stillness are all perfectly modulated against a glorious ocean backdrop at one point, and the effect is gripping. She tackles the very tricky concept of cyclical, learned behavior being wildly, destructively misinterpreted without any hint of histrionics.


The film switches gears quickly once more, to the story of brothers Santiago and Christobal (Danny Pino and Diego Torres), whose father, Nick, we learn as the survey the wreckage, died in the opening sequence; making love to a woman they refer to as “that slut”. At Nick’s funeral, an angry man shows up with his kids screaming that the dead Nick was a “wetback” and that he hopes both sons burn in hell alongside their father for taking away the mother of his children. Nick was apparently not so well-liked.


Arriaga sets up another multi-lingual, multicultural mini-epic that cannily explores border town tensions and racial tensions, with the same ease with which he looks at family and internal tensions. He does all of this while constantly maintaining a clear, gorgeous mise- en-scene filled with sexual and romantic intrigues that are utterly believable and expertly shaded with a minimalist, lyrical quality. In particular, his take on middle-aged sexuality, in the story of Gina (Kim Basinger) and her lover (Joaquim De Almeida) has a lived-in realism that makes for a wholly compelling, watchable experience that explores with frankness a woman’s sexuality in the aftermath of breast cancer.


There is also an obvious thrill to watching these actors dig into their ripe, juicy roles with sharp abandon. Theron is perfectly cast as the depressed, wanton Sylvia. Her eyes burning with an intensity not unlike the fire that opens the film, the performer gets her best role in years, in her best film since winning the Oscar for Monster. There is a degree of thoughtful commitment and intelligence in this performance that marks her as one of, if not the most consistently adventure-seeking, risk taking female actresses of her generation. And she is only getting even better with age.


The same goes double for Basinger, whose face is more glorious and breathtaking now, at age 55, than it was almost 30 years ago when she first began acting. She does a tremendous job of playing a real woman, who shops at K-Mart, and lives a rather meager existence. When big stars like this play parts that require them to be “real” or “de-glam” as it has come to be known, there can often be a distracting star quality and artifice that permeates the work, hinders the actual performance, and ruins their full disappearance into character.


Not so with Gina, in any way: Basinger nails this out of the park and should be extremely proud of her work here. The character is torn between familial duties and lustful abandon, she has a bruised, wounded sexuality; which is something of a Basinger specialty (for which she has been given an Oscar, for 97’s L.A. Confidential). This ordinary housewife’s unassuming descent into a tragedy that will forever alter her family’s lives becomes at once inordinately moving and harrowing in the actresses’ hands. Gina is her best performance; her most subtle, mature, brilliant work.


Arriaga’s use of the close-up with these two characters borders on being Ingmar Bergman-esque at times, and he knows how to show off an actor’s face with pitch-perfect modulation, allowing for silence and appropriately necessary reflective moments that drive the story and are crucial for establishing such complex characters. He does this not only with Theron and Basinger, but with the entire excellent cast as well.


Everything that the film wants to accomplish—it’s mystery, it’s yearning, and it’s heart, are all reflected on the faces and in the eyes of the cast, in loving close-ups that are infused with naturally moody lighting. Authoritatively written, photographed, and directed, The Burning Plain is an eloquent, moving experience that needs to be released into theaters ASAP for serious year-end awards consideration. If Basinger can pull off an Oscar win for getting slapped by Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential, then she more than merits consideration for at least a nomination here, particularly in such a weak year.


Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris, 2008, USA)

From one “plain” to another, we travel to the town of Appaloosa, where lawlessness runs rampant (in the form of a dastardly Jeremy Irons), and the “good guys” (Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen) ride into the place to save the day, for a nominal fee, of course.


The film treads the same similar ground as many other cinematic Western points of reference, John Ford being the obvious, though even as an homage Appaloosa, which is very entertaining and well-made, doesn’t really come even close to capturing that genre master’s ebullience. The main draw for the some 1,500 (!) people who came to see the film at it’s world premiere at the beautiful, historic Elgin Theater in the middle of downtown Toronto was not the content, likely, but the experience of being closer to the stars—Harris, Irons, Mortensen and Renee Zellweger were all on hand to launch this labor of love.


In addition to star-spotting, another facet of the “festival experience” is meeting genuine fans of film who are revved up, having fun, and talking trash while staked on the street, waiting in massive, unbelievable lines to get in to a show they pay top dollar for. Whether it’s 17 year old guys spazzing out over catching a glimpse of Zellweger, or middle-aged women who are not really sure who Viggo is (but once they come face to face with him, they are won’t soon forget!), part of doing this festival successfully involves trading war stories with your neighbor while standing in these lines, and loving it (and I should really be getting paid by this festival to write this “how-to-festival” manual).


The red carpet premiere brought out not only stars and fans with tickets, but also drew a massive crowd of onlookers and paparazzi across the street, who were all screaming and yelling at the top of their lungs, as what felt like a million flashes went off. It was actually a little bit scary and I don’t know how these film people can handle that part of their job. After doing his duty on the carpet, Mortensen, after first going inside, came running back out and actually hopped over police barricades (followed by a frantic entourage), scampered through downtown traffic on Yonge Street and signed multiple autographs for fans who had been standing there for hours. Talk about a dashing star turn. I don’t think I even need to really mention this, but that is one handsome man.


Before the premiere of Appaloosa, Harris took to the stage to address the audience. “I know I’m not the governor of Alaska, but,” joked the self-effacing actor-director to thunderous applause as he began to explain his project to the crowd. In 2000, he brought his very different Pollack here for launching, to great success, which he hoped to repeat with his newest venture.


Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Parker (who was in attendance and given a shout-out from the dais), Harris explained he first wanted to do the project while he was in Ireland doing a play and became fascinated by the two lead characters’ relationship, and called Mortensen one of the “loves of his life” (the other, he pointed out was Zellweger, in the film). There was an intensely emotional moment that felt very private when Harris thanked his father, who plays a judge in Appaloosa. “I’m so darn proud of him,” Harris said, choking back tears. “He did a great job”. His father stood up and received a roaring ovation as Harris beamed. Then bringing Irons, Mortensen, and Zellweger out to the stage, he commented that they were some of the best actors he had ever worked with and that there were “no divas, no jerks,” and then joined the group in the theater to watch the film on the big screen, with the crowd, something of an opening night tradition here.


The most surprising thing about Appaloosa was its sense of humor. There are countless moments of good-hearted quips and cowboy jokes intertwined with the violence that had the audience guffawing; everything is sort of mildly reminiscent of other similar flicks, and from what I gathered from Harris’ speech, his making this film seemed to be something he was doing perhaps for his dad, but also just for the good old-fashioned fun of spinning a Old West yarn that audiences will probably really enjoy. What’s wrong with making an enjoyable, simple little film every now and again?


Revenge, anarchistic villains, and shady ladies, are the recurring themes that the hard-working townsfolk of the titular city are relentlessly plagued by as they are repeatedly hounded by the Braggs gang (led by Irons), who take the law into their own hands. Enter Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch (Harris and Mortensen), legendary men of honor who will even the odds out by slinging a gun faster than anyone else, to protect their charges, for the right price. They trade jokes back and forth, even in the face of danger; in the wise-cracking, rich American tradition Old West mythology.


Still, the film is less about cinematic innovation that it is about the pure delight of making movies with people you like, with material of your own choosing. The esprit de corps, the camaraderie, and enthusiasm shared by this cast (working harmoniously together) and the adventure they embarked on making it is almost more remarkable than the actual end product. Largely an homage, Appaloosa is well-made, and well-shot; has nice sets and costumes, but no one is going to be winning any kind of awards for acting for their work here. And that’s fine. Each cast member does fine and serves the material appropriately.


Harris (looking like he just stepped off the set of his ‘87 film Walker) and Mortensen have a bountiful, lived-in chemistry and Irons is a completely stock “bad guy”, but he does that sort of greasy cliché very well. Zellweger wisely underplays in a strange role, essentially playing a kind of bad actress. She seems at home in the genre, able to employ her comedic chops in equal measure to her dramatic side.


This couldn’t be any more far removed from the world of Jackson Pollack, so to that point, Harris as a director shows a capable versatility by proving he can coordinate a big-budget, economically-paced, rhythmic period piece. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel or anything, but it is nonetheless energetic and enjoyable—a throwback and a crow-pleaser. I can’t wait to see what Harris does next, he’s one of the most sincerely adventurous artists we have working.


Blindness (dir. Fernando Meirelles, 2008, Canada/Brazil/Japan)

At the historic Elgin theater on Yonge street in downtown Toronto, there are three lines that form when a film is playing there: a regular line for people with tickets, a “rush” line for those who don’t, and a special, corporate whoring line for those who have Visa platinum or gold cards, who get to go in before everyone else and have priority seating.


When I was waiting to see Appaloosa on Friday, I furiously looked through my wallet to see what kind of credit card I could muster up, and, as I didn’t think I had the proper piece of plastic, I waited in the regular line, got a terrible seat with a pillar in front of me and watched everyone else whiz by.


Saturday for Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness, I discovered that I actually did have a Visa platinum card in my wallet the whole time.


I was let immediately in, and whisked down to the Visa Lounge, a super-exclusive (well, not really) little area of the theater where the elite (again, not really) chill and mingle. Lindt chocolate chefs were dipping gourmet bon bons, and every table was adorned with orchids and glittering little candle lamps. Those with no Visa (the ones who probably are wise to not have one, that is!) waited in what looked like a miles-long line, for literally hours, while I enjoyed a glass of chardonnay and ate freshly-prepared candies brought directly to my table like a civilized human being (or was it like a spoiled housewife?). Sure beats waiting in the rain.


In attendance was, I think, every single person who was involved with making the film: Meirelles, Julianne Moore, Sandra Oh, Mark Ruffalo, and Gael Garcia Bernal (who rode out piggy-back on Ruffalo) were among the glitterati onstage, while in the audience I was mere feet away from two amazing Oscar-winners: Adrien Brody and Geoffrey Rush.


Screenwriter Don McKellar (the Canadian writer-director-star of the critically acclaimed Last Night) came onstage to tell a charming anecdote about traveling to the Canary Islands to woo author Jose Saramago for the book’s rights (“he was suspicious of the film industry. I don’t know why” he deadpanned); then after Meirelles brought everyone out and made a short speech, the house lights went down, and, having not read the book (I know! I know!), I had no idea what to expect.


Immediately, the audience was transported into a visually arresting world. We are plopped down squarely into a nameless city where everything seems like business as usual. Except, through the eyes of this director, there is a stylistically precise element to each shot, something that has become a major component of his oeuvre. I talk a lot about “energy” and how it relates to a film’s life force in my writing, and Meirelles is a man who proudly uses his “energy” and exuberance to guide a film from being ordinary to being completely unique—I doubt you will not encounter any more visually courageous imagery this year.


Washed out in gauzy tones, with effects blurring and confounding and white-hot lights popping and disorienting, Meirelles forces his viewer to be a part of this world much in the way Julian Schnabel had the spectators see the world of Jean-Dominique Bauby through his single working eye in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. When you put your audience into a position of empathy like this, it is extremely hard for them to remain unattached; they are forced to care almost. It’s jarring. Personally, I wish that all films could be as thoughtful and talent-rich this: multiple perspectives from around the globe converging into one spectacular artistic collaboration, with everyone bringing their “A” game, on one of the most celebrated modern novels is pretty much a dream come true.


These kinds of major works are rare, and the elements actually coming together cohesively are even rarer. The film faced an uphill battle after being trashed at Cannes, but the cut that played in Toronto, I am told, was a marked improvement, and majorly over-hauled—which included taking out what I heard was a stilted narrative monologue.


Moore and Ruffalo are “The Doctor” and “The Doctor’s Wife”, who, when everyone is beginning to lose their sight, remains the calm in the eye of the storm. They are mainly relatively calm (comparatively) because the wife, for an unknown reason, has still gone blind. Everything whites out for the characters that do, though, and then complete, anarchic pandemonium breaks loose. An epidemic sweeps this city, hitting it hard. This could really be anyone’s city. The panic that ensues is wholly petrifying, especially when people’s evil natures get the better of them.


One by one, the characters are cordoned off into a dank, filthy “quarantine” by the government. It is scary to think of what would happen should a large medical disaster of these proportions actually happen—are we ready to take on the unknown? Are we strong enough to not take advantage of one another in a time of catastrophic crisis? Can we band together and help one another in a state of helplessness and defensiveness? Over the course of the film, these questions have to be answered by the performers, and the answers might shock you. It’s surprising where the sources of courage are in the darkest hours, and everyone begins to rely on Moore’s ability to see as she is the only one who still can. She’s everyone’s nurse, everyone’s angel; ghostly pale to the point of being nearly translucent. An apparition floating through the shit and the rubbish to help strangers.


Left to their own devices, after the government alternately threatens and abandons them, the blind begin to make their own help. They band together to make the best of a bad situation. The apocalyptic doom and gloom plays as being surprisingly realistic and not to hard to imagine taking place in the foreseeable future—it does not take much suspension of disbelief to think that human suffering would be placed lower in importance than government or corporate bureaucracy.


Both could easily be our undoing in real life as well. It’s not a stretch to think the government would just as soon kill the infirmed as they would help them, probably because that is already sort of happening to the homeless, to the mentally ill, and to the disabled. No pun intended, but when it comes to the needy, we have a nasty habit of turning a blind eye. We seal ourselves off hermetically from these problems rather than face them and fix them, which is exactly what happens in Blindness.In the film, the people “guarding” the blind callously laugh when they see people hurt or when people violently die. They are forbidden from leaving their prison-home.


At turns disturbingly provocative, and risky, the entire cast of actors has a field day with the gruesome challenges Saramago outlined in his epic. The multiple physical challenges that they put themselves through and the universal, relevant emotional themes that are played out require an expertly-trained ensemble to hold this sort of mirror up to society. Not only do the actors gamely take up the challenge, they do it in a responsible, socially and globally aware way. Even though there are extended scenes of violence, particularly one of the most awful scenes of female torture, rape and degradation I have ever seen put to film; there is never a feeling of gratuitousness.


When the psychotic, self-appointed “King of Ward 3” takes over the food supply, he demands the other blind wards give up all of their valuables in order to eat. When they run out of jewelry, he takes women as payment. The women volunteer, thinking this will save them in some way, but they are brutalized to a savage degree that had some female audience members in tears. I’m not sure what that meant, but there was an undeniable, terrible power to what was happening up there that elicits a gut response.


In that sequence, a survival instinct comes out in the women that they didn’t know was there to begin with, and it compels them to bring about change in a denouement of pure adrenaline-fueled chaos and triumph where people walk the streets in zombie-like hordes, scavenging desperately in a world of ruination.


Meirelles needs to be commended for taking on this job that requires someone with a perfect blending of an artist’s eye and the technical know-how of a true genius. It is unimaginable what kind of work went into piecing this meticulous bedlam together, stitch by stitch, and the degree of difficulty in coordinating, staging, and choreographing this mayhem. He pulls it off beautifully, though, without resorting to beating us over the head with symbolism or preaching. This is a delicate balancing act that proves him to be one of our great contemporary working directors.


Blindness is a must-see film for this bravery. It was a privilege to get to watch it with the cast and crew, and award it with a standing ovation and shouts of “bravo!”



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Friday, Sep 5, 2008
Cutting My Teeth and My Venison: A Introductory Guide to TIFF 08!

Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, all kinds of strange things happened to me, ranging from transcendent to downright dire. I sat next to the freaky Marilyn Manson at a screening, unbeknownst to me, and when the lights came up I audibly gasped in fear. I was shoved, stalked and harassed by a homeless, deranged drug addict who made me miss seeing legend Max Von Sydow speak live at a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (thanks!). I somehow also managed to thoroughly embarrass myself in front of hundreds-strong crowd by asking a director a question he didn’t particularly like and openly scoffed at to the crowd, following a film screening that no one else in attendance particularly liked.


Whether it was being propositioned by streetwalkers while asking for directions (honest!) or simply making the rookie mistake of choosing the most aesthetically pleasing, yet highly torturous footwear I own over something sensible and proceeding to trek several miles, for several hours like an idiot, last year’s festival was a genuine learning experience.


Crippling blisters, bleeding feet, and terror in the streets aside, Toronto’s festival days are mainly exciting and fun, so here I am again, white boots at home in the closet where they belong. I am ready to spit out thousands and thousands of words that will be, for those of you actually keeping track, part “blog”, part actual film criticism. I’ll have to just get over the fact that some people don’t really care what I am wearing (though I have brought the Holy Gay Trinity of Gucci, Prada, and Miu Miu along to help this year), but, since everyone is so up in arms lately about the differences between a “blogger”, a “film critic”, and being a “fan” lately, I feel like I now have extra audiences to please. Again, thanks.


I will try desperately to keep the focus on the films, but in such a spontaneous climate filled with zany film industry comings and goings, who knows what will happen? All I know is I am writing about anything and everything that crosses my path, because, let’s face it: Toronto can get crazy at festival time.


This year, I was mostly jazzed to come back for the year-end prestige films that seemed to eminently loom on the filmic horizon, and after being so completely blown away by the sheer multitude of high-profile releases my prior trip to the Toronto Film Festival offered me, it seemed a logical assumption that all of these hugely anticipated films would make their debuts at Toronto. Chatter amongst most bloggers and movie devotees I know centered (in fact, it still centers) largely on the following films:


Doubt. The Reader. Australia. Revolutionary Road. Grey Gardens. The Road. Milk. Frost/Nixon. The Young Victoria. W. The Soloist. Body of Lies. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Cheri. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.


This group of 15 movies seems to be the heavy artillery brigade of award contenders that will be trotted out come trophy time. These are the juggernauts that Oscar prognosticators have on their “major nominations” maps, which feature the biggest, brightest stars. In other words, they are the flagship prize-winners and powerhouses that Toronto is generally known for launching.


Guess what? None of those will be included in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival’s program. Not a single one.


Some have been bumped to 2009, and some are probably still not even all the way finished yet, but one thing is certain: the most anticipated flicks of the year will be released mainly to theaters first, rather than to festivals. Cinema enthusiasts will just have to wait a little longer to get word on these buzzy releases. Most entries premiering at Toronto this year, instead, will actually be auspicious North American debuts, rather than world premieres. Many are still desperately seeking distributors. A large handful will have already been shown at Venice and Cannes, and many still will be shown next month at the New York Film Festival.


Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling was nixed by Toronto because star Angelina Jolie decided to stay home with her newborn twins, rather than hauling her celebrity across the continent, out to Ontario, to stump for the flick (how’s that for punishing a working mother?). Curiously, the New York fete will feature The Changeling. With or without Angelina, we still don’t know, but at this point, we’ll take what we can get –- film aficionados (me included) are damn-near chomping at the bit to see if the Cannes buzz is to be trusted.


Speaking of Cannes, this year it looks as though the “international” will be forcibly inserted back into the festival’s title: films by such intercontinental auteurs as Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Walter Salles, Agnes Varda, and Wong Kar Wai pepper the schedule, and in place of the more high profile English-language releases (like last year’s buzz-gobblers Juno and Atonement), there are several smaller indie releases that don’t really compare: does anyone honestly care about the new Guy Richie gangster idiocy, or Kevin Smith’s lame-brained Zack and Miri Make a Porno? Nope.


Last year’s slate featured almost every single important film, presented with luscious sound and perfect picture (Toronto’s technical elements are sublime), by all of the most important directors of the season; the only Oscar prospect that didn’t play in Toronto last year was probably There Will Be Blood. So, I was, many ways, disappointed in what was being offered for 2008, after being so consistently blown away by the sheer volume of star wattage the previous year (as were so many other film fans, festival patrons, and other journalists I know). Of course, when a film critic whines, it makes the Baby Jesus cry.


When I began my plan of attack by writing out my ridiculously awesome schedule, I realized I had become one of those jaded, shrill, complaining industry types that I had run afoul of so many times last year and despised so much (all that was missing was a ubiquitous BlackBerry surgically attached to my ear and a steady stream of complain-y epithets). I discovered that the line-up, despite it’s rather, um, cozy feeling, was going to be filled with an excitingly quiet fury and a divergent, thorough intelligence. In other words: get over it, Mazur!


Coming to this fest is exciting. It’s an adventure. It’s also a privilege. Crazy, random things happen at events like this and to be so close to the action is literally energizing -– you would be surprised at how late I can stay up, how many films I can see in a day, how much I can write, and how little I eat; it’s as though I am a beautiful fern existing on air and films alone. This year, organizers and programmers have taken careful consideration to assemble some of the best hidden gems you haven’t heard about (yet), but should definitely familiarize yourselves with, pronto.


Last year, I saw only one film on day one, Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster. This year’s first day began with a scheduling snafu, born of my inability to read press conference dates properly and my insistence on drinking one too many tequilas at a random Irish pub in Toronto’s Gay Village, somewhere on Church Street.


I had to scramble to find something to occupy my time, and unfortunately landed at the screening for the Argentinean Liverpool, a film from director Lisandro Alonso that I didn’t know the first thing about. I followed that rueful misfire with Olivier Assayas’ newest, the invigorating Summer Hours (which will be given the full treatment in another blog as I will be speaking with the esteemed Mr. Assayas later this week), and, finally, I was supposed to see Brick director Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, which stars Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, and Rinko Kickuchi, but because of a major screw-up on someone else’s part, I was put in the wrong waiting line and got shut out. When I got to the right line, the other press and industry folks standing there were rabidly jumping the line, yelling at each other, and generally acting like petulant school children. So, in place of that film, and all of the uncontrollable nonsense being allowed in the rush line, I had a lovely meal of venison with mushroom au jus and fried gnocchi at a Leslieville lounge called Barrio.


Liverpool (dir. Lisandro Alonso, 2008, Argentina/France/The Netherlands/Germany/Spain)

But now, it’s time to get on with the single, lame film review of the day, and to do that, I will need to bring out a massive chopping block, and immediately put the offender out of it’s misery: Liverpool is a challenging film that is full of subtle ideas that wants to be an important art-house film with a maverick indie pedigree, but it just doesn’t work, it barely entertains. I can’t see this playing to even the most staunch crowd of independent film fans and it going over well.


The film begins with scenes of men at work in a factory-like atmosphere, in solitude. The director actually does a very good job of establishing a claustrophobic mood in the first 15 minutes, showing a maze of nightmarish industrial complexes and the stagnation of these men’s hard-working existences. The tight, locked-in feeling instantly melts away when the camera follows the alcoholic lead character Farrel (nicely captured by Juan Fernandez) outside as he catches a much-needed breath of fresh air, and we realize that the employees are on a freighter, out to sea.


The glimpses of the panoramic ocean vistas are spectacular, but fleeting in this exhilarating moment. In these scenes, the director does show a flair for being able to construct solid, well-framed shots, even if they do linger much too long. This is something that could easily be fixed with a little bit of editing room magic, though I suspect this lethargic crawl is what Alonso had in mind.


Farrel is going to home, to the mountains at the southern tip of the continent, to see if his mother is “still alive”. This is the single action that propels the story forward, and it happens so excruciatingly slowly, and paced so aimlessly, that at times, it becomes very hard to watch as there is little dramatic action taking place. Often, the camera just inches along, preferring to stop and simply capture the banal, which is a nice artistic statement, but, for viewers, can be tedious. I kept thinking “why not just make a documentary?”


Very little dialogue in this piece makes for a spare, still experience. Fernandez’s ruggedly handsome, weathered face is enough to at least intrigue the viewer, but when he’s not on screen, things fall slightly apart. What started out promising, with a rollicking original score, quickly devolved into a mediocre character study that took way too long to set up, and that’s not just American impatience speaking, either. It is extremely interesting to watch this man’s re-entry into society after (it is implied) a life spent as a ne’er do well, but a picaresque series of documentary-feeling images does not necessarily make for a pleasant film-watching experience. The director does achieve a clear sense of disconnection, as none of the characters communicate with one another, really, and most, are in many ways, isolated.


This loner’s journey to see his mother certainly has its moments. The visual grandeur being its most obvious positive characteristic, with Alonso painting imaginatively with natural light sources and robust views of the rugged countryside, but the emotional payoff is missing. Despite the flaws, Liverpool remains remarkable mainly because of its canny showcasing of a place and culture that are rarely represented on film, for North American audiences, and for that, it must be lauded for bravery. In giving us a glimpse of this slice of life, it does succeed, but in terms of either cinematic convention or innovation, it rarely moves past being a middling art experiment, and borders on being a chore to watch. Had I not been seated squarely in the middle of the theater, surrounded by people, I might have been tempted to leave.


While Liverpool is devoid of plot and largely anti-climactic, it is, at least, much different than anything else you’re likely to see this year. I’m not sure that is a compliment, but it sets the film apart from the usual fall season offerings. The ending is cheeky, and tries to be clever, but by then, it’s too late to care anymore as most people in the theater had their eyes fixed on the exits.



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Tuesday, Sep 2, 2008
A backstage chat at Lollapalooza with Blues Traveler co-founder Chan Kinchla. Words by Chris Catania and pictures by Colleen Catania.

Over the last 20 years Blues Traveler has gone from underground jam-band stalwarts to mainstream multi-platinum success including a Grammy for 1994’s single “Run Around”. In that two decade span, they’ve also founded a festival (H.O.A.R.D.), weathered the death of a band mate and battled other personal issues while still continuing to release music and tour. 


And in 2008 the New Jersey quintet is on a new label (Verve Forecast) and has recorded their latest album in a different way than previous albums. This time the plan on their ninth studio album North Hollywood Shootout released August 26th was to capture what rose the band up from the East Coast underground jam-band scene back when guitarist Chan Kinchla and John Topper (vocals/harmonica) founded the group in 1991. As the title suggests, the effort to harness Blues Traveler’s live ferocious mixing of improvosational blues, rock and singer-songwriter swagger was a new kind of challenge that forced the band to adapt a songwriting style they hadn’t explored before.
 
An hour before their Lollapalooza set on August 3rd, I had a brief chat with Chan Kinchla who took me on a tour through the new album, as he explained the difficulties of working with the new recording and touring approach, what it was like having Bruce Willis contribute and how it feels to play Lollapalooza 2008 as one of the few jammier bands on the bill.


We sat down at a table in the artist lounge backstage with the Chicago skyline as our backdrop as Chan took a swig from his drink, told me that he was excited, smiled a big hearty grin and unexpectedly offered up the interview’s first question jokingly asking who had been my most annoying interview so far over the festival weekend.


I dodged the question for obvious reasons. Kinchla smiled again and confidently assured me that I “hadn’t seen nothing yet.”


Luckily, he didn’t keep up his promise. And our chat was far from annoying.


How does North Hollywood Shootout capture the live show more than previous albums?
Well, with North Hollywood Shootout we wanted to try something different since last couple of records we kind of got in this singer songwriter mentality where we really worked on arrangements, trying to get the songs in a very tight form and then go in the studio and record them like that.


Then we realized that when we play live there’s so many things we sort of stumble on that we weren’t really getting on to our albums. So we decided to switch it up and try to do a lot more jamming which we did in the beginning of the record. Just playing, having some drinks and getting these cool little grooves going. Basically, we kept the parts that we liked, and sometimes we would take that part and make it the foundation for the a song or stretch it out and groove longer on it.


It took a lot of listening back for a long time and [producer] Dave Bianco (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Ozzy Osbourne, Mick Jagger and Teenage Fanclub) helped us find what was really good.  We ended up having a lot more grooving on an album that we’ve ever had before and the recording process was really different for us, too.


How hard was it trying to capture that live element?
In the past we had really tried to separate playing live from recording in the studio. When you’re playing live you’re improvising, there’s people there in front of you and so much is going on onstage and in the crowd and new things happen every night. When you recording in the studio you’re going for a more precise goal, trying to get things exactly the way you want them. I think we were really trying to wed those two ideas together and I think we did a really good job and I’m looking forward to doing the same thing on the next record.  We had a lot of fun recording like this album because songs would come out of thin air and we could play in a stream of conscience. The technology we have today also allows us to record like this. You couldn’t really do this in the past.


What’s most exciting for you guys about the new album and playing live this summer?
Since we’ve recorded it with a live focus all the songs are really playing great live and the crowds are loving them. People are getting up and cheering for new songs they’ve never even heard before. That’s really exciting because sometimes when you make a record, release it and then six months down the road there’s only like one or two songs that make it into the live set rotation. With this album we already have six or seven. I can’t wait until people have the album and they actually recognize them.


What are some of your favorites so far?
I’ve really been enjoying “How I Remember It”, and the first single “You, Me and Everything” and (pauses) “Beacons”. Sorry about that, I’m having a hard time remember the names of the songs because we always call them something stupid in the studio when we’re recoding them.


You have Bruce Willis on the album doing a spoken word blues rant on the last track “Free Willis”. How’d that come together?
Bruce has been a friend of ours for a long time and he sat in with us. John Topper and [Bruce] are good friends.  They’re were hanging out and joking around and came up with this idea.  That song is a live blues jam. We just played for 20 minutes and then Dave took all the best pieces and college them all together. Then Bruce came down, smoked a lot of pot, and then free-formed over the our jams. It was a fun experiment to try something a little different.


Is Bruce going to be a part of the live show?
Hey, if Bruce ever shows up, you bet your ass we’ll do it!


You guys have had some lineup changes over the years. How has it been working with those changes?
Well, since Bobby died we’ve had Tad in the band, my brother for eight years and the first five years of that was really learning how to build the band back up again and how to stay out of the way. We really feel we’re hitting our stride with this lineup. We’re able to relax and just play. It’s a lot of fun.


This is your second time playing Lollapalooza since you played in 2006.
Festivals are just a total crap shoot. You don’t have any sound check. You don’t know how you line up is going to play with the crowd, so you have to just throw your hands up and see what happens. It’s kind of nerve racking because you don’t have control over your own show. The most important thing is just to go up there and have fun, because the reality is that something will go wrong. You have to just roll with the punches. 


We love playing in Chicago because we have a lot of fans here and I’m really looking forward to playing. Lolla has an alternative slant and the line-up especially. We’re one of the only jammier bands, which might actually work for us because it’ll be something different for the fans.  There are probably a lot of alterny kids out there who have never heard us so it should be fun. We’ll be sure to bring the rock for them.


Now that was a promise that Kinchla and Blues Traveler kept as they fired rapid fire shots from Shootout while slipping in a few crowd favorites and multiplatinum hits.


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Thursday, Aug 21, 2008
Words and pictures by Thomas Hauner.

I’m not sure what moment in a singer’s development triggers the jettisoning of one’s inbred voice for a contrived, crossbred, and assumed vocal style. They pretend to sing like someone they’re not. Or do they? Maybe they’re actually just conjuring up a past life or an endured yet unsettling emotion that’s inexpressible in their current method of singing and must be articulated. You can probably guess that Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson is this type of songwriter. In the style of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, Robinson eschews perfect pitch and lacquered tones for an earnestly distraught and wounded sound. And the informal setting of Joe’s Pub provided an intimate setting to absorb his distinctly raw playing.


Robinson’s recent eponymous release was partially overshadowed by collaborators Chris Taylor and Chris Bear of Grizzly Bear and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio. But this set—debuting his new backup band “The Family Robinson”—was entirely his own. Carrying a dejected inertia, “Buriedfed” was sullen but with hints of revival while “There Will Be Mud” was the most rousing of the night. Despite his youthful appearance and exuberance onstage (he warned the audience that the new band was certain to fuck up) his weathered voice exudes age. Only “Someday” sounded lyrically adolescent, though Robinson did seem a bit scatterbrained, taking hours to get set and switch guitars between songs. But his uncanny synthesis of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Langhorne Slim, and Josh Ritter by being at once familiar and new is intriguing—regardless of his downtrodden vocal source.



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Tuesday, Aug 19, 2008
Words and pictures by Thomas Hauner.

Ben Harper once said, “I refuse to age disgracefully in rock ‘n’ roll.” It’s an apt mantra that aging rockers should adhere to for the sake of their music, but mostly themselves.  Mike Gordon, former bassist of reunion-rumored Phish, and touring in support of his latest release The Green Sparrow, did bring his musical aestheticism with grace and humility to a packed Highline Ballroom last Wednesday night. But his aging fans should give it equal credence because no matter how yuppified a Phish-head can become, their nostalgic nights out are all too predictable.


Just as Gordon’s bluegrass ballads followed a tried and true formula—so much so that the only variable was the number of players that joined him as he progressed through that portion of the program—so too did his faithful: Weathered Birkenstocks, homemade purses and bags, and apoplectic dance. 


 


They did have some reason to gyrate, though. “Dig Further Down” and “Traveled Too Far”, both from the new album, weren’t too bass heavy, but exuded that light funk Phish could easily toy with. Arguably the best song of the night was “Takin’ it to the Streets” with keyboardist Tom Cleary thankfully singing lead.  (Gordon’s voice has always been intrinsically goofy and awkward. He sings with exuberance but it just sounds like his sinus is the vocalist.)  A close second was the C+C Music Factory cover, “Things that make you go Hmmm”, showing some alacrity on Gordon’s part. That guitarist Scott Murawski played Trey Anastasio’s signature guitar (which is only made by Phish’ audio engineer/guitar-tech/luthier Paul Languedoc) emphasized the show as a diluted recapitulation of Phish’s best, and worst, characteristics.



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