September 4, 2014
TIFF 14: Day 0

On the eve of this most glorious film festival in the year of our Lord, two-thousand-and-fourteen, I am once again poised to plunge into a madcap seven-day binge of films, long lines, occasional star sightings (and a few interviews) and the avoidance of anything resembling a burrito in this town.

This year, my TIFF preview piece will run tomorrow on (I’ll post it here then), but I assure you its chock-filled with another batch of superb-sounding films — both foreign and domestic — and some palace intrigue with respect to TIFF’s new tough-sounding laws and mandates regarding the world premiere of some of their films. This year, while the NYFF has stolen some of TIFF’s thunder with three of the most anticipated films of the fall premiering (those would be David Fincher’s Gone Girl, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, and P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, for those keeping score at home), there’s still plenty to take in here — and hopefully admire.

Speaking of said line-up, I need to make one last whining rant on this subject, and I promise I will forevermore keep quiet going forward: TIFF always tends to front-load their screenings towards the first four days of the festival’s opening weekend — it’s when all the stars are in town, with their resultant glitter, and the entire city seems alive with the promise of celluloid and stardom — but this year, in particular, it’s ludicrous. For various work-related reasons, I’m contractually obligated to see certain flicks and certain times, but whatever screening you choose, there are a batch of movies you won’t be able to see as the times all overlap and conflict with each other. Thus it is, that on this one Thursday alone, I will be missing the Cannes Palm d’Or winner (Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s Winter Sleep), one of the more anticipated films of the festival (The Dardennes bros.’ Two Days, One Night), another highly celebrated Cannes favorite (Pascale Ferron’s Bird People), and new films by such varied auteurs as Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), Lav Diaz (From What Is Before), and Marjane Satrapi (The Voices).

Mind you, I’m not looking for sobbing sympathy on this score, I’ll still get to see some wonderful (sounding) films, but it does sort of kill me that I’m going to have to miss so many films I was hotly anticipating. It’s the trade-off you have to live with at such festivals, but it’s still painful.

In any event, much like last year, I will be posting daily updates each evening as I drag myself back to my hotel room, recapping the films I’ve seen along with a quick thumbnail sketch impression of each one. Unlike last year, I’ll be simultaneously posting these over on Philip Martin’s excellent arts blog, Blood, Dirt & Angels, so if you feel like a change of decor, please feel free to check them out over there. Avanti.

(photo courtesy

August 30, 2014
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August 22, 2014
Film Review: Are You Here

Dir. Matthew Weiner
Score: 2.0

In a time where Indie directors are looking for ever more elusive sources of financing (hello, Kickstarter!) and studios seem reluctant to write checks for anything that isn’t a) from a graphic novel, or b) from a YA book, the fact that Matthew Weiner, the creator and show-runner for “Mad Men,” must have cashed in his considerable cache as the visionary for one of TV’s great dramas of the last decade.

Consider that cache thoroughly spent: His new film, a flimsy comedy of sorts concerning a pair of stoner buddies and a large family inheritance, might well go down as one of the worst films of 2014.

To begin with, despite Weiner’s extensive TV writing and show-running background, it’s shocking how illiterate and clumsy even the most basic details of his film can be. It’s one thing to pull off the delicate balances and nuances of a given scene between actors, but Weiner can’t even seem to do the most basic tasks — blocking, say, or framing a scene — remotely competently. It lends an aura of amateurism to the whole affair, and not the good kind, like you might find in student films and ultra low-budget numbers. It’s so bad it brings to question whether Weiner was actually at the helm or trying to set up scenes while simultaneously on his phone, story-boarding the final season of his TV show.

The story is equally weak and contrived. There’s Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), this charmingly vapid weatherman on a local news station, you see, who loves seducing ladies, spending money he doesn’t have, and getting righteously stoned with his best (only?) friend, Ben (Zach Galifianakis), a misbegotten, half-crazed introvert, who lives in a hovel and writes furious notes for some insane book concerning the Rwandan genocide being a call to arms for vegetarianism (and if you think that joke sounds in poor taste, you haven’t even begun to suffer the film’s brutal witlessness). When Ben’s wealthy father suddenly dies, he bequeaths a small amount of money for Ben’s sister, Terri (Amy Poehler), a money-grubbing churl; everything else of the considerable estate to a stunned Ben; and, by request, nothing for his ridiculously young and beautiful wife, Angelina (Laura Ramsey), at roughly 32 years old, some 45 years younger than her late husband.

Somehow this state of affairs boils down to a power struggle by Terri to claim pitiful Ben — whose first idea for the money and the farm in Lancaster, PA is to start a sort of anti-technological center in order to re-educate the world — as mentally incompetent and to take over the family market in town in order to turn it into some sort of super-sized grocery store. Gradually, Ben comes to realize that he is, in fact, pretty far over the edge, and he dutifully starts taking mood stabilizers prescribed by his shrink in order to normalize himself.

Steve, meanwhile, busies himself with convincing his friend to stay stoned at all time, seducing women wherever he wanders, and trying to establish a sexual relationship with his best friend’s stepmother. And this is where Weiner really loses the thread of whatever it was he had in mind: Not only does Angelina develop “feelings” for Steve, even though the smarmy stink of opportunist oozes from his pores like swamp gas, she also develops a curious thing for poor Ben, who goes through a dizzying number of metamorphoses before finally settling on becoming an unenlightened schlub, well on his way to a dull, loveless marriage and a life of rudimentary pointlessness.

About the time Steve rushes back to the farm to embrace Angelina during a sudden, flash thunderstorm, you start to question Weiner’s own sanity: Is he trying to make a satire of such romantic comedy notions? There’s nothing overt in the script to confirm it, but the sheer idiocy of all the characters and their bedraggled motivations (seriously, this script wouldn’t have even made it through a first-year screenwriting workshop without being eviscerated) suggest he simply must have had something else in mind.

Even giving him the vast benefit of the doubt on this one — and, frankly, the skill and verbal dexterity he’s shown on seven seasons of Don Draper, seems as far away as Finland from here — there’s still the matter of his inept filmmaking that leaves his movie struggling to make a simple lick of sense.

In the end, Ben is reformed — and seemingly on his way to complete obsolescence with a bland, middle-aged mother (Jenna Fischer); while his best friend is living on his farmland with his stepmother in perpetual love, an outcome that neither one of them even remotely deserves. Whether Weiner agrees with that assessment might never be known for certain, but Don Draper had been this poorly drawn a character, his show would never have seen the light of day.  

August 22, 2014
Film Review: Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

Dir. Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
Score: 4.3

You’ve got to give the Sin City franchise this much at least: It plays like a souped-up brand machine for its various well-known actors. Both films lean heavily on casting known stars in what might be considered their most obvious signature roles for its dark, dank protagonists and twisted villains, thus Mickey Rourke plays a giant brute with a soft spot for the underdog named Marv; Josh Brolin plays a tough-guy everyman, smitten by the wrong black widow at the wrong time; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a slick kid with a smarmy smile and a luck streak a mile long; Eva Green plays a femme fatale par excellence, toying with the various men under her considerable lusty power; Powers Boothe plays a smirking senator, evil to the core, and abusive of his considerable power; and Jessica Alba plays an ungodly beautiful stripper, whose lithe sexuality barely hides a fully broken heart.

Part of the success of the first film — equally dark and violent but a good deal more effective — was watching those few actors (Elijah Wood, Clive Owen) who spun out from their noir syllogisms and actually had something resembling fun playing against their type. This sequel, coming nine long years since the first title, feels a good deal more harsh and surface — something of a problem when the film’s mise-en-scene relies so heavily on the work of graphic artist (and co-director/writer) Frank Miller.

It’s a similar effect to what Zack Snyder has almost exclusively relied upon: Actors working mostly in front of a green screen, so all the dark, seedy streets, towering festering buildings and comic-like raining backdrops can be added in post. Done well, and it can closely resemble the comic its so desperately trying to emulate; done poorly (Mr. Snyder), and it’s like a wildly overdone photoshop job of a family portrait, with every face glistening too perfectly and the shadows melting none-too-believably into a scrim of visual hyperbole.

Much like the first film, Rodriguez and Miller attempt to weave several of Miller’s pithy short stories together, but unlike the first, which had a unifying thread or two to help unspool your possible objections, this film feels far more scattershot and unsatisfying. Marv takes out a group of college frat boys who get their kicks lighting winos on fire; Hot-shot Johnny (Levitt) blows into town in a vintage car, looking to score big at a local poker game run by the evil Senator Roark (Boothe), and runs afoul of the man after cleaning him out; the hapless Dwight (Brolin) gets played for a fool by the evil temptress Ava (Eva Green), and plots a singular revenge; while lovely Nancy (Alba) schemes to have equally rabid revenge on Roarke for her own reasons, finally enlisting the aid of quite literally her biggest fan.

There is a lot of hyper-stylized violence — the blood shots tend to be of the CGI splatter variety — with many balletic decapitations and gruesome bullet entry wounds, and plenty of smoldering sexuality (there might not be 30 consecutive seconds of screentime for Green before she’s either fully nude or draped in a see-through nightgown), but none of it has any kind of emotional impact. It’s too nihilistic and downright silly to be taken as anything more than a particularly bloody comic strip in what must be the most depressing daily newspaper ever sold on a newsstand. You can understand why actors of this caliber would flock to the production — the films are practically a calling card for them — but, at least in this case, the association isn’t really doing them any favors. 

August 18, 2014
Richard Linklater takes long view with Boyhood | blood, dirt & angels

The estimable Mr. Linklater discusses the origins of his stunning new film, Boyhood, the nature of his craft, and the secret of writing incredibly long, dense conversations between characters. 

August 15, 2014
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August 13, 2014
Film Review: We Are the Best!

Dir. Lukas Moodysson
Score: 7.8

As far as reasons for starting a band, just doing it to steal the rec center rehearsal space from a band of high-school douchebags called Iron Fist is about as good as any. When Swedish seventh graders, Klara (Mira Grosin) and Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) first form their band, it’s just to piss off the older dudes who were mocking them for their punk haircuts earlier, but shortly after starting to make a racket with the rec center instruments, they begin to see the vast possibilities this might have.

It’s certainly not that they are any kind of musical prodigies. The exact opposite is true — later on, after Klara and Bobo have recruited Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a quiet eighth grader with actual musical talent, to the crew, she has to explain to the girls what a harmony is and why it’s important to be in tune — but these girls, living in Stockholm in 1982, have discovered the galvanizing power of playing aggressive, punk songs with your best friends and the equally amusing element of upsetting everyone else around you in the process.

For wild-spirit Klara, who comes from a frantically anti-conformist family of outspoken, artistic types, this is pretty much standard issue, but for the more bookish Bobo, whose lives with her single mom, and especially for Hedvig, a sweet girl from a decidedly conservative Christian family (so incensed is her mother after the girls give her daughter a punk haircut, she threatens to take them to the police unless they attend church with her), the freedom and possibilities of unleashing their angsty ids in this way is positively transformative.

Not that there aren’t some significant hiccups along the way. Moodysson, the much-venerated Swedish director, whose previous films include the excoriating Together and moving Lilya-4-Ever, is absolutely in his element letting his young cast hang together and ping pong off of each other’s emotions. Klara, for all her bravado and impulsiveness, needs the more sedate Bobo to bounce her wildness off on; Bobo, whose neurosis about her looks leads her to briefly go behind Klara’s back for a boy in a rival band, relies on Klara’s spontaneous energy to challenge the staid life her mother has provided for her; and Hedvig, having previously been friendless and miserable, finds in these two unlikely compatriots, two people with whom she can finally share her life.

Unlike the standard approach to cinematic band-forming — the players starting out sounding horrible and eventually, over the course of the film’s running time, morphing into a tight band of considerable power — the girls never really ascend to any sort of musical pinnacle, but there is nobility in their effort, and better yet, a thoroughly winning conviction to their self-belief (hence the title) that suggests they will be perfectly fine for what the rest of their school life throws at them. Apart from everything else it can bring, Moodysson seems to suggest, wrapping yourself in loud, mostly dissonant sonic blanket can protect you from hearing all the insults hurled from non-believers. The film ends shortly after the girls perform their first gig, one which finds them getting pelted with garbage and insults, and inciting a near riot of vitriol from the suburban crowd, but they never looked happier doing it.

August 13, 2014
Film Review: Blue is the Warmest Color

Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche
Score: 6.4

A lot of ink (virtual and otherwise) concerning body parts has been spilled already about Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning three-hour relationship-drama between two young women in Paris that played both at TIFF and the NYFF, specifically the amount of graphic — and seemingly real — sex between the women, but perhaps all this emphasis on the racy bits has lead critics to miss the single most-focused upon physical attribute of its young protagonist: Her mouth. In the course of three hours, we observe her mouth very closely as she eats everything from spaghetti Bolognese to oysters, smears sauce off with the back of her hand, smokes, kisses, spreads into a wide, toothy smile and shuts down tight when she’s in the midst of sobbing.

This wondrous mouth belongs to Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whom, when we first meet her, is in the midst of her junior year of high school. At first, she seems pretty but largely unexceptional. She hangs with her friends, reads old French novels with great interest, smokes outside of the school grounds and occasionally dates cute boys. But all this is before she crosses paths one day with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a beautiful art student with dyed-blue hair and, it turns out, an enormous amount of talent. Before long, Adèle is dumping her well-intentioned boyfriend and seeking Emma out in a local gay bar. The film then more or less charts their course of time together, first as flirty friends, then impassioned lovers who move in together, then in a relationship that grows more distant until an infidelity destroys it, and finally, as reconstructed friends, trying to stay vaguely relevant in each other’s life.

As far as plots go, there’s not a hell of a lot to go on here, but Kechiche isn’t after some jigsaw puzzle narrative that pulls in disparate threads and fits them all comfortably together. His camera, ever handheld and often in close proximity to his characters, instead charts the minutiae of change human beings undergo under the strict auspices of time. We see Adèle go from slightly uncertain, rosy-cheeked teen girl, to purposeful and wizened young woman. Part of his methodology is to move slowly, languidly through scenes, allowing them to breathe. He takes his time to get to the edges of his narrative, even if many of the individual scenes — taken on their own — don’t seem to add up to much, as true for the steady stream of scenes in which Adèle is doing little but eating and interacting with the people in her life, as with the aforementioned sex scenes. It’s a small trick of intimacy that Kechiche repeatedly mines for effect.

Where the film runs in to trouble is how one-sided the relationship is. We filter everything through Adèle’s eyes to the point where Emma becomes less than realized. Despite the fact that we see her on screen a fair amount, and know with certain knowledge how she looks sans clothing, we know precious little about her. As a result, their relationship, as well displayed as it is, never really reaches the level of verisimilitude you feel Kichiche is striving towards. It doesn’t feel fake, just unrealized, unremarkable unless you are for some reason still shocked to see two women in a deeply romantic relationship.

The two lead actresses, both of whom also won the Palme d’Or for best actress, are very strong, especially Exarchopoulos, who is literally in every scene of the film, but they still can’t raise the level of this opus beyond the limitations Kichiche has inadvertently placed upon them. The sex may be shockingly revealing, but the characters remain all too well hidden. 

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August 8, 2014
Film Review: Into the Storm

Dir. Steven Quayle
Score: 4.7

If you think about it, there’s truly not much of a legacy to tarnish when it comes to Hollywood storm movies, at least over the past couple of decades. There’s Twister, of course, the Michael Crichton-penned flick from 1996 that featured a bunch of wholly unrealistic (and blithely irritating) characters — despite having actors such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt, Alan Ruck and Jeremy Davies playing them — chasing after tornadoes and their own misplaced love lives; something called Stonado, which apparently came out last year and seems to have featured giant, funnel-cloud driven boulders destroying Boston; and, if you want to really get to the dregs, the various “Sharknado” affairs from the Syfy channel. Not a prodigiously robust sub-genre, it would seem.

So it comes as a fairly backhanded compliment when I say Steven Quayle’s bad storm rising flick is easily the most consistently entertaining of the bunch. It might be laced with a series of half-assed backstories for its storm-chasing characters, but it has little of Crichton’s agonizingly forced bonhomie dialogue and trite story-telling, and offers up magnificent looking CGI storms sans boulders, sharks, artillery shells, or mastodons, so we should give credit where due. That said, you’re still not getting a whole lot more than all that breathless CGI, and some pretty realistic high-winds effects with the actors being sucked into the vortex and trying to hold on for dear life. Character-wise, we’re still operating at a pretty rudimentary level; and a majority of the dialogue is either clumsily expositional, or fiercely declarative (“Oh, no, the grate’s loose!” “It’s on fire!” “Grab onto something!”): It’s a screenplay built around the exclamation point.

The film chronicles a small swath of the southern Midwest on what might be the worst weather day in the world’s history, and a bunch of different but oft-intersecting characters experiencing this horror from various angles and vantage points. There’s the professional storm chasers, lead by sad-sack taskmaster Pete (Matt Walsh), who relentlessly pushes his crew, including meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), driver Daryl (Arlen Escarpeta), and cameraman Jacob (Jeremy Sumpter). Then there are brothers Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress), whose tough, unemotional father, Gary (Richard Armitage), happens to be the vice-principal of their high school. And, satisfying the redneck bro perspective, we have Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (Jon Reep), amateur youtube daredevils, running around trying to capture the storm while drunk off their asses on an ATV.

When the first storms start to hit — appetizers to a monster of a main course — the various pockets of characters are all under very different circumstances: The storm-chasers are driving around desperately trying to drive their mammoth tank-like vehicle into the storm in order to get never-before-seen footage from inside the eye itself; Donnie is off with his major high-school crush (Alycia Debnam Carey), helping her film a news clip from inside an abandoned paper mill, while Trey and his dad are at the high-school’s graduation ceremony; and the rednecks are cavorting around on their ATV, more or less playing like kids at recess as the storm rages around them. Naturally, everything eventually culminates in the granddaddy spectacle — “the biggest storm there has ever been,” claims one character — who takes dead aim at our protagonists and gives them the 300 mph wind-thrashing of their lives while tossing houses, trucks and airplanes around like so many dried leaves.

The film is sort of carved out of various bits of found footage, but not so as you’d really notice: It’s too marketing savvy to let itself be dragged into that sort of complicated set-up where coverage is lost and audiences’ mettle is tested. There are indeed many shots supposedly taken by hand-held phones, cameras, security tapes, and go-pros, but Quayle and his DP, Brian Pearson, cheat like crazy to give the viewer more or less uninterrupted coverage of the money shots. They don’t treat the technical conceit as a confinement, in other words, just a suggestion. If all Pete seems to care about is the footage he can gather of this fateful day — which he could then use to finish his documentary film and make a financial killing in the process, the filmmakers themselves are in a similar position and don’t really bother to play it otherwise.

As for the CGI itself, it’s quite a referendum on the medium from the vastly inferior work seen back in 1996’s aforementioned Twister — the wind effects alone are especially eerie — but there’s still not the magic catch-in-throat realism that would really give these storms their bite. Some of this is due to Quayle’s restless pacing, which never quite seems to give us enough lead-up before something else hits. To go back to the dinner metaphor, the dishes keep pouring out of the kitchen before we’ve really built up a hungry anticipation for what’s next. The wind howls like a mother and the earth is torn to shreds, but the storms never truly suck the air out of our lungs, which is about all the film has to offer.

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