Monday, September 16, 2013

TIFF 2013: Omar (Fair)

Omar is perhaps the 4th or 5th film I've seen set in the Palestinian territories, and like all the others, the security wall plays a prominent role. The title character, played by Adam Bakri, managed to climb up and over the barrier to visit his friend Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), and perhaps more importantly his sister Nadia (Leem Lubany), usually without incident. Tarek is planning action against the Israelis, and Omar joins in, but he ends up being arrested and tortured. The Israelis want him to inform on his friends, and eventually release him believing he will help them. Omar`s main interest seems to be marrying Nadia, and while he certainly hates the Israelis and resents their intrusions into his land and his life, it wasn't clear to me the extent to which he really wanted to participate in action against them.

The basic story is sound, with its focus on the theme of deceit, and the performances good, but overall I found the pace a little slow. Maybe I was just a little wiped out after 17 films, but this one didn't really grab me.

TIFF 2013: The Double (Very Weird, but Compelling)

The Double, based loosely on Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella of the same name, stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James, a spineless man barely existing in a dreary, dreary distopia. The world around him is almost without colour,  the main exception being the object of his inexpressible affection, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who stands out from the rest of the environment as if she was painted in. The scenery reminds one of Brazil, with its over-sized machinery (form interfering with function at every opportunity) imposing on every space, but in a darker, less wacky manner. And nothing seems to work right for Simon, from the elevator doors to his security badge where he works, to the security guard who doesn't ever recognize him, even though he has worked at the same place for seven years.

An early scene shows Simon on the subway, where an approaching stranger tells him "You're in my place", despite every other seat in the car being empty. And it's the dreariest subway car you ever saw. Soon Simon's doppleganger, James Simon (Eisenberg again) shows up at work as a new hire. He is everything that Simon is not: confident, comfortable with women (and noticed by them), and able to get everything he wants, by asking for it. Initially the two get along and help each other, until it becomes clear that Simon is doing all the helping, and James taking away all that he has (which isn't much).

Along the way, Simon does manage to talk to Hannah, who works in the copy room, where she bends the rules for him by making just one copy for him. Or is one copy too many?

Director Richard Ayoade keeps us off balance not only with the dullness of the sets, but also with an extraordinary use of sound: mostly jarring sounds that aren't quite right. The world is designed so that no-one can every be comfortable in it. It's a very strange film, and while I don't agree with its characterization as a comedy, there is plenty of humour in Simon's plight. I wanted to smack him in the face and tell him to stand up for himself.

Overall, the Brazil-meets-Eraserhead approach worked for me. Not a cheery film by any measure, but one that drew me in and held onto me.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

TIFF 2013: Half of a Yellow Sun (Quite Good)

Half of a Yellow Sun is based on the book of the same title, the second film at this year's festival that I chose because I had enjoyed the book. It's the story of Biafra's brief independence from Nigeria, told through the lives of twin sisters and their husbands. The two women start the film as children of privilege, educated abroad, well-connected, wealthy and cultured and mixing with the right people. Olanna (Thandie Newton) takes up with Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who sympathizes with the revolutionaries, while her sister Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) runs her father's businesses and stays close to power. We see the initial glow of Nigeria's independence fade, and the erosion of prosperity and peace throughout the country parallels the steady degradation of Olanna and Odenigbo's living arrangements, as they flee town after town as Biafran independence is proclaimed and the war with Nigeria goes badly.

The film goes lightly on the violence of war, showing a few brutal scenes but on the whole keeping the blood in the background as it focuses on the characters and how their lives are affected. The performances are strong, and the director does a great job of taking us down the path from happiness and prosperity to chaos. Not a cheerful movie, but it tells an important story strongly.

TIFF 2013: Labor Day (Wow)

Labor Day is based on the book by the same name. Josh Brolin stars as Frank, a wounded escaped convict on the run, who imposes himself on Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), laying low at their home until there is a better chance to get away. It turns out that Adele is also a prisoner, in her own home, as she is terrified of going out in public since her husband left and took up with another woman. Henry has become her only human contact, making him somewhat of a prisoner as well.

As Adele and Henry warm up to Frank, we see flashbacks from each of their lives, showing us how they each wound up in their prisons. I had trouble with this part, I think because I have a bit of face blindness, and I had trouble keeping straight whose flashback was whose. Apparently the young actor playing the young Frank looked just like Josh Brolin, but I didn't see that, and I had trouble distinguishing him from the young version of Henry's father, and the young Adele from Frank's wife. That's my problem, not the film's, but it held me up a bit until I sorted it all out.

Director (and screenwriter) Jason Reitman took the stage before and after the film, and told us that he tried very hard to make the film as true as possible to the book. The film has a lot less dialog than most films, telling its story with looks, actions and gestures instead of words in many places. Reitman also said the film was difficult to make because, while in theory it takes place in a house over five days and one of the characters has no wardrobe changes, the flashbacks added a lot of complexity.

It's a beautiful story masterfully told, with very strong performances from the 3 lead actors. it got more tears out of me than any other film of the festival so far, and as soon as I got to the theatre for my next film, I ordered the book on my Kindle (the book is always better than the movie, right?).

Friday, September 13, 2013

Break Loose (Not Bad)/Восмёрка (Не Плоха)

My first Russian film of the festival, Break Loose screened a few hours after my Russian lesson. How much of it would I be able to understand, without relying on the subtitles? I'm making progress, but I have a ways yet to go; I could understand lots of words and the odd complete sentence, but not enough to understand the film without the subtitles.

The film is about a guy who works as a riot policeman, but falls for a mobster's girlfriend. It's hard to tell the cops from the gangsters when they're not in uniform; both are just thugs, and the society around them is corrupt enough that it's not always clear which has greater authority. The protagonist and his buddies almost seem to enjoy getting the shit kicked out of them as much as inflicting a beating on others. There was some good action, and maybe a little insight into Russian society at the turn of the millennium (it's set around New Year's 2000), but overall nothing exceptional to my eye. Не плоха, но не отлично.

The Right Kind of Wrong (Really Good)

A Canadian romantic comedy set in the beautiful mountain country of Alberta, The Right Kind of Wrong stars Ryan Kwanten as dishwasher and failed author Leo Palamino who, after seeing the bride (Sara Canning as Collette) at a wedding punt a football, decides that she's the one for him. It's a ridiculous and impossible quest, but Leo is the kind of guy who always does what seems right to him, no matter the consequences, and no matter who's looking. That drove away his wife, who is capitalizing on his foibles in her blog about them: Why You Suck. 

Leo is adorable, and we're mostly rooting for him despite thinking he is completely wasting his time. The antagonists are largely shallowly-drawn pricks, except for Collette's husband who actually tries to be a decent guy for most of the film (but we still don't like him). 

The message of the film is spelled out explicitly for us: some people seem to be wrong for each other, but sometimes it's just the right kind of wrong. I cared about the characters, enjoyed the laughs and reveled in the scenery. It's a fun film that might inspire you to take a crazy chance. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

TIFF 2013: Words and Pictures (Very Good)

Words and Pictures is a gamesome romantic comedy starring Clive Owen as out-of-gas drunk English teacher Jack Marcus and Juliette Binoche as art teacher Dina Delsanto, struggling to find a way to keep creating art despite her somewhat crippling arthritis. Delsanto is the new arrival at the private school, and she and Marcus quickly engage is a battle between words and pictures as the most expressive medium. Their students pick up the challenge, and in the midst of that battle, the two teachers dance around each other, while each privately combating their own demons, mostly unsuccessfully. The film is funny, sweet, and despite its fairly predictable adherence to the three-act structure, often original and moving.

TIFF 2013: The Railway Man (Quite Good)

The Railway Man stars Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, a "railway enthusiast" - he really likes trains - and starts with a sweet quirky romance between him and Patti (Nicole Kidman), whom he of course meets on a train. But after the storybook romance and wedding, Patti discovers all is not well with Eric, who is haunted by what happened to him during WWII. He is haunted by his memories, but will not discuss them with his wife. We see flashbacks of what he endured, as his unit surrendered to the Japanese in Singapore, and were taken north to work on building a railway in the jungles of Thailand, under dismal conditions. Eventually Lomax confronts his past and comes to terms with it.

I liked the film a fair bit, though the story is told in broad strokes, with little in the way of sub-plot. I had trouble understanding how he could be so brave during the war, and yet not be able to talk to his wife about it. We're told repeatedly that what he endured was unimaginable, but in the end that didn't seem to be the case. The transformation that Lomax goes through didn't entirely work for me. Still, the ending was satisfying and brought a tear to my eye. I think the crowd in the theatre liked it a little more than I did.

TIFF 2013: How I Live Now (Wonderful)

After yesterday's weirdness, How I Live Now was a refreshing comeback. Set in rural England where bitchy, selfish, feeling sorry for herself "Nobody calls me Elisabeth" American teen Daisy finds herself exiled for the summer with her step-cousins, whom she finds silly, provincial and worst of all dirty - well except for Edmund, who is dreamy in that I-can-control-the-animals sort of way. Just as she is starting to warm up to the cousins, all hell breaks loose in the form of World War III or something like it, and the group is separated by the army as they evacuate everyone to "secure zones" (maybe) and put them to work in the war effort. Daisy forgets most of her previous troubles as she focuses on how to survive, and how to find her way back to Edmund and bring the family back together. Sounds like kind of a sappy love story, but the horror of war and what it does to people is very real, and Daisy's transformation is convincing. Outstanding performances, especially from the lead couple (Irish actress Saoirse Ronan is very convincing as an American teenager), beautiful scenery used as the backdrop to ugly war and a story that works. Probably my favorite of the 9 films I've seen so far.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

TIFF 2013: Under The Skin (Weird)

Under The Skin was billed as a sci-if thriller, starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien who hunts down human prey. I normally love that kind of stuff, but I found it pretty weird, and hard to understand. The film is presented from the alien's point of view, so the camera work and sound is often strange and disorienting. I found the story difficult to follow, with scenes changing, character interactions unexplained (is the motorcycle guy another alien???), and on the whole the film left me wanting more. Maybe it's because I don't do subtlety well. 

There is little dialogue, and in the Q & A after the film, the director talked about filming with hidden cameras, and said some of the characters in the film were not actors (unclear if he was serious). There is a clear theme of the alien discovering her own "humanity" that did come across. The film has been compared by some critics (and not favorably) to The Man Who Fell To Earth. I agree: not favorably. In the end I was left confused and disappointed.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

TIFF 2013: The Dinner/Het Diner (Pretty Good)

The Dinner is based on a book I had read and enjoyed by Herman Koch, about two brothers and their families. The main action takes place in a restaurant, and the brothers and their wives meet to discuss some trouble their sons have gotten into, and how to deal with it. Flashbacks are used to tell us about the trouble, and to fill in some of the characters for us. All four of the adults have their issues, and by the end of the movie there is not a sympathetic character in sight. The core of the film is quite dark, but the father whose perspective is taken for most of the film treats life as a big joke, so some humour softens the edges from time to time.

I enjoyed the movie, but (as is usually the case) not as much as the book. During the Q&A after the film, some in the audience challenged choices the director had made in adapting the novel, leaving out some key plot elements that he felt were not the strongest parts. That's understandable, but I felt the story made more sense in the book, and maintained a better sense of suspense and mystery and the pieces of the puzzle came together. In the film the plot became less important than the characters and their flaws. That's not necessarily a bad decision, but because I had read the book I was a little distracted by it.

TIFF 2013: Sunshine On Leith (Very Good)

I've been a big fan of The Proclaimers' music for some time, so when I spotted Sunshine on Leith in the TIFF programme, it was an obvious pick. The film is based on a successful musical stage production, and includes numerous Proclaimers songs, some very familiar (I Would Walk 500 Miles) and some new to me (OK, so I'm a big fan of one album, and hadn't explored their other work...)

It's a story about finding, losing and struggling to hold on to love, with a wee bit of Scottish nationalism thrown in for good measure. There are enough sub-plots to make it all interesting and some of them are dark, but in general it's a light little affair. The energy and passion with which The Proclaimers infuse their music comes across loud and clear through strong performances by the entire cast. And the beautiful city of Edinburgh shines as a wonderful backdrop. I was reminded that it has been 5 years since I visited Scotland, and it brought back vivid memories of how beautify the country is.

The audience in the theatre for this world premiere must have been almost entirely Proclaimers fans of Scottish descent; they ate up every bit of the film, from the twins' early cameo to the final flash-mob-style musical number (yes, number: guess which song). 

The director, screenwriter, much of the cast and The Proclaimers took the stage for Q&A after the film. Most of the questions were about how they adapted the stage production to the screen, but the last was memorable: "Do you feel it's wrong to have a Scottish story end on a happy note?". The director didn't.

Monday, September 9, 2013

TIFF 2013: Beyond The Edge (Pretty Good)

Beyond The Edge is an historical perspective of the first successful ascent of Everest, on the occasion of the 60-year anniversary of the feat. It combines archival footage (audio and video) with new footage shot in 3D, with actors playing the roles of Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay and others. It shows the massive effort behind the British expedition of 1953 (hundreds of sherpas and porters, and a core climbing crew of about 15) made the final push possible. It also conveyed the pressure they were under to succeed, as others had come close, and it looked like the peak was ready to be conquered, even as medical experts of the day were uncertain if the human body could survive long in the "death zone" above 28,000 feet.

I have read several books about Everest, and seen a few films, so the subject matter was quite familiar to me. Those have mainly been about modern attempts on the peak, and the chaos that comes with too many expeditions going up at once, and leaving their detritus behind (including the bodies of those who failed). This film showed what things were like in 1953, with the primitive equipment used at the time, and (in part thanks to modern film technology that allowed the cinematographer to eliminate extra bodies on the mountain digitally) the loneliness of two men finishing the ascent together. It also captured the added adventure of attempting something that had never been done before, and which not all were certain was even possible. The sense of danger was clearly communicated, the visuals were stunning, and the historical context was interesting.

TIFF 2013: Giraffida (Pretty Good)

Giraffada is set in the West Bank, with frequent shots of the security wall reminding us of the stress the people there are living under. This is a story about a boy whose father is a vet at the local zoo, and his love for the giraffes there. The peaceful life of the animals in the zoo - despite their captivity, is in contrast to the life of the Palestinians, always reminded that the Israelis hold the upper hand.

When one of the giraffes dies from hitting its head, after being startled by gunfire and rockets one night, the other giraffe stops eating, as does the boy.

This is a nice, touching story of a boy trying to hang on to the one thing that keeps him sane in an insane living situation. I've seen several takes on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. this isn't the best, but it's a novel approach and it's cute, while still showing us what life is like in the West Bank.
There was a short Q&A after the film, with the director, producer and lead actress up on stage. One interesting question was whether bringing attention to the plight of the real zoo that inspired this story is an inappropriate distraction from the larger issues. The director disagreed, saying there had been lots of other films about the conflict, and if this film helps the zoo, and helps people see that that is part of life there, he's happy about that. 

TIFF 2013: Parkland (Fair)

Parkland is another look at the Kennedy assassination, but rather than focusing on the headline events, it shows us the perspectives of those behind the scenes:
  • doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital, where both Kennedy and Oswald were treated and died
  • FBI and secret service agents
  • Oswald's brother and mother
We're teased by the omission of a direct view of the key scene, seeing instead the reaction of Abraham Zapruder as he films it, and later seeing it only in the reflection of his glasses as he views the developed film. This emphasizes that this film is not directly about the event, but about how it affected those most directly touched by it. An interesting premise for a film, but for me that wasn't enough to sustain my interest very long. The characters were shallowly-drawn, and by the end I didn't really feel I had learned anything new of substance. And while I did not need to see the shot of the bullet's impact, or Jackie crawling over the trunk if the car to retrieve fragments, or even John Jr saluting the funeral procession, the omission of those canonical scenes turned out to be a distraction, because they are so deeply imprinted in my thoughts about this subject.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

TIFF 2013: Prisoners (Really Excellent)

It was a soggy, rainy day, and I was feeling sad because I had broken my Kindle on my way to the subway. There was an enormous line-up, and I had to walk about 4 blocks to get to the end of it. By the time I got into the beautiful Princess of Wales theatre (normally a stage theatre, but like Roy Thompson Hall, it gets set up for TIFF), I was somewhat soggy (feet still dry though). I managed to find a decent seat close to the centre, near the back of the orchestra section, and settled in for film #2 of my series: Prisoners. Director Denis Villeneuve was introduced and said a few words, mainly about how it's a long film and you need to watch every minute, so there would be almost no chance to pop out to the bathroom without missing something important.

The film was much darker than Thursday's opener, telling the story of two young girls who go missing from their families' Thankgiving dinner, and the search for them by the police officer on the case and the father of one of the girls. There are suspects, twists, subplots and some violence, and the film kept me on the edge of seat throughout. Good performances, good story/plot, and overall a very good film.

Tomorrow things start to get busy, with 3 more movies!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

TIFF 2013: Tim's Vermeer (Fabulous)

And we're off! Tonight was opening night at TIFF 2013 and my first film of the festival: Tim's Vermeer. The initial hook for me was that the film is directed by Teller of Penn and Teller; Penn also appears in the film, which is about his friend Tim Jenison's insane quest to paint a painting like those of Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch 17th-century painter whose realistic use of light was remarkable. Speculation that Vermeer "cheated" by using some sort of optical device led Jenison to try to figure out how he might do the same. The catch is that Jenison is not a painter.

I'm not a big art buff, but the film is as much about science and technology as art. Jenison turns out to be the guy behind Lightwave, a 3D animation system that traveled in some of the same circles as the Maya software I worked on for 14 years before my reincarnation.

The film was fabulous. It shows an obsessed man with incredible patience, and somehow manages to communicate the intense tedium of his project without the film ever becoming boring at all.

Penn and Teller came up from Vegas for the screening. Penn Jillette spoke briefly before the fim, with Teller by his side, silent as he always is. After the film, they returned to the stage, along with Tim Jenison himself, to discuss the film and answer questions, and remarkably, Teller spoke! It's always a treat to hear those who made a film talk about it at the screenings, but this one was really pretty special  for me. I've been a big fan of Penn & Teller since I first saw them perform in San Francisco over 20 years ago. This is a very different piece of work from anything else I've seen them do, more serious, but still quite remarkable.

I highly recommend the film. There is another TIFF screening tomorrow at 1:30, and as I write this Thursday at 10pm, there are still tickets available at

TIFF 2013: The process

I'm doing TIFF 2013 in a big way, and I decided it would be interesting to document my experience.

Last year I finally dived into TIFF for the first time. I had been wanting to "do" the festival for years, but never found (i.e. made) the time. My son had just moved out to start university, and I was feeling sad about the empty nest, so this was a good way to distract me. I bought a package of 10 tickets and ended up seeing 9 films (one of the films I picked wound up clashing with a family dinner, so I sold it to an old high school friend). It was exhausting but I loved it, and decided to go bigger this year.

The process is somewhat complex. I started off by buying a package of 20 tickets in early July. That was just confirming how many films I wanted to see, before the programme was available. On August 20th the programme came out, and I started doing my homework. First I read through the movie summaries in the 264-page programme book, folding over the page corner for each film that sounded worth seeing. That took a few hours, and when I was done I had about 60 films identified. Now I had to sort those films in the order I wanted to see them. Of course that called for an Excel spreadsheet! I filled in the title of each film, along with its screening times (filtering out those that conflicted with a few events already in my calendar). I reread the description of those films, watched trailers where I could find them online, and read reviews where web sites and local papers offered their recommendations. My friend Nina was interested in coming to a few films with me, so I shared my list with her and she told me her preferences, and I adjusted some rankings to merge her picks into my list. In the end I had a mostly-sorted list of 62 films!

Why so much preparation? On August 30th at 9am it was my turn to select my films via the TIFF web site, and once I made my first pick I had just 1 hour to complete my selections. For each film I had to check availability, check for conflicts on my schedule (including films I had already chosen), pick a screening time, add it to my cart, and then add it to my Google calendar to block out the time. I included the running time of the film and which theatre it was showing at, so that if two films were showing in rapid succession, I could decide if there was enough time to get from one theatre to the next.

In the end it took me 45 minutes to make my picks: 17 films, 3 with Nina, to use up my 20 tickets. The availability was much better than last year, when my 10 selections took me down to #17 on my list. This year my first 11 picks were all available (including Nina's top 3), and I wound up with 17 of my top 21 choices. Only 2 films were sold out when I tried to get a ticket for them; two others were available but conflicted with earlier choices. I'll be seeing 17 films in 11 days, but the schedule really isn't insane. There are a few days with 3 films, but enough time to get around and get fed in between. I'm very excited.

I have written a short review of each film I saw over the week and a half of the festival. Here's the final list, sorted in order of how much I enjoyed each film:
  1. Labor Day (Wow)
  2. How I Live Now (Wonderful)
  3. Tim's Vermeer (Fabulous)
  4. Prisoners (Really Excellent)
  5. The Right Kind of Wrong (Really Good)
  6. Sunshine On Leith (Very Good) 
  7. Words and Pictures (Very Good) 
  8. Half of a Yellow Sun (Quite Good)
  9. The Railway Man (Quite Good) 
  10. The Double (Very Weird, but Compelling)
  11. Giraffida (Pretty Good)
  12. Beyond The Edge (Pretty Good)
  13. The Dinner (Pretty Good)
  14. Break Loose (Not Bad)
  15. Parkland (Fair)
  16. Omar (Fair)
  17. Under The Skin (Weird)