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127 Hours (2010)
A completely cathartic life-or-death experience
I started loving this film within the first few seconds. 127 Hours begins immediately with the sound of Fresh Blood's "Never Hear Surf Music Again" ("There must be some f*%#ing chemical, chemical in your brain, that makes us different from animals, makes us all the same." etc...) just as featured in the 1st trailer. That not-ripped-off euphoric feeling (how many times have you seen a trailer with a perfect song/music and then felt betrayed that it wasn't in the film later... yeah, me too) carried on all the way through the rest of the film.
The film has an energetic start with a split screen showing office-bound commuters/workers going along their daily drudge while our lead, x-treme biker/hiker/climber Aron Ralston (played to perfection by actor James Franco) packs his gear (unfortunately not finding his Swiss Army knife which might have made a lot of difference to him later on) for a trek into Blue John Canyon country in Utah. While on his way he has a brief fun climbing/diving/swimming interlude with two female hikers (played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn). He then heads off on his own and at about 20 minutes into the movie takes a tumble with a small boulder that ends up pinning his right arm against the side wall of the thin crevice of a canyon. And that is where we are with him for the next "127 hours" (but only 1 hour of screen time) that it takes him to get loose.
I'm not going to spoil that resolution here, although most will likely hear about it anyway before seeing the movie. An obvious clue that he survives is given by the screen credit early in the film that says it is "based on the book Between A Rock And A Hard Place by Aron Ralston". The guy must of survived if he wrote a book about it right? Well, you can survive in many ways and not all of them leave you whole (both mentally and physically).
Director Danny Boyle brings a lot of the key Oscar-winning players of the Slumdog team back for this new film. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, soundtrack composer A.R.Rahman and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (this time paired with Enrique Chediak) are chief among those. As an added bonus, from the director of the toilet-diving cam in Trainspotting, we now have the "desperately thirsty character saves his own urine so it can be filmed while drunk through a tube"-cam in this movie.
At the Toronto Film Festival's 2nd screening of the film, Boyle was there to take questions from the audience and his enthusiasm and excitement about the film were infectious. Tidbits included his talking about their 6 days of location shooting followed by a sound-stage recreation of the canyon based on 3D scanning imagery. Boyle also praised actor James Franco and emphasized how every time we see him in a new film he is stretching his talents and abilities, unlike many lead actors who are just basically playing themselves in various different situations.
Boyle said that for an audience to watch what would otherwise be deemed "unwatchable" you either had to be making a schlocky/not-to-be-taken-seriously horror movie OR you had to make the audience completely identify with the character to the extent that they would believe that they themselves would have done the exact same thing to save themselves if they had to. Well, Boyle succeeds in making you believe it.
Seen at the Ryerson Theatre, Toronto Sept. 13, 2010. 2nd screening of 3 at TIFF 2010.
BLt: PoCNO rocks! There is no other way to describe it.
Seen at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept 17, 2009.
First off it is important to note that the Bad Lieutenant name was imposed by producer Edward Pressman in the hopes of building a future franchise. As Herzog said, a better franchise would be based on his title Port of Call New Orleans. The combined title is a compromise which Werner Herzog was willing to agree to.
Herzog was fun as always at the introductory remarks and the Q&A with TIFF programmer Colin Geddes. Telling anecdotes such as Cage asking him on the 2nd day of shooting what is his motivation and Herzog telling him not to worry about that, just go with "Evil is bliss" and sometimes "let the pig out!" (from the Bavarian colloquialism "Die Sau rauslassen!" / "Las die Sau raus!").
I'll confess that I had my doubts about this one simply based on the BLt title alone, imagining that this was going to be some sort of embarrassing sequel that has been imposed on Herzog for some bizarre contractual obligation reason. Have no fear about that! This is a Herzog movie and a Nicolas Cage on-a-rampage movie with all that those both imply. Even if certain clichés of the genre are adhered to (the prostitute girlfriend, the father who is an ex-cop now "drinking himself to death", etc.) these end up having totally different plot resolutions than you'd expect. Cage's second scene confronting the matron lady and her hairdresser alone is worth the price of admission. I know they don't give Oscars for roles like this (actually, maybe for Denzel they did) but this is the best Nicholas Cage I've seen in years.
Comment at the Q&A "I have seen 20 movies at this festival, and this is the most entertaining of all of them!" I couldn't agree more (and BLt:PoCNO was my 22nd). BLt:PoCNO rocks and Herzog rules! Seen at the Elgin Theatre/VISA Screening Room, the 2nd screening of 3 at TIFF 2009.
The Singing Revolution (2006)
This is the story of how culture saved a nation.
"The Singing Revolution" (Estonian title: "Laulev revolutsioon") was screened in its Canadian Premiere as the main Gala film of the 3rd Annual estdocs Estonian Documentary Film Festival in Toronto on Sunday Oct. 21, 2007 at the Ontario Science Centre Auditorium.
The evening opened with welcoming words from festival organizers Ellen Valter and Lia Hess and the introduction of film co-director Maureen Castle Tusty who explained that her husband and film co-director James Tusty was not able to make it to the Toronto screening as he was representing the film at its simultaneous Polish premiere at the Warsaw Film Festival. Maureen Castle Tusty then introduced former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar who was a special guest for the evening and who also played a prominent role in the events of the film during his early years in the Estonian Heritage Society.
Even though the audience in the hall was a large cross-section of local Estonian-Canadians for many of whom the main events of the film were a well-known part of our recent international history, I think everyone was genuinely impressed by the high standard of care and craftsmanship that the filmmakers put on display in their film which was screened in a crystal sharp high definition image.
The film delivers a lot of densely packed information on Estonia's recent history from the Communist/Nazi Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 that effectively delivered Estonia into the repressive dictatorship of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Regime to the most recent Song Festival("Laulupidu") of 2004. More time is spent on the early years of the Russian occupation in the 1940's as it was then when the terror of the occupiers was at its fullest. The film then leaps ahead to the years of the mid to late 1980's when Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" (economic restructuring) & "glasnost" (open-ness/free speech) opened the way for Estonian national movements such as the Estonian Independence Party, the Popular Front and the Estonian Heritage Society to test the limits that would be allowed before a further brutal oppressive crackdown began. Their steady probing and persistence made tiny Estonia a leading element on the way to the eventual breakdown and breakup of the Soviet empire. Along the way, the role of Estonian music in general and the ongoing National Song Festival in particular, are shown as a force that kept hope for independence alive from as early a date as 1947 when Estonian composer/conductor Gustav Ernesaks was able to sneak his song "My Fatherland is My Love" into the new Soviet Republic's first post-occupation Song Festival.
Although the subject matter is overall one of a very serious nature there are still several moments of humour in the film such as one Russian babushka's complaints about how "I'm ashamed of Estonians, they are so sly. Face to face they're so nice to you, but they stab you in the back when you turn." Fans of the writers Andrus Kivirähk and Oskar Luts were also rewarded with anecdotes such as narrator Linda Hunt extolling the clever "Old Farmer of the Barn" (Estonian "Rehepapp" - also the title & subject of a recent novel by Kivirähk) as the Estonian national hero in place of conventional mythological warriors and conductor Tiia-Ester Loitme lamenting the loss of her balloon in the Song Festival Parade with the words "Minu nunnu lendas minema!" ("My precious has flown away!") (this last one evokes Luts' immortal comic play "Kapsapea" ("The Cabbage Head"). It was a pleasure as well to hear Popular Front leader (& otherwise artist/cartoonist) Heinz Valk tell the stories of how he coined the phrases "Laulev revolutsioon" (Singing Revolution) and "Ükskord me võidame niikuinii!" (One day, we will win regardless!) with which he forever afterwards had to end his speeches, to audience shouts of "Say it Heinz! Say it!!". So there were many subtle chuckles to be enjoyed from the movie also.
The 475-seat hall was totally sold out for the occasion and the film was warmly received with a unanimous standing ovation at its conclusion. I'll admit to a huge personal bias here because of my Estonian heritage, but I find it hard to believe that anyone who supports movements of self-government and national independence and basic human rights in this day and age would not be moved by this wonderful film. Thanks to Maureen and James Tusty for their vision and their efforts to bring this story to the screen and to the world.
Oct. 28, 2007 Update: The 3rd Annual estdocs Festival ended on Oct. 26, 2007 and it was announced that "The Singing Revolution" won both the Audience Favourite and the Jury Prize for the week-long festival.
Triumphant "Against the Headwind Hall" film on conductor Tõnu Kaljuste and his opera house dream.
The building of an opera house may not immediately strike most people as a prime subject for a very dramatic film.
Yet, it is sometimes the most extreme circumstances that can be the setting for the most compelling stories, as it was with real life composer Richard Wagner's struggles to build his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany and with eccentric film director Werner Herzog as he showed in his semi-fictional mad-dream-of-opera-in-the-Amazon-jungle film "Fitzcarraldo". Such is also the case in the new documentary film "Against the Headwind Hall" ("Vastutuulesaal" in Estonian) by director Priit Valkna and producer Artur Talvik, which tells a similar tale, in an Estonian setting, with a very Estonian resolution in the end.
The charismatic conductor Tõnu Kaljuste resigned his position as music director and chief conductor of the world renowned Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in late 1999 and set out on a quixotic quest to build an opera/concert hall on the island of Naissaar which is situated about 8 km. northwards of the Estonian capital of Tallinn.
Naissaar, also known as the Island of Nargen, was once the family homestead of world renowned telescope and optical lens inventor Bernhard Schmidt (1879-1935) among whose other theoretical inventions was a wind-powered sail/propeller boat which used the force of the wind to sail directly into the wind itself. The idea of this "against the headwind ship" becomes a simile for Kaljuste's dream to realize the construction of his opera/concert hall despite all the forces of bureaucracy, financing, and all practical common sense circumstances that are working against him. The present day Naissaar Island, for instance, had no electrical supply, a barely functioning harbour and only 2 permanent residents at the time this story all begins.
How Kaljuste went about this goal and the many characters he meets along the way, including Bernhard Schmidt's nephew Eric, now living as an artist in Mallorca, Spain, eminent Estonian novelist Jaan Kross, film director/musician Hardi Volmer, theatre director Peeter Jalakas and various stone-masons, ship's captains, architects, and national and municipal politicians and bureaucrats, is shown in this exhilarating film that has many different moments of despair before the original plans come to their surprising final fruition.
It all ends to the soundtrack accompaniment of the stream-of-consciousness pop hit "My People" ("Minu inimesed") by the young Estonian rap/dance-club performer Chalice (the single monikered stagename of singer Jarek Kasar) which gives a musical benediction to Kaljuste's efforts, while composer Arvo Pärt declares on-screen that "the Estonian people can't begin to appreciate the trouble that Tõnu has gone through". Thanks to director Priit Valkna's triumphant film "Headwind Hall", we get the chance to see it and appreciate it for ourselves.
A sly and sexy low-key thriller
Reviewed at its North American Premiere screening Sept. 7, 2007 at the Scotiabank Theatre as part of the Visions Program during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's "Ploy" has been one of our favourites at TIFF this year. The film has a very sly and often languid build-up to various shocks as it unfolds. I'm not going to spoil those for anyone by saying too much here.
The film's setup is that a man Wit (who runs a restaurant in America) and his wife Dang (a former well known actress) are returning to Thailand after an absence of 10 years to attend a funeral. They are staying at a Bangkok hotel and while the wife settles into their room the husband goes down to the bar for cigarettes. There he meets a backpacking teenager named Ploy who evokes his sympathy (she has a black eye, possibly from an abusive boyfriend, and she is also from his hometown of Phuket) and without any apparent sexual scheming he simply invites the girl back up to the hotel room to rest up while she awaits her mother's arrival.
The wife doesn't take kindly to this intrusion and the teenager is taken aback as well ("You didn't tell me your girlfriend was going to be here!"). The comic absurdity of this setup gradually starts taking a darker turn with petty theft, suspicions of adultery and possible murders and rapes entering the storyline before we're done. Meanwhile a maid and bartender at the hotel are having a mysterious sexy assignation simultaneous to the main plot line and Dang's former acting history also attracts the attentions of a stalker. How these different plot strands intertwine and tangle and then untangle and resolve themselves was a pleasure to watch. The film started with the most basic of elements and then let you think you knew where it is going before it pulled the rug out from under you several times.
Actress Lalita Panyopas (from 1999's "Ruang talok 69") makes a welcome return in the role of Dang to director Ratanaruang's ensemble. I was also happy to see a bright clear picture in the print of "Ploy" after last year's TIFF print of "Invisible Waves" was muddy and dark.
Too many stereotypes, not enough passion to engage the audience
Reviewed at the World Premiere screening at Roy Thomson Hall, on Sept. 7, 2007 during the Toronto International Film Festival.
On the surface, this would seem to have everything going for it with a solid cast (veterans Witherspoon, Sarsgaard, Gyllenhaal, Streep, Arkin and new faces Metwally, Naor, Oukach, Khouas) a recent hot director (Gavin Hood, dir. of "Tsotsi", winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Film) and a script on a current hot-button issue (the anti-terrorism law of extraordinary rendition which allows U.S. agents to transport suspected terrorists to off-shore sites where anti-torture laws do not apply).
Somehow each of the cast members, perhaps due to the number of major characters involved and thus the reduced screen time allowed for each, come across as superficial stereotypes - the distraught expectant mother, the ex-boyfriend who tries to help, the CIA agent with a conscience, the cold hearted CIA executive, the pragmatic senator, the torture victim, the secret police torturer, the torturer's daughter with a secret boyfriend, the boyfriend with a secret). You're not with any of the characters long enough to identify with them much and when it all gets tied up together in the end a bit too neatly you're just left feeling disappointed and cheated.
Early reviews seem to be mostly praising this but the friend whom I saw it with and another veteran TIFF goer that we see in various line-ups had the same sense of disappointment.
The film just seems too desperate to make it all relevant as it tries to inspire our shock at the wrongs being perpetrated in the name of the anti-terror wars but it mostly comes across as clichéd rather than natural. When the Gyllenhaal character finally builds up the will to act on his moral outrage you're just not convinced about how he's made this character arc as he has spent the first 3/4's of the film either stunned by the effects of a suicide bombing that takes place before his very eyes and then drinking himself into a stupor while occasionally taking time out for an illicit office romance or to bark an order to underlings. It seems Gyllenhaal is the protagonist we are meant to identify with but he is too weak-willed to inspire much audience sympathy. Witherspoon as the distraught expectant mother has more of an immediate draw on our heartstrings but doesn't kick off the expose on the U.S. side of the things which we are pulling for her to do by soliciting help from ex-boyfriend Sarsgaard (who works for Arkin's senator character) after her Egyptian-American husband goes mysteriously missing after a trans-Atlantic flight. There are at least a few moments of fireworks when Witherspoon at least briefly gets to confront the CIA exec played by Streep who is pulling the forced extradition strings behind the scenes, but a few seconds of confrontation doesn't make up for the 90 minutes of gradually increasing tedium that it takes to get there and we still have about 30 minutes to go in the plot after that highpoint. The subplot built around the head police torturer and his family in an un-named North African country is more engrossing and a neat twist is pulled off in that storyline but that wasn't enough to save the picture for us.
I had really been looking forward to this film but something just seemed to be missing in the way it pays off the different plot lines.
The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006)
More of Big and Little Edie Bouvier Beale
We saw the Canadian premiere screening of "The Beales of Grey Gardens" on the afternoon of Monday Sept. 11, 2006 at the Al Green Theatre during the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Also on the program was Albert Maysles' very first film, "Psychiatry In Russia" from 1955, in what may have been its World Premiere screening in a theatre, as it had previously only been shown on American Public TV as far as Maysles himself could remember. Albert Maysles was introduced briefly at the start by TIFF programmer Nicholas Davies and was interviewed at the end by fellow director Barbara Kopple (dir. "Harlan County USA", "Dixie Chicks -Shut Up And Sing") and answered several questions from the audience.
"The Beales of Grey Gardens" is an entirely new film that has been assembled from the extra footage that Albert Maysles (camera) shot with his brother David Maysles (sound) in 1972-74 for the film released in 1975 called "Grey Gardens". Both films will be issued in a new 2 disc Criterion DVD set in December 2006. (You'll also be able to purchase them separately, in case you already have the 1st one.)
"Beales" does seem to be assembled on the assumption that anyone seeing it has already seen the original "Grey Gardens". There is no introduction or newspaper montage such as the first film has to give you any context or information about who these women are and why are they living in only a few rooms of a once imposing mansion that seems to be slowly going back to nature. Only late in the film there is a mention of Jackie Kennedy Onassis convincing her 2nd husband Ari (Aristotle Onassis) to help out the Beales with funding for renovations and upkeep of the Grey Gardens estate.
I felt overall that "Beales" perhaps showed more of a needy side to Little Edie that wasn't shown quite so overtly in the first film. Her flirtatious manner towards both of the Maysles brothers is more apparent and her questioning of their choice of the first film's title as "Grey Gardens" seems to hint at some disappointment that the film isn't titled after herself or her family, but rather the house (Maysles is obviously making up for this in the title of this 2nd film). The first film has more of a defiant pride where even the apparent desolate circumstances cannot undo her. Big Edie gives the same mother of all she surveys portrayal in both films.
The afternoon was even more enhanced by getting a chance to hear Albert Maysles tell anecdotes about the film and just speak in general about life and documentary film. Barbara Kopple did try to direct questions his way but it seemed that Maysles was simply more interested in getting certain views out and he actually seemed to be ignoring what he was asked and just using it as a springboard to carry on telling us a continuing story. Kopple wasn't in the least offended by this and seemed to be quite happy just to be there to act as a prompter for Maysles.
Among the tidbits that came out from Maysles was a quote of Little Edie's reaction after the Beales were given a private screening of the first film: "The Maysles have created a masterpiece!", and that Albert Maysles had recently re-connected with the neighbour's gardener Jerry Torres who as a young man was a frequent guest to Grey Gardens and who appears in both films and now drives a cab in New York City. Maysles also had some impassioned things to say about how documentary film was important in the world as a means to promote our understanding of each other and to act as a deterrent to anger and hate. An interesting comment made about the Beales but also about people in general was that "People want to tell the truth about themselves. They don't like to keep secrets".
All in all a great afternoon of documentary film. Kudos to TIFF for organizing it.
Office Tigers (2006)
Played pretty straight for a mockumentary
Reviewed at its 3rd & final screening at the Royal Ontario Museum Theatre on Sat. Sept. 16, 2006 during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The film had World Premiered at the Paramount 3 Theatre the previous weekend on Sept. 9, 2006.
This felt like the India based Office Tiger company gave the filmmakers insider access in the hopes of getting a free promotional film out of it and the film only comes across as subversive in a few instances - the co-owner is caught off-guard in the midst of berating his much put upon secretary, the home lifestyles of the executives are compared to those of workers, the co-owner is actually proud to be still living in a messy hotel room after 6 years in India, another executive lives in a luxury mansion with pool but it seems his dog is his only friend.
After about 45 minutes we got the point, but the film went on for twice that long.
Director was a no-show for this 3rd screening so there was no Q&A.
Manufactured Landscapes (2006)
Watching piles of eWaste not that interesting
Reviewed at the World Premiere screening Sept. 9, 2006 at the Isabel Bader Theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
This had an interesting premise but seemed to go on too long with too many shots of piles of eWaste (recycled computers, keyboards, cables etc. shipped over to China by the ton and then sorted and remade into new products to sell back) and other desolation.
The filmmakers tried to get more people interviews to boost the human element but were frequently prevented from doing so due to Chinese censorship. Still, what was there was interesting. The bits of a Shanghai high end real estate agent preening and strutting around showing off her luxurious mansion and gardens, intercut with the scenes of others living in medieval conditions were especially striking. The opening tracking shot of a 480m factory floor was quite something as well. Scenes of the activity at the Three Gorges Dam project were also a complement to the Jia Khang-je films at TIFF (the feature Still Life/Sanxia Haoren & the documentary Dong) which were also built around that subject.
Director Jennifer Baichwal, Producer Nick de Pencier, Cinematographer Peter Mettler and subject Edward Burtynsky were all there on stage for a Q&A after the world premiere. Producer Noah Weinzweig was introduced from the audience and was thanked as the most key person that assisted in the on the ground access in China itself.
10 Items or Less (2006)
A bit too light in both subject and quantity
Reviewed at the Sept 12, 2006 2nd screening at the Paramount 1 theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival. The film had World Premiered the day before at the Elgin Theatre VISA Screening Room.
The basic plot involves Morgan Freeman playing a one time popular actor who is on the downward slope of his career and who is taking on roles that may be beneath him, but which he still does with a positive attitude knowing that he needs to pay the rent etc. The downward slope is indicated by his being a long time between roles with previous flicks in bargain DVD bins and his being chauffeured by a not too sure of himself production assistant who drops Freeman off at a local community market where he is going to do research for a role as supermarket manager. He soon discovers the real-life market is run by a iron-willed "10 Items or Less" checkout line clerk played by Paz Vega. When Freeman's ride never returns and Vega needs help in prepping for an interview the circumstances cause them to join forces in a ride across town to get Freeman back home and to get Vega a job that'll get her on a more upwardly mobile career path.
While the film was enjoyable, it felt like it was still a sketch or a work in progress. There were two extended musical sequences (One with Vega & Freeman teaching each other children's songs in the car, one that literally plays like a Paul Simon music video) that felt like padding to bring up the time and even then the film was only about 80 minutes long.
It's a good thing Morgan Freeman is as well liked as he is because without him this would have been too little. Sure it was funny in parts and Paz Vega is a delight as well, but there was just not enough here to say it was a complete film.
They lost me when Morgan Freeman started talking about stopping the car to ask for directions and Paz Vega said she never does that. Who ever heard of a guy wanting to ask for directions and the woman saying no!? In the real world it's the exact opposite.
Make sure you stay for the outtakes in the credits. The bit with a Target Store saleslady teaching Morgan Freeman how to hustle sales is just hilarious! An early bit where Freeman's chauffeur insists it is Freeman's voice on a "Books on Tape" reading was also pretty funny.
The director/writer Brad Silberling and actress Paz Vega were there for a brief Q&A after the screening. Silberling answered one question saying that the script was not written specifically for Morgan Freeman and that once Freeman took the role he actually changed very little of what was there. Quite a compliment for both Silberling's writing and also about how Freeman can just slip into a role and make it feel entirely like he was born to play it.