Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review: I, Don Giovani

In this piece of faction from veteran Spanish director Carlos Saura, I, Don Giovani tells the story of Lorenzo Da Ponte and the development of his second collaboration with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Il dissoluto punito o sia Il Don Giovanni.  Sauro collaborated on the script with Raffaello Uboldi and Alessandro Vallini.

The tale begins in Da Ponte's youth, when he is forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity to enable his widower father's marriage to an 18-year old Catholic woman.  When he's older, he trains to be a priest, but practices the fine art of debauchery of in his spare time.  He is surrounded by inspiration for the story he ends up writing for Mozart's opera, and in fact his on-screen life plays out in opera fashion, complete with musical performances of songs from the opera.

The story is intriguing, with seduction, cheating, back-biting jealous divas, illness, and other great opera themes.  The film works Da Ponte's real life drama into the story of Don Giovani in a very clever way, which is only fitting since most of Da Ponte's work was in the form of adaptations of previous work.  But while the picture is visually impressive, it suffers a bit in the sound department.  Some of the post-production re-recorded dialog didn't match up with the picture very well, which proved distracting.  The bigger issue, though, were occasional dull patches in the plot.  My imdb rating: 6/10.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Review: Bare Essence of Life

My second to last day at the festival began with Bare Essence of Life, from Japanese writer/director Satoko Yokohama.  Ken'ichi Matsuyama starred in the second consecutive movie in my schedule.  Veteran Actress Komiko Aso plays love interest Machiko Kamiizumi.

In a jump of epic proportions, Matsuyama slides easily from a fugitive ninja in Kamui to a mentally challenged small-time vegetable farmer named Akito Mizuki in this film.  Akito lives with his grandmother, who is trying to prepare him to survive on his own.  With a mental age of about 7, things aren't going so well.  Spoiler alert, I'm about to divulge the rest of the plot.

Machiko moves to the remote northern Japanese village from Tokyo, where the love of her life was decapitated in a horrific car accident.  While the rest of the villagers whisper amongst themselves about her bad fortune, Akito falls in love with her.  Initially, he freaks her out with his stalker behavior.  That night, Akito, with the help of a local schoolboy, buries himself in the garden, with only his head sticking up out of the ground.  The helpful neighborhood kid sprays the entire garden with herbicide, including Akito's head, and then heads home, leaving Akito planted.  After being freed from his garden grave, he seeks out his love again, only this time she finds him more charming.  Of course, Akito credits the herbicide application to his newfound success.

Now obsessed with giving himself regular applications of herbicide, he falls ill.  As a result, presumably, his heart stops beating, but miraculously he's otherwise healthy as a horse.  Eventually, though, he gets shot dead by hunters while on a field trip to the woods with Machiko and her class.  Oddly, after the autopsy, the pathologist gives Machiko his brain in a jar presumably filled with formaldehyde, remarking that it's smaller than usual.  She then takes the kids back to the woods, strangely unafraid that someone else would get shot.  No one in fact does get shot, but they do stumble upon a bear.  Machiko tosses Akito's brain in the direction of the bear, and she and the kids escape to safety while he munches on his dinner of formaldehyde-soaked human brain.  The end.

And no, I'm not making this shit up.

I think the movie was supposed to be funny.  However, I guess I don't find mentally challenged farmer jokes all that funny.  Oh look!  He's throwing the produce at the customers.  Ha ha ha!  She won't buy anything now, and he won't have money to pay his bills.  Ha ha ha!  My imdb rating: 3/10.

Review: Kamui

After a couple films that occasionally seemed to induce more napping than anything, I needed some entertainment.  Fortunately, the evening movie on the schedule was Kamui, director Yoichi Sai's version of the legendary tale of a fugitive ninja.

Ken'ichi Matsuyama takes on the role of the title character, who is born low on the social totem pole in 17th century Japan.  As a way out, he becomes a ninja, but unhappy with performing the tasks required of him, he escapes to live a free life.  As it turns out, the ninja society strongly adheres to the "Hotel Calfornia" rule, so Kamui spends a lot of time looking over his shoulder.

As it turns out, in 17th century Japan, ninjas have darned near super human powers.  Kamui can do some neat tricks.  For instance, his signature move is making it look like there are two of him.  He cam also jump about thirty feet.  These are handy skills to possess when you're a fugitive ninja.

Anyway, after some adventures in a forest, Kamui takes to the ocean.  That turns out to be a rough life, and he winds up washing up on shore half-dead after a trippy run-in with a demented fisherman.  The fisherman's daughter helps nurse him back to life, much to the dismay of her mother, who has secrets of her own.  Some pirates show up, identities get exposed, and all hell breaks loose.

I'll leave the details out, in case you happen to catch this one.  It's a fun story with lots of crazy ninja action, and the rather cartoonish low-budget CGI gives it the look of a live action anime film.  My imdb rating: 7/10.

Review: Like You Know It All

From South Korea and writer/director Sang-soo Hong comes Like You Know It All (Jal aljido mothamyeonseo), the story of an art house film director and the folly of his day-to-day life.  Kim Tae-woo takes on the role of Ku Kyung-nam, a director of critically acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful movies.

The film begins with Kyung-nam attending a film festival as a judge.  Quickly, it becomes apparent that the festival is much more about long nights of drinking with arrogant industry men and young attractive women than it is about screening movies.  The screenings simply become a convenient time to catch up on sleep.  The partying leads to one young woman delivering Kyung-nam a tongue lashing for leaving her defenselessly drunk at the residence of one of the other revelers.  He soon leaves the festival, promising to review the movies on DVD instead.

Later, in one confusing scene, Kyung-nam visits the home of an old friend.  The friend dies, and Kyung-nam sleeps with his wife while trying to comfort her.  Moments later, the friend is once again alive, with no explanation as far as I could see, and throws a large rock at Kyung-nam, striking him in the face.

Kyung-nam's last adventure begins when he meets up with his college mentor, who he discovers has coincidentally married an ex-flame.  This encounter begins with an admittedly hilarious moment of foreboding, but drags on in a confusing and seemingly endless series of conversations.

The irony of this movie is that it seemed like it was directed by someone just like the main character that the movie intends to make fun of.  There were several funny moments on the film, but far too often I found myself wondering what was going on.  My imdb rating: 4/10.

Review: Tales From The Golden Age

Award winning Director Christian Mungiu brought together four other fledgling Romanian directors to direct five short films depicting life during Romania in the 1980s.  Communist propaganda referred to the days of their rule as "The Golden Age".  The five films each look at "legends" of the time in typically a humorous way.  Apparently, there is a sixth film and these are being released as two separate films in Romania.  I'm guessing they selected five of the six as a single film for the festival.

Each of the five that we saw told the story of a "legend" of the time.

  • The opening tale was that of a small town nervously preparing for the arrival of communist party officials, which ends with everyone getting drunk and then getting on a carnival ride with swings.  Unfortunately, they forgot to leave somebody off the ride to stop it and simply had to wait for it to run out of gas.
  • In a "forest for the trees" moment, state officials insist that alterations are made to a photograph before the newspaper can print it, but wind up needing an emergency recall of the morning edition.
  • A family obtains a (live) pig through questionable means and, not wanting to draw attention of the neighbors, attempts to kill it via home made gas chamber, with somewhat predictable results.
  • A man delivering truckloads of chickens finds a way to make a little extra by hocking their eggs part way through his route.
  • A man introduces a young woman to a low stakes confidence scheme - tricking residents of apartment buildings into giving them returnable bottles, and then cashing them in.
The common theme of all the stories is the absurdity of the reality created by the communist government of the time.  This creates ample room for laughs and the Romanians cash in on it often.  There are some lulls here and there, though I'm sure some humor was lost on me just due to my lack of knowledge about their culture.  My imdb rating: 6/10.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Review: J'ai tué ma mère

The next film in this year's schedule was Canadian cinema part deux: the French language feature J'ai tué ma mère (I killed my mother).  Xavier Dolan produced, wrote, directed and starred in this film.  This is very convenient because you know who to blame if you don't like it.

This semi-autobiographical tale is about Xavier's relationship with his mother.  For this film, he takes on the name Hubert, and his mother is not played by his mother, but rather by Anne Dorval.  Hubert and his mother Chantale fight. A lot.  Drop dead scream fests.  In French.  Québécois French, but French nonetheless.  Hubert is mean, Chantale is mean, and it's hard to decide who's at fault, really.

One may choose to infer that the root of the problem is that Hubert has chosen not to divulge his homosexuality to his mother, though the film didn't directly state that.  Hubert's father isn't much help, as he ditched the family years prior, deciding that parenthood just wasn't for him.  Unable to deal with Hubert's rage herself, Chantale ships him off to a boarding school.

Along the way, Hubert strikes up a friendship with one of his public school teachers, Julie, and interacts with his main squeeze Antonin and his mother Hélène, who eventually outs Hubert in a chance encounter with Chantale.

Dorval gives a great performance as Chantale, especially in one scene when she rips the boarding school's director a new hole for suggesting that Hubert would benefit from a male influence in the home.  Dolan is predictably convincing in portraying himself on screen.  As a story, though, I found it a little frustrating watching these two people rip each other apart verbally for seemingly no reason whatsoever through most of the film.  Sure, perhaps that's how the relationship was, but it doesn't necessarily make compelling cinema.  My imdb rating: 5/10.

Good Bye, Canada

I'm at Pearson Airport, sadly awaiting departure from our neighbors to the north.  Only ten more reviews to write.  Stay tuned, I'll be busily pumping out reviews for the remainder of the weekend...

Review: Cole

Every year, I make sure that I see at least one or two Canadian films, just as a "when in Rome" thing.  Canadian movies don't have the budgets of American and English productions, but you can find some good young talent now and then, and the focus tends to be more on story, less on special effects.  Cole was one of this year's Canadian flicks, directed by veteran filmmaker Carl Bessai.

Cole is part slice of life, part coming of age story of a young man from a stop light-less town in Canada, a few hours north of any major population.  Cole's father is dead, and an accident has left his mother uncommunicative and with a habit of walking slowly onto the highway in front of the gas station his family owns and runs.

Cole dreams of being a writer and finally gets into a short story class he's wanted to take at the university a few hours south of his home.  The class causes all kinds of stress for Cole and those around him.  His sister Maybelline is stressed because she relies on Cole to help run the gas station and look after their mother, as her redneck boyfriend Bobby can only be relied upon to get drunk and make racist comments about her half black child.  It stresses out Cole's best friend Frogger (great name, by the way) because Cole writes semi-autobiographical stories, and Frogger doesn't like his honest portrayal.  And it stresses out Cole not only because of all the aforementioned reasons, but also because he falls for the beautiful Thandie Newton-ish Serafina.

Bessai gets solid performances from his major players: Richard de Klerk as Cole, Sonja Bennett as Maybelline, and Chad Willett as Bobby.  Michael Eisner was especially good as Frogger, delivering great laughs as Cole's beer bonging best friend, with occasional flashes of serious acting.

My complaints about the movie are about the script.  The character Bobby has absolutely no redeeming qualities and other than getting punched in the face pretty hard a few times, he never gets his due.  Serafina and her family, as the well-to-do yin to Bobby's trashy yang, come off flat and unrealistic.  They just don't approve of the small town boy driving the rusty pick up truck.  Meanwhile, she seems to be almost oblivious to Cole's realities, carelessly putting him in uncomfortable situations.

I can't say that I didn't enjoy the movie, but I thought it could have used a script doctor.  If they spent two minutes of screen time giving Bobby a redeeming quality and reworked Serafina just a bit, I think it would have worked.  As it is, I don't want my time back, but I wouldn't urge you rush out to see this one.  My imdb rating: 5/10.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: The Informant!

We didn't get tickets for A Serious Man, and still had the vouchers to use up.  Fearful of surpassing our quota of foreign language art house flops, we chose Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!  The exclamation point, by the way, is part of the title; it was not me getting really excited about the fact that we picked that movie!  This concludes my annoying use of exclamation points!

When I originally saw the title for this film in the festival guide, I immediately discounted it.  I didn't need to travel all the way to Toronto to see the next drama about how some corporate dude risks everything to buck the system and save us all from the evil corporate giants.  These movies are entertaining and all, but I can wait a month or two to see it in the theater when I feel like spending a couple hours choking down an $8 bag of popcorn.  I'd heard that it was a true story, but the detail I'd missed until later, and what ultimately lead to its selection, was this fact: it's a comedy.  I was intrigued.

Soderbergh has proven to be a bit of a chameleon, dodging between the Oceans franchise and movies like Che and The Good German.  The script was developed by Scott Z. Burns from the non-fiction book by Kurt Eichenwald.  You probably haven't heard of Burns, but he helped write the last Bourne flick.  Matt Damon packed on 20 lbs. or so, by the looks of him, and grew a mustache for his role as Mark Whitacre.  Scott Bakula adds clout to the cast as FBI agent Brian Shepard.

Whitacre was an officer at Archer Daniels Midland in the late 80s and 90's, rising to President of their BioProducts division.  At the urging of his wife, he eventually became an FBI informant for a global price-fixing scheme at ADM, for which the company would pay out over a half billion dollars in fines and damages.  Whitacre himself would eventually be jailed for other charges unrelated to ADM's criminal activity.

None of that matters.  The movie is downright hilarious.  It begins with a disclaimer from the filmmakers explaining that certain liberties had been taken in the making of the film -- conversations are fictionalized, some characters are composites, etc. --concluding with a very distinct "So there."

What follows is a zany journey through the next three or five years.  I don't really remember how long exactly, as I was laughing too hard to keep track of the chronology.  The movie is interspersed with Whitacre's voiced-over inner thoughts, frequently having nothing in particular to do with the plot.  Trust me, it works.  The movie's tone, similar to Austin Powers, is a blend of various influences from the late 60's and early 70's. Think Get Smart's dimwitted government man, Mary Tyler Moore's font, mixed with the flair of The Rockford Files or Charlie's Angels.

It wasn't just funny, though.  It really is a fascinating tale that never gets predictable.   Damon gives a wonderful performance, and I don't know that I've ever liked him in a movie this much, not that I have anything against him like some people.  I went to this movie expecting a 7, but I liked it more than that.  I wouldn't be surprised at all if there were a few Oscar nominations thrown its way.  My imdb rating: 8/10.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review: The Last Days of Emma Blank

Ah, the Dutch.  What can we say about the Dutch?  They smoke marijuana and speak four languages fluently, according to Eddie Izzard.  You have to admire them for that.  It's a stereotype, I'm sure, but it's something I had in mind when I scheduled The Last Days of Emma Blank.

When the movie begins, we meet a woman named Emma Blank.  She is apparently wealthy, as she has a staff of people tending to her every whim.  She is also apparently either insane or quite a bitch, her whims are often rather absurd.  For instance, Theo, played by the director Alex van Warmerdam, plays the part of the family dog.  The chamber maid even has to take him outside while he does his business, and then scoop up the mess afterward.

Absurd comedy eventually turns dark.  Slowly, we learn that Emma's staff is actually her family -- husband, sister, brother, nephew, & daughter -- and she's told them that if they want their portion of the inheritance, they are going to have to play along.  We see the family move easily in and out of their roles and eventually turn on one another.

In the end, Emma admits that she'd lied about the fortune, and the family gets to work on putting her out of her misery, in hilarious fashion.  A couple others die as well, but I'll leave that for suspense, should you have the opportunity to catch this one at your local art house theater or on Netflix.  My imdb rating: 7/10.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review: Colony

I was attracted to the documentary Colony in part because I have a beekeeper hobbyist friend, but more or less just because I think that if all the bees died, it would really suck for us, meaning people and other animals.

Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell followed a few beekeeping businessmen around for a couple years, during which time things go from bad to worse for the beekeeping industry.  The film starts off well enough, educating the average film goer, say me, about how the beekeeping industry works.  It turns out that the whole honey things is really just a side business, and that the majority of their income revolves around getting paid by farmers to haul their bees around the country and set them free around almond orchards, fruit orchards, and the like.  Without bees pollinating the plants and trees, apparently things don't go quite so well.

After laying the foundation, the film moves on to the exploration the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.  Apparently, entire hives of bees have just been disappearing.  They're not found dead anywhere, they just "go away", and no one knows for sure why.

At this point, I felt the film began to lose its focus.  Instead of fully exploring all the angles of CCD and the different theories behind its cause, it switches gears frequently between CCD, the effect of the collapsing economy on beekeepers, and the Seppi family itself.

The Seppis are admittedly a fascinating study, though in a really creepy sort of way.  They seem more like fictional movie characters than real people living here on earth.  We spend a lot of time with them and in one scene, they gather around a table taking turns praying for things like "good business advice".  The mother is particular dominant in family matters, though she seems not to get involved directly in business matters.  The combination of the collapse of the economy coupled with the collapse of many of their hives seems to be too much for the Seppi family, and they are losing money.

Is the movie about CCD?  The beekeeping industry?  The families that run these operations?  Their dialog with Bayer CropScience, Inc.?  I'm not sure, as the movie seemed to lose its focus and, at least in my case, its viewer.  My imdb rating: 4/10.

Review: The Road

I read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning book The Road about a year ago at the suggestion of a friend.  It’s a great book, and my fears about seeing the film revolved around two feelings; (a) movies adapted from books frequently suck; and (b) the book is super-depressing.  Someone thought it was a good idea to give the film to a relatively inexperienced director, Aussie John Hillcoat, whose biggest prior film was a western I don't think I've heard of called The Proposition, starring fellow Australians Guy Pearce and Noah Taylor.

In The Road, Viggo Mortensen plays the man, a nameless father of a young boy in the U.S. at an unspecified time.  Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee  plays the boy, who is at best guess around 10 or 11 years of age.  The world is dead, or at least the part of the world they inhabit.  There are no animals, no living trees or plants, and just a scant few people, most of whom should be feared.  Fearful that they may not survive another winter and hopeful that they will find a better environment, they take to the road, headed south.

Through flashbacks, we learn that the man’s wife and boy’s mother, played by Charlize Theron, chose not  to survive in this world.  The man, growing ill with something I'm sure is far worse than smoker's hack, could not bring himself to follow her path, and instead chooses to teach the boy how to survive in this new world.  Their travels bring them both horror and joy, but mostly just horror.  They seldom interact with others, but we are introduced briefly to a couple characters along the way in cameo appearances by Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce.

The movie does not focus on the “why” or “how” of this destroyed world, but instead focuses on the relationship of a boy and his father.  Hillcoat skillfully delivers McCarthy’s work in visual form, laying out what a man should, can and cannot do out of love for his son.  Weepy movie goers may want to pack a tissue, or perhaps a pack of tissues.  See the film, but schedule something happy afterward.  My imdb rating: 8/10.

Review: Whip It!

With our free passes from the Barry Levinson no-show, we decided to give ourselves a treat.  No deep Belgian examination of some kid’s love/hate relationship with his mother, who happens to breed hamsters for a living, dreaming of someday stepping up to guinea pigs.  Nope, we went straight for the roller derby flick directed by first-time director Drew Barrymore.  I think this able young woman may have a future in the film business.

Whip it! begins with 17-year old Bliss Cavendar, played by Juno star Ellen Page, uncomfortably getting through a girls' beauty pageant, the kind that really make your stomach turn.  Similar to the character Juno, Bliss doesn’t feel at home amongst these people.  She doesn’t carry any particular grudge, she’s just looking for something different. By chance, Bliss stumbles upon the recently revived world of Roller Derby in Austin, Texas, not far from her native tiny-town Bordeen.  Immediately entranced by her new role models, Bliss tries out for and makes a team, fibbing about her age along the way.

Her new secret life as a roller derby star stresses out her relationships with her best friend Pash, her pushy beauty pageant mother (veteran actress Marcia Gay Harden), her football obsessed father, and her new rocker boyfriend Oliver.

Drew displays a good eye for comedy and for the most part avoids overly sappy moments.  Page, meanwhile, shows that she can still convincingly play a high school girl (I guess she was only 21 at the time of filming) and impressively uses no stunt double during the making of the film.  There’s a great supporting cast of roller derby tough girls, lead by the return of Julliette Lewis, who recently split from her band Juliette and the Licks, and Drew herself.

Whip it! delivers some good lines, doesn’t get overly predictable, and has fun characters.  You probably won’t see this one again and again, but it is a decent date flick.  My imdb rating: 7/10.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward

I'm exhausted, low on sleep, and heading into a four-movie day, already behind by three movies.  I'll be lugging my laptop around the city with me today, writing when I can.  Wish me luck!

Review: Shortcuts Canada Programme 3

Every year I make it a point to see a batch of short films, and generally Canadian ones.  This year, I felt fairly fortunate with my selection, especially since I saw them immediately after walking out of my previous movie.  Here are individual short reviews of each of the short films.

Pointless Film: Directed by Peter Wellington, this black and white short shows the negotiation between two men for a "barely used" futon.  Humorous (unless you used to work in purchasing) and well made, but nothing too earth shattering.  My imdb rating: 5/10.

Man v. Minivan: This film, whose title alone lead me to choose this particular batch of shorts, was perhaps the most elaborate short of the bunch, at least in terms of crew.  A groom with cold feet, a trouble-making future brother-in-law, a stripper with a heart of gold (I know, I know, that's never been done before), and a gift of a brand new minivan the morning of the wedding lead to a humorous set of events.  There was even a Fight Club inspired “punch in the ear” moment.  Well-acted and directed, I enjoyed this film and expect a feature in the next couple years from its awesomely named director, Spencer Maybee.  My imdb rating: 7/10.

The Island: Trevor Anderson used regular film mixed with animation to reflect on an actual e-mail (famous in some circles) he'd received suggesting that he and all the other gays should just go to an island somewhere and "give each other AIDS".  Trevor uses humor to brush aside the piece of "fan mail", sent directly from the good ol' USA!  My imdb rating: 7/10.

Homeland Security: Isaac Cravit directs this short story of a jealous man who suspects his wife/girlfriend of cheating.  He works for Homeland Security and takes out his anger on a group of Canadian women traveling to New York for a bachelorette party.  Do the women really have something to hide?  My imdb rating: 6/10.

Soap: This mid-80's period piece was directed by Dusty Mancinelli.  With very little dialog, he tells the story of an unhappily married mother of one and what she's willing to do to keep her lifestyle when her lover slips on a piece of soap in the shower, bangs his head, and dies right there in her bathroom.  A slight Coen brothers feel haunts the cop scene.  My imdb rating: 7/10.

Runaway: Two-time Oscar-nominee Cordell Barker spent an incredible seven years producing this 9-minute hand-drawn animated short.  Working in a back-and-forth method with musician Benoît Charest for this film, it begins as an amusing tale of a coal-powered train carrying two cars, one with partying elite and the other with normal folk.  It ends rather darkly and illustrates Barker's rather dim view of our society.  My imdb rating: 6/10.

Deadman: Switching gears, Chelsea McMullan directs this documentary film about wannabe cowboy Matt Sandvoss and his dream to build a ghost town version of Disney World in British Columbia.  He is one of those people commonly referred to as a “harmless kook”.  Obsessed with the "wild west" folklore of the U.S., he completes phase one of his endeavor and produces a western film to celebrate and promote the event.  In one hilarious scene, the movie within the movie contains a shootout between two gangs of seven or so members each, each gang standing side-by-side, standing about three meters apart.  It goes on for about fifteen seconds with not a single gunman going down.  Strangely the lady next to me and I were the only two people in the theater laughing.  While Mr. Sandvoss may not be a talented filmmaker, Ms. McMullan captures his dream with expert care.  My imdb rating: 8/10.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Review: The Window

Each year, you run a risk at the Toronto International Film Festival.  The risk is that the programmers are low on sleep, drunk, incompetent, or just like to play mean tricks on people.  I don't know which of those applied Sunday evening, but something was certainly afoot.

At worst, the film description on for Buddhadev Dasgupta's The Window suggested a film that might be slightly bad, maybe boring, but it was a chance perhaps to see a story presented from the point of view of another culture.  What it did not say is what it should have said: This is a bad, bad movie.  Do not see this movie.  Whatever movies you have seen over the last 10+ years, this one will go right to the bottom of the heap of the worst.  Please, please stay away from this movie, unless it's being presented on a future episode of something along the lines of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I first had an inkling that the movie would be bad when a character spoke.  The sound was horrible.  They had obviously rerecorded the dialog after original filming and not only did the dialog sound bad, but it just didn't quite match the lip movements.  Then there were the subtitles.  Most of the movie was in the Bengali language, but there were parts in English.  It wasn't too strange that the subtitles continued when the characters spoke English now and then due to the accents.  It was strange, however, that the subtitles did not even closely match what they were saying.  And yeah, the music was bad, too.

Now that the technical stuff is out of the way, we can move on to the moronic plot.  Bimal is a lean, muscular Indian man who is love with Meera, a very beautiful young Indian woman.  At the beginning of the film, they discover that she is pregnant with his child, and they begin to try to figure out how they can get married and support themselves, because they're fairly broke and don't have good jobs.  Bimal works at an old folks home for grumpy old men who frankly don't look that old.  Maybe Indian men age well.  Meera, meanwhile, is a customer service rep for American Airlines and frequently talks with inane and/or rude American customers.

Anyway, Bimal per chance ends up touring his old high school, which is now in disrepair.  He decides to do his part to help the school by replacing a window from one of his classrooms that has since been stolen or broken.  And hey, why not, he drains he and Meera's life savings to make sure that the window, as closely as possible, resembles the original window.  Yeah, he's going to be a dad and all, but these kids need a window.  Sure, he's only replace one of about 50 missing windows, but he wants to do his part.

Along the way, there's an asinine subplot about some petty thief, which is supposed to provide humorous relief from the crappy drama, but it falls flatter than cheap naan.  Flatter, even, than that lame reference to Indian food.  The thief steals the window (Bimal, though in fine shape and about 20 years younger, cannot manage to catch him in a horribly choreographed chase scene) and when Meera discovers that the bank account has been drained, she quite reasonably dumps Bimal and he is miserable and sad.  End of story.

Don't waste your time.  My imdb rating: a rare 1/10.
I'm getting a bit behind on film reviews, I know, but I'll catch up. Patience...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Beach

No movies until this evening, film fans.  We're off to the beach.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Serious Man Will Have To Wait

With all the ruckus going on at the screening for Up in the Air, we couldn't get to the rush line in time to have a chance at getting into A Serious Man.  And, since the second screening interferes with the recent schedule addition Whip It!, we will have to wait along with the rest of you for the next Coen Brothers flick.  Don't worry -- there are less than three weeks (Oct. 2) before it comes to a theater near you...

Brush with fame: George Clooney and more!

It didn't used to be this way.  Canadians didn't gather around to scream at the likes of George Clooney like he was some sort of Beatles member.  At least, I don't remember that from my early days at the festival.  They sure do now, though.

George showed up sporting a gauze wrap on his right hand (no word on what that was about) for the screening of Up in the Air, along with numerous others, including cast and friends alike.  Others present at this screening were director Jason Reitman, cast members Jason Bateman, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga.  Even Scott Bakula, who had nothing to do with the movie as far as I know, showed up.  He asked if the seats behind us were taken and got turned away.  Sorry, Scott.

Review: Up in the Air

Jason Reitman, fresh off the success of his Oscar-winning film Juno, returned to the film festival this year with Up in the Air.  This comedy/drama has an exceptional cast, including George Clooney, Jason Bateman, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga.

When Jason began adapting the Walter Kirn novel of the same name six years ago, he didn't realize how relevant the subject matter would be.  Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a "career transition consultant", which is essentially a guy who gets paid to travel around the country and fire long lists of people.  Ryan is good at his job, and doesn't give a second thought to the trail of bodies in his path.  Instead, he concentrates on other goals, like amassing huge sums of frequent flyer miles and minimizing personal baggage.

His mileage goals become threatened by Natalie, a young hot shot, when she convinces management at their "consulting" company to put the kibosh on air travel in favor of firing via video conference.  His personal baggage becomes heavier when he falls for Alex, self-described as "[Ryan], but with a vagina", with whom he has started an affair.  Throw in demands from his family to attend the wedding of his sister, who he admits to not really knowing, and Ryan's world is just all jumbled up.  Will he abandon his road warrior life style for something more?

Clooney is as likable as ever, even if this character isn't very different from others of late, and the rest of the cast give solid performances.  There are some great comedic moments in the movie, and though the third act moves a little slowly, Reitman earns bonus points both for avoiding a saccharin-sweet ending and having Ryan fire people in Des Moines, Iowa.  My imdb rating: 7/10.

A Touch of Canadian Culture

We stopped for a beer on the way back to our inn tonight.  My choice?  Why, Kokanee, of course, a Canadian classic.

Review: Barry Levinson Presents The Band That Wouldn't Die

TIFF has a programme every year called Mavericks.  Each screening typically includes some short film or film clip followed by an extended live on-stage conversation with a director or some important figure.  A couple years ago, I saw my first Mavericks screening with Bill Maher.  Maureen has a thing for Barry Levinson, so when she found out that he'd be speaking on stage, we locked in.

Unfortunately, as we approached the line, I mean queue, a TIFF volunteer informed us that Barry Levinson would not be making it to the screening after all.  Oh, and who was this Barry Levinson guy anyway?  (she was young) We debated exchanging our tickets for another screening, but in the end we decided just to stick with it.  If nothing else, perhaps we'd like the film.  Barry, by the way, is apparently busy filming You Don't Know Jack, a made-for-TV movie about Jack Kevorkian, so I guess that's important.

The film itself, The Band That Wouldn't Die, is one of 30 documentaries commissioned by ESPN for it's 30 for 30 series.  They sought 30 film makers to produce documentaries on sports subjects that touched them personally. They begin airing in October, so if you have cable, you can see this one for free in a few weeks or so.

Barry is a native of Baltimore, which one doc subject described as "the traffic jam between New York and Washington D.C.".  For his story, he chose Baltimore's loss of the Baltimore Colts football team in 1984 and the effort by the team's marching band to bring an NFL team back to the city.  He found some interesting stories, from covert operations to hide marching band uniforms in a mausoleum, to the head of the marching band hocking his wife's wedding ring to buy drum heads.

The one-hour doc was enjoyable enough, and I learned a lot about that whole ruckus that I didn't notice so much when I was busy finishing up my time at J.B. Young Junior High.

Barry's absence was noticeable, but they did manage to scrap together a couple producers for a Q&A afterward.  And, being the nice people that they are at the festival, they're letting us turn in our ticket stubs for another screening of our choice.  My imdb rating: 6/10.

The Queen Mother Cafe - Part II

After being thoroughly depressed by City of Life and Death, Mo and I needed a pick me up and decided to head back to The Queen Mother for a glass of wine.  Okay, a half liter of wine which, after some wicked math all in my head, I calculated out to be about two-thirds of a bottle.

We hadn't eaten since about 3:00 or so, which is only about 2:48 after converting to U.S. time, so we decided to have a snack.  Debating between Nam Dip (fresh spring rolls, really) and some funky taro chips and wasabi guacamole, the bartender clearly thought we should go with the guacamole, which was primarily comprised of avocado, wasabi and mango.  It was delicious.

The bar staff there is always great.  In fact, I recognize the guy at the bar from other trips in my Toronto past.  He could own the place for all I know, though I once met the owner and I don't think that was him.  We left much more gleeful than when we entered.

Review: City of Life and Death

As a rule, I avoid war movies.  It's not that they're bad, but I find them generally depressing.  City of Life and Death slipped into the schedule this year, which depicts the Nanking Massacre of 1937.  The exact details, as with so many aspects of war, are cloudy and unknown.  It's generally accepted, though, that over a quarter of a million people were slaughtered during the siege on the city.  I'm happy to report that the movie does not show that many.  That would have made for a very, very long movie.

Shot in black and white, the movie initially shuns plot and characters in favor of establishing the brutality of the invasion with a montage of mass murder.  Bit by bit, though, director Chuan Lu reveals a small cast of characters.  I've forgotten most of the names and some of the details, because I'm a white American and am easily confused by names other than John, Sally and Ted.  Fortunately, between imdb and, I was able to piece together most of them.

Part of the story focuses on John Rabe, an altruistic German businessman working for Siemans, AG in Nanking.  Rabe is credited with establishing the Nanking Safety Zone, and saving as many as 200,000 civilian lives.  He is played by John Paisley, some of whose lines were hilariously (no, not purposefully so) dubbed over, producing that all too famous effect so many Asian movies have on American cable TV stations.

John's assistant is a Chinese man, Mr. Tang, who is under the mistaken impression that he and is family are safe from the Japanese cruelty because he works for Mr. Rabe in the safe zone.  This illusion is completely thrown out the window in one devastating scene.  Okay, that was a horrible sentence for reasons you can't know unless you watch the movie and I'm already feeling guilty for having written it.  But I can't help it.  If I had a therapist, he/she would explain that I use humor to deal with the atrocities of war, or some BS like that.  Anyway, let it be known that things don't turn out so well for Mr. Tang, but he does at least show some spine by the movie's end.

We also meet Kadokawa, an idealistic and naive Japanese soldier who falls in love with Yuriko, a Japanese "comfort woman", Miss Jiang, a Chinese school teacher who bravely risks her life to save other civilians, and a menacing Chinese soldier who kills many Japanese soldiers, Rambo-style, and eventually saves the life of a young Chinese boy, who the director says is still alive in China today.

Chuan Lu, a self-described "trouble maker" back home, presents a story he believes to be a true representation of the events in Nanking.  Though he clearly shows the prevalent cruelty of the Japanese soldiers, he portrays some as naive and others even kind and reflective.  This kind of nuance does not likely sit well with the Chinese government, nor will his portrayal of the Japanese cruelty sit well with the Japanese government.  But I'm guessing Lu didn't miss the mark by much.  My imdb rating: 7/10.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Queen Mother Cafe - Part I

We stopped by this year's festival box office (in yet another new location, this year it's at an outdoor tent just east of the Osgoode station) and picked up tickets to 19 movies and vouchers for a yet to be named 20th show.  Hopefully, number 20 winds up being the Coens' A Serious Man, but only time will tell.

With that chore out of the way, we stopped to shop for film festival apparel.  Honestly, this year's selection was a little disappointing.  The only long sleeve shirts were hoodies and sweaters, and quite expensive at that.  We settled on a couple t-shirts.

Next on the agenda was a mid-afternoon meal.  We'd been up since 4:00 CDT and little to eat but a couple packs of peanuts and a half a Clif bar each.  Fortunately, the Queen Mother Cafe was a short walk from the box office.  The Queen Mother has been my "home base" restaurant for years now.  It's comfortable, the wait staff is friendly, the prices are reasonable, and they have a wide selection of beverages and tasty deserts.

The Queen Mum is not a Thai restaurant as such, but it does feature a few Thai dishes, and it was here that I was first introduced to Thai cuisine.  Pad Thai was that magical first dish, but today I had the Khao Soy Gai, a scrumptious thin egg noodle dish with a slightly spicy curry sauce, chicken and Thai herbs & veggies.  Maureen opted for the aforementioned Pad Thai.  No wine with lunch today, as caffeine is necessary to maintain any sense of energy, so iced coffee it was.  We'll be back for more before this trip is over.

Moving In

Well, we're here.  There's a surprising lack of drawer space, and only four hangers.  Other than that, I guess things are okay.  The internet connection is of the old style cable connection type, so my mobility around the room is somewhat limited.  I can't quite get my legs under this desk, as I don't think it was designed for my 6'2" frame.  But I think I can reasonably reach the bed with the network cable, so I guess I'll live.

We've got more important things to tend to anyway.  Subway passes, food, movie tickets and film festival shirts leap to mind.  Seven hours to the first movie.  Off into the city we go...

In a Cab

The traffic in Toronto sucks today.

Sitting 100 Feet From the Gate

Let us off this blasted plane already.

Sitting on a Runway

Getting suspicious. Sure, We're only ten minutes late so far, but we're just sitting on the runway and no one is talking to us...


Detroit achieved, on time. Toronto flight says on time as well. It all seems so easy today. I'm not going to let my guard down, however. I know how these things work sometimes.


Annoyingly enough, only seems to work in HTML mode when using my iPod Touch. I have no idea how this will work out...

Checked In

Boy, 4:00 really does come early in the morning. The cabbie was late, went to the wrong building, and then stopped at a green light, but otherwise she was just great. :-\

The things you learn when you get up this early -- like, I'm pretty sure the newspaper delivery person smokes in our hallways.

The airport is looking a little tattered this morning. I'm sure that they're working hard to bring us a nicer airport.
Only 14 hours to the first film...

Thursday, September 10, 2009


...and ready for the 4:45 AM cab ride. It's all happening!

See you in Toronto.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Last Minute Prep

Okay, I must be getting excited for the trip, because instead of doing things like packing clothes, which I fully understand are a requirement in Canada, I'm adding cool features to my blog (see the current weather conditions in Toronto on the right side of the page) and fixing the calendar so it displays the movie times in the correct time zone. Now if I can just figure out how to download my calendar into my iPod Touch...

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

19 Out of 20 Ain't Bad

I got an email from TIFF today and found out that we got 19 of 20 picks. The one we didn't get is, not surprisingly, the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. So, we'll have one Rush Line experience. If we don't get in, no sweat, as we can see it in the theaters when it's released on October 2. In the meantime, we can use the tickets for another festival film later in the week.

I've updated the calendar, removing all of the 2nd pick shows, and I noted that we'll be rushing for the aforementioned flick. Ten short days to the festival...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Notes on this year's schedule

You may notice that the calendar contains some overlapping entries this year. I made some 2nd choice selections, and one of the movies in each pair is marked as such. If they run out of tickets to the first choice, I'll get tickets to the second choice. Unless of course they're both full. In that case, I'm just screwed.

No midnight shows this year. There is a Midnight Madness movie on the schedule, but we're not seeing the midnight screening. This is a huge disappointment, as I had a great time at last year's midnight show. But Jennifer's Body shows Thursday night, and we don't arrive until Friday around noon. The other possible Midnight Madness film shows Friday night, and I just couldn't bare the thought of getting back to the B&B at 3:00, only to get up and head to the airport in the morning.

I have a stunning lack of morning movies this year. I'm not sure how that worked out, but it'll be nice to sleep in when needed.

Now I just gotta figure out how to download the calendar into my iPod...


The calendar is up. More info later as time permits...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Schedule Complete

I just finished filling out my schedule for this year's festival. I'm exhausted, brain dead, and I need to count some sheep. But I've got 20 screenings lined up, and it's an interesting mix. There are a few headed to a theatre near you: A Serious Man, the latest flick from the Coen brothers; The Road, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy; and Jennifer's Body, Diablo Cody's follow up to Juno.

However there are a couple documentaries, a batch of short films, and movies from over a dozen countries. It should be interesting.

More later, including the complete schedule in Google calendar form. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Occasionally, the curious sort will inquire as to how one goes about "doing" the Toronto International Film Festival. I go through the long explanation of how it works, and then they look at me with eyes that say, "Oh, wow, you are demented. You actually buy tickets, and you don't even know what movies you're going to see?" Yeah, well, I am demented, but that's not the reason.

Anyway, for all those who would like to know how the Toronto International Film Festival works, but don't have a clue where to begin, here's my 101:

TIFF requires commitment, and a little faith. It begins each year the first Thursday after Memorial Day and runs 10 days, ending on Saturday night. However, if you're serious about going, you need to start planning well before then. Here's my XX-step process to attending the festival.

Step 1 - Love to sit around all day watching movies, with occasional breaks for meals, stretching and a little fresh air.

Step 2 - Find a place to sleep at night. I prefer a bed, as the nights start getting chilly that time of year. More specifically, I tend to stay at B&B's. The accommodations are usually as nice, or at least more interesting than your typical hotel. And, you can't beat the advice of a local for dinner reservations. I've always stayed in B&B's in Toronto, so I admittedly don't know much about the hotel scene. From what I gather, a nice hotel will cost $100+ CAD, but you can get by cheaper depending on how far you're willing to commute and how demanding you are for things like clean sheets. B&B's cost a bit less, as I imagine some of the more downtrodden hotels do, but generally they're pretty pleasant and include some form of breakfast. But the big difference for me seems to stem from the fact that the person your dealing with at the B&B is the owner of the place and has a financial stake in you enjoying your stay. I take no chances, reserving my room as early as February or March.

Step 3 - Figure out how you're going to get to Toronto. Your movie passes on which you'll later spend so much money are no good at your local theater, so you'd better figure out how to get to Toronto. I fly into Lester B. Pearson Airport (YYZ) these days, though once upon a time, I would team up with another traveler for the 13-hour drive. By April or May, I've booked my airline ticket. Booking this early gets me the flight times I want, but really I do it this early to spread the cost of the festival throughout the year. It tricks my brain into thinking the festival isn't nearly as expensive as it really is.

Step 4 - Determine your movie absorption threshold. I've settled on 20 as a nice number of movies to see in a week, but everyone has their own limits. For some, a movie a day is really pushing it. I met one guy, a local, who was seeing over 50 movies during the festival, just to see if he could. Tickets are sold in books of 10, or in the form of passes. There are a variety of passes available, the grandaddy of which is simply called The Festival Pass. It admits the owner to as many shows as he or she can fit in the schedule, provided that they are not Gala Screenings at Roy Thompson Hall or special screenings at the Elgin Theater. Other passes are less expensive, such as the Day Pass, the Student Pass, and who knows what else. The advantage of the 10-ticket books is their flexibility -- you can share with friends, loved ones, or some poor sap in the Rush line upon whom you have taken pity.

Step 5 - Buy your tickets or pass. Again, you do this before the movie list comes out. Just have faith that you'll be intrigued by a percentage of the 300+ movies that will be showing. The tickets typically go on sale in early July. Many people have the extreme misconception that the festival is free, or at least cheap. The opposite is quite true. If you attend the festival, you will almost certainly spend more money per movie than you will at any theater, especially if you are an out-of-town festival goer. A good way to prepare yourself for the expense is to go see a movie (at full prices, no matinees allowed), buy popcorn, candy and a drink, and then deposit your food and beverage into the trash before entering the theater. The actual cost to non-Canadians tends to vary greatly with the exchange rate. Me, I'm hoping oil prices dip to all-time lows in June, when I buy my tickets. Books of 10 shows ran about $175 CAD in 2008. Expect to fork over another $150 CAD for the out-of-town selection service. If you have a bigger group going, at least you can share this cost. Each year, I keep hoping that they provide a much cheaper on-line order service, but no luck yet.

Step 6 - Select your movies. That should be easy, right? Generally, though, you're doing this step under time pressure. There are over 300 movies to consider, everything from documentaries to campy horror flicks, and they are from countries all over the world. Really, there's something for just about everyone. Admittedly, things are easier now than they used to be. Before, when you got the book in the mail, that was the first time you saw the list, and you had to FedEx your picks back that same day. This year, the schedule appears on-line a whopping six days before you have to send in your picks. Luxury!

Step 7 - Pick up your tickets. I know, you thought the work and stress were over, right? Wrong. Merely selecting your movies does not guarantee you a seat. If every single festival goer wants to see the latest French depressathon flick, it turns out they don't have a theater big enough to seat everyone. Check to see which shows you got. Didn't get a ticket to that sci-fi rehash of MacBeth? Don't fret, you can always hit the Rush Line and, with any luck, you'll still get to see the dagger-laser scene. Over time, I've learned that not getting all of my first picks forces me to expand my horizons.

Step 8 - Attend your screenings. If you're picky about where you sit in the theater, arrive early and queue (see Appendix A) for an hour or more. But otherwise, arrive ten minutes before the screening and sit where there's an available chair. The lines will seem horrendously long, but fear not - if you have a ticket, you will get a seat, unless you're late. You'll probably still get in, but it's best not to take your chances.

Step 9 - Exchange movie reviews while queuing. One of the best things about the festival is the camaraderie between film goers. Most are plenty willing to share their tales of awful and great movies alike. It's best, though, to size up the person you're talking to and see if they're the kind of person who would like or dislike the type of movie a person like yourself would.

Step 10 - Spend the next month reviewing movies - Your curious friends will want to know which movies to see and which to avoid. Problem is, the movies you've seen may be released in two weeks, 18 months, or never at all, at least in the U.S. Eventually, you should tire of repeating yourself and start up a blog, review the movies there, and then refer them to your url.
Appendix A - English - Canadian Dictionary
  • Bathroom or Restroom = Washroom
  • Waiting in line = Queuing
  • Subway / rail car / bus = TTC
  • One-dollar coin = Loony
  • Two-dollar coin = Two-ny
Appendix B - The Rush Line
If you don't get a ticket to your favorite actor/director's movie, but you really, really, really, really want to go, you're not out of luck. Chances are you can still get in via the wonderful invention known as the Rush Line.Here's the scoop: The festival reserves a certain number of seats each screening for cast, crew, and for special screenings, sponsors. When they don't show, you benefit. Your chances of getting in increase with the amount of time you're willing to wait. For tickets to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon, my companion and I arrived at 6:30 AM. This pretty much cinched tickets.

Saturday, May 02, 2009


I know I've been away for a long, long, long, long time, but I haven't forgotten about my responsibilities.  So, I'm here to tell you that plans for the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival are in full swing.

This year, I'll be staying with the lovely people at the Annex Quest House, after last year's host left me feeling just a little uncomfortable.  It looks nice, and it's close to a subway entrance, for those soggy days I seem to be experiencing the last couple trips.

I've booked my flight with Northwest Airlines (we're Delta!).  I guarantee that my itinerary will change at least twice before my departure date, so I'm just not even going to get upset about it.

The good news is, I'll be spending one extra day at the festival this year.  Now, I know that one extra day doesn't sound like a lot, but I generally seem to miss one good flick every year because of my Saturday arrival date.  Also, this brings my average number of shows per day down from three to 2.5.  This will allow me more time to write "experience" entries, instead of just reviews.  I plan on posting under categories such as "Brushes with Fame", "Brushes with Stupidity", "Brushes with Polite Canadians" and of course the usual unfortunately exciting travel posts.  There's nothing that beats leaving a week's worth of clothing in the front yard of a B&B in the middle of the city.

So, look for movie selection posts beginning in late August or early September.  The real fun begins, however, on Friday, September 11, less than 19 weeks away!