TIFF 2012 Review: Frances Ha

I'm Yours

Director: Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Kicking and Screaming)
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig
Producers: Mallary Davenport, Avi Federgreen, Jennifer Jonas
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Grace Gummer, Adam Driver

 


 

Noah Baumbach has a penchant for pissing people off with his movies. The one time critical darling has, in recent years, drawn resistance from a sizable group of vocal detractors.  His characters are loathsome they say, he writes with an elitist New York intellectual smugness, another.  A friend described watching Greenberg as like having the middle finger perpetually shoved in his face.  So goes the backlash.  Then last week, surprisingly, early word out of the Telluride film festival for his latest feature, Frances Ha, was unanimously positive.  More than positive, ecstatic!  It even made Greta Gerwig cry.  Perhaps the desire to see a return to the greatness widely acknowledged in The Squid and the Whale had pent up, and in the ensuing years that unrequited desire has been stoking the flames of backlash until now.  The news heralded from Telluride and now, Toronto, is that Baumbach is Back!

To which I say he never left.

Still, Frances Ha does feel like an olive branch of sorts, perhaps the residual effect of Greta Gerwig co-writing and playing the lead, a woman whose charms can’t help but make one smile.  In tone and theme it is very much a return to the goofier hanging out pleasures of his earliest success, Kicking and Screaming.  At the grossly old age of 27, Frances (Greta Gerwig) is still struggling to be a ‘real person’ and, in her post-grad malaise, drifts apartment to apartment, part-time job to part-time job, at odds with her ambitions.  Most worrisome of all, is her distancing from long-time BFF, Sophie, an adjustment she is clearly not ready for. The resulting film is probably the most pleasurable to watch of Baumbach’s work, very funny and unusually sweet.   Without a Roger Greenberg to agitate, the hesitant audiences relax, and while there are still the odd jab or two to decorum, you feel safe having Frances as your protagonist, she is harmless, “undateable” and a stand in for a lot of late twentysomethings unsure of their place in the world. Would you like to know more…?

Review: Snow White & The Huntsman

 

First, let me state for the record that I have no built-in fondness for the fantasy genre: of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy I can only stomach the first; Legend and Willow, two 80’s fantasy films that cinephiles of my generation are want to praise, likewise leave me cold. I do however have a fondness for escapist cinema, and occasionally these two aspects overlap, but with fantasy there is a nerdy tendency to preoccupy with the minutiae of the ciphers to the detriment of any kind of forward motion and attention to fundamentals of storytelling. Escapist cinema appreciates that the world created is in service of something more lofty than Easter eggs and curiosities of names, that the goal is to create something immersive, allow the viewer to daydream in the peripheries but not get lost there without a tether, that tether is story, a story that unfolds without being barnacled by commentary and self-importance. It ought to be fun in a visceral sense, anything cerebral to be mere ornament towards that end.

With the juggernaut success of The Avengers it has become patently clear that bright, flashy and optimistic is the new black. Even closer to the point to be made, Mirror Mirror (which I have not seen) is the boldly ironic incantation of the Snow White story, which I am guessing is likewise, bright, flashy and optimistic. Snow White & the Huntsman, say what you will, is offering up something considerably unfashionable in this sardonic culture of winks and nods: a sober, grimy, Grimm fairytale with women no less as the pitted adversaries. Add the much reviled Kristen Stewart into the mix and you have a powder keg to y-chromosome film geek sensibilities (we mustn’t upset the status-quo of what constitutes ‘fun’). The tendencies are there to hate the movie, I knew early on this was going to be divisive, and irrespective of what legitimate claims people may have to disliking or hating this film, you got to admit, the deck is stacked against it and the tendency is to go Hulk Smash on it because, because it would rather tell a story then make a commentary on one, it would rather create a fully realized world that is committed to its story with a genuine sense of wonder then be beholden to a consensus view with reductive brand positioning in the guise of characters, plotting forward to sell merchandise. It would rather take a recognizable Disney property of everything sweet and magical and dunk it in the mud and put a woman in the lead that is unforgivably dour, and you know what, she fits. This is not an Amy Adams wonderland, this is a universe of dark happenings of actual stakes, pitted in a kingdom run by a hormonally crazy psychopath that eats bird hearts and sucks souls through people’s mouths.

You got a problem with that? Then go back to your Marvel-generic, canned fun, and be all optimistic and shit, I like my blockbusters dark and muddy, like my heart.
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Café de Flore: A Conversation

[We are back at it after a long hiatus since our first conversation post on Mammoth, but hopefully these will come out with more frequency thereafter. I am sure we do not cover everything there is to be said about Café de Flore, so feel free to extend the conversation in the comment section. Finally, this conversation is all spoilers, we get into the fine details so only read if you have seen the film.]

Synopsis From the director, Jean-Marc Vallée: “Cafe de Flore is a love story about people separated by time and place but connected in profound and mysterious ways. Atmospheric, fantastical, tragic and hopeful, the film chronicles the parallel fates of Jacqueline, a young mother with a disabled son in 1960s Paris, and Antoine, a recently-divorced, successful DJ in present day Montreal. What binds the two stories together is love – euphoric, obsessive, tragic, youthful, timeless love.”

Mike: There are certain films that require discussion upon leaving the theater, it seems impossible to just go on with your day after seeing something like Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore. We have been waiting since Mammoth for the right kind of movie to do a conversation post for and this seems to check all the boxes, from the meaty thematic elements to the open-ended aspects of what exactly happened. I have stayed away from the spoiler thread on Row Three so I am coming to the conversation completely fresh. Of the three of us, I believe I will be the most critical, but it is a fine distinction as, on the whole, I think it is a very good movie. Who knows, maybe my mind will change with this conversation, the more pieces that are put together. I would like to get a general sense of why the film spoke to you guys, because both of you have been praising this film hard.

Bob: Well, Café de Flore goes beyond the definition of a very good movie for me…Not that I think it’s perfect (how can a movie really be perfect with so many possibilities?), but that just about every moment of the film hit me in exactly the right way and at the right time to cause maximum impact. To my ear, it hits all the right notes as an exercise in technical filmmaking, as an inventive piece of art and as something that simply connected to me for a variety of personal reasons. On the technical side, it’s beautifully shot, naturally scripted and contains an abundance of wonderful performances (from first timer Kevin Parent to Vanessa Paradis, but especially all the kids). Vallée proves without a doubt that he is highly skilled when it comes to coaching his actors and letting them know when to go for subtle and when to go big. As a work of art, it becomes something altogether different and original in its approach to its two storylines. It’s impressive enough that he can balance the two, but he does so in the manner of a DJ (just like his male lead Antoine) – moving his overall piece from one side of the mixing board to the other and then cutting between them, mixing them up and bringing them both together towards the end. It’s like the best DJ set ever. Antoine even talks to his therapist at one point about how he loves to bring in silence to his sets because it sets up the whomp that follows and Vallée applies that very same strategy to his movie. This was used to fantastic effect to bring home its theme of letting go since not only will it help to avoid the emotional calamities ahead, but “letting go” will also allow a deeper appreciation of what your current life has to offer.

Kurt: First off, fellas, I am glad that we have resurrected this feature, and since Café De Flore has left Toronto Cinemas after a mere two week run, it seems that this film certainly needs a little help to get recognized outside of French Speaking Canada. So our cause is both fun, stimulating (hopefully) and ah, heck, noble even. OK, down to brass tacks: There is a scene late in the film, when the two story lines start to gel that features the most interesting and sophisticated cross cutting I’ve seen in a film in 2011, perhaps the last ten years even. The DJ mixing analogy is apt, and the emotional beats, in this stretch of the film, are not revealed by plotting information (that is to come later) but rather completely by editing strategy, as if you are being primed by a collection of images and asked to inject yourself into things (Terence Malick actually does a similar, if slightly different riff of this in a different fashion in the construction of a Tree of Life). That the ebb and flow of the editing is actually non-intuitive (pauses and shot lengths) is kind of a small miracle.

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This Thing I Need to Say about Film & Then I am Done


 – Falconetti in La Passione de Jeanne d’Arc

When it comes to jazz I am hopelessly tone-deaf, I understand it only as an absence of sensation.  Were I to rigorously devote myself perhaps I could, given enough time, feel it in my bones the way it is intended.  Or maybe it is a hardware issue beyond me to remedy, I don’t know.  I can accept that we may not all be wired the same way, and when it comes to aesthetics there are inevitable impasses.

I wish to write about a fugitive aspect of cinema that goes mostly unspoken in reviews and reduced to verbiage in academic papers.  It is sort of formless, messy, and brings with it nothing but shame and feelings of inadequacy to those who try to naïvely ensnare it with words; it seems unspoken for a reason, because it bears out its meaning like a zen koan: to point at it is not to capture it.  However, I am stubborn and frustrated with conversations I have had regarding the virtues of cinema that I shall go through with this stupid task.  The tone-deaf may read on blankly or click away.

In the final minutes of the behind-the-scenes documentary of the Criterion version of Soderbergh’s Che, the director laments the state of the modern day cinema-going experience: “There is no illumination anymore, people see a film and five minutes later they are preoccupied with where they are going to eat”. The issue lies squarely with the audience, not the product. The jazz is there, I just can’t hear it, and likewise the illuminations are there, but some of us can’t adequately experience them. I agree with this sentiment.  Differences of taste occur, and I am not here to deny them, but there is something to be said for a mutual foundational understanding of what modes of experience may be read within the frame, whether you like them or not. Taste ought not to trump experience, it shouldn’t blind one of the modes of experience available to a particular captured moment. I am not so clever that I can erase what Che involves in its presentation by writing a particular nasty review opposed to it; its resistance to conventions of biographical storytelling and its languid preoccupation with the lived-in moments of the protagonist’s life is not up to a matter of taste but palpable to anyone who has the faintest grasp of what came before. The stimuli for illumination is there just like the jazz notes are there, it is not a lack of examples, and therefore not a lacking in cinema, but of the character of those who gravitate to it.

So what is this alternative way through which cinema may be experienced?  Simply put: patiently, one frame at a time.  As viewers we have grown into the habit of privileging the aggregate meanings of a film over, and to the disregard of, the immediate.  We scarcely have a terminology for the micro-bursts of illumination, but we have libraries full of tomes written on their ciphers.

Would you like to know more…?

Tyrannosaur Poster & Trailer

Tyrannosaur, the Grand Slam first film for writer-director Paddy Considine set TIFF ablaze last week, eliciting a standing ovation at its premiere and creating a bit of a circus in my twitter feed. Best known for his acting credits, including In America and the cocky detective in Hot Fuzz, Paddy Considine elevates the British social drama into something more than your average miserable affair, tapping into the grandeur of Western archetypes as Joseph (I am sure there is a biblical parable in there somewhere as well) tries to do one right thing in a maddening world. Peter Mullan as Joseph is, well, Peter Mullan, no better praise than that. Olivia Colman plays Hannah, Joseph’s cross to bear in the frontiers of skid row, and nearly runs away with the film. One of my favorite films at TIFF, and one that has stuck with me long after the film ended. Catch it when it comes around.

The trailer gives an idea of what you are in for, including the use of The Leisure Society’s song, We Were Wasted, which the film makes its own.

The Trailer is tucked under the seat.
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Review: Another Earth

Another Earth

 
Director: Mike Cahill
Writer: Brit Marling, Mike Cahill
Starring: Brit Marling, William Mapother
Country: USA
Release Date: 20 July 2011 (US), 29 July 2011 (Canada)

 


2011 is quickly turning into the year where micro and macro anxieties converge in this curious little sub-genre: the cosmos drama. Tree of Life kicked it off with its creation-as-prayer musing, Melancholia situates the impending annihilation of our planet on the night of one couple’s nuptials, and now the Sundance version of this trend comes in the form of Mike Cahill’s Another Earth. The sci-fi premise of Another Earth sounds like something that must have been explored long before now: without explanation, a second planet appears in the sky that resembles our Earth in every way, as SETI tries to make contact with this anomaly, a far more terrestrial drama unfolds in the forefront between a MIT student and Harvard professor. A pretty sweet hook, particularly with the striking visual image of the Earth dotting the atmospheric sky; the question is does it payoff?

If expecting sci-fi steeped in set-pieces of galactic discovery, one will leave Another Earth gravely disappointed – it is far more about ideas than storyboards. Though the film flirts with philosophical and allegorical concepts of the genre, its feet are set firmly on the ground. The sci-fi conceit plays out mostly in the background of the story of Rhoda Williams, a woman at a crossroads in her life trying desperately to make amends for a horrible accident she caused on the eve of the planet’s discovery. As the world grapples with the implications of a second Earth, Rhoda sleepwalks through it consumed by her own personal hell. By the end, the planetary conceit is justified within the narrative, the two story-lines building to an evocative final shot. Whether or not it lives up to the headier or more visually striking entries in the genre, feels beside the point: Another Earth is a damn fine character drama in its own right, which ultimately becomes the real hook.

Overusing the quick-zoom as indie films today tend to do, and being a little too precious with how it goes about telling its story, Another Earth is not without its flaws. There is a nagging lack of subtlety in the seams of the story, from bits of commentary to coincidental encounters and situations; the lazy short-form that has made the Sundance label feel at times like a derogatory genre unto itself. To some, this quaint storytelling may be a deal-breaker, and in the showing I was at, there were walk-outs. Fortunately, the story of Rhoda and her unorthodox relationship with the bereaved, John Burroughs, finds a momentum and intensity that more than makes up for these minor infractions. Would you like to know more…?

DVD Review: Trigger

 

 
The band is called Trigger and in their day they were something. Ten years later in present day Toronto the two lead women of the band reunite in a sterile restaurant that smacks of everything their music was once in revolt of. They haven’t spoken since their abrupt onstage break-up, and the paths they have taken live in the shadow of what they once were. Kat is late and Vic is seething. Thus begins a conversation that carries them from Harbourfront to Parkdale to Allen Gardens to out of the way high school, devolving and evolving into something organically funny, sad and at times startling profound. In this his second Toronto story of the year, Bruce McDonald has made his own My Dinner with Andre that soaks in the talent and environment of Hogtown in a beautiful swan song for the late Tracy Wright, whose first lead performance as Vic will break your heart.

While still reveling in a medley of pleasures, the reuniting of the Twitch City crew, the original music of Brendan Canning (of Broken Social Scene), the ‘smell’ of Rock n’ Roll, and the guerilla sensibility of a bunch of friends making something on the familiar streets of our home, Trigger is more than a lark. Working from a phenomenal script that broaches the most believable animosities and familiarities of friends and lovers who have grown apart, Molly Parker as Kat and Tracy Wright as Vic are magnificent in their respective roles. Kat, the L.A. sellout, and Vic, the insecure music purist (with her ‘acoustic introspections’), struggle to reconcile their differences with one another and the drunk and junkie identities they left behind. McDonald plays up the inner struggles with theatric asides of the characters fantasizing of falling off the wagon, but mostly the struggles are seething under the surface ready to explode in key scenes.
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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Badlands (1973)

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Badlands"

[repost for the TIFF Lightbox Malick retrospective]

Badlands will probably go down as the only Terrence Malick film to feature a car chase. It is a curious work in his repertoire. When it premiered in 1973, Malick’s signature style of freeform editing was still years away, the melodramatic earnestness, unconsidered. It would not be until Days of Heaven that Malick confidently broke free of the literary conventions of movie-making, all but excising the entirety of the dialogue of his screenplay, thus privileging the visual to emote what was left unsaid. While I agree with those that consider Badlands a minor work for this director, it undoubtedly remains a significant work for cinema history. More absurdist theatre than fine opera, what Badlands does provide (and something I all but erased from my memory until this last revisit) is a rare glimpse into the filmmaker’s wicked sense of humor.

Based loosely on the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree of the 1950’s, Badlands is about two wayward youths, the James Dean lookalike, Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) and the 15-year old Dakotan tagalong, Holly (Sissy Spacek), as they pinball across the American frontier one murder to the next, with little purpose or destination. As with all of his films, the Edenic myth of a foregone paradise now overrun by the pestilence of man is hardly concealed on the surface of Badlands. The film lingers in the familiar twilight hour glow on small town America before the first crime is committed. When the title appears we see Holly in the front yard of her home like a Norman Rockwell vision abruptly intruded upon by Kit as he slinks into frame towards her like a lumbering agent of doom. He is charming and good-looking, a romantic ideal to which the film takes a certain gleeful pride in undoing as the story progresses.
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Melancholia Trailer – Von Trier Blows up the World

After making the best horror film of recent memory with Anti-Christ, Von Trier tries his hand at the Doomsday genre with Melancholia, a genre quite close to my heart. Cheating the audience of any apocalyptic suspense to the proceedings, Melancholia starts with the destruction of the world only to work backwards and show characters on the eve of their inevitable demise. Said to be a cold war fears revision of the filmmakers’ own childhood anxieties, this bleak entry into the doomsday canon is sure to be as uncompromising as his previous film. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg (seriously, how much agony can one woman endure?!) and Kirsten Dunst (huh?) as sisters, and Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgard and Stellan Skarsgard as whomever else.

Chaos reigns…

Melancholia from Zentropa on Vimeo.

TIFF Review: Meek’s Cutoff

 

 

 

The western art film that is Meek’s Cutoff is a curious concoction, introducing the minimalist sensibilities of Kelly Reichardt’s previous films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, to a canvas wider in scope and historical import. It’s 1845 and Stephen Meek is a for-hire guide leading a handful of immigrant families across the Oregon Trail in search of the American dream. As hours turn into days since their last discovery of fresh water, mutinous thoughts and paranoid rumors abound among the families over the ability and motivations of their delegated leader. “We ain’t lost, we are just finding our way” is Meek’s obtuse reply. The barren landscape is no place for semantics, as desperation takes its course the cutoff they have taken leave them with no choice but to go further into uncharted territory. Along the way a Cayuse Indian enters the story, testing the faith and prejudices of those involved he becomes a potential key to their very survival. Not knowing who to trust while the water reserves dwindle and the desert heat swelters, the settlers wrestle over questions of ethics and necessity. Part suspense story, part historical drama, part meditation on the frailty of life, Meek’s Cutoff is a mesmerizing feat that while slow-moving is continually engrossing to watch.
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Review: Hanna

Hanna is badass

 
Director: Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, The Soloist)
Writer: Seth Lochhead, David Farr
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams
MPAA Rating: PG-13
 


You’ve seen Hanna before. From Angelina Jolie’s Salt to Kill Bill‘s The Bride, from Jason Bourne to Wolverine. In the business they call it genre, and this film is steeped in it (the kind of a film that makes Quentin Tarantino and Stephen King end-of-the-year lists). Without divulging much in the way of spoilers, Hanna is the story of a CIA asset that goes missing only to be found and, as you would expect, all shit breaks loose. Sprinkled about this mayhem is an affecting coming-of-age story wherein the unstoppable Frankenstein monster is a fourteen year old girl who wants to know what music feels like as much as she wants revenge. In lesser hands this delicate balance of genres would upset one or the other fan bases, but with Hanna, director Joe Wright is somehow able to maintain the momentum of both the emotional story and the high-octane action without doing a disservice to either. The result appears effortless, a steady stream of event movie-making on par with anything of the Bourne franchise.

Saoirse Ronan walks the razor’s edge of cool and vulnerable in her performance of Hanna – this curious vision of a doe-eyed, blood-speckled assassin is just one of the joys of the film. Added to this is a stellar supporting cast: Eric Bana as Hanna’s father and sole provider, Cate Blanchett (rocking a Scully do) as the formidable CIA opponent, Joe Wright regular, Tom Hollander, as the whistling psychopath-for-hire, and even a bit part for Olivia Williams as a hippie mom caught in the middle. Hollander’s Isaacs is a stand-out and a fascinating turn for this character actor typically resigned to playing daft weaklings, here, despite his stature, Isaacs is channeling Dennis Hopper from Blue Velvet, running head-on towards whatever damage he can administer. Would you like to know more…?