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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TIFF Review: Another Year



Another Year, Another Mike Leigh film, another masterpiece. Early word out of Cannes was strong and Mike Leigh has been a consistent favorite of mine, but even with these built-in expectations the sustained emotional punch of Another Year was unlike anything I was prepared to experience. Not since Naked has Leigh so perfectly devastated me with his interplay of pathos and comedy. The trademarks are all there: aging British blue collar existence fretting away the monumental baggage of unfulfilled lives, top-shelf character actors such as Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville (even a cameo by Vera Drake herself, Imelda Staunton) and a largely improvised script injecting a lived-in naturalness to the performances. The vision of Britain is dour, characters are drunk or depressed or insecure or all of the above in the case of Mary, the mile-a-minute talker and wine connoisseur who leaches onto a co-worker’s family in her aged loneliness.
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TIFF Review: Blue Valentine




[Now Playing at a Theater near you!]

Quite by accident I had the opportunity to watch back-to-back films at the festival ruminating on the destructive force of love, ignited first in Tracy Wright’s haunting monologue in Trigger, and then extrapolated in fine detail through the anatomy of a divorce that is Blue Valentine.  Director Derek Cianfrance took twelve years to stew on what he wanted to say about love and marriage in his film Blue Valentine, the principle actors, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, had over half a decade to think about how they would bring Cindy and Dean to life – this rare gift to the creative process paid off astoundingly as the final product is second only to Ingmar Bergmans’ Scenes from a Marriage in its capacity to lay bare the wounds of love after the veil of the honeymoon phase has been lifted.  Like in Bergman’s film, the destructive force at play in the marriage of Cindy and Dean is not one of particular abuse or issue but rather emotional illiteracy. Try as they might to understand one another or even have a civil conversation, the lack of a common grammar keeps them perpetually on edge.  Complicating the matter is their mutual love for their daughter who goes through the majority of the film oblivious to the underlying fissures of their family unit.

The film intercuts moments of the first blush of love with scenes of the last gasp and inevitable destruction of their union, the two timelines building towards the harshest of contrasts by the final scene.  This play with chronology is reminiscent of Francois Ozon’s 5×2 and a far, far superior handling of what was attempted in 500 Days of Summer.  Out of this collage of moments a sense of who these people are emerge, the realization is slow in coming as pertinent information about their relationship is teased out, just when you think you understand a character motivation or takes sides on an issue, a new development in the story challenges your assumptions.  The effect is intoxicating.  When Cindy attempts to casually tell Dean of an encounter of a old flame in the liquor store, it’s like the air in the car is slowly escaping, and having not been privy to the history underlying their conversation what you are left with is visceral drama, is he going to lash out? Is she going to burst into tears? The scene teeters on the edge as does the bulk of the denouement. When the fireworks come, literally and figuratively, you know it has been a long time coming. Would you like to know more…?

TIFF Review: Inside Job




[Now Playing (at least in Toronto). Go see it!]

A more apt title for Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job would be: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Financial Crisis but Were Afraid to Ask. More so than the heist movie the title suggests, this definitive documentary on the origin, impact and repercussions of the global financial meltdown of 2008 attempts to provide an oral history of the event for future generations to heed. The messages of films like Collapse, The Corporation and here, Inside Job, challenge more than a particular group or issue, they make us confront our very survival and way of life. We ignore at our own peril.

A talking heads documentary? Sure, but with one hell of a story to tell. Inside Job showcases a who’s who of economic and political personalities (those culpable and/or unwilling to be interviewed are called out by name). A considered and comprehensive inquiry into the crisis, the documentary never shies away from explaining the minutiae of the ‘heist’, whether by making intelligible the predatory tactics of derivatives, the bubble of bank leveraging, or the incestuous relationship between credit rating and insurance agencies with mortgage-backed securities. Not exactly a sexy subject, and no amount of Matt Damon’s narration and tongue-in-cheek musical cues can alleviate the weight of what this film is burdened to tell, but by design Inside Job appeals to the mind more than the heart. Would you like to know more…?

Row Three Presents: MASSIVE TIFF10 SUMMARY


Between written coverage and Mamo! on the Street podcasting, we hope you have enjoyed the extensive coverage Row Three brought your way during the 11 day madness of this years edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, or as pretty much everyone attending calls it, TIFF10. We have Mike Rot, Bob, Kurt and both Matts (B. and P.) together for our annual mega-post, offering a quick summary and a tag [Best], [Loved], [Liked], [Disappointed], [Hated] and [Worst] for each of the films we watched. And if you will indulge some mild boasting, I think it is safe to say that outside of the trade papers and festival catalogue, you will be hard pressed to find a more wide-reaching survey of the films played at TIFF10. For perspective, some of us were seeing more films in a day than the average American sees annually. Quick thoughts for all 100+ films are organized below to give you as much of a snapshot as possible for what to expect and to look forward to over the next 18 months as these films will (some quicker than others) move into the increasingly varied forms of distribution; some may appear on the big screen, but it is getting more and more likely that for the oddball gems, it will mean importing a DVD or checking your TV and Internet VOD listings.

The SHORT version:

The Best: The Illusionist (Bob), Black Swan (Matt P., Matt B.), Another Year (Kurt) and Blue Valentine (Mike Rot)

The Worst: Passion Play (Bob), Bunraku (Kurt), L.A. Zombie (Matt B.), Film Socialism (Matt P.) and Miral (Mike Rot)

But to really get to the heart of the festival, check out our MASSIVE summary which is tucked under the seat.

All of our FULL REVIEWS during this years festival can be found by clicking the Big White Banner.


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Review: Film Socialism

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writer: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: Ruth Waldburger
Starring: Catherine Tanvier, Christian Sinniger, Jean-Marc Stehlé, Patti Smith, Alain Badiou
Year: 2010
Running time: 102 min.

Quite fittingly, Jean-Luc Godard’s already-notorious Film Socialism was the last film I saw at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Having read reports of its difficult qualities (on top of being fully aware of his work’s striking transformations over the course of his career), I knew I was in for a rough ride when I walked into the theatre, and even had in mind the famous credits that accompany his 1967 film Weekend: “End of Film,” “End of Cinema.” Those words quite definitively marked the end of a remarkable run of films that at once reflected and defined the decade in which they were made. But anyone willing to follow Godard beyond then would have to turn away from Jean Seberg, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina and all other traces of romanticism from that phase of his work as he delved deeper into political theory, philosophy, video technology and an increasingly experimental style that tossed conventional narrative techniques out the window.

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TIFF Winner, “The King’s Speech” Gets a Fancy Trailer

Until about five minutes ago, all I knew about The King’s Speech was that it won the people’s choice award at The Toronto International Film Festival this year and it stars Mr. Colin Firth completely kicking ass (per usual). Now with this trailer being released I see that Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, Timothy Spall, Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon are also involved. Good heavens does this scream amazing or what?

As someone who majored in Speech Therapy in college, the plot of the film further intrigues me as it seems to be focusing on the King of England’s inability to speak properly due to a fairly sever stutter. With war on the horizon the King must speak for a nation. But for someone who stutters… not the easiest task. In what looks to be a pretty dramatic story but carried out in an almost playful manner, I have no doubt these actors are going to pull off something special here.

Early Oscar predictions are already buzzing all about this picture. Which isn’t all that surprising consider director Tom Hooper already has loads of award nominations under his belt for the excellent television mini-seires John Adams and the much fawned over, The Damned United. Take a look at the trailer below and see what you think. At the very least, it’s shot wonderfully.


Extended Thoughts: Another Year



Mike Leigh’s tenth Feature film, assembled in the usual fashion of character and screenwriting collaboration with his actors, is very much his typical take on the various work-a-day folk in Britain. But then again, glancing at his C.V. you will see that his films which consist of mainly people talking and talking and talking have won pretty much every major world cinema prize imaginable, BAFTA, Oscar, Palm D’Or, Golden Lion, you name it, so the run-of-the-mill Mike Leigh film is pretty fucking excellent. Of the nearly 50 features I caught at this years edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, Another Year comes out on top. I laughed, I cried, I begged for more drinking, smoking and gardening with these regular folks, some of whom have found out the secret of partaking of life’s joys, and others on the rock-bottom pit of despair. But mostly, the ritual of social behavior, how the tone and the attitude of the conversation is equally telling, perhaps moreso, than the content. People love to talk, but when they actually ‘communicate’ that is when the warm and fuzzy thing we call intimacy is achieved.

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TIFF Review: Monsters



There are monsters amoung us – figuratively and literally – in the simple yet aptly titled not-quite-creature-feature, Monsters. Sometime in the near future a wee spot of primordial alien matter got all tangled up with a returning man-made space probe. After about 6 years the effects of the tag-along DNA have resulted in some rather large and terrifying beasties that call about half of Mexico, from Mazatlan to Tampico and all the way north to the American border, home. The Americans respond by building a towering and intimidating 30 meter high concrete wall that makes the $1.2 billion 2006 mandated (by Bush and company) fence looks like no more useful than to pen in goats. The term “Fortress America” is starting to sound rather closer to reality. It being the US-Mexico border, stuff is bound to penetrate and be met with an overabundance of force. Not quite Don Johnson in Machete, but you have to wonder if the response creates half the problem. While Monsters is no Starship Troopers, it is about as far from the crazy violence or anti-fascist bombast as possible, there is a satirical streak hidden under it all that probably would make Paul Verhoeven concede a knowing nod to its sub-textual, humanist slant.

Apparently, it was director Gareth Edwards’ goal to make the most ‘realistic’ movie about gigantic monsters invading earth as possible. If that means a quieter, more mundane tone, more a movie of our collective environment altered by the presence of alien beings rather than the typical crash-and-smash mayhem caused by invaders from Mars then so be it. He has succeeded in an act of alternate-future that feels real, it feels lived in, and there is a sense of the mundane and normalcy that is almost always lacking in pictures of these type. Shooting in the central American wilderness and small towns therein make for a gorgeous movie on top of its unconventional execution. To say it defies expectations, the constant comparisons to District 9 are, on one hand, appropriate yet still quite misleading. Monsters is not an action picture, it is a contemplative road picture. That it defies easy comparison is simply because there are not enough of these movies made to draw accurate comparisons. I was rather reminded by the opening hours of the 1980s TV miniseries “V” or perhaps Alien Nation; where the presence of extra-terrestrials make a large-scale change on society merely by existing in it. But it also evokes the social journey-films of Alfonso Cuarón, pick either Y tu mama tambien or Children of Men, there are similarities to both. We exist in our environments even as a collective societal shift from panic to uncertainty to ‘the new normal’ follows any major global ‘sea change.’ Of course, all of this inferred shock and awe happens offscreen, only implied by a few title cards. The Monsters could just have easily been another country’s military occupation of modern Mexico, or how the world at this point is rather used to the quagmire in Iraq after 6 years of US entrenchment. As it stands, the gigantic walking squids are here, and they have left their mark, but are now simply a part of the fabric of North American life. This is the greatest achievement of the film, and one that allows for a bit of consideration and politics, although, really the joy is simply existing in this plausible new world order. Part of me wishes that if someone is going to make Max Brook’s overcooked novel World War Z, Gareth Edwards would be the man to leaven out the breathless hyperbole of the ‘letters from the front’ and make it a mature allegory for adults.

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TIFF Review: Confessions




A lot of people are going to have problems with Japan’s submission to the 2011 Foreign Film Oscar race. I know I do. There are levels of cynicism, cruelty and exploitation that run very deep. And yet, if I’m being totally honest with myself, the film grabbed my attention from the start and kept my level of engagement in it as it went along. Its style and pacing are remarkable – in particular the opening 30 minutes, which consists almost entirely of junior high teacher Yuko Moriguchi’s monologue to her class. The oppressive greyness of the classroom, the timely short flashbacks and the non-stop barely audible pulsing soundtrack all work toward making the entire sequence riveting. By the end of Ms. Moriguchi’s half hour tale of her daughter’s death at the hands of two of her students, you feel completely drained. It’s at this point that the rest of the confessions begin and I still haven’t yet figured out whether or not it should have simply ended here and remained a perfect short film.

Yuko’s class is filled with self-involved and very cruel 12-13 year-old kids. They jump at any chance to make fun of a classmate, show no respect for their elders and love to make huge assumptions about others that they quickly turn into fact. As she informs these kids, on this last day of term, that she is leaving the school they barely pay her the slightest bit of attention, except perhaps for a brief celebratory cheer. Until, of course, she begins to make the accusations. As she winds through her thought processes and sleuthing work, she claims that students A and B were responsible (she doesn’t reveal the names right away to the class) – one for the initial act that was intended to cause the harm and the other for unwittingly actually finishing the job when he tried to cover things up. As it becomes obvious to the class who students A and B are, the audience reaches an inescapable conclusion: the entire class of kids is really screwed up. Not just because they’re rude and selfish, but because they don’t appear to have any capacity to care for others. Yuko wonders if they can actually appreciate the preciousness of life at all. As the film shifts from Yuko’s monologue and initial revenge to the individual confessions of the others, it seems to state that they can’t.
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TIFF Review: Machete Maidens Unleashed




Blood is not the only thing they suck!”
“They caged their bodies, but not their desires!”
“She’s a one Mama massacre squad!”
“They’re over-exposed but not under developed!”
“Their guns are hot and their bodies are hard!”
“Filmed in Slimerama!”

Blood. Breasts. Beasts. Interested yet? If that and the above tag lines don’t tickle your fancy than perhaps the documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed is not for you. However, if you can see the humour in these attention-grabbers, you’ll likely have a great deal of fun with Mark Hartley’s (director of ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood) look at an era of low budget exploitation films made in the Philippines. Like his previous film, it’s a mostly fast-paced overview of the silliness of these old B-movies (made mostly for consumption at Drive-Ins from the late 60s to the early 80s) and the stories behind the making of them. It also manages to inject some fascinating information about the era, the nation of the Philippines and the nature of the film industry at the time. How’s that for added value?

The movie titles alone should be enough to get across the type of films were dealing with here: Mad Doctor Of Blood Island, Savage Sisters, Student Nurses, Cover Girl Models, T.N.T. Jackson and Humanoids From The Deep were all made at rock bottom prices in the south seas. The primary reason for choosing this filming location, of course, was the incredibly cheap price of production and labour, but side benefits included stunt men who would literally do anything, the absence of requirements for safety guidelines and the occasional assist (via equipment and troops) from the military. Apocalypse Now wasn’t the only film that benefited from the government’s willingness to court the money of film production teams. Roger Corman even admits that after he saw the bottom line “my scruples went away and I said let’s do another”. Corman wasn’t the only eye looking towards the Philippines, though, as plenty of producers saw the benefits. These B-movies were staples of the American movie going experience at a time that drive-ins pulled in sizable audiences. Of course, Filipino producers and directors were cranking out product for this hungry audience as well. One of their biggest successes (and an embarrassment to the government when it became one of the only films picked up for distribution at that year’s Manila Film Festival) was For Y’ur Height Only starring pint-sized Weng-Weng as a James Bond style secret agent.
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