TIFF 2014 Review: Leviathan


A rundown fishing town on the coast of the Arctic Ocean is the rugged edge-of-the-world stage for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s complex, but quite accessible, new film. There is a visual mastery of relating wide open natural spaces, with precise man-made interiors, present in all of his work, but taken to new heights here.

Leviathan tells the tale of a man losing his land, losing his wife to his best friend, and losing his son to anger. It scales this Job-sian human tragedy up to savage some sacred-cows, the Russian institutions of community, the state and the orthodox church. That this is based on a true story is shocking (and utterly believable) in both the specifics and the universality. You certainly don’t have to speak Russian to understand human flaws and failure.

Kolya is living on the best piece of land in town, on a hilltop which overlooks the river as it joins the Ocean. The towns corrupt mayor, Vadim, is intent on seizing this property for a choice development project and is willing the exploit a property rights loophole, and his control over the municipal courts and police, to get his way. In a Kafka-esque single-take shot, the court baliff reads, at robotic speed, several pages of policy and verdict on why Kolya’s appeal to keep his property is being denied. Shortly thereafter Kolya is arrested and put in prison for filing paperwork.

His long-time army pal who is now a big-shot Moscow lawyer, Dima first tries conventional bureaucratic methods but soon take another tact, attempting to blackmail Vadim, a heavy, belligerent brute who has more skeletons in his closet than Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and is up for re-election. A lot of vodka is consumed, a lot of cigarettes are smoked. Men confront one another in intoxicated states. The local teens drink and smoke in one of the towns abandoned churches, indoctrinating themselves into what will likely be their fates as adults in the local fish processing plant. Images of gutted fish being sorted and processed cement the notion.

Another scene involves birthday party getaway to an isolated quarry to BBQ meat, drink vodka (of course) and shooting bottles. When the supply of bottles is exhausted (in part because the birthday boy is packing a Kalashnakov automatic rifle) targets are switched to portraits of Russian presidents. Near the shooting gallery is a waterfall, which we only get a glance, of two boys tensely navigating the rocks and froth at the summit. It echoes the opening moments in the Zvyagintsev’s The Return. One boy witnesses Dima and Kolya’s wife, Lilya in coitus, shattering things on the home front, pitting Kolya and Lilya’s mutual friends against each other and sending their son Roma running off into his own confused wilderness of adolescence.

Kolya (and for that matter, Dima, Lilya and Vadim) want reasons and answers for their woes and conflicts, but are left as alone in the wilderness as Roma. Even as there are occasional winners in the game, the mortar of modern Russia is mixed with the crumbled bones of its citizenry. A character mentions offhand that no fortune was ever amassed without sin and suffering. In personal or political circles this is likely a truism if there ever was one. The final gut-punch of the film (allow me to reiterate that this is a true story) is feral in its undiluted satire. And the pounding score drives home the epic nature of this story of small people rolled over by the body of the whale.

Whale skeletons and fishing boats share equal space on the beach with a corpse whose fate is a mystery, but both institutions and community have little problem crafting meaning around it. Far from a pleasant experience, where the power of forgiveness is a whisper in a hurricane, Leviathan is masterclass in imagery and storytelling (the screenplay won the prize a Cannes earlier this year) one of the best films of the year, and showcases a director at the absolute top of his craft who is still willing to lob a grenade into the power circles of his country.

Mamo #328: The Character Assassination of the Coward Rob Ford

Toronto had a rollicking week in the news, but is this the resurgence of print journalism, or its last gasp? We talk new media vs. old, complex thought vs. simple, and whether a well-informed electorate is beyond the purview of a man like Rob Ford.

Plus – listen for details on how YOU can win tickets to the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival, and post your entries in the comments below!

To download this episode, use this URL: http://rowthree.com/audio/mamo/mamo328.mp3

Hot Docs 2013: Anita


I‘m a bit conflicted over my impressions of Freida Mock’s newest documentary Anita, so let’s see if I can work them out…

First of all, let me be clear about the subject of the film – Anita Hill is clearly an incredible person. Intelligent, funny, brave and interesting, 20 years ago she became a lightning rod around issues that few people enjoy discussing even today. And yet, there it was on the news back in 1991: an entire panel of old white men talking about sexual harassment, penis sizes and pubic hair during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. As women were finally breaking down some barriers by garnering greater positions within the U.S. government, Hill’s grace under fire during her single 9 hour questioning session made her a role model for many women and brought more public attention and debate to the issues. Hill understood that harassment of any kind is primarily about control (perhaps being the youngest of 13 children helped her recognize this…) and she strongly felt that her prior experiences with Thomas’ repeated sexual advances and inappropriate closed door insinuations was relevant to him being given a lifetime position on the Supreme Court bench. In other words, “Speak Truth To Power”. The film documents a great deal of Hill’s lengthy appearance at the hearings via old news footage and shows us the road she traveled afterwards up until her present day role as a speaker and professor of public and social policy. Though she never wanted to discuss her history specifically in the classroom, she’s never shied away from it. “If I’m not public, it will be a sense of victory for them”.

But the film let’s both Anita and the audience down in the telling of all these events. There are fascinating sections of her story (the condescending questions of senators at the hearing, the 25000 letters of hate/support Hill has received, the effect she had on the rise of female politicians at the federal level, etc.), but it’s told flatly, doesn’t always provide as much context as it could have, and mostly sticks to archival footage and current talking head interviews. It’s clear that Mock wanted to keep the focus on Hill, but as engaging as Hill is herself when speaking and discussing her family, career before/after the hearings and her hopes for the future, it sometimes feels similar to a 60 Minutes piece. That’s not in and of itself bad, but it’s disappointing. Particularly due to the excellent work Hill is currently doing with young women and the array of her peers that could have been pulled in for further positioning of her role in changing perceptions on harassment in the workplace. As I walked out, I mentioned to a friend that all the conversation I heard after the film was mostly about ideas Anita Hill had discussed in the extended Q&A (also attended by Mock) and not about the film.

Would you like to know more…?

Cinecast Episode 281 – Bromancing the Stone

Welcome to the next evolution of the Row Three Cinecast; and it is good. We call this little something, “video”. That’s right, this week Andrew and Kurt decided to try a little experiment and go face to face, using the higher bandwidth and Google technology that the 21st century has afforded us and actually video chat live for listeners viewers to see in all of its potential folly. You can see the embedded video of the entire show below or head over to the Tubes of You and watch a much larger (and potentially scarier) version of the show. Unfortunately, Spielberg did not succeed in figured out what exactly he wanted to do with his latest picture, Lincoln. We discuss what is good (even great) and how the high points are completely undermined, at length – beware of SPOILERS! After this it is on to a most difficult grading task with this weeks homework and a very short (and very positive) segment on The Watch List which includes the “in theaters now” mention of the very divisive HOLY MOTORS, a time traveling romance, the excellence that is always Frankenheimer/Mamet and a revisit of an older Coen Brothers movie that gives away a big joke in the one-sheet. So the experiment turned out most triumphantly and you can look forward to more of the video versions of the show from now on.

As always, please join the conversation by leaving your own thoughts in the comment section below and again, thanks for listening!

All the goods are under the seats…
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Hot Docs 2012: Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry Review

A common phrase on the internet, particularly in social media circles is “Pictures, or it didn’t happen.” This certainly treads close enough to the general ethos of documentary film-making to make Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry about the most appropriate film to kick off a documentary film festival in some time. Maybe of all time. And It certainly does not hurt that the film is quite excellent.

Artist cum political activist Ai Wei Wei has been giving the middle figure (both figuratively and literally) to the Chinese government for many years, and is considered by many to be the most blunt (and maybe the most effective) artist/intellectual ‘actively working’ – a euphemism for not incarcerated by the state – in modern China. His high international reputation is perhaps acting as a shield. Ai Wei Wei played a large role in the design of the 2008 Olympic Beijing National Stadium (“The Birds Nest”) before actively coming out against the Olympics in China on the grounds of hypocrisy of the government for forcibly evicting the poor out of the area to put on a face for the rest of the world during the games. Wei Wei looks like a big cuddly teddy bear, and carries himself in a humble, slightly aloof yet completely engaging, fashion that can hyper-shift to emboldened critic if the subject of the transparency of the Government of the People’s Republic of China is raised. And it is always raised, here. He is never without a concise sound-bite (“There is no sport more graceful than throwing stones at authority.”) and his political art is both interesting and easily accessible.

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Trailer: The Ides of March


Cannot get enough of the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling? Here comes The Ides of March, an election campaign drama/thriller directed by George Clooney with about as many talented actors as you can squeeze into a movie: The aforementioned Gosling joins Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marissa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright and George Clooney himself in the role of the spotlighted political candidate. The film was penned by Good Night and Good Luck writer, Grant Heslov, who co-incidentally directed Clooney in the much sillier Men Who Stare at Goats.

After seeing this trailer, I’d vote for Clooney (he always delivers a good speech on screen), even if a very charismatic Gosling is going to backstab him on the campaign trail. This is one of the many films in the initial volley of TIFF titles, so those in Toronto will have a chance to catch this in early September, meanwhile the film will get its official release on October 7th. Sony is wise to release this sooner rather than later as America is going to be quite exhausted with the rhetoric of the 2012 presidential elections by mid next year, and may not want to see a more idealized reflection of the national climate up on screen.

The full trailer is tucked under the seat.

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DVD Review: The Wave

The Wave Movie Poster

Director: Dennis Gansel
Writers: Dennis Gansel, Todd Strasser (novel)
Producer: Christian Becker
Starring: Jürgen Vogel, Frederick Lau, Max Riemelt, Jennifer Ulrich, Christiane Paul
MPAA Rating: NA
Running time: 107 min.

In April of 1967, a high school history teacher in Palo Alto, California launched a week long experiment called “The Third Wave.” The experiment was an attempt to show students how Germany could have overlooked the signs of trouble and full heartedly accepted the Third Reich. In 1988, a YA novel titled “The Wave,” author Todd Strasser took the original experiment and expanded it into a story.

The Wave Movie StillFast forward to 2008 and the release of Dennis Gansel’s The Wave. Gansel adapts Strasser’s story to modern day Germany and project week. History teacher Rainer Wenger is saddled with the task of discussing autocracy and during the first class, the students argue that they find it impossible to believe that a dictatorship could arise in modern Germany. Enter Wenger’s idea: turn the one week project into an experiment of sorts. It starts small with the class wearing uniforms, creating an image to represent the group and eventually even creating a specific greeting but right off the bat things go badly. Some students are completely against the idea while others are so fervently involved that it’s clear things aren’t going to end well. As the week progresses, things get further and further out of hand until it all unravels in a dramatic closing act which, though it doesn’t exactly surprise, manages to punch you in the gut.

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Bookmarks for October 5th through October 7th


What we’ve been reading – October 5th through October 7th:

  • Hollywood’s latest crisis.
    As André Bazin would tell you, the studio system was the entity that really perfected "invisible editing," and these days it seems it can't even demand common craftsmanship of its dumbass romantic comedies. A bad sign, to be sure.
  • Wallowing in Artistic Misery at the New York Film Festival
    AO Scott on "Festivaling"
  • Festivals feel the political heat
    The debate about whether a film-maker should be held responsible for the actions of their government stepped up a gear at Toronto. Canadian film-maker John Greyson pulled his short film, Covered, out of the festival in protest at the City to City sidebar being devoted to film-makers and films from and about Tel Aviv, amid claims the Israeli government had influenced Tiff’s programme…

Absurdity Meets Reality In El-Horr’s Every Day Is A Holiday

Every Day Is A Holiday Movie StillThough the country was suffering great political strife, 2007 proved to be a great year for Lebanese filmmakers with both Nadine Labaki and Danielle Arbid premiering films at Cannes.

Two years later, the Lebanese filmmakers keep taking strides and this year it’s Dima El-Horr turn for the spotlight. The filmmaker previously made two award winning shorts but in 2009 she is making a splash at TIFF with Every Day Is a Holiday. A road trip film, it’s the story of three women on route to visit their imprisoned men. Both the TIFF program description and indieWire note the film’s mix of the harsh realities of life for the women and the absurd situations El-Horr employs to make her point. The trailer was enough to sell me on the film which which looks gorgeous.

What impresses me most of the few films I’ve seen come out of Lebanon is that they feature strong females both in the story and in the filmmaking. I look forward to taking in El-Horr’s entry into the growing list of talented female directors.

Every Day Is a Holiday will play at TIFF on September 15th with subsequent screenings on September 16th and September 19th.


Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story Trailer

Only a filmmaker like Michael Moore can premiere the trailer for his new film on CNN and get away with it. Seriously, CNN?

That’s the way it has unfolded and earlier today when CNN added the trailer to Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story to their video archives. A documentary about the global financial crisis and the U.S. economy with a focus on the time of transition between President Obama and Bush, this looks like another exercise in Moore’s personal style of documentary filmmaking. Some may not agree or like him for his stance and how he goes about making his point but the film is guaranteed to spark conversation.

Capitalism: A Love Story premieres at TIFF in a few weeks time and opens in limited release on September 23rd.