‘20,000 Days on Earth’ might be the year’s most unique documentary — and perhaps its best, too


While it is unlikely to land an Academy Award nomination — it’s far too hip and groundbreaking for that — I’m not sure there will be a more unique, exhilarating, entertaining documentary this year than Nick Cave’s “20,000 Days on Earth.”

Of course, Cave is not the director of “20,000” days; British documentarians Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are the filmmaking team responsible. But calling it Cave’s film seems appropriate, since his voice, visage, and mind dominate every moment.

Not quite a biography, not really a concert film, although there are elements of both, “20,000 Days on Earth” is something altogether fresh. For a little over 90 minutes, we spend one day with the iconic singer-songwriter as he drives around, works on his next album (eventually released as Push the Sky Away), talks about his life, chats with Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue, and discusses his approach to life and art.

Perhaps that does not sound altogether fascinating. But it most certainly is, even for just a minor Cave fan. (I’ve always been intrigued and enjoy much of his music, but until watching this film I never quite considered myself a Cave fanatic. Now, I’m happy to.) There are not many performers who could make such a project feel so invigorating, but Cave can. He’s that cool.

Drafthouse Films opens “20,000 Days on Earth” nationwide on September 17, but Buffalonians have an opportunity to see it at Squeaky Wheel on October 22. This is a 4-star film, and a must-see. For more info on the Squeaky screening, visit http://www.squeaky.org/events/2014/fall/20000-days-on-earth-nick-cave. And for the trailer and details on the film, visit www.drafthousefilms.com.

Analyzing TIFF14: Buffalo News coverage

tiff - clouds of sils maria

The 2014 Toronto International Film Festival is now behind us, and for me, it was a successful one featuring some truly great films — “The Duke of Burgundy,” “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “While We’re Young,” “Nightcrawler,” “Leviathan.”

For the first time ever, I covered TIFF for the Buffalo News, and below you’ll find links to all of my posts to Buffalo.com. There is plenty more TIFF coverage to come from me, and soon I’ll be posting grades of the more than 20 films I saw on this site.

Photo: Juliette Binoche in “Clouds of Sils Maria”

Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

TIFF14: Under-the-radar gems include ‘They Have Escaped,’ ‘Life In a Fishbowl, ‘In the Crosswind’


One of the joys of the Toronto International Film Festival is stumbling upon interesting “smaller films.” These are the international entries that often come from directors yet to establish themselves in North America. I had the opportunity to see several, and even the selections I liked less are worth seeking out:

They Have Escaped ***
The story of two troubled teenagers, Joni and Raissa, who run away from a halfway house and find an even scarier world. Directed by Finnish filmmaker J.P. Valkeapää, it is a moving, always involving tale with a central relationship that is believably messy. While the film’s final third takes an unnecessary turn toward quasi-horror, the first hour is a strong portrait of youths on the run.

Life In a Fishbowl ***
Icelandic director Baldvin Zophoníasson’s multi-character drama feels obvious at times, and a tad too predictable. But it’s three central stories are endearing enough that the end result is pretty charming.

In the Crosswind ***

This black and white drama about a woman and her daughter struggling to get home to Estonia in 1941 featured some of TIFF14’s most memorable images. Star Laura Peterson and director Martti Helde are two talents to watch.

Other less heralded, but certainly worthy TIFF14 picks:

  • National Gallery ***1/2 (Wiseman’s latest doc is typically gorgeous, and, as usual, essential viewing.)
  • The Wanted 18 *** (The most unique doc I saw at this year’s fest.)
  • Who Am I — No System Is Safe **1/2 (Slick, silly, but very fun, this thriller is watchable from start to finish, if too predictable.)
  • Trick or Treaty **1/2
  • In Her Place **

Schobert on TIFF, in Gusto: ‘Toronto International Film Festival is an 11-day movie buffet’


This week sees the start of the Toronto International Film Festival, and starting on Thursday I’ll be filing reports for the Buffalo News, on Twitter, and elsewhere. I was very excited to have the opportunity to preview #TIFF14 with a Gusto cover story in the Buffalo News.

Click here to read the piece. More TIFF coverage on the way …

Coming soon: TIFF 2014 coverage


The 2014 Toronto International Film Festival is now just days away, and I’m excited to say that I will be providing coverage on multiple fronts.

I will be contributing blog posts (and more) for the Buffalo News, tweeting at Twitter.Com/FilmSwoon, likely writing reviews for The Playlist and The Film Stage, and writing my usual November issue recap for Buffalo Spree. This may mean no new posts on this site for a few weeks, but more will be on its way soon.

Note that the article below was recently written for BuffaloSpree.com in mid-August:


TIFF 2014 preview: Godard, Cronenberg, and a very creepy Jake Gyllenhaal highlight the fest

The Toronto International Film Festival is less than a month away, and a look at the lineup (so far, anyway) brings forth lots of questions. These are questions not about what’s playing, but what’s missing.

Where is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and David Fincher’s Gone Girl? October’s New York Film Festival. How about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman? August’s Venice Film Festival. Happily, a few high-caliber Cannes 2014 hits, including the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Nightand Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, were late additions to the TIFF lineup.

As the addition of the latter two films indicates, knee-jerk responses following the initial announcement of films often look silly in retrospect. After all, I wrote the following one year ago:

“Missing in action (so far): There is still lots of time for more announcements … But some I’m still hoping to see added are Spike Lee’s Oldboy, Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem (it is playing Venice), and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. Also missing, so far, are three of the best-reviewed films at Cannes: the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Robert Redford in All Is Lost, and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.”

None of those films were added. In fact, two of them — Zero and Wanted — were not released in 2013 at all. Meanwhile, Oldboy was a critical and commercial disaster, and while Llewyn DavisAll Is Lost, and Nebraska found favor with critics (and me), this trio did not have the impact of a film that did play TIFF, and won the Oscar for Best Picture: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

So no need to fret. And part of the fun this year will be seeing which films come out of nowhere to capture audience and critical buzz. Here are the 10 films I’m most excited to see:

  • Xavier Dolan’s Mommy: I’m a bit late to the Dolan party, having just watched I Killed My Mother,Heartbeats, and Laurence Anyways. I am still kicking myself over missing the still-unreleased Tom at the Farm at TIFF 2013; I don’t plan on missing his recent Cannes Film Festival smash.
  • Dan Gilroy’s NightcrawlerLast year, Jake Gyllenhaal brought two very different, very strong films to TIFF: Prisoners and Enemy. This year, he stars in Nightcrawler, and from the looks of it, this is his creepiest, most unhinged role to date.
  • Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher: Wildly acclaimed at Cannes, this Steve Carell-Channing Tatum starrer has been at the center of Oscar chatter for months.
  • David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars: One of my favorite TIFF memories was attending the first Toronto critics’ screening of Cronenberg’s underrated A Dangerous MethodMaps, the Canadian master’s latest film, looks like his most gloriously wild in some time. While the early raves focus on Julianne Moore’s performance, I’m most excited to see Mia Wasikowska’s role in this Hollywood-skewering satire.
  • David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn: Green rebounded from some dodgy years (The Sitter?) withPrince Avalanche and last year’s TIFF entry Joe. Al Pacino stars in Manglehorn, and Green plus Pacino is certainly intriguing.
  • Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children: I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I liked Reitman’s Labor Day at TIFF 2013 — at least, at first. The more I pondered it in the months that followed, the more preposterous it seemed. His films often tend to grow weaker upon reflection (Juno,Up in the Air). I know little about his new film, except the cast, which includes Jennifer Garner and Adam Sandler (!). This time, Reitman has something to prove.
  • Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner: A Best Actor nomination for Timothy Spall seems all but assured followingTurner’s reviews in Cannes. Leigh rarely lets us down, and painter J. M. W. Turner seems an ideal subject.
  • Jon Stewart’s Rosewater: Can the host of The Daily Show find himself in the Oscar race. The plot of his directorial debut starring No’s Gael Garcia Bernal certainly sounds award-worthy: it’s the true story of an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was imprisoned for five months by the Iranian government.
  • Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young: Baumbach’s last film, the TIFF premiere Frances Ha, was utterly enchanting. This time, he brings his Greenberg star Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, and Frances’s Adam Driver. That might be his finest cast to date.
  • Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3DIs Goodbye Godard’s late-late period masterpiece? And is it really his goodbye? The answer to the former is probably, the answer to the latter is probably not. Either way, this earned the director some of his strongest reviews in decades at Cannes.

As for the rest, there is Cumberbatch-y Oscar bait (The Imitation Game), some WTFs (the Amanda Knox drama The Face of an Angel, Kevin Smith’s man-turned-into-a-walrus horror romp Tusk), and, of course, Francois Ozon (The New Girlfriend).

I’ll be there to see as much as I can from Friday, September 5 through Sunday, September 7. You can follow my updates at Twitter.com/FilmSwoon, and look  for my post-TIFF recap in the November issue of Buffalo Spree.

For more on the festival, visit tiff.net.

Christopher Schobert writes about film for Buffalo Spree, the Buffalo News, Indiewire’s The Playlist, The Film Stage, and FilmSwoon.com.

Review: ‘The Dog’ tells the incredible story of the criminal behind ‘Dog Day Afternoon’


The documentary “The Dog” is film I missed at TIFF 2013 but recently reviewed for The Playlist. It is a wildly compelling portrait of a true character, and certainly worth checking out. Here is my review, which was quoted by Drafthouse Films (see above) and was written a few hours before my daughter Nora was born:

John Wojtowicz is the rare subject whose real life was more complex, more borderline-unbelievable and more gloriously strange than the one presented on the big screen. He was “The Dog,” the wannabe bank robber whose failed heist of a Chase Manhattan Bank in sweltering ’70s Brooklyn was the basis for Sidney Lumet’s classic “Dog Day Afternoon.” Portrayed by a peak-of-his-powers Al Pacino (named Sonny Wortzik in the film), Wojtowicz is mostly remembered for the ostensible reason behind the robbery—to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change operation. As the moving, sad, riotously humorous documentary “The Dog” explains, the film only captured traces of Wojtowicz’s personality, and only told bits of his story. ‘Afternoon’ is a masterpiece, to be sure, but the real dog’s life was even wilder, its central figure an utterly eccentric character.

“I’m an angel, but I got horns,” the late Wojtowicz says early in the decade-in-the-making documentary directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren. He looks as if he could be in his 70s in that interview, which makes the news that he died from cancer at age 60 (in 2006) rather shocking. But if anyone should evidence hard living, it is John Wojtowicz. A self-proclaimed romantic with a wondrous New York accent and wide eyes, Wojtowicz tells that he has had four wives and 23 girlfriends—“I give a piece of myself to everybody”—and relationships with both men and women. In fact, following his first gay experience (with “a hillbilly named Wilbur” during army basic training) and one failed marriage, he became an active member of the Gay Activists Alliance in New York. These were the post-Stonewall days, and the ever-blunt Wojtowicz provides a unique, insightful look at this crucial stage in gay activism.

How blunt? At one point, Wojtowicz gave himself the nickname “Little John,” he explains, “because my prick is little.” In addition to being brutally honest and self-deprecating, he is wistful and passionate. When Wojtowicz met Ernest Aron (later Elizabeth Eden) in 1971, he was enchanted, bringing roses every week and pledging his love. When the older Wojtowicz brings the filmmakers to the place where he and Ernie first had sex, he is clearly still love-struck. They were an odd couple, the exotic Aron and the odd-looking Wojtowicz (“He was a troll,” says a friend from the time. “There was a troll that loved her”), and their relationship was often combative and tempestuous. But Wojtowicz has no regrets about any of it, including the events of August 22, 1972.

As the vintage trailer for “Dog Day Afternoon” establishes, it was “a summer day just like any summer day.” But this hot, oppressive day included, unexpectedly, the “most bizarre, unbelievable crime in history.” Anyone who’s seen the film has a rough idea of what followed. “Sonny” and his cohort Sal (played by the late John Cazale) attempted to rob a bank but ended up with hostages, epic media coverage, and later, arrest. While the film did include the then-scandalous sex-change aspect of the story, it missed the fascinating details of the hours before the robbery. Wojtowicz walks us through the sex-fueled night before, and a wonderfully ironic visit to the cinema to see “The Godfather.” Wojtowicz, Sal, and a third accomplice who fled the scene before the robbery watched the just-released mafia epic “for inspiration,” and it led Wojtowicz to end the note he handed the bank teller with “This is an offer you can’t refuse.”

The robbery did not end well, of course. As a bank employee states, “You knew they were amateurs, not professional bank robbers.” But it was undeniably bold, and it is still stunning to imagine the impact the story had on those watching and listening at home. “It was like gay liberation right down your throat,” says a Wojtowicz acquaintance. There is a sneer in voices of the news reporters telling of “an admitted homosexual,” and as “Dog Day Afternoon” memorably shows, tension was in the air. In fact, Wojtowicz says then New York Mayor John Lindsay told him on the phone that police would kill all of the hostages before letting him get what he wants: “You’re making New York look bad.”

Surprisingly, the rest of the documentary, post-robbery, is just as fascinating, if a bit overlong. Wojtowicz was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and these were hard years of rape and attempted suicide. By the time he emerged from prison five years later, “Dog Day Afternoon” had been released and become a cultural phenomenon, and it changed Wojtowicz’s personality. “When the movie came out it became the essence of his life,” says a friend. “He became a new person.” When we see Wojtowicz tell someone “I’m ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’” it is clear how strongly the fictional “Dog,” and his fame, influenced the real one. This makes the documentary an interesting study of post-fame life. “I’m the real motherfucker,” Wojtowicz says. But the world cared more about the “Dog” played by Al Pacino.

The documentary ends in somber fashion. Wojtowicz is decimated by cancer, while Elizabeth Eden passed away from AIDS in 1987. But “the Dog” was as colorfully confident at the end as he was that day in Brooklyn. “I’m waiting for them to tell me how many days I have to go,” he says before a doctor visit, “so I can go party.” From beginning to end, “The Dog” has an almost fable-like quality to it—strange, stirring, almost unbelievable; at one point harp music adds to the dreaminess. There is an air of romance befitting the subject, and even amidst the hardship, a sense of joy. The film’s final scene sees Wojtowicz’s doting mother showing the camera the resting spot of her son’s ashes. It’s his old bedroom, and it is almost perfectly preserved. The room is a fitting representation of a man whose life never quite progressed after that August day, and “The Dog” is a fitting tribute. [A-]

Revisiting a cult classic: “But I’m a Cheerleader”

but im a cheer

One of the nice things about blogging for the Buffalo News is having the opportunity to write about some neglected gems set to screen in Buffalo. Case in point: “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Here is a recent piece.

Long before Natasha Lyonne appeared on Netflix’s ultra-popular “Orange Is the New Black,” the actress gave the best performance of her career in 1999’s underrated “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Funny, satirical and featuring a wild cast in supporting roles — RuPaul, Mink Stole, Bud Cort — director Jamie Babbit’s film screens at Hallwalls at 7:30 p.m. July 11 as part of its “Reel Party: A Queer Film Party for Anyone Who Likes Film and Fun” series.

The story of a high schooler whose parents send her to a conversion therapy camp to “cure” her lesbianism, “But I’m a Cheerleader” was greeted with mostly negative reviews upon release. But in the years since, the film has deservedly achieved cult status. And even the late-’90s haters admitted that Lyonne and costar Clea DuVall gave note-perfect performances.

See www.hallwalls.org for more information on the screening, and the series.

The best of 2014 … so far: “Skin,” “Boyhood,” “Lovers,” and “Ida”


I’m just going to say it: 2014 has been a fantastic year for cinema. There have been years in which we were forced to wait impatiently for the fall awards season in order to start pondering the year’s best, and while this summer has been mostly horrendous (for blockbusters, at least), there have been several truly great films. In fact, my top 10 for the year to date would be a respectable list five months from now, and that’s pretty extraordinary. Without further ado:

  1. “Under the Skin”: Still the most entrancing, bold, memorable cinematic experience of the year for me. Watching it a second time only affirmed my belief that this is a complex masterpiece of the first degree.
  2. “Boyhood”: While the backlash is likely starting to stir, I stand by my belief that Richard Linklater’s film is one of the finest studies of adolescence ever made.
  3. “Only Lovers Left Alive”: Jim Jarmusch’s vampire drama is structured like a circle — the end is another beginning, and I could sit through several more.
  4. “Ida”: It took me awhile to catch up with this powerful Polish drama, but it was worth the wait. Its ending is one of the boldest and most engaging in years.
  5. “The Immigrant”: It’s on Netflix, right now. No excuses.
  6. “Snowpiercer”: The best action film of the summer? Undoubtedly. Probably the year.
  7. “Grand Budapest Hotel”: I still believe this is Anderson’s best since “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and a glorious study of one era changing into the next.
  8. “The Double”: There have been two great doppelganger films in 2014. This was the darkly funny one …
  9. “Enemy”: … and this was the comically disturbing one. But I’m not sure I can watch “Enemy” again, so terrifying is its final shot. Shiver …
  10. “The Raid 2″: I’m as surprised as anyone that I found this hyperkinetic sequel so involving. It makes most action films look rudimentary and utterly dull.

There are a number of fine films hovering on the outside:

  • “Like Father Like Son”
  • “Palo Alto”
  • “The Lego Movie”
  • “Jodorowsky’s Dune”
  • “Abuse of Weakness”
  • “Blue Ruin”
  • “Mistaken for Strangers”
  • “Joe”
  • “Stranger By the Lake”
  • “In Bloom”
  • “Ukraine is Not a Brothel”
  • “Nymphomaniac” (both volumes, although I prefer Vol. 1)
  • “The Lunchbox”
  • “Jimi: All Is By My Side”
  • “Locke” (best film of 2014 involving the pouring of concrete)
  • “Finding Vivian Maier”

And there are also some that I still need to see. Note the absence of “Transformers.” These include:

  • “We Are the Best”
  • “Obvious Child”
  • “Hellion”
  • “The Rover”
  • “Life Itself”
  • “Night Moves”
  • “Edge of Tomorrow”
  • “22 Jump Street”
  • “The Fault in Our Stars”
  • “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
  • “Cheap Thrills”
  • “Closed Curtain”
  • “Lucy”

One final note: My wife and I are expecting our second child to enter the world any day now, so I will likely be unable to post for a week or two — out on baby business.

It’s almost TIFF time, so let’s look back to one year ago


Tomorrow, the Toronto International Film Festival will hold its annual kick-off press conference, which sees the first announcement of some of its selections. This year’s crop, in particular, should be fascinating, as there has been much talk of premieres being true TIFF premieres, rather than films that already showed in Telluride or Venice. Does that mean a less-scintillating lineup? Hard to say. Hopefully it does not.

It is interesting, as well, to look back at the films announced at last year’s kick-off, which saw the tepidly-received “Fifth Estate” at the top of the bill. Of course, one of the other reveals, “12 Years a Slave,” earned a Best Picture Oscar months later.

Because I think it’s fascinating to look back at it now and see what I was oddly stoked about (“Labor Day”?), and what I was correct about (“12 Years,” “Under the Skin”), here is my post-announcement feature for BuffaloSpree.com from one year ago. (Note that I stuck with Spree style here, which italicizes titles.)

The Toronto International Film Festival is the only major fest I am able to attend each year, so it’s a bit like my Super Bowl. Covering TIFF for Buffalo Spree has been an amazing experience—here is my post-festival analysis from last year—and each year seems to bring new pleasures. In many ways, the festival is an indicator of all the hits (and misses) audiences in Buffalo and beyond can expect for the remainder of the year.

I’m always thrilled to hear the first batch of announcements, and Tuesday morning’s press conference certainly included some films I was hoping would hit TO. Some thoughts:

  • 12 Years a Slave skips Venice for Toronto: This is big. Steve McQueen’s Shame was my favorite film of TIFF 2011—and of 2011, period—so I’m personally thrilled. Skipping Venice and debuting in TO is a major coup for Cameron Bailey and his fellow TIFF organizers.
  • The full Midnight Madness line-up is coming on July 30: It is always fun to see what’s in store here. Last year, I did not make it to any of them. Funny, I recall DESPERATELY wanting to attend the Seven Psychopaths midnight screening. Glad I waited …
  • TIFF’s 2013 MVPs: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, and Mia Wasikowska all appear in multiple films. Cumberbatch is in three (!), most notably opening night film The Fifth Estate, in which he plays Julian Assange.
  • Under the Skin finally arrives: Jonathan Glazer’s (Sexy BeastBirth) Scarlett Johansson-starring quasi-sci-fi film has been in production for a lonnng time. Very exciting to see it here.
  • Lots of Cannes hits: The controversial Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest ColourLike Father Like Son, and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive were three of the most buzzed-about Cannes 2013 entries.
  • The return of Jason Reitman: The first movie I ever saw at TIFF was Reitman’s Juno, and Jared Mobarak and I had the privilege of shaking the director’s hand afterwards. (I’m sure he was thrilled.) Labor Day, starring Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet, seems like a perfect story for his typical blend of humor and drama.
  • Oscar buzz: August: Osage County, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Rush, The Fifth Estate, and Gravity are already in the mix.
  • The return of hometown TIFF favorites: In addition to Reitman, Don McKellar and Atom Egoyan are back; the full Canadian lineup is coming soon.
  • Some films I did not even know were in production are screening here: I had no idea Jason Bateman was directing a film (Bad Words), that the late James Gandolfini was starring with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Nicole Holofcener’s next project (Enough Said), or that Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to Meek’s Cutoff was finished (Night Moves).
  • Missing in action (so far): There is still lots of time for more announcements; TIFF maestro Cameron Bailey said the first batch only included about one-quarter of the complete lineup. But some I’m still hoping to see added are Spike Lee’s Oldboy, Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem (it is playing Venice), and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. Also missing, so far, are three of the best-reviewed films at Cannes: the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Robert Redford in All Is Lost, and Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska.