Brian DePalma’s fascinating ‘Phantom’

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Here is a recent Buffalo News Gusto post that takes a look at one of filmdom’s most interesting filmmakers, albeit one whose resume veers wildly between “great” and “awful”: Brian DePalma.

Brian De Palma became a successful director right along with fellow “movie brats” Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, but he has certainly had the most up and down career of that foursome. Spielberg is the world’s most famous filmmaker, Lucas can buy and sell small countries, and Scorsese is seen by many as America’s greatest living director.

De Palma, on the other hand, still struggles. Yes, “Scarface” is iconic, “Carrie” still scares, “The Untouchables” and “Mission: Impossible” were hits, and films like “Blow Out” and “Carlito’s Way” are now given their just due. But then there are the mighty flops — “Wise Guys,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Black Dahlia,” 2012’s awful “Passion.”

One of his weirdest and most fascinating films, 1974’s musical “Phantom of the Paradise,” is showing at 7 p.m. Oct. 14 and 9:15 p.m. Oct. 17 at in the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst) to commemorate its 40th anniversary. Whether one is a De Palma obsessive or a newbie, it’s a cult classic that still entertains.

“Paradise” is a loose adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera” with a killer lead performance from William Finley and memorable songs by co-star Paul Williams. Seeing the incomparable Williams serves as a reminder to check out the moving documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” which is available for rental on iTunes and Amazon

As the documentary details, the film proved enormously popular in Winnipeg, of all places, even inspiring two “Phantompaloozas” that reunited the cast. Go figure.

The Oct. 17 Screening Room presentation of “Phantom of the Paradise” will be preceded by Mel Brook’s “Young Frankenstein,” also showing Oct. 18, 21, 23 and 24.

For more info, visit www.screeningroomboutiquecinemas.com.

‘The Duke of Burgundy’ leads my TIFF14 top three

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We are now well into the fall movie season, and there are many biggies I still need to see (Foxcatcher, Whiplash, The Imitation Game), but I’ve had the opportunity to see several that will continue to make waves throughout the Oscar campaign — Birdman, The Theory of Everything, and others.

Interestingly, of my three 2014 Toronto International Film Festival favorites, only one will see a release this year. Here is my TIFF top three:

The Duke of Burgundy

While only attending TIFF for a few days, I saw at least five very good films (the three mentioned here, as well as Nightcrawler and Leviathan), not to mention a few right on the cusp. But something surprising occurred to me a few days after the festival: The film I keep pondering, keep revisiting, and keep wanting to watch again is Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. This visually sumptuous, aesthetically sublime study of role-playing and sadomasochism (but funny!) is a true stunner, and certain to become a cult classic. It is no exaggeration to say you’ve never seen anything quite like it. And while Strickland deserves much of the credit, as does the credited creator of its perfumes (the credit reads “Perfume by Je Suis Gizelle”), the performances of co-leads Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are especially worthy of praise.

While We’re Young

As I explained in my Film Stage review, Noah Baumbach’s latest film might be his strongest to date. It also might be his most conventional, but he handles the standard tropes of this growing-old-ain’t-easy tale with ease. The script is wildly funny, the soundtrack smart, and the performances across-the-board brilliant.

Clouds of Sils Maria

Olivier Assayas’s Cannes hit was the first film I saw at TIFF14, and it was a ravishing, ambitious beginning. Full of mystery and unforgettable imagery, Clouds is another fascinating step in the career of a filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Binoche is typically wonderful as an actress revisiting the play that made her a star, but Kristen Stewart is a revelation as her assistant. There were numerous great performances at TIFF this year — Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything — but I’m not sure one has stayed with me like Stewart’s in Sils Maria.

For more on TIFF14 favorites, including a contribution from me, check out The Film Stage’s breakdown:

http://thefilmstage.com/features/the-best-of-toronto-international-film-festival-2014/

Review: Stuart Murdoch’s “God Help the Girl”

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Another week, another Buffalo News review, this one of “God Help the Girl,” the first film written and directed by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch. I gave it three stars.

Fans of movie musicals like “Les Misérables” or “Chicago” might see that “God Help the Girl” is a musical, nestle into their seat, watch and walk out wondering what on earth they just saw.

That might be bad news for show-tune junkies, but it’s good news for indie rock (and indie film) aficionados. For here at last is the directorial debut of Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch, a twee-to-the-extreme, mostly charming, coming-of-age tale that both delights and confounds.

For fans of Belle and Sebastian, the Glasgow-based band that very quietly burst onto the post-Britpop music landscape in the mid-to-late-1990s, it can’t be missed. Not since Prince’s “Purple Rain” – to say nothing of Insane Clown Posse’s “Big Money Rustlas” – has a musician-directed film so captured the feel and lyrical tendencies of the artist.

The oh-so Belle and Sebastian-y main character is Eve, played by the superb Emily Browning, and as “God Help the Girl” opens, she is recovering from a battle with anorexia. This makes for a strong backstory, although the seriousness of the subject often seems at odds with the horn-rimmed glasses and hey-let’s-start-a-band! air of it all.

Eve is a lover of pop music and a budding songwriter, and this interest takes her to Glasgow, where she meets bespectacled beanpole lifeguard James (Olly Alexander), a wry, anti-Bowie singer-songwriter.

James is stunned by Eve’s songs, which, like Stuart Murdoch’s, are simultaneously sweet and sour. The film’s greatest songs, in fact, capture the Motown-meets-Morrissey stomp of Belle and Sebastian classics like “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” and make for a must-own soundtrack of blissful pop.

James introduces Eve to his guitar student, posh Cassie (Hannah Murray, best known as “Game of Thrones’ ” Gilly), and this trio spends the summer writing songs and putting a band together.

It’s a plot with the weight of a floppy disk, to be sure, and at nearly two hours, it often seems ready to blow away like dandelion seeds. The first hour, especially, is far, far too drawn out.

But then, roughly one hour in, just as the trio truly forms the band, “God Help the Girl” bursts into vivid life.

Specifically, as the community music hall strut of “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie” kicks in, one of 2014’s most deliriously joyful scenes is unveiled. (Sample lyrics: “Shuffle to the left! … Boogie to the right!”) This is also one of many scenes that will thoroughly satisfy some audiences, and thoroughly annoy others.

After a standout scene in which a despondent Eve dances to the great “Musician, Please Take Heed,” the film takes another dark turn, and loses much of its steam. It rebounds, however, with a final fab song, and an appropriately wistful ending.

So “God Help the Girl” is not a film for devotees of old-school musical cinema. It is, instead, a creation for those with Smiths’ “Meat is Murder” tees lurking in their closet and awkward romantic fumblings in their past.

Even these audience members might admit, however, that it is only during the musical moments that “Girl” truly takes flight. This is the fault of Murdoch the writer. Murdoch the director, on the other hand, can be commended for bringing a Technicolor visual panache to so many scenes.

He also deserves credit for the casting of Browning, Alexander and Williams. It is Emily Browning’s first great performance (sorry, “Sucker Punch”), and the likably amateurish Olly Alexander (real-life frontman for the band Years & Years) is a fine match.

Like the songs Eve and James sing, “God Help the Girl,” is often silly, but it is always a charmer. Confidently dorky, with an unadulterated love of pop music coursing through its veins, it is a romantic embrace of indie rock and indie film idealism that, at its best moments, makes for a transformative experience – and a wonderful excuse for dancing.

Catching up: ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ ‘Skeleton Twins,’ and ‘Land Ho!’

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My post-TIFF film life has been busy, and has involved lots of catching up on reviews, screeners, and more. Three quick review links from the Buffalo News, then: two and half stars for “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” and three and a half stars for both “The Skeleton Twins” and “Land Ho!” (the latter of which I saw and reviewed before the festival).

More to come, including a review of “God Help the Girl” …

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

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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

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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’

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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’

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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

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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’

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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-]