This week, meet The Heiress, and experience Rigoletto

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Another film series that I did not know about kicks off its season tonight, as the free 2013-2014 Daemen Film Series opens with The Heiress.

William Wyler’s screen version of the Henry James’ Washington Square stars Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson, along with a score by Aaron Copeland. I have never seen it, although I did slog through the weak 90s adaptation of Washington Square. Certainly a unique selection.

All films are shown at 7:30 p.m. on Monday evenings in Alumni Lounge in WickCenter on the Daemen campus, 4380 Main Street, in Amherst.

Meanwhile, next Sunday, October 6, the Dipson chain begins its latest Opera in Cinema series with Rigoletto.

Anyone bored by the latest monsters at the Regal should take note

Stream these: “Something in the Air,” “Simon Killer,” “Shadow Dancer,” and “Aftershock”

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Netflix Instant often seems to go weeks without anything truly exciting … and then several drop on top of each other. A few newbies worth checking out are summarized here. Of the four, the only one I have seen is “Something in the Air,” a TIFF12 entry that I have been dying to see again. “Aftershock” looks dodgiest, while “Simon Killer” appears to be the most divisive, and “Shadow Dancer” the most emotionally affecting.

“Simon Killer”: “The follow-up to Antonio Campos’ critically acclaimed AFTERSCHOOL, SIMON KILLER is an erotic and and psychological portrait of Simon (Brady Corbet, MELANCHOLIA, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE), a well-educated, handsome and seemingly sympathetic college graduate with just a hint of something off putting enough to ignite a sense of concern. Recently heartbroken, Simon travels to Paris to clear his head. After several days of wandering aimlessly, Simon finds himself drawn into a sex parlor and has a sexual encounter with an exotic prostitute, Victoria (Mati Diop, 35 SHOTS OF RUM). The chemistry builds between the two until they find themselves in a serious relationship, one that leads to blackmail, betrayal and the ultimate revelation of Simon’s true nature.” (Summary from IFCfilms.com)

“Shadow Dancer”: James Marsh (“Man On Wire”) directs, Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough star. “When a young mother and true believer from a violent IRA family is captured by British spies, she is forced to betray everything she believes in for the sake of her son in this taut, high-stakes thriller.” (Summary from Magnolia Pictures)

“Aftershock”: Chile has it all: gorgeous landscapes, smokin’- hot women, cool dudes, great wine, and the wildest parties. For a hapless American tourist, nicknamed Gringo (Eli Roth) by his two Chilean pals Ariel (Ariel Levy) and Pollo (Nicolás Martínez), the trip has been heaven on earth — except that he just can’t hook up with the ladies. Gringo’s luck seems to change when the group meets a trio of babes — Russian model Irina (Natasha Yarovenko), non-stop party girl Kylie (Lorenza Izzo) and her serious sister Monica (Andrea Osvárt) — who agree to accompany them on a trip to the coastal town of Valparaíso. The new friends are having the best of times whooping it up in a dance club, until a violent earthquake brings the entire city down around them. With this one-time paradise now a landscape of death and destruction that’s seething with terror and panic, our unlucky heroes must run for their lives from looters, escaped convicts, and the inevitable aftershocks.” (Summary from aftershock-film.com)

“Something in the Air”: In the months after the heady weeks of May ’68, a group of young people search for a way to continue the revolution believed to be just beginning. For Gilles (newcomer Clément Mettayer), this means having to balance his political commitments with his desire to explore painting and filmmaking; for his girlfriend Christine (Goodbye, First Love star Lola Créton), this means throwing herself wholeheartedly into the task of organizing. Olivier Assayas (Carlos,Summer Hours) here describes the sentimental education of a generation that was too young to have been on the barricades; he brilliantly captures its explorations of new lifestyles, the arguments about strategies and tactics, and above all its music, a constant presence that becomes something like the artistic unconscious of an era. The period details are perfect, but what makes this film so special is the sense it conveys of history as lived experience.” (Summary from IFCfilms.com)

Courtesy of IFC Films

TIFF recap: Götz Spielmann’s disappointing follow-up to his great “Revanche”

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I feel like I am still in post-TIFF catch-up mode in a lot of ways, especially here. But the festival is such a major part of my film-going year that I feel I am justified in spending some of that time recapping things I saw and reviewed. One somewhat under-the-radar TIFF13 selection was Götz Spielmann’s “October November,” the follow-up to his wonderful thriller “Revanche,” and while it was certainly worth seeing, it is hard to consider it anything but a disappointment. Here is my Playlist review of the film. I will keep tabs on when it might be hitting North American shores again.

Götz Spielmann’s “October November” might be the quietest drama of 2013, an intimate, somber study of one family’s unsaid truths. It is also, however, a film that leaves little impression, making it a step backwards—or, at the very least, sideways—for the director of the stunning “Revanche.” Spielmann’s 2008 character study/thriller was deservedly nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (2009), and drew an international spotlight to the Austrian filmmaker. His much-anticipated follow-up, “October November,” made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and while it plays reasonably well in a festival setting, it is unlikely to make waves worldwide.

It is a family tale, a European cousin of some ofWoody Allen’s Bergman-esque dramas (specifically “Interiors” and even “September”); if Mike Leighhad not already used the title “Secrets and Lies,” it would have been dead-on here. Sonja (Nora von Waldstätten) and Verena (Ursula Strauss) are two sisters with very different lives, yet more shared character traits than they would care to admit. Sonja is an actress whose busy life involves work, failed relationships, and more work. (“You’re only happy when you work,” she is rather inaccurately told.) Verena, meanwhile, still lives in the family home with her ailing father (Peter Simonischek, gives a beautifully exhausted performance as “Papa”), her good-natured, rather dull husband, and their sweet little boy. It is a large, rambling former inn that is occasionally still used for overnight guests.

We learn within the film’s first few minutes that Sonja and Verena are living secret lives. Sonja is accosted by the wife of a man she is seeing in the ladies’ room of an upscale restaurant, a knife-sharp scene that demonstrates Spielmann’s skill at letting drama slowly develop. (The man’s wife shows the oblivious Sonja a picture of her children, and replies to Sonja’s compliment with piercing questions: “You think they’re lovely? Then why are you destroying their lives?”) Back in the town Sonja grew up in, Verena has her own messy situation playing out. She is having an affair with her father’s attractive, caring physician (“The Lives of Others” star Sebastian Koch, used far more effectively here than he was in the execrable “A Good Day to Die Hard”).

The sisters are brought back together as Papa’s health worsens, and their frosty relationship grows frostier. For Sonja, a return home feels like a vacation from her busy everyday life, but for Verena, the sight of Sonja is a reminder of what she missed by staying home. Verena is especially on edge when Sonja is around Koch’s doctor; the look on her face when Sonja arrives home with Koch, happily announcing, “Look who I found!” is priceless. Later, Verena angrily tells Sonja, “Just drop the act. No one knows who you are anymore,” and the truth behind the statement makes the comments especially wounding. But just as wounding—and true—is Sonja’s reply: “You’re jealous of me, of my life. You chose this life. No one forced you into it.” Yet as we learn, much of the control the film’s character’s believe they have over their lives is false.

A major secret is revealed halfway through “October November” that lacks the impact it should, and fails to upend things the way we might expect. The way this is handled by Spielmann seems like a miss, as well as some strange aesthetic choices—particularly an awkwardly filmed near-death and some dopey dream sequences—and an oddly lackluster conclusion make for an overall disappointment. It is beautifully shot, well-acted by all (especially by Waldstätten, Strauss, and Simonischek), and filled with strong dialogue and a real sense of place. But despite the cast’s best efforts, it is never moving, and rarely surprising. A sense of surprise, so important an element of “Revanche,” might be the film’s biggest failure.

As “October November” draws to a close, it is difficult not to feel slightly on edge; it seems as if something momentous is on the verge of happening … And yet it never does. Spielmann is clearly uninterested in fireworks this time around, and while that is a bold dramatic choice, it is also an unsatisfying one. It is a film that starts with a quiet dinner, and ends with a quiet hug, and that’s the way Spielmann wants it. Certainly, “October November” is far, far from a bad film, but it is a curiously unmemorable one. And while it is unfair to overly compare it with “Revanche,” it is difficult not to. Perhaps if this was the director’s debut, audience response would be different. But after the high of “Revanche,” “October November” feels like a ho-hum medium. [C+]

 

Now Playing in the Buff: Brie Larson Earns Raves in “Short Term 12”

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I have been a bit negligent in talking about new releases — TIFF overwhelmed me, happily — and there is one I must mention. I have not had a chance to see “Short Term 12” yet, but I’ve been hearing about it, and the performance of its star Brie Larson, for months.

Here is a summary of the film, directed by Destin Daniel Crettin:

“‘Short Term 12’ is told through the eyes of Grace (Brie Larson), a twenty-something supervisor at a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers. Passionate and tough, Grace is a formidable caretaker of the kids in her charge, and in love with her long-term boyfriend and co-worker, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) But Grace’s own difficult past, and the surprising future that suddenly presents itself, throw her into unforeseen confusion, made all the sharper with the arrival of a new intake at the facility, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a gifted but troubled teenage girl with whom Grace has a charged connection. She and Mason also struggle to help Marcus (Keith Stanfield), an intense, quiet kid who is about to turn 18, manage through the difficulty of having to leave the facility. Grace comes to find—in both her work and the new teenager in her care — surprising sources of redemption. And while the subject matter is complex and often dark, this lovingly realized film finds truth and humor in unexpected places.”

I must admit, my main interest in the film is Larson, who has quietly made an impact in everything from “The Spectacular Now” to “21 Jump Street.” Her performance here was honored in Venice, and it would be a treat to see her in the Best Actress conversation.

The film is now playing at the Amherst Dipson, and I beseech you to see it instead of, say, “Riddick.”

Courtesy of Short Term Film

Playing “Chess” at Squeaky Wheel

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I’ve been intrigued by Andrew Bujalski’s “Computer Chess” for months. The “mumblecore” maestro’s latest won raves (and an award) at Sundance, and he has long been a fascinating filmmaker. The Sundance website offers a nice breakdown of the film and an interview with Bujalski. Here is a description of the film:

“‘Computer Chess’ follows a group of savvy young programmers in their attempt to build a computer chess program with the ability to defeat a human player. Shot on cameras true to the era the characters in the film inhabit an environment almost indistinguishable from the year it aims to imitate — 1980. And for good measure, the director’s trademark knack for achieving an uncanny vérité style — so well-documented in his debut feature ‘Funny Ha Ha’ — ultimately exposes his tech pioneer subjects in all of their social incompetence.”

Squeaky Wheel is screening “Computer Chess” this Tuesday, September 24, at 7 p.m. It is another fine booking for the media arts center, who recently screened “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” and will show the acclaimed “Leviathan” in October. I love that Squeaky is bringing these idiosyncratic movies to town ahead of their home release.

For more Squeaky info, click here, and for some fun on the “Computer Chess” website, click here.

Photo Courtesy Computer Chess LLC

My TIFF rankings, from top (“12 Years a Slave”) to bottom (“You Are Here”)

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Last week, I put together a round-up of my TIFF reviews, and two more can be added to that list: I reviewed “Prisoners” and “Philomena” for The Film Stage, and gave both an A-.

This means my TIFF coverage is just about complete, although my annual Buffalo Spree feature will not be out until the November issue. As I look at my grades, it first appears I went easy on some things, but I’m not sure that’s the case. I think it just transpired that I had a good year.

Clearly, “12 Years a Slave” towers over the rest, but I think it’s a solid list overall — and pretty darn eclectic.

Here is my full TIFF 2013 list:

  • “12 Years a Slave”: A
  • “Prisoners”: A-
  • “Philomena”: A-
  • “Labor Day”: A-
  • “Jodorowsky’s Dune: B+
  • “Visitors”: B+
  • “Abuse of Weakness”: B+
  • “All Is By My Side”: B+
  • “A Field in England”: B
  • “Bad Words”: B
  • “Young and Beautiful”: B
  • “Wasted Youth”: B
  • “Sarah Prefers to Run”: B-
  • “October November”: C+
  • “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (technical glitch ended screening after 45 minutes; grade is for what I saw): C
  • “Therese”: C
  • “I Am Yours”: C-
  • “You Are Here”: D

Photo from “Young and Beautiful” courtesy of TIFF

Jazz Noir 2 is an autumn treat at Hallwalls

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Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center is a Buffalo treasure, a downtown arts center with a stunning history run by some of the smartest people I know. One of these folks is executive director Ed Cardoni, and Ed has curated a truly exciting series of classic films kicking off this week.

Last spring, Hallwalls unveiled “Jazz Noir: 1950–1966, a series of “eight classic films of the ’50s & ’60s with classic jazz scores composed by and featuring jazz musicians—real and fictional—on screen, off screen, and (in most cases) both.” (Description courtesy of Hallwalls.)

The cool-cool-cool series is back this fall with “Jazz Noir 2: 1955–1966,” featuring seven more classics. It all starts this Wednesday, September 18, with Otto Preminger’s “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955) at 7:30 p.m.

I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen seen “The Man,” which stars Frank Sinatra as a heroin-addicted jazz drummer. Hallwalls breaks down the “musical team,” and it’s stellar: composer and conductor Elmer Bernstein, orchestrator Fred Steiner, Shorty Rogers (trumpet and jazz arrangements), Shelly Manne (drums), Larry Bunker (drums), Jimmy Giuffre (clarinet; tenor & bari saxophones), Pete Jolly (piano), Curtis Counce (bass), Ralph Peña (bass), and Pete Candoli (trumpeter, as “Jazz Musician”).

Admission price per film is $8 general; $6 students/seniors; $5 Hallwalls members. Plus, a special deal: “if you become a Hallwalls member at this first screening, you will get into this first screening for FREE, then—once you’re hooked—get the Members’ discount at all remaining screenings, as well as all Hallwalls events throughout the year.”

Great deal, great films, great organization. I’ll have more on this series throughout the fall.

The people have spoken: “12 Years a Slave” deservedly wins TIFF’s audience award

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Bravo to Steve McQueen, Brad Pitt, and a great cast: “12 Years a Slave” is the deserving winner of the Toronto International Film Festival’s BlackBerry People’s Choice Award. My prediction, “Philomena,” was the runner-up, followed by another strong choice, “Prisoners.”

I had wondered if “12 Years” was simply TOO powerful, but clearly, audiences in Toronto were impacted as greatly as I was. This is a biggie, and clearly sets up the film for an awards run.

Here is my review of the film for The Film Stage. I’ll be shocked to see anything better in 2013.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

My TIFF 2013 People’s Choice pick? “Philomena”

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This Sunday, the Toronto International Film Festival will announce its Audience Award winner, and this is big. After every public screening, TIFF’s orange-t-shirt-clad volunteers remind attendees to vote for their favorite, and while many scoff at such a popularity contest, there is an undeniable relationship between the winner of the People’s Choice Award — I’m sorry, the BlackBerry People’s Choice Award — and mainstream success. (Well, mostly.)

Take a look at the last 10 winners:

  • 2012: “Silver Linings Playbook”
  • 2011: “Where Do We Go Now?”
  • 2010: “The King’s Speech”
  • 2009: “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
  • 2008: “Slumdog Millionaire”
  • 2007: “Eastern Promises”
  • 2006: “Bella”
  • 2005: “Tsotsi”
  • 2004: “Hotel Rwanda”
  • 2003: “Zatoichi”

Notice that four of the last five were enormous critical and commercial successes. I’m not sure how the pleasant but hardly memorable “Where Do We Go Now?” garnered ther 2011 prize.

Last year, I predicted “Argo,” which I had not seen, would win the prize; I cannot tell you how many folks I heard discussing it. The actual winner was “Silver Linings Playbook,” and the win put David O. Russell’s film in play for months of hype, and eventually, box office success and Oscar noms.

My pick for this year is Stephen Frears’s “Philomea,” starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. The film, about a woman’s quest to find the child she was forced to give up by the Catholic Church 50 years before, is a crowd-pleaser, but it’s also a great movie, one full of surprises and an unexpected level of social commentary.

It’s not the only film in play — certainly, “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” or “Prisoners” could pull it off, not to mention a much lower-profile film. But I’d put my money on “Philomena,” and I’d call it a deserving winner, too.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

Four months of FilmSwoon: What’s ahead

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Yes, it has been just about four months since I started this site, and it has been a fantastic experience. I made a vow to try to post something every day, and I have accomplished that — something new has gone up every since that initial post in May.

But I think it’s time to slow that down a bit. It is time-consuming to plan, and to write, and I think cutting back to anywhere from three to five posts a week is wise. That means some weeks there will be a Wednesday round-up, some weeks not. Some weeks a weekend preview some weeks not. And so on, and so forth.

For me, it’s about keeping it fresh, and also making sure I have enough time for everything else I have going on, too. I’m truly loving this, and I look forward to doing it for a long time. And who knows? Perhaps I’ll be back to seven days week very quickly.

Incidentally, that photo was taken by yours truly in Toronto. I’ve seen it countless times, yet during this visit, it struck me as a pretty wonderful sight.