Coming soon: TIFF 2014 coverage

Maps

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-]

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

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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.