SCREENING BUFFALO: Curate your own Queen City-themed virtual film festival

Closed movie theaters caused even the most diehard moviegoers to change the way they experience cinema. And, as Spree explained in recent issues, the pandemic also upended film festivals locally and around the world. Many, including September’s Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Buffalo International Film Festival, AFI Fest, and Chicago Film Festival, opted for a hybrid model. That meant many films could be watched from home, a nice treat for those craving the festival experience in dire times.

I covered TIFF, NYFF, AFI, and Chicago for Spree and BuffaloSpree.com, and watching festival entries from my sofa was rather wonderful. Plus, BIFF’s strong 2020 lineup included Dark Alley Drive-In screenings of local legend Addison Henderson’s latest, Givers of Death (GOD), as well as Buffalo State professor Meg Knowles’ Runaway.

In other words, despite some geoblocking, film fans in Western New York have had opportunities to experience new films from home. So, what’s next? How about creating your own mini-festival? It is surprisingly easy, and certainly worth more of your time than another round of My 1,000 Pound Life. There are enough Buffalo-set and Buffalo-shot entries, some recent and some older, to put you in the role of curator. 

But first, let’s establish some ground rules:

No Buffalo 66. I adore Vincent Gallo’s grimy love story. However, I’ve seen it plenty, and I’m guessing many of you have, as well. 

Sorry, The Natural—you’re out, too. See above, minus “Vincent Gallo” and “grimy.”

No Niagara. The 1950s Marilyn Monroe vehicle was famously shot in Niagara Falls, Ontario, which is noteworthy. But the film itself is not very good, and there are fresher ways to spend your movie-watching time. 

Understand that you might need to spend a few bucks to rent certain titles. A few of the titles on this list of Buffalo-centric cinema are available for free on streaming services, if you are a subscriber. Considering how much you’ve likely saved on movie tickets, dropping less than $5 on a rental does not sound so bad.

Without further ado, let’s get to the list. 

Clover (2020)

Early in the pandemic, the crime drama Clover was available for virtual rental. It came and went quickly, which was no surprise; Clover is no gem. Yet for WNYers, the film is worthy. Why? Because director/co-star Jon Abrahams is practically an honorary Buffalonian at this point. Like his first film as a director, post-9/11 drama All at Once, Abrahams shot the film in Buffalo. Unlike All at Once (which, it should be noted, is available to stream for free on Amazon Prime), Clover is set in Buffalo, as well. Spotting real locations— Voelker’s, the Central Terminal, Delta Sonic— is actually more engaging than its story of two ne’er-do-well brothers in debt to a gangster. And that’s enough for a recommendation. (Read my Buffalo News review of the film.)

Where to watch: Rent for $3.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV.

Buffaloed (2020)

Ahhh, Buffaloed. The debt collection comedy drew some major buzz upon release early in 2020 for the killer performance of its star, Zoey Deutch. That praise was more than deserving. The film itself, though, is a slog. Set in Buffalo but shot in Toronto, Buffaloed painfully strives to prove its Buffalo-ness, but it’s mostly embarrassing. (A courtroom sequence in which a judge asks Deutch whether she prefers Duff’s or Anchor Bar wings is particularly cringe-inducing.) OK, so is Buffaloed worth watching? Yes, for Deutch, and because even bad Buffalo films are of interest to us locals. 

Where to watch: Free on Hulu, rent for $2.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV.

Widow’s Point (2019)

The horror film starring Craig Sheffer was Buffalo-based filmmaker Gregory Lamberson’s most high-profile entry to date. It drew much praise from horror fans, and deservedly so. Interestingly, much of Point was shot at the Dunkirk Lighthouse. Very creepy, and very cool.

Where to watch: Rent for $3.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV.

Cold Brook (2019)

Spree has featured Cheektowaga native William Fichtner’s directorial debut in past issues. If you’ve not yet had a chance to watch the East Aurora-shot film about friendship and the scars of history, it is streaming free on Showtime. Like the other entries on this list, part of the fun is spotting locations like the Aurora Theatre.

Where to watch: Free on Showtime, rent for $2.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV.

Marshall (2017)

When Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman suddenly passed away in August, many Western New Yorkers shared stories of his kindness while shooting this Thurgood Marshall biopic in Buffalo. He gives a strong performance in a so-so film, and watching Marshall now is a reminder of his generational talent. 

Where to watch: Rent for $3.99 on Amazon, Google Play, or Apple TV.

Henry’s Crime (2010)

Yes, it seems like decades since Keanu Reeves was here in Western New York shooting this heist film. It’s adequate, at best, but now that Reeves is an even bigger star thanks to the John Wick series, it’s worth a rewatch. 

Where to watch: Free (with ads) on Crackle and Tubi, rent for $3.99 on Apple TV.

Hide in Plain Sight (1980)

One of the most enjoyable accounts on Twitter belongs to none other than the great James Caan (@James_Caan). A few months back, he shared the poster for the hard-hitting drama Hide in Plain Sight, a film he starred in and directed. It’s a strong film, one with a rep that has grown through the years. 

Where to watch: Rent for $1.99 on Amazon, Google Play, or Apple TV.

BONUS PICKS: The American Side (2016) and Disappearance at Clifton Hill (2020)

Looking for two more films with local links that you may have missed? Locals Jenna Ricker and Greg Stuhr co-wrote the Niagara Falls-set mystery The American Side, which Ricker directed. And Disappearance at Clifton Hill is an interesting (albeit very flawed) mystery that makes fine use of the Hill’s unique locations and geography. 

Where to watch: American Side: Rent for $2.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV. Clifton Hill: Free on Hulu, rent for $3.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV.

One final suggestions for your fest: now that local theaters have reopened, you can swing by for some concessions. Buy some legit movie theater popcorn, nestle in, and enjoy your Buffalo film festival. 

Read original piece on BuffaloSpree.com.

A HYBRID FILM FESTIVAL PULLS IT OFF: TIFF20 moves from King Street to sofa

The day before the start of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), my LEGO-obsessed ten-year-old built me a mini version of a TIFF landmark, the giant orange letters stationed on King Street that read “tiff.” (Period included.) It was a meaningful creation, since, for the first time in my fourteen years covering the annual festival, I would not be crossing the border. In fact, I would be experiencing TIFF20 from my sofa. 

After months of wondering how TIFF would manage to mount a festival in the year of COVID-19—and after the cancellation of Cannes and Telluride—a hybrid festival was announced. For members of the press (like yours truly), the festival would be digital only. And the many Americans, some from Buffalo, who attend each year were out of luck, since public screenings were geoblocked to Canada. After these details were settled, TIFF20 finally took place from September 10 to 20.

The process was, shall we say, not easy. And once the festival began, there were other issues. In a provocative piece for Seventh Row (seventh-row.com), a noteworthy film site, writer Alex Heeney analyzed “the shortcomings” of TIFF20: “TIFF has doubled down on what it’s always done, which now means offering a watered down version of the festival. Most years, TIFF has programmed upwards of 300 films, including shorts and features, while, this year, it limited its selection to just 50 features and just 5 short film programmes,” Heeney wrote. “In practice, accessing the festival this year has been even more challenging than past years, in what has proved one (avoidable) PR nightmare after another for the festival—from refusing access to the festival for marginalized critics, to sticking with the (in my opinion, misguided) Ontario recommendations for mask use in cinemas (not mandatory). (Both policies have since been reversed, at least somewhat, though not before TIFF was publicly embarrassed.)”

Having watched nearly thirty TIFF20 films and participating in the online, “Film Twitter” discourse surrounding the festival, I cannot disagree with many of those points. I was sad for my fellow critics who were unable to gain accreditation this year. I was also disappointed for the American moviegoers who travel to Toronto annually for a film fest experience like no other. And, if I’m being honest, I was sad for myself, since attending TIFF is one of my favorite annual experiences.

Yet, it would have been impossible to pull off a festival during a pandemic without a hitch. Cultural institutions are facing unprecedented challenges, and, for an organization that depends on thousands of paying attendees annually, the effects could have been catastrophic. Can film festivals recover? Can the act of moviegoing recover? These are legitimate, unanswerable questions. 

What I can say is that TIFF20, while unlike any other in festival history, had its share of highlights. Yes, there were things that went wrong. But there were a whole lotta things that went right:

The digital screener platform was flawless. This “reimagined” version of the Toronto International Film Festival did include some in-person screenings for Canadian audiences, at venues like the TIFF Bell Lightbox and, uniquely, several drive-in locations. For most audience members (and all press), however, TIFF was experienced via a new digital platform. For this critic, it worked beautifully. The platform was easy to use, never took longer than a few seconds to load, and errors only occurred if a film was paused for hours. Every selection had a forty-eight-hour viewing window, and that made timing a little tricky. But the digital experience itself could not have been smoother. 

The reunions and chats were thoughtful and resonant. One of the most noteworthy elements of TIFF is that it draws a banner collection of stars, which, in turn, draws lots of fans and photographers. Well, that was all out the window in 2020. Instead, festival organizers went with a nice mix of virtual reunions (including Lady BirdRoom, and, most excitingly, Full Metal Jacket) and conversations between folks like Denzel Washington and Barry Levinson, and Claire Denis and Barry Jenkins. They were compelling for both die-hard cinephiles and average movie fans. Plus, a number of TIFF Tribute Awards were presented to folks like Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mira Nair, and Chloe Zhao during an entertaining live-streamed ceremony. 

And the films? Yes, there were some gems. While some distributors like A24 opted against bringing films to TIFF, and the number of entries fell by, oh, 200, the festival lineup was surprisingly strong. Opening night featured David Byrne’s American Utopia, a Spike Lee-directed documentary of the former Talking Heads frontman’s Broadway show. It did not disappoint; Utopia might be the greatest concert film since Stop Making Sense—electrifying, funny, and genuinely moving. The Father, a stunning exploration of dementia, featured award-worthy turns from Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Zhao’s extraordinary Nomadland, a timely study of nomad life starring Frances McDormand, was an audience and critical favorite. And the documentary No Ordinary Man was a breathtaking look at trans representation. 

Powerful smaller films to watch for in the months to come include Wolfwalkers, a magical animation treat set in seventeenth century Ireland; New Order, a morally complex, astoundingly chaotic tale of rich-vs.-poor violence in Mexico; Limbo, a warm-hearted but somber portrait of a Syrian refugee in Scotland; Violation, an upsetting, fascinating non-linear revenge thriller; and a harrowing drama set during the Bosnian genocide called Quo Vadis, Aida?

So … what’s next? The real question, of course, is what any of this means for the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. The obvious answer: who knows? The only known, for me, is this: I went from experiencing TIFF at home to experiencing the 2020 New York Film Festival at home, as an accredited member of the press. Yes, more festival selections on my sofa, while petting my dog, after the kids are asleep. That opportunity may never come again. Even though it was impossible not to miss the energizing feeling of TIFF on-ground in Toronto, I feel thankful to have had the opportunity to watch, ponder, and talk TIFF from home. I can’t imagine 2021 will look like 2020. But whatever form it takes, I’ll be there.

Check out Christopher Schobert’s reviews of TIFF20 entries Akilla’s EscapeThe Best Is Yet to ComeUnder the Open SkyShiva BabySummer of 85Concrete Cowboy, and Spring Blossom on thefilmstage.com

Read original piece on BuffaloSpree.com.

2020 AFI FILM FEST AND CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL RUNDOWN

Following the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, my fall of virtual festivals continued in October with the Los Angeles-based AFI Fest and the Chicago International Film Festival. Both experiences were extraordinarily enjoyable. Having seen many of the season’s “biggies” at the Toronto and New York fests, I tried to spend as much time as I could on international fare and more obscure entries.

Here are the results: 

AFI FEST 

Out of the Blue: A

For me, this restoration of Dennis Hopper’s 1980 drama was the highlight of the festival — and one of the cinematic highlights of this year. It is, I believe, Hopper’s masterpiece as a director. (Yes, I’d place it above Easy Rider.) The incomparable Linda Manz plays a punk-loving teen whose father, played by Hopper, is an alcoholic fresh out of prison. Their relationship is disturbingly complex, and so is the film.

The Sound of Metal: A-

I had been hearing about this one ever since the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and my goodness, the buzz was warranted. Riz Ahmed is note-perfect as a drummer rapidly losing his hearing, and he is almost matched by Olivia Cooke. Sad, moving, and unforgettable, Metal is one of 2020’s best.

76 Days: A-

76 Days plunges us directly into the scene at a hospital in China at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — and I mean directly. It is a stunning documentary, and a vitally important one that hammers home the terror of the pandemic in profoundly memorable fashion. Expect to hear plenty about this one in the next few months.

Nine Days: B+

While it does not quite stick the landing, Nine Days is a widely original, vividly soulful sci-fi film anchored by Winston Duke. He gives one of the year’s finest performances in first-time filmmaker Edson Oda’s bold and provocative Sundance hit.

Collective: B+

A gripping, twisty documentary about a tragedy that was unknown to me: the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania. The footage of the fire itself is harrowing, but even footage of evasive press conferences and newsroom meetings is enthralling in Collective.

Wildland: B+

From my review for The Film Stage: “Wildland undoubtedly does not present us with anything particularly new; this is a film in which a character actually utters the line, ‘You don’t rat on family!’ What director Jeanette Nordahl does present, though, is a harshly memorable family dynamic. It feels like the pilot to a gripping crime series, one with richly drawn characters and riveting violence.”

There Is No Evil: B+

There is much to be impressed with in this four-part drama from Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who was famously banned in his homeland. All four stories are centered around capital punishment. I found the first half to be more emotionally involving than the second. Even so, it is a complex, thoughtful anthology that deserves to be seen worldwide 

Citizen Penn: B

There is nothing special about this documentary exploring actor Sean Penn’s noteworthy humanitarian efforts, yet it’s mostly engrossing. And Penn’s efforts truly deserve this spotlight.

My Donkey, My Lover & I: B

My AFI Fest experience came to a close with this charming romantic comedy about a woman who follows her married lover on a mountain vacation. Bubbly and sweet, with a lovely performance by Laure Calamy.

My Little Sister: B

Like Miller in Wander DarklyPhoenix star Nina Hoss makes My Little Sister worth watching. She excels as a wife and mother whose brother (played by Lars Eidinger) is dying of cancer.

Belushi: B-

This clip-heavy documentary is undeniably fascinating; how could a film about John Belushi not be fascinating? Yet anyone who has read about the comedian’s life will find little that is surprising. Still, there is some previously unseen archival footage that makes the doc a must-see for SNL fans.

Jumbo: C+

Portrait of a Lady on Fire standout Noémie Merlant enchants again in this strange comedy about a woman who falls in love with a ferris wheel is never as enjoyable as it should be. Still, there are a few charmingly offbeat moments to enjoy.

Wander Darkly: C+

There is one reason, above all others, to see this drama about a couple whose life is upturned by an accident, and leaves them … well, you’ll see. That reason is Sienna Miller, who once again excels as a woman attempting to grapple with a surreal new reality. The similarly consistent but underrated Diego Luna costars.

Uncle Frank: C

Six Feet Under mastermind Alan Ball’s latest is another disappointment, and a waste of a wonderful cast. The acting from Paul Bettany and company is strong, but the script is mawkish and never surprises 

The Intruder: C-

From my review for The Film Stage: “On paper, Natalia Meta’s film promises wicked, wild supernatural warfare. The reality is something far more disappointing––and sadly, rather dull. Still, this Argentina-set thriller has offbeat humor to spare, and some legitimately clever moments.”

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Sweat: B+

I was pleased to see Magnus von Horn’s film about a social media celebrity and fitness guru take home the festival’s Gold Hugo Award. It is an unexpectedly resonant tale, and features a truly award-worthy lead performance from Magdalena Koleśnik. The final stretch, which involves a stalker and a long-awaited TV appearance, is riveting.

Dear Comrades!: B+

Set in 1962 Moscow and beautifully shot in black and white, Andrei Konchalovsky’s drama masterfully blends dark humor and grim violence. This is a memorable, humanistic look at an important event in European history.

Gaza Mon Amour: B+

The latest from Tarzan and Arab Nasser is a sweet, funny festival entry about an aging Palestinian fisherman, the dressmaker he longs for, and a statue of Apollo. (Yep.) It’s a delightfully unpredictable film.

The Columnist: B

“Don’t read the comments” is a key line in this black comedy about a newspaper columnist who goes Serial Mom on her angry commenters. There is some juicy fun here, but the darker it gets, the less effective it feels. Star Katja Herbers is a delight.

Kubrick by Kubrick: B

As a Stanley Kubrick die-hard, I was predictably intrigued by Gregory Monro’s documentary, which attempts to use the late master’s own words as much as possible. It is, of course, a pleasure to hear Kubrick talk Kubrick. Yet there is something lacking here. Much of the footage of others has been seen many times before. Fascinating? Yes. But not as fresh as a fan might hope.

Fireball: B

Werner Herzog continues his streak of strong documentaries with an exploration of the impact of meteorites. Clive Oppenheimer co-directs this interesting but unexceptional film.

The Dark and the Wicked: B

The latest from Bryan Bertino (The Stranger) is a grim, sober horror film that is surprisingly focused on aging more than jolts. Marin Ireland’s lead performance is a gem.

Careless Crime: B-

No film this festival season has a plot summary quite like this one: “A group of four men in modern-day Iran plot to burn down a movie theater, an act that replicates a historical tragedy that occurred 40 years prior, as society was teetering on revolution.” While it is certainly fascinating, it is also rather tedious and unsatisfying. Crime is a film to be respected, but very difficult to truly engage with.

Striding Into the Wind: B-

If Wei Shujun’s tale of aimless youths in China was, um, a bit shorter, would it rank as a coming-of-age comedy-drama to remember? Perhaps. But at 130 minutes it’s awfully tiresome.

Sleep: C

A nightmarish German thriller that alternates between fantasy and reality, Sleep is admirably weird but not successful.

Of Fish and Men: C

Director Stefanie Klemm’s Swiss thriller is a bit of an oddity, a film that often seems on the verge of success but can’t overcome its missteps. The greatest misstep is a character (you’ll know who) who ranks as one of the most obnoxious screw-ups in recent cinema.

Read the original piece on BuffaloSpree.com.

2020 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL ROUNDUP, FROM ALMODOVAR TO MICHELLE (PFEIFFER)

NYFF 2020

Thanks to COVID-19 — it feels weird saying that, but whatever — I was able to experience the New York Film Festival for the first time. Now, admittedly, there is a qualifier to that statement: I was able to virtually experience the New York Film Festival.

I watched a total of twenty films, twenty-one if I count a re-watch of Nomadland, which I watched at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks earlier. It was an almost uniformly stellar group. In fact, I was positive about all but one, the last film I watched. You’ll see it at the bottom of the list …

Lovers Rock/Mangrove/Red, White and Blue: A

The three full-length segments in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology that played NYFF were equally extraordinary. Each felt like its own self-contained piece, and yet all three shared traits and feelings. Lover’s Rock, the story of an all-night house party, is the most joyous of the three. Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, on the other hand, were often harrowing, and always bursting with tension. Each featured noteworthy performance, especially John Boyega in Red, White and Blue. Each was emotionally affecting. Each was, dare I say it, a masterpiece. McQueen, the director of Shame and 12 Years a Slave, has reached new heights. And the fact that there are still two more segments to enjoy when Small Axe begins streaming on Amazon Prime is genuinely exciting.

The Human Voice: A-

Pedro Almodovar’s short film starring Tilda Swinton and an adorable dog was shot during the pandemic. In fact, one might argue this is one of the great works of art made during COVID. Swinton unforgettably plays a woman whose life is in a tailspin following the end of a relationship. The only real criticism of this adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play is that it is just thirty minutes long.

The Disciple: B+

Chaitanya Tamhane’s film about a Indian musician dealing with the expectations and disillusionment earned raves at both TIFF and NYFF. It was warranted. This is one of the most astute films about artistic failure in recent memory.

MLK/FBI: B+

This hard-hitting documentary from Sam Pollard explores the FBI’s unceasing surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a moving and upsetting film, especially the elements touching in King’s assassination.

The Plastic House: B+

From my review for The Film Stage: “The Plastic House is a largely quiet film, one drenched in emotion but never outwardly melodramatic. Often dialogue-free, plotless, and running just 46 minutes, Plastic is a uniquely involving sensory experience.”

Days: B+

The latest from Tsai Ming-liang is a demanding, even rigorous viewing experience. Yet it is also a tremendously moving romance about two lost men. There is no one making films quite like the director of Goodbye, Dragon Inn. But those who are able to put in the time and deal with the pacing are hugely rewarded.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue: B+

No film at NYFF was more visually sumptuous than Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke’s documentary. A uniquely structured piece centered around past and present life in Shanxi province, Swimming is a powerful, fascinating creation that rivals the director’s fiction work.

Beginning: B+

No film I saw at NYFF led me to wrestle with my feelings quite like Beginning, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s story of a Jehova’s Witness wife and mother. There are scenes here of such sudden violence — and, also, simmering, slow-building tension — that I had to watch the film twice. I’m still not entirely certain how I feel. What I know, though, is that Beginning is stunningly powerful and extremely upsetting. Ultimately, I found myself returning to certain images and scenes, and even weeks later, I cannot stop pondering this one.

City Hall: B

Either you embrace the films of Frederick Wiseman or you do not. Yes, they are long (City Hall is four hours long), and delve into the types of minutiae many of us never experience otherwise. But City Hall, a look at Boston city politics from the inside, is a rewarding experience. Not an easy one, but certainly worth it.

The Woman Who Ran: B

As usual, the latest from Hong Sansoo is an involving, often very funny character study. And while this story of a woman visiting a series of friends is ideal for in-home viewing, its final moments make the viewer long for a return to the theatrical moviegoing experience.

Tragic Jungle: B

Perhaps “rollicking” is not the right word, but Jungle certainly has that feel. It is set in a Mayan rainforest in the 1920s and, despite some missteps, nearly pulls off a mix of adventure and mystery. This is the fifth film from Mexican director Yulene Olaizola, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

NotturnoB

Gianfranco Rosi’s anti-war documentary is somber and unsettling. The narrative jumps from person to person lessens the impact, but this is certainly an important film — at times, even a haunting one.

IsabellaB

This loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure by Measure is smart, fanciful, and beautifully made.

The Monopoly of ViolenceB

From my review for The Film Stage: “A note just before the end credits salutes the brave individuals who managed to shoot video during these moments of chaos. It is this footage that makes The Monopoly of Violence a work of tangible, visceral power.”

I Carry You With MeB-

It is understandable why Heidi Ewing’s docudrama is drawing raves; this is a beautiful, epic romance about two men who fall in love in Mexico and make the difficult decision to travel to the U.S. Yet for me, the second half, featuring the real characters on which the film is based, felt forced.

The Truffle Hunters: B-

This French documentary is perfectly pleasant, yet unremarkable. It is far too oh-these-wacky-folks (and their faithful dogs) and not enough exploration of why truffle-hunting is a pastime. Still, it is entertaining, to be sure.

The Salt of Tears: B-

Philippe Garrel’s latest black-and-white tale of doomed love is nothing special, yet feels a bit more fresh than some of his recent efforts.

French Exit: C

This story of privileged (but downward-spiraling) Manhattanites was, for me, a disappointment. It is an oddity, to be sure, and some will find its tart-tongued script appealing. I found it overly sour and never particularly involving, despite the best efforts of a game cast. Michelle Pfeiffer gives her finest performance in years as widowed heiress Frances Price; I hope she’s remembered come Oscar time for her marvelous work.

Read the original piece on BuffaloSpree.com.