The TIFF17 countdown is on (for BuffaloSpree.com)

Yes, TIFF17 is fast approaching … I pondered the first batch of announcements for BuffaloSpree.com.

A tell-tale sign that summer is preparing for closure is the first batch of Toronto International Film Festival (running from September 7 to 17) announcements. Those came on July 25, as head honchos Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey ran through a group of TIFF17 gala and special presentation selections. It was a strong group, to be sure, and featured many titles announced days later for the Venice Film Festival.

But questions still remain. Such as…

What’s going to be the opening night film? This was indeed a surprise, as the opening night selection is always newsworthy. Some have been good (Dead Ringers, The Sweet Hereafter), some have been meh (Demolition, The Judge), some have been bad (The Fifth Estate), and some have been crimes against humanity (Score! The Hockey Musical). The assembled press at the July 25 press conference certainly seemed surprised. [UPDATE: It’s tennis drama Borg/McEnroe.]

Does this mean the opening night film will be Canadian? Most likely. Bailey said the announcement would come in mid-August, and the Canadian press conference is set for August 9. That could mean Montreal native Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. Its starry cast — Jessica Chastain, Kit Harrington, Natalie Portman — seems perfect for an opener.

Is there ANY chance Blade Runner 2049 still makes the lineup? Probably not. For weeks, there had been (possibly unfounded) Twitter buzz that the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner could be the festival opener. After all, director Denis Villeneuve is Canadian and a TIFF veteran. (Last year he came with the well-received Arrival.) Star Ryan Gosling is Canadian and a TIFF veteran. (Last year he came with the super-duper-well-received La La Land.) Plus, the timing seemed to make sense; the film opens on October 4. But it wasn’t announced for TIFF or Venice. The New York Film Festival is possible, but perhaps Warner Bros. decided to keep this one secret until right before its release date.

Is there a La La Land or Moonlight in the mix? Really, that question is asking if there is a soon-to-be cross-cultural smash, a critical success that also enchants audiences worldwide. There’s no way of knowing, of course. But a few titles that could fit the bill are Battle of the Sexes, about the legendary tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King; Andy Serkis’s Breathe, about a couple facing a devastating disease; and Stronger, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman.

Is it worth seeing Darren Aronofsky’s mother! when the film is set to open just days later? Maybe! Aronofsky’s annoyingly titled Jennifer Lawrence-starrer is one of the most mysterious majors debuting at the fall festivals. But it opens on September 15 … before the end of TIFF. Personally, I’m not sure I can pass up the chance to see mother! a few days early … even if it’s a waste of TIFF time.

Will there be a dry eye in the Lightbox at the end of Tragically Hip documentary Long Time Running? That’s unlikely. The gala debut of the film chronicling the Hip’s farewell 2016 tour will be one the festival’s hottest tickets.

Answers to these questions will arrive very soon. Watch buffalospree.com for more updates, and follow me on Twitter at @FilmSwoon.com.

 

Still from Long Time Running courtesy of TIFF.

A TIFF16 round-up (for BuffaloSpree.com)

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I wrote this round-up of my time at TIFF16 for BuffaloSpree.com. Note that my suspicions about La La Land taking the People’s Choice Award were indeed correct.

For me, the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival is over. But TIFF16 actually runs through Sunday, the day we’ll discover which film has won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award. (My money is on La La Land.)

There is plenty more to come from me on the festival, including a feature in the November Spree. But in the meantime, here’s a brief ranking of the 26 TIFF entries I saw during or before the festival. You’re going to hear a lot more about Jackie, Manchester by the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, Moonlight, American Honey, Toni Erdmann, Elle, and Arrival in the months to come. Without further ado, my TIFF16 ranking:

  1. Jackie
  2. Manchester by the Sea
  3. Nocturnal Animals
  4. Moonlight
  5. American Honey
  6. Personal Shopper
  7. Toni Erdmann
  8. Una
  9. Elle
  10. Arrival
  11. Lady Macbeth
  12. Werewolf
  13. The Birth of a Nation
  14. We Are Never Alone
  15. Clair Obscur
  16. City of Tiny Lights
  17. Dog Eat Dog
  18. Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey
  19. A Monster Calls
  20. Trespass Against Us
  21. Marija
  22. Past Life
  23. Little Wing
  24. Le Ciel Flamand
  25. Pyromaniac
  26. In the Blood

One film to call attention to is Lady Macbeth. Part of TIFF’s Platform series, the film is a shockingly dark period piece about a young woman in a passionless marriage. What follows involves sex, murder, and some stunning set pieces, all centered on a killer performance from star Florence Pugh. Happily, the film was bought by distributor Roadside Attractions during the festival and will be released in 2017.

A quieter film than many of the festival biggies, Lady Macbeth is the perfect festival find. Keep it on your radar.

From the April Spree: BNFF, Brando, Brazil, Holzman, and Hot Docs

TIFF Kids International Film Festival; PHOTO COURTESY OF TIFF

TIFF Kids International Film Festival; PHOTO COURTESY OF TIFF

I just realized my Coming Attractions column in the May Buffalo Spree will be posted on BuffaloSpree.com in a few days, and I’ve not posted my April column. There are still a few days left this month to enjoy these screenings, so take a look.

April was once considered a quiet time before the summer movie season, but it’s now the launch pad for dull fare like Fast Five and Captain America: Winter Solider. This year is no exception, with Disney’s live-action Jungle Book and a ho-hum quasi-sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman set to drop. Happily, it’s also busy with cinema series, screenings, and even film festivals, in WNY and beyond.

Buffalo Niagara International Film Festival (BNFF): 

Local festivals come and go, but Bill Cowell’s Buffalo Niagara International Film Festival—along with its eclectic approach—is a survivor. This year, there are over 100 features, documentaries, and shorts from Western New York and around the world, as well as workshops, a comic-con day, and a fallen soldier commemoration featuring portraits by Kaziah Hancock. Special premieres include Stanley Isaacs’ new documentary, It’s Always About the Story: Conversations With Alan Ladd Jr. (producer of BraveheartThe Man in the Iron Mask, and Gone Baby Gone) and a twenty-year reunion premiere of Larry Bishop’s Mad Dog Time(starring Diane Lane, Burt Reynolds, Richard Dreyfuss, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Gabriel Byrne, Billy Idol, Rob Reiner, among others).

April 1–2 at Barton Hill Hotel & Spa, Lewiston; April 13–17 at the Tonawanda Castle (check thebnff.com or call 693-0912 for times and information)

Kid-Friendly Classic Film Series: Dipson Theatres began its family film series in February with a heavyweight (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), and starts April with two underrated gems, A Little Princess (Apr. 2) and The Iron Giant (Apr. 9). Two more high-profile affairs follow in Shrek (Apr. 16) and School of Rock (Apr. 23), and the month finishes with Wes Anderson’s delightful Roald Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr. Fox (Apr. 30). While some might quibble with the “classic” label on a few of these (Rango and The Lorax are classics?), it’s an affordable—just $4—Saturday morning option.

10 a.m. at the Dipson Eastern Hills Cinema, 4545 Transit Rd., Williamsville; dipsontheatres.com 

Kaleidotropes—David Holzman’s Diary: My days as a media study major at the University at Buffalo opened up to me an entire world of film (and video) art, and few of these made a greater impact on me than David Holzman’s Diary. Jim McBride’s 1967 satirical mockumentary still packs a dark comic punch. Diary is a perfect pick for Squeaky Wheel’s fab Kaleidotropes series.

7 p.m. on Apr. 27 at Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Arts Center, 617 Main St.; squeaky.org

Buffalo Film Seminars: Is this the best month in Buffalo Film Seminars history? It’s possible. The opportunity to see Spike Lee’s epic Malcolm X (Apr. 5), the stunning Waltz With Bashir (Apr. 19), and Michael Haneke’s devastating Amour (Apr. 26) in the company of Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian is hard to pass up. But the real treat is Beau Travail (Apr. 12), an adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd from the great Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum, Bastards). A tale of sexual repression among soldiers in the French Foreign Legion, Beau Travail features one of the great endings in cinema history, actor Denis Lavant’s solo dance to Eurodance thumper “Rhythm of the Night.” The discussion after this one should be fascinating.

7 p.m. at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main. St.; csac.buffalo.edu/bfs.html

Burchfield Penney Art Center: BPAC’s ambitious (and free) “History of Terrorism” banner begins April with one of the best of 2002, Fernando Meirelles’s City of God (Apr. 7). It’s a brutal, unforgettable film that interweaves several stories involving organized crime among young gangs in 1970s Brazil. Netflix drama Narcos and 2010 Mexican drama El Infierno follow on Apr. 21 and 28, respectively. Plus, this month the Beyond Boundaries: Dare to be Diverse Film Series features Up Heartbreak Hill (Apr. 14), a documentary about one year in the lives of three Native American teens.

6:30 p.m.; 1300 Elmwood Ave.; burchfieldpenney.org

TCM Big Screen Classics—On the Waterfront: The Marlon Brando documentary Listen to Me Marlon was one of 2015’s most acclaimed. Watch it, and then experience his still-stunning performance as dockworker Terry Malloy as Turner Classic Movies presents Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront.

2 and 7 p.m. on Apr. 24 and 27 at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Ave., and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Rd., Williamsville; fathomevents.com

TIFF Kids International Film Festival: The annual Toronto International Film Festival is a cinephile must each September, and the TIFF Kids International Film Festival is a fun offshoot. Last year, the fest featured greats like When Marnie Was There and Shaun the Sheep; check tiff.net for upcoming news on the nineteenth annual installment.

Apr. 8-24; details TBA; tiff.net

Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road: While April sees a number of real gems gracing WNY screens, I don’t think anything tops the Wim Wenders retrospective hitting the Dipson Amherst Theatre. The prolific German filmmaker has been creating fascinating films since the seventies, and this four-film series features several of his most important works. Starting with 1976’s Kings of the Road (7 p.m., Apr. 7), the series continues with the great Harry Dean Stanton-starrer Paris, Texas (7 p.m., Apr. 14) and the gorgeous Wings of Desire (7 p.m., Apr. 21). The final screening is downright newsworthy. The five-hour director’s cut of 1991’s Until the End of the World (12:30 p.m., May 1) has been rarely seen, and is considered a drastic improvement over the 158-version released to theaters. In any form, World is one of his most ambitious efforts, but the director’s cut of this a globe-trotting tale set in 1999 is a cinephile must-see.

Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main. St.; dipsontheatres.com

Cultivate Cinema Circle: The spring season for the Cultivate Cinema Circle series features some real gems, including Jacques Demy’s perfect 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort and Werner Herzog’s latest documentary. On April 16, the series features director Brandon Loper’s “love letter to, and meditation on, specialty coffee,” A Film About Coffee. The free screening is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Mason O. Damon Auditorium at the Buffalo Central Library. It’s the first film of CCC’s Public Espresso-themed trilogy about coffee and Constructivism. Next up is I Am Belfast, at 9:30 p.m. on April 28 at the North Park Theatre. Tickets for Mark Cousins’ film about Northern Ireland’s capital are $9.50. Note that the film was shot by frequent Wong Kar-wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle. That means Belfast is most certainly a visual stunner.

cultivatecinemacircle.com

North Park Theatre: Leave it to the North Park to find new ways to top itself. One of the theater’s delights is its ongoing Family Matinee Series, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki (director of animated classics My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away) have been highlights. One of the Studio Ghibli legend’s strangest and most fascinating efforts, Porco Rosso, screens at 11:30 a.m. on April 2 and 3. Yes, the film is centered on an anthropomorphic pig. But this is Miyazaki, so the results are unimaginably glorious. And at 7 p.m. on April 22 the North Park hosts the world premiere of The American Side, the Buffalo- and Niagara Falls-shot film directed by Jenna Ricker. (She co-wrote Side with Greg Stuhr.) It stars Matthew Broderick, Janeane Garofalo, and Robert Forster.

1428 Hertel Ave.; northparktheatre.org

The Screening Room: It’s a month of pleasures at Amherst’s Screening Room, and it all starts with The Fly—the original, from 1958—at 7:30 p.m. on April 1, 2, 3, and 5. Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder is set for 7:30 p.m. on April 8, 9, 12, 14, 15, and 16. Back to the Future recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, and screens at 7:30 p.m. on April 13 and 17. Also this month is some horror, featuring the local film Johnny Revolting vs. the Undead, at 5 p.m. on April 3; some zaniness, with Don Knotts and Tim Conway in The Private Eyes on April 23, 26, and 29; and director from Stratford, some Shakespeare, with Hamlet screening on April 28 and 30.

3131 Sheridan Dr., Amherst; screeningroom.net

Riviera Theatre: There’s something for everyone—literally—at the Riviera in April. First is the wonderful seventh film in the Skywalker saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens at 8 p.m. on April 1. The beloved (by some) Bette Midler tearjerker Beaches is next, at 7:30 p.m. on April 14. The Riviera’s Family Film Series presents The Land Before Time on April 17 and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on April 24. Both films screen at 2 p.m. Lastly, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is set for 7:30 p.m. on April 28.

67 Webster St., N.Tonawanda; rivieratheatre.org

Also screening this month …

  • The Shea’s Free Family Film Series presents 2003’s handsome, unjustly forgotten Peter Pan, starring Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook. (2 p.m. at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.; sheas.org)
  • The Roycroft Film Society screens Bong Joon-ho’s dark South Korean drama Mother. (4 p.m. on Apr. 10 at Parkdale Elementary School, 141 Girard Ave., East Aurora; roycroftcampuscorp.com)
  • The Dipson Amherst Theatre presents the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Don Quixote and the Royal Opera House’s production of Puccini’s Tosca on the big screen. (Quixote: 12:55 p.m. on Apr. 10; Tosca: 11 a.m. on Apr. 24; at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main. St.; dipsontheatres.com)
  • Toronto’s Hot Docs is North America’s largest documentary festival. (Apr. 28-May 8; details TBA;hotdocs.ca)
  • The Rochester International Film Festival features short films from around the world. (Apr. 14-16 at the Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House International Museum of Film and Photography, Rochester;rochesterfilmfest.org)

‘Clouds of Sils Maria’: Olivier Assayas’s latest is a masterpiece

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Months after seeing it at TIFF, I was thrilled to have the chance to review “Clouds of Sils Maria” for the Buffalo News. Here is my four-star review.

The mysterious, wondrous “Clouds of Sils Maria” finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers.

Surprised to see “Twilight” mega-star Stewart’s name in that company? Don’t be. While some scoff at her talk show appearances and vampire flicks, she has proven herself a more than capable performer in films like “Adventureland,” “The Runaways” and “Still Alice.”

But you have never seen her be as compelling, as enigmatic and as utterly relatable as she is in “Clouds of Sils Maria.” This performance deservedly earned her a Cesar Award (the French Oscars) for Best Supporting Actress, making Stewart the first American actress to win the award.

As Valentine, the cocky, wise-beyond-her-years assistant to a veteran actress, Stewart squares off with confidence against heavyweight co-star Binoche, whose Maria Enders is finding herself at a personal and professional crossroads.

As “Sils Maria” opens, Enders is on her way to present an award to her mentor, the author of a play (titled “Maloja Snake”) about the tragic relationships between a young upstart, Sigrid, and an older, successful businesswoman, Helena. She played Sigrid on stage and screen 20 years earlier, and the role made her a star.

Ironically, a hotshot director has asked Enders to star in a new stage version of “Maloja,” but as Helena. She is reluctant, but the death of the playwright causes her to reconsider.

To prepare, Enders, with the iPhone-and-BlackBerry-juggling Valentine in tow, decamps to the playwright’s home in Sils Maria, Switzerland. The duo begins a series of read-throughs and complex discussions about the play that seem to mirror their own relationship.

Soon, Enders learns who will star in the role she played to great acclaim two decades earlier. Enter Jo-Ann Ellis, a Lindsay Lohan-esque, recently sober drama queen played with winking relish by Chloë Grace Moretz.

She and Ellis meet, controversy about the young starlet makes international news, and Enders is forced to confront the harsh realities of life as a fading star. Throughout, she and Valentine continue to face off with increasing discomfort, and the line between script and reality blurs.

It all concludes with a series of strange, unsettling scenes against the stunning Swiss landscape. The film’s ambiguity may be problematic for some, but even viewers who expect a tidy conclusion should be swept up by the enchanting performances of Binoche and Stewart.

For Binoche, Maria Enders is an ideal role, and she brings to it the same combustible verve that made her work in such films as Krzysztof Kielowski’s “Blue,” Michael Haneke’s “Caché,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy” and Leos Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge” so memorable.

The real revelation here, however, is Stewart. Hers is the most down-to-earth character on screen, and what resonates most strongly is her simultaneous confidence and vulnerability.

The depth and subtlety of this performance matches the assured direction of Olivier Assayas. “Sils Maria” certainly cements Assayas’ status as one of the preeminent filmmakers of his generation.

Consider that in recent years he has successfully helmed a multicharacter family drama (“Summer Hours”), crafted a TV miniseries about terrorist Carlos the Jackal (“Carlos”), and tackled a swirling, music-laden drama about the passions and politics of French students in the late ’60s and early ’70s, “Something in the Air.”

Four films, four masterpieces. And in its attention to character development and simmering emotional complexity, “Clouds of Sils Maria” is the best of the lot.

At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where “Clouds” made its North American debut, Assayas called the drama “a reflection on the past,” one written as an homage to Binoche. As Maria states near film’s end, “I think I’m lost in my memories.”

Rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human. And rarely has one film featured performances as strong as those of Binoche and Stewart. Both deserve to be remembered when Oscar talk swirls.

An interview with director Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy)

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As I have told to anyone who will listen, The Duke of Burgundy was my favorite film at TIFF14. That’s why I jumped at the chance to interview director Peter Strickland for The Film Stage. Here’s our chat.

Perhaps it’s premature to call The Duke of Burgundy the best film of 2015 — it is, after all, only January — but tell that to anyone who has seen the film, and they’ll likely nod in agreement. Director Peter Strickland’s visually sumptuous, aesthetically sublime study of role-playing and sadomasochism (but funny!) is a true stunner, and has mesmerized audiences at festivals in Toronto and London.

For Strickland, it is another utterly unique success. His first two features, 2009’s Katalin Varga and 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, showed him to be a winking master of elevated genre fare. Burgundy, however, is something else entirely. Infused with the spirit of ’70s sexploitation and influenced by everyone from Fassbinder to Brakhage, it is an experience like no other in recent memory. It also features two perfect performances from co-leads Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cynthia) and Chiara D’Anna (Evelyn) as lovers immersed in a relationship of role-playing and elaborate (controlled) deception.

Strickland spoke with us about audience reaction, his lack of interest in psychoanalyzing his characters, and why The Duke of Burgundy is a “party-pooper film.” Check out the full conversation below.

If a viewer reads a plot summary of this film, they might walk into it expecting something very different, perhaps far more serious. Yet there is so much humor here. How did you walk that fine line between highlighting the inherent humor of the situation and not going overboard?

I think humor just comes naturally in what I write, although perhaps not as much in my first film [Katalin Varga]. How do you tackle sadomasochism? If you’re too serious, you can fall flat on your face, and then it really does become a comedy — in a bad sense. If you’re too joke-y, then it’s too disrespectful and just doesn’t work. For me, it’s knowing when to laugh. It’s not my right to laugh at the characters — I wanted to give them some dignity. But I want to laugh at the situations. I’m not making a realistic film, but I am making one that’s pragmatic, which involves an element of things going wrong: The dominant woman misses her queue; there’s a mosquito in the room; the fear of being this dominant, cold ice queen, but also making sure you’re not hurting your lover. You can’t inquire how they are, or the fantasy is broken. So that whole trick is a conundrum. There’s a paradox, in that Evelyn wants to control how much she is controlled by Cynthia, but both of them are caught up in these paradoxes.

Something Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna capture so well is the monotony and occasional boredom of the dominant/submissive relationship. This is such a smart and very human approach to the material. Was capturing that element of the relationship one of your goals?

I think it is an element of puncturing that ideal that comes out in some films that explore sadomasochism. A lot of them want to prop up or live out the fantasy. This one wants to puncture the balloon — this is a party-pooper film. [For example, we] see a dominant woman miss her queue, and sleep in her pajamas. She doesn’t sleep in corsets or something; she’s going to sleep in baggy pajamas like anyone else would. It’s peeling away those masks, and showing the layers beneath. There are so many things you can cinematically explore the power dynamics in any relationship. But you can also explore the parallels between the character directing the action and the director directing the actors — Evelyn’s script, her mark tape on the floor, Evelyn looking through the keyhole, Evelyn directing Cynthia when she’s masturbating. [Then there is] Cynthia’s fear of performing, a fear that anyone would have. I’d hate to be an actor!

When the film starts, the audience finds it hard to tell who is actually in control — who is the dominant and who is the submissive. Were you trying to keep these details mysterious when we first meet Cynthia and Evelyn?

Absolutely. I was hoping that audience members who are not familiar with exploitation films would believe Cynthia is just this horrible boss. Another element of the audience, that is familiar with this type of genre film would think, “Okay, this is the classic set up for [1977’s] Ilsa, the Wicked Warden.” That kind of film is playing with this ideal of the masochist. Here, the paradigm hasn’t shifted, but your knowledge has shifted. It shifts later on because Cynthia gets a lot of mileage out of doing these things to Evelyn, but then it runs out, and she’s no longer into it. That’s the crux of the film, really. Had they both been into these games it would be quite boring. I wanted it to be that one of them doesn’t get off on it. The activity she has to do is not of any relevance; it could be any sexual activity she finds distasteful, or repellent. But what happens then, when you have two lovers who have very different ways of expressing themselves sexually and emotionally? How does that work? Can that work? I’m not one to answer that, but I am showing them struggling to find that common ground.

You avoid presenting any type of back story for these characters — no flashbacks to their pasts, or psychoanalyzing. Did you develop any kind of histories for these characters?

I really did not want to do that. I didn’t have any discussions with the actors, although I think Chiara wrote a whole essay on her character. But that was self-motivated. I didn’t want to make any links to childhood — [issues like] self-harming, I did not want to go there. Who knows why Rambo is heterosexual? That’s the way they are and that’s that. What’s interesting for me is the dynamic of how to navigate this relationship. This is who these people are. Right! Let’s get on to it. What happens? How do they resolve these things? If it is something outside of the border of consent, of course one looks into the childhood to find out why. Here, no matter how unusual it might be to some people, [the acts are] consensual. These are sane human beings, and they have a lot of trust.

So for me, I didn’t feel the need to look into their childhoods. Had one of them been an axe-wielding murderer, [we might] have a little peak into her past. I think sometimes you don’t know the “why.” With some killers, you find out about their childhood and it was absolutely fine. So it’s a roll of the dice. That’s a really scary, abstract thing to deal with. Not enough has been done on that, really. This is why I think We Need to Talk About Kevin could have been a better film. It was a good film, but had they shown the mother being full of love for the son, and then him going off the rails, it would have been far more shocking. If you give a reason for something it can be too simple. Real life isn’t like that. It’s far more abstract.

The chemistry between Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna is so strong; we feel as if these two characters have known each other for years. How did you develop that chemistry and believability?

With great difficulty. We didn’t have much time together. They landed in Hungary, and off we went. We had a social meeting the first time they met, but they were really thrown straight in. I didn’t want to have the intimate scenes at first; I saved those for the second week. I felt we should do the heavy, emotional, dramatic scenes first, where they’re arguing and bickering. That worked out quite well, because they were kind of finding their bearings. By the time we got to the second week they were quite relaxed. That is down to Sidse and Chiara, and their expertise as actors. I left a lot to them. Occasionally, rarely, if it was off-key, then I would mention it and say, “We need to go a different way.” But usually I just respected the fact that they read the script, we had a discussion, and off they go. My influence is on casting, and making sure I can have actors who have the ability to just get on with it. There’s no point talking for the sake of it. With Sidse, she has a whole inner world in her face — so expressive without it being too much. Really understated.

The time and setting here is very mysterious. Did you have a particular time or place in mind, or want to create something that was ambiguous? How does the all-female cast tie in here?

I wanted it to be ambiguous, like a fairy tale, or a fable. You’re not sure how the hell they got their money to have this ludicrously expensive mansion. Are they outside a village? Does a village not exist? I wanted a preposterous feel, so preposterous that hopefully you would stop questioning it. I think part of it was I also wanted to avoid the trappings of the subject. One thinks of a film that has sadomasochism and it usually involves leather whips, rubber, and so on, and I just thought that was too predictable. Why don’t we just go for something more gothic-fairy tale, and not use anything contemporary? Make it timeless in a tasteful way. I just love fairy tales, basically, and that’s the bottom line. I love that feeling of seeing things like Willy Wonka or Pinocchio and you don’t know where it is exactly. It’s somewhere middle Europe, roughly within a 50-year span.

What was interesting about having all females is that it stopped being a gay film. I have no issue with [that type of film] whatsoever; it’s purely that I didn’t want to go down the road of anything that’s been done before with the ideas of acceptance or redemption. I wanted there to be no counterpoint. Gender and sexuality doesn’t come into it in that sense. In my mind, it is this kind of Utopian world we all wish could be there in terms of acceptance. I thought about other options — a woman and a man, men only — but [I thought of the films] of Radley Metzger, which usually had female lovers. I was using the genre as a starting point.

The music by Cat’s Eyes, featuring Faris Badwan from the Horrors and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira, could not be more perfect.

I’m a massive fan. I bought their first album when it came out in 2011, and it was one of the best things I’d heard in years. The combination of Rachel’s classical background and Faris’s experimental rock’n’roll background [seemed to fit], so I asked if they would do it. I trusted them immensely. [At one point], Rachel wrote a requiem quickly. We had Mozart’s Requiem in there originally, and she said, “Oh, I’ll write something,” and wrote a whole requiem. They really elevated the film for me. I listen to the soundtrack a lot, which is quite rare. Usually, when you do a soundtrack of a film, no matter how much you like it, you’ve heard it to death. But I still listen to it.

Lastly, the film drew major raves after premiering at TIFF. Can you discuss the audience response? Has it surprised you at all?

No matter what you make or who you are, deep down, you have no idea how it’s going to turn out, so there’s extreme apprehension. Some people call [the subject matter] unusual, but for me, I think it’s a very straightforward drama. But even knowing it’s a drama, and fairly straight, I still felt apprehension. So I was relieved when people responded to it.

Not coming soon to a theater near you: ‘The Good Lie’

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A funny thing happened to “The Good Lie” on its way from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival to release in Buffalo: It disappeared. A public screening was held, but soon after, Warner Bros. yanked it from the studio’s release schedule. So sadly, my review of the film never ran in The Buffalo News. Here, in full, is my 3-star review.

There is something remarkable about “The Good Lie,” and it has to do with co-star Reese Witherspoon. The top half of the film’s poster features Witherspoon, wide-eyed, looking off into the distance with a smile on her face. Meanwhile, the actress appears in nearly two minutes of the film’s 2 minute, 30 second trailer.

What’s so remarkable about all that? Despite what the marketing campaign may have you believe, Witherspoon is not the star. In fact, she is the fourth lead in “The Good Lie,” a moving drama about three Sudanese refugees starting a new life in America.

They are the protagonists, and Witherspoon’s employment agency worker is merely a supporting player. Ponder that. Here is a major studio (Warner Bros.) star vehicle in which the three leads are played by Sudanese and Ugandan non-stars and the Heroic White Person is not the focus.

This crucial shift in perspective sets the film apart from well-intentioned but misguided dramas like “The Blind Side.” It also makes for a much stronger, more involving story.

As the film opens, a group of young children in the Sudan are forced to flee after their village is ripped apart by gunfire. Not all survive the seemingly endless walk over three countries, but at last, the four survivors arrive at a refugee camp, where they live among the thousands of displaced kids collectively referred to as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

Years pass, and young adults Mamere (British-Ugandan actor Arnold Oceng), Abital (Sudanese-American actress Kuoth Wiel), Jeremiah (Sudanese actor Ger Duany), and Paul (Sudanese actor Emmanuel Jal) long for the opportunity to relocate to the United States.

Finally, they are chosen, and told Kansas City will be their new home. However, the group’s joy is short-lived, as Abital instead must head to Boston. It’s a devastating moment for the foursome, and one of the film’s many examples of bureaucratic nonsense.

Now a trio, Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul continue their journey to Kansas City and are eventually met at the airport by a brash but good-humored employment agency worker, Carrie Davis, winningly played by Witherspoon.

She is taken aback by the sweet, good-natured group, and so is the audience. The performances of Oceng, Duany, and Jal are so winning, and so believable, that it is hard not to be charmed. They are unaware of telephones, McDonald’s, and pizza, and that is played for laughs — perhaps too many laughs, actually.

The film’s middle section focuses on the struggles Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul face in the working world, while also developing Witherspoon’s Carrie. Her compassion for the trio grows, and soon she is helping in their attempts to reunite with Abital.

“The Good Lie” ties things up a bit too neatly, moves past some of the struggles refugees face on a daily basis a little too quickly, and includes a few too many culture-shock jokes, but it is undeniably moving. The film’s final chunk, featuring a satisfying if not unsurprising twist, is particularly effective.

Director Philippe Falardeau’s somber 2012 drama “Monsieur Lazhar” received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and his follow-up is an ambitious one. He impressively juggles a large cast and locations on two continents, and manages to avoid the syrupy turns that can plague similarly ripped-from-the-headlines stories.

The lead trio is particularly strong, and Witherspoon, “House of Cards” vet Corey Stoll make the most of their supporting roles.

What is most impressive — and downright admirable — is that the film brings the story of Sudan’s Lost Boys to the masses from the Lost Boys’ perspective. It’s a story that must be told, and if it needs a Hollywood star and a happy ending to be palatable, so be it.

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

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 …

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

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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.