Yes, it’s almost time for TIFF16: Analyzing the first batch of announcements

La La Land; courtesy of TIFF

La La Land; courtesy of TIFF

TIFF16 is almost upon us … so I wrote about the festival’s first announcements for BuffaloSpree.com. The piece went live on July 27, hence the title, “42 days till TIFF16
Analyzing the first batch of Toronto Film Fest announcements.”

And we’re off … The fall festival season has begun. OK, it’s still July. But once the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) holds its introductory press conference, announcements begin to leak for fests in Venice and New York, and Telluride rumors begin, it’s clear the attention of cinephiles has moved on from summer cinema to autumn Oscar hopefuls.

TIFF15 was a fine festival, with highlights like eventual award winners Spotlight and Room, delights like Brooklyn and The Martian, and high-profile disappointments like Black Mass. At this point it’s too early to judge the TIFF16 lineup, especially since the eventual lineup will number around 300 (!).

Admittedly, the announcement of The Magnificent Seven as this year’s opening film is likely to disappoint all but the star-crazy folks who line up along King Street for a glimpse of celebrities. Antoine Fuqua’s remake of the 1960 western is an iffy proposition — the director’s last film was the justifiably forgotten The Equalizer— but it does star Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. The festival’s opening films are notoriously a mixed bag, but it’s especially hard to summon much enthusiasm for Seven.

Still, the list of forty-nine Special Presentations and nineteen Gala Presentations includes numerous highlights. Consider just a few of the films announced for this year’s festival, running from September 8 to 18:

  • La La Land: Director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash was one of 2014’s finest films. His hugely anticipated follow-up starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, La La Land, could not look more enticing. A musical set in modern Los Angeles, the film boasts one of the most striking trailers in ages.
  • Nocturnal Animals: Designer Tom Ford made a startling debut as a director with 2009’s A Single Man, and his second feature is ridiculously star-packed: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Michael Sheen. Intrigued? If not, try the plot summary: “[T]he story of a woman who is forced to confront the demons of her past, as she is drawn into the world of a thriller novel written by her ex-husband.” Yes, you’re in, and so am I.
  • American Pastoral: Ewan McGregor is close to the last person I would’ve pictured as Philip Roth’s “Swede” Levov. But to McGregor’s credit, he found a way to bring the 1960s-set Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to life with himself as director and star. Considering how long it’s taken to see Pastoral hit the big screen, I’m willing to accept Obi-Wan as “Swede.”
  • A United Kingdom: Belle, Amma Asante’s 2013 hit, was a moving period drama. For her next effort, A United Kingdom, she has lined up two great actors — Selma’s David Oyelowo and Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike. It’s the “true story of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), and Ruth Williams, the London office worker he married in 1947 in the face of fierce opposition from their families and the British and South African governments.” Sounds like another fascinating historical film.

In addition to those four, there are recent Cannes’ favorites like Toni Erdman and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, buzzed-about Sundance smashes Manchester by the Sea and Birth of a Nation, and some real question marks. (Woody Harrelson as LBJ? Directed by Rob Reiner? Hmm.)

The Canadian lineup will be announced at a press conference next week, and plenty more announcements will arrive during the next month-plus. Fingers crossed for Kristen Stewart-starrer Personal Shopper, Oasis documentary Supersonic, and Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake.

Is it September 8 yet?

TIFF turns forty: Buffalo Spree recap

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Each year, I write a Toronto International Film Festival recap for Buffalo Spree’s November issue. Here is the latest, out now.

 

“We’ve been coming to TIFF for all forty years,” says the husband of a truly lovely couple at the 2015 Toronto International Film festival. “It’s changed, for sure. Remember? The Uptown, the Cumberland …” I nod and smile, not admitting that those venues were long gone by 2007, when I started attending the annual September extravaganza. The wife talks of having vouchers the first few years, with no movie titles on the tickets, and lining up for hours to gain entry. While there is clear nostalgia for the days when the likes of Henry Winkler were considered the festival’s top celebrity guests, they are not critical of the eleven-day, nearly 300-feature TIFF of today.

You don’t have to be a four-decade attendee to see that the Toronto International Film Festival has evolved dramatically. It’s changed since last year, for example, in ways both interesting and odd. The 2014 festival was, memorably, the installment that saw TIFF brass allow only films making their world or North American premieres to screen during the first four days. This was a calculated response to the increased prominence of the earlier fall festivals in Venice and Telluride, both of which have stolen some of Toronto’s Oscar-tastemaker thunder in recent years. For attendees and media, this meant that TIFF’s opening weekend did not feature some of the year’s biggest films. However, the approach was softened for 2015, likely a response to the bad press and film critic grumbling the move received.

Fast forward to the opening weekend of TIFF15 and it’s clear early-festival madness is back, in a big way. The several-blocks-long area of live performances and tables known as Festival Street is hopping, public lines for the films are long, and even two solid days of hard rain don’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.

Nor should it. Minus a couple notable films missing in action—specifically, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs and Todd Haynes’s Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara—the lineup for 2015 is stacked with high-profile winners. Many have previously played spring’s Cannes Film Festival or debuted days before in Venice or Telluride, but their presence is wonderful news. And, of course, TIFF has some world premieres of its own, including Ridley Scott’s big-budget sci-fi epic The Martian, starring Matt Damon. I skip the latter, Johnny Depp’s Black Mass, and the drug cartel drama Sicario since I know the trio are soon making their way to screens in Western New York. Scheduling concerns mean I can’t see the Catholic Church child-abuse storySpotlight, Brie Larsen in Room, or Jake Gyllenhaal in Demolition.

Still, there are real gems among the fifteen films I see during my three-day visit, as well as among the dozen screeners viewed before and after TIFF15’s opening weekend. László Nemes’s Cannes hit Son of Saul(opening in late 2015/early 2016) is an emotional stunner about a concentration camp inmate’s attempts to give a young boy (who may or may not be his son) a traditional Jewish burial. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa(likely due for release this year) is a hilarious and moving stop-motion comedy that equals the power of hisSynecdoche, New York. Hitchcock/Truffaut, about the famously insightful book that director Francois Truffaut authored after interviewing Alfred Hitchcock, is a cinephile must. Scary “New England folk tale” The Witchproves why it was one of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s most buzzed entries. And Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster is a strangely moving, wildly funny bit of quasi-sci-fi featuring a career-best performance from Colin Farrell. Set in a time when singles must find a partner or be turned into animals (!), the film features TIFF’s most memorable love story.

More highs: Fifties-set immigration drama Brooklyn cements its status as a) a sure-fire Oscar nominee and b) a film that is nearly impossible to dislike, so strong is star Saoirse Ronan’s performance and so heartfelt its message of finding a new home on the other side of the world. Canadian writer-director Andrew Cividino’s three-teens-and-one-hot-summer drama Sleeping Giant is a startling debut. A number of less high-profile international entries, including Homesick, Magallanes, Girls Lost, Keeper, and London Road (Tom Hardy sings!)  are smart and interesting. Plus, Tom Hooper’s flawed The Danish Girl features strong performances from Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne. (Oddly, the film seems to focus less on Redmayne’s Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of sexual reassignment surgery, than on her former wife, Vikander’s Gerda Wegener.) And the rather overblown Youth is a swirling visual powerhouse with awards-worthy work from Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Jane Fonda.

It seems each year there is at least one moment when I’m reminded of not just why I love TIFF, but why I love movies. At TIFF15, it’s the world-premiere screening of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, a J. G. Ballard adaptation the Kill List director introduced to the packed Visa Screening Room house as follows: “It’s a big building, there’s lots of sex, violence, swear words, adult content, dancing, and it’s J. G. Ballard.” Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Irons, the Kubrick- and ABBA-infused film is a compelling stew of sex, violence, and class warfare, all set in a strange apartment building in 1970s Britain. About ten minutes in, I say to myself how exhilarating it feels to adore a movie this much. That’s a glorious feeling. Whenever the film is set for American release, it’s a must-see.

High-Rise is screened as part of TIFF’s new Platform program, a new juried section featuring twelve fascinating films from unique filmmakers. Unlike the TV-focused Primetime program—I understand there is amazing television around the world, but I come to TIFF to get away from TV—Platform feels fresh and thrilling. If it can unleash something like High-Rise on the world, clearly the Toronto International Film Festival is a healthy forty.        

Photo courtesy of TIFF             

TIFF15 review: ‘Northern Soul’ is sonically explosive

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Here’s an under-the-radar selection from TIFF15 that I quite enjoyed. I gave “Northern Soul” a B+ in my review for The Playlist.

“What’s your favorite record?” That is the key question asked in director Elaine Constantine’s “Northern Soul,” a rousing, wildly entertaining Toronto International Film Festival entry set in mid-70s England. Here is a sonically explosive film that understands the deep connection that can exist between a genre of music and its fans, especially those who might be considered (or would consider themselves) outsiders. In this case, that genre is Northern Soul, a still-influential style of music that has never been properly documented onscreen before. While a few names will ring a bell to fans of soul music — Edwin Starr, for example — the majority are names unfamiliar to even the most devoted trainspotters. What’s most important is that the predominantly African-American sung music moves, and pulsates with a triumphant feeling at odds with much of early-’70s U.K. rock.

As “Northern Soul” begins, John Clark (Elliot James Langridge) is a sullen 18-year-old whose school and home lives are somber, unhappy affairs. His parents (played, in an unexpected pairing, by pop singer Lisa Stansfield and “Me and Orson Welles” star Christian McKay) find him far too weird and insular for comfort, and urge their only child to mingle at the local youth center. At school, he vacillates between boredom and embarrassment, finding himself the subject of ridicule from a starched-shirt teacher played, with delightful obnoxiousness, by Steve Coogan. Matt’s only real connection of note is with his good-natured grandad (Ricky Tomlinson).

Overhearing a conversation in which fellow teen Matt (Josh Whitehouse) is identified as a DJ changes his life. The duo quickly bond over music and John’s seemingly unlikely love of graffiti. Matt tells tales of “thousands of teenagers” dancing to Northern Soul tunes, and a place called the Wigan Casino. (Search on Wikipedia now, please.) He also speaks wistfully of America, and the scores of records that await them in Chicago and beyond. (There are several points of comparison with Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Eden,” and this sense of America as an oasis of music and talent is certainly one of them.) Constantine lovingly brings to life a time when music was still unattainable, when a mythic record could be shrouded in mystery. (“It’s the only place you can go and find a record nobody’s heard already!”)

“Northern Soul” bursts into life when John and Matt start DJing together, and ponder their own club space. Soon, John’s look and demeanor have undergone a marked change, and cause him to rebel at school and find the confidence to chat up the girl (Antonia Thomas nicely plays Angela) he’s seen from afar on the bus. As Starr’s “Back Street” pounds on the soundtrack, John and Matt’s wide-eyed plans begin to come to fruition. It takes time, but soon they’ve developed a following, one strong enough to attract the attention of real-life Northern Soul DJ legend Ray Henderson (James Lance).

Drugs, of course, enter the picture, as well as the shady likes of Jack Gordon’s Sean. It is here that the film’s initial verve starts to dip, and some late missteps (mainly those involving the character of Sean) keep the film from greatness, veering toward the type of melodrama “Eden” so successfully avoided. A sudden emotional outburst from John seems particularly contrived, and the film’s final stretch simply does not compare with what came before.

Yet it’s hard to feel too much in the way of disappointment, as “Northern Soul” is so successful as a whole. Constantine captures the invigorating joy of these songs, and humorously shows that it is nearly impossible to listen and not feel the urge to dance. (One is reminded of the memorable line uttered by Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson in “24 Hour Party People”: “This is the moment when even the white man starts dancing.”) It is a stirringly vivid debut feature for the first-time director, and considering her past, this is not a surprise. Constantine came to fame as an art director and photographer for sadly departed U.K. mag The Face, and has helmed music videos for the likes of Richard Hawley.

“Northern Soul” makes clear Constantine is a filmmaker to watch, and while it is hard not be most impressed with the film’s high-tempo editing and ideal music choices, it is also well-acted from top to bottom. Elliot James Langridge is likable and believably flawed, while nicely portraying how drastically John’s new friendships and suddenly public display of musical affection change his personality. Coogan is of course a delight in a too-brief role, but the most memorable performance here is from Josh Whitehouse. His Matt is a force of nature, yet one with a stronger sense of what’s right and wrong than John. It’s star-making work, and a sneeringly comic treat.

Like “Eden,” “Northern Soul” is tailor-made to send satisfied viewers racing to Spotify to track down the who’s-who roster of performers. In fact, the film’s double-album soundtrack features 54 (!) killer tracks, and likely qualifies as a must-own. Unlike the strained “The Boat That Rocked,” the film has a lived-in aesthetic and relentlessly enjoyable energy. If “Boat” felt stodgy and middle aged, “Northern Soul” feels driven by youthful energy. It undeniably counts as one of TIFF15’s most pleasant surprises.

TIFF15 review: ‘Kill Your Friends’

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Here is one of my TIFF15 reviews, a “D” for “Kill Your Friends.” You’ve been warned. Here is my Film Stage critique.

Kill Your Friends is a pungent, thoroughly hollow failure as a comedy, a “thriller,” and a document of a fascinating era in modern pop music. That it is watchable at all is a testament to the talents of Nicholas Hoult, who stars as relentlessly unlikable, circa-1997 A&R rep Steven Stelfox. Within the first few moments of meeting him, Steven has explained that art and talent are meaningless to the on-the-make music exec. Making money is what matters, and by any means necessary. Director Owen Harris clearly expects us to be shocked by that revelation, failing to realize the audience has heard such pronouncements for decades. In fact, we have seen and heard every moment of Kill Your Friends in other, better movies. It is not clever or surprising, it is not funny or “outrageous.”

On paper — and perhaps in the novel from John Niven, who also authored the screenplay — the dialogue might seem amusingly tart. Onscreen, however, it feels utterly trite, delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It’s too bad, because a film about the Cool Britannia era could have been something special. It was a strange, jingoistic, hopeful time in the UK in many respects, and much of the era’s most successful music captured that feel. And there are great films about unlikable characters who are pop culture kingpins of their time, including, of course, Altman’s The Player. But the story of studio executive Griffin Dunne’s murder of a screenwriter stays grounded in reality even as its protagonist becomes unhinged. Kill Your Friends dropkicks all sense of reality at the moment Steven, well, kills a friend.

More on that in a moment. As the opening credits roll and Steven cruises to his job at Unigram Records, Blur’s “Beetlebum” blasts on the soundtrack with confidence. For a North American Britpop aficionado, there remains a rush in hearing the greatest songs of that era on film, however strong or weak the movie. (See Brie Larson’s endearing strut to Pulp’s “Common People” in 2015’s weak-kneed remake of The Gambler.) I mean really, how bad could a film be that opens with “Beetlebum”?!

The answer is, “Bad. Very bad.” Kill Your Friends feels tiresome and predictable from its earliest moments. Consider: Steven wants the head A&R job, he jeers behind the back of his good-natured rival for the gig (played by talk show host James Corden), he depends on his (seemingly) sweet assistant Rebecca (the winning Georgia King), he is cruel to his young protege (Submarine star Craig Roberts). He snorts coke. He drinks. He screws. He loses out in the job of his dreams. And, of course, he does what a cliched movie character must do in that situation, which is kill the rival.

It is at this point that Kill Your Friends goes full-on American Psycho, loses all contact with reality, and amps up its sprint to irrelevance. It’s a shame, really, because there occasional evidence of real wit. One sequence in particular, in which Steven and Darren meet with a humorously over-the-top German techno producer played with relish by Run Lola Run’s Moritz Bleibtreu, offers a glimpse of what Friends might have been. The scene and the song he is hawking, titled “Why Don’t You Suck My Dick,” work because they actually feel … possible. Stranger hits have happened, especially in 1990s Europe.

But all too quickly the film returns to the realms of the unreal. A wannabe songwriter detective enters the picture, Steven attempts to sign a hot indie band before another of his rivals, Rosanna Arquette suddenly appears, and another, even less believable, act of violence occurs. The film’s final stretch, especially is handled by director Harris with a self-congratulatory smugness that is relentlessly off-putting. When one of the film’s most likable characters is dispatched in the goriest manner possible, and the film has a laugh at pedophilia “involving babies,” it is clear Kill Your Friends is not just unpleasant, but borderline unbearable.

It is Nicholas Hoult, and Nicholas Hoult only, who keeps one watching. Even here he commands the screen, and shows himself able to carry a film. Next time, perhaps it will be a good one, and not one with such a needlessly tired message. Certainly one of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival’s most egregious duds, Kill Your Friends succeeds only in making the viewer want to listen to Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Paul Weller, and the myriad other artists mentioned or listened to in the film. Funny that the fillmmakers have a laugh at short-lived Britpop band Menswe@r, a band with an infinitely greater shelf life than Kill Your Friends. My advice? Track down the band’s 1995 debut, Nuisance, enjoy Nicholas Hoult in Max Max: Fury Road, and let’s pretend this film never happened.

My TIFF15 recap: Hard rain, large crowds, unforgettable ‘High-Rise’

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Writing my Toronto International Film Festival weekend recap for Buffalo.com gave me a chance to ponder the great “High-Rise.”

It rained during the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival. And then it rained some more, soaking the long, long lines of ticket holders and celeb-watchers on the streets of TO.

But amid the raindrops were a number of stunning films. There was even one next-level, hallucinatory masterpiece — more on that in a moment.

While many of the festival’s early favorites premiered at other festivals, their strong showing in Toronto cemented their reputation as ones to watch when they open in Buffalo. I skipped some biggies soon to touch down in Western New York, including Johnny Depp’s “Black Mass” and Matt Damon’s “The Martian.”

Yet my TIFF was one of numerous highs. Some of my personal favorites from the opening weekend include:

  • “Son of Saul”: A fiercely original, immersive story about concentration camp inmate’s attempts to give a young boy a traditional Jewish burial, “Saul” is sure to be one of the year’s most talked-about films.
  • “The Witch”: This “New England folk tale” about a 17th century family torn about by mysterious forces is the scariest psychological horror film in ages.
  • “The Lobster”: If you’ve ever come upon director Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Dogtooth,” you will not be surprised to hear his new film “The Lobster” is strange, startling, darkly hilarious, and genuinely disturbing. Set in a hotel in which residents must find a partner or be turned into an animal (just go with it) is remarkable, as is the lead performance from Colin Farrell.
  • “Anomalisa”: Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion comedy about one sad man and his night at a hotel in Cincinnati might be even better than his last effort, “Synecdoche, New York.”

There were other very good films during the course of the weekend, including the award-worthy Brooklyn, while even the so-so likes of “The Danish Girl” and “Youth” offered undeniable pleasures, specifically the performances of Alicia Vikander and Harvey Keitel (in “Girl” and “Youth,” respectively.)

But the weekend’s most boldly brilliant film, was Sunday night’s “High-Rise.” The film’s director Ben Wheatley introduced the film with jocular honesty: “It’s a big building, there’s lots of sex, violence, swear words, adult content, dancing and it’s J.G. Ballard.” Indeed, that is an accurate summary. But it only hints at the complex, ingenious design of a picture equally indebted to Cronenberg, “Clockwork Orange”-era Kubrick, and Abba. (Seriously.)

A ludicrously attractive cast that includes Tom Hiddleston (one of TIFF15’s most popular figures), Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Irons topline the glorious rush of sex and ultra-violence, all taking place in a strange, modernist apartment building in ’70s Britain.

Exaggerated and lovingly over-the-top, often hilarious and willfully complex, Wheatley’s film made its world-premiere at TIFF, and can therefore be considered a major victory for Toronto in the fall festival wars. It may not earn wide release until 2016, but remember that title.

There is much left to screen through September 20, including the eagerly awaited “Spotlight.” But I can’t see anything topping the mesmerizing, unforgettable“High-Rise,” a film that will haunt your brain — and make your next walk through the doors of a skyscraper a very paranoid experience.

It’s arrived! See you at TIFF15

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Friends, I’ll be spending the next few days at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, so be on the lookout for my updates on Facebook, on Twitter, and later for Buffalo.com, Buffalo Spree magazine, and BuffaloSpree.com. I’ll only be at ‪#‎TIFF15‬ for a few jam-packed, sleep-deprived, and underfed days, but I’ve also had the chance to watch a number of pre-festival screeners. So lots of fun to come in this, my ninth fest.

I urge you to also keep up with my friends Jared Mobarak and Jordan Smith for their updates, and to follow The Film Stage and The Playlist for reviews and news. I’ll also be rounding up all of my TIFF15 work here at FilmSwoon.com. More to come soon, from a long line on King Street or a steep escalator at the Scotiabank Theatre.

(In addition to my previously posted Buffalo.com work, here’s a brief piece on 10 buzzworthy titles playing this year’s fest, and another, from the September Spree, on festival tips.)

For Buffalo.com: Plan your trip to Toronto film fest

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Here’s a TIFF15 preview post for Buffalo.com. Watch the site, here, and BuffaloSpree.com for more.

In a little less than one week, some of the world’s acting and filmmaking heavyweights descend upon Toronto for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Nearly 300 features will unspool over 11 days—Sept. 10 to 20—and it’s not too late to plan your trip. What makes TIFF especially fun for Western New Yorkers is that it’s ideal even for a day trip. Head up in the morning, breathe in cinema, and hit the QEW that night. Here are a few helpful tips.

What should I see?

You can pore over the entirety of the festival’s schedule, read synopses, and watch trailers at tiff.net. But remember that part of the fun comes from making a discovery. While you might be able to snag a ticket for the new Sandra Bullock movie (“Our Brand is Crisis”), it will eventually play Buffalo. The same can’t necessarily be said for acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Our Little Sister.”

How much will I need to spend?

Individual film tickets at TIFF are certainly more expensive than a normal Saturday night at the Regal. Yet considering what one gets for the cost of a ticket—a chance to hear from the film’s director and see the stars, the inimitable festival vibe, the opportunity to see something that may never play this close to Buffalo again—it’s hard to call it outrageous.

Note, however, that there are both “regular” and “premium” selections. The latter are star-heavy, debut screenings of such films as “The Martian” and “The Danish Girl.” Those tickets are $48 Canadian ($40 for seniors, $30 for 25 and younger). Regular screening tickets are $25 ($21 for seniors, $18 for 25 and younger).

There also is the cost of gas and meals in Toronto. Yet plenty of fun can be had before and after a film just wandering down “Festival Street” on King Street’s collection of food trucks, live music, and more. See tiff.net/festivals/festival15/street for more info.

Where can I buy tickets?

By this point, all ticket packages are long closed. However, individual tickets go on sale Sept. 6 on tiff.net. You’ll redeem those tickets at the festival box office, 225 King Street West. Tickets also can be purchased by phone at (416) 599-TIFF or (888) 599-8433, and at the box office.

Venue box offices open an hour before the day’s first screening. Note that tickets are not for sale at the box office of four of the festival’s largest spaces, Roy Thomson Hall, the Princess of Wales Theatre, the Visa Screening Room and Winter Garden Theatre. (The latter two are in the same building.)

Anything else I should know?

Numerous screenings are held at the Scotiabank Theatre, a venue with an escalator as steep as any I’ve ever seen, but don’t let that scare you. Oh, and keep an eye out for me, the skinny dude in glasses reading and re-reading a dog-eared copy of the festival schedule.

40 days till TIFF15: Toronto Film Fest returns with heavy hitters, Hitchcock

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The Toronto International Film Festival held its kick-off press conference this week, and the announcements were, in a word, stunning. This is a stacked festival ready, with many, many more announcements to come. Here are a few thoughts on the first batch of titles, for Buffalo.com.

The message at this week’s 2015 Toronto International Film Festival announcement press conference was clear: TIFF is back, in a big way. It’s not as if last year’s festival would be classified by most as a disappointment — ask the scores of audience members who trooped into festival venues last year if they were disappointed, and they’re likely to laugh and shake their heads.

But TIFF’s bold move to only allow films making their world or North American debuts at the festival, a direct strike against fests in Venice and Telluride, led to much grumbling among media and filmmakers. It also meant a number of major films either skipped Toronto altogether, or screened at the tail-end of the festival.

For 2015, Toronto’s head honchos eased up, and the result, as evident from the press conference, is a stunning lineup of heavy hitters and Oscar bait. While there are a few notables missing from the lineup — Todd Haynes’s “Carol,” the Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic “Steve Jobs,” mountain climbing pic “Everest” — the galas and special presentations announced this week include some real stunners.

Consider just a few of the films announced for this year’s festival, running from Sept. 10 to 20:

  • Michael Moore’s the-title-says-it-all documentary “Where to Invade Next” is sure to be controversial.
  • Ridley Scott’s “Interstellar”-ish “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, is one of the most high-profile world premieres in festival history.
  • “Theory of Everything” Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne plays a transgender pioneer in “The Danish Girl.”
  • Fictional drama “Stonewall,” based on the 1969 Stonewall Riots, is directed by a very unlikely individual: Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day.).
  • And how about Alfred Hitchcock? The festival concludes with a free screening of “Vertigo,” complete with a live score by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

More announcements will follow in the weeks to come. But make no mistake — while it may be 80 degrees outside, the Oscar race is on.

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.