You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2009.

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I’ve never had any interest in playing the guitar, ever … until now.

It Might Get Loud, a documentary about the beginnings of three prolific guitarists and how they use their instrument—Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White—won me over and finally showed me that attraction people have to rock ‘n roll. These dudes are badass. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, he of An Inconvenient Truth as well as a slew of great television show credits, the story not only uses historical footage and interviews with the trio separately, but also puts them in the same room, with a plethora of their own axes, to converse, both verbally and rhythmically. Watching them play a song together is a real treat, seeing the pure joy they have of making music, catching a glimpse at the boyish wonder they have for each other, constantly looking to see what the others are doing, and comparing their styles. Page has not lost a step as he grooves and moves the entire time he is playing, lips pursing and expanding, the music taking control of his body; The Edge is the consummate professional, stoic concentration, standing straight and playing with determination; and White sits or stands casually and at ease, the guitar high and close, showing a bluegrass feel just like his voice and chords.

You may be wondering—as I did before going in too—what White is doing in this mix. Page produced the film, he got the group together to play, and so he must have seen something in the youngster. Maybe he needed juxtaposition with The Edge, a stripped down raw sound against the U2 man’s heavy use of effects and computers, (when you hear the actual chords he plays without the digital enhancements, you won’t believe it). Either way, it does not take long to see that the driving force of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather belongs. The film does open up to him making a guitar out of a Coke bottle, plank of wood, and a single string after all. Who needs to buy a guitar? And his knowledge of the craft is extensive, with a childhood story that goes against odds to have gotten to the point he is at today. The youngest of ten children, never wanting to play the guitar, apprenticing at an upholstery shop, and having to force his sister to go on stage with him for their first gig, it all began with the exposure to a song by Son House, his favorite piece of music still to this day.

We know about Page and his days in The Yardbirds before Led Zeppelin. Heck, some may even know he was a session guitarist before that, playing on anything that came his way before finally needing to get out and create his own sound, to use a loud crescendo without recourse. However, did you know that The Edge would never have met Bono and company, U2 may never have been, if not for a flyer on his school’s cork board looking to start a band? The foursome from Ireland were, admittedly, not that good at the start, but they continued on, finding their voice and politics as the years went. Only when Bono told him to take some time off and experiment by himself did he discover he could write. One may think these superpowers of rock music just got together and the rest was history, but no, they all had their “breastfeeding” moments, as captioned in the movie, instances where they had to work and keep going. It’s a world based on hard work, no matter what your occupation, to resonate and reach the masses means earning it.

No matter how enthralling the background stories and early footage of the three—through video, stills, whatever they had available to share—it is the electricity seeing the trio together that caught my attention. I’d love to see the unedited reels of just that meeting in January of 2008. What is shown is wonderful, but too brief. Sure, the moments of jamming are wonderful, but the conversations are always cut short. I wanted to see them pick each other’s brains. You get a little of that with Page asking The Edge if he was sure the one note was supposed to be a C, or when The Edge relays to the others during the credits that he had been playing the wrong note the whole time they covered a song, but that’s just correcting each other and having fun. There had to have been questions like, “how did you do that?” or “how was it doing that?” or even “how high were you when you wrote that?” Maybe the DVD culls some of those moments; it would be well worth the purchase I’m sure.

It’s a rare thing to see artists interviewing artists, or just being in close proximity and watching what occurs. The more straightforward documentary parts are even narrated by them alone; only a few instances bring in an outside source, presumably Guggenheim, to pass on a query. One of the most memorable scenes is just Page in his home library full of vinyl, wall to wall. He takes a 7” out of its sleeve and puts in on the player so he can show us the power of “Rumble,” a rock instrumental by Link Wray. The legend just stands in front of the camera giggling like a little boy, face full of unadulterated joy. He starts to mimic the hand movements, playing air guitar to the song, as he explains the distortion progression as the song continues on. We are experiencing a piece of history filmed live, watching one of the greatest guitarists on the planet show his cards and lift the curtain to what inspired him. And that is what these three men are: inspirations. They touch people young and old, hit them emotionally and create change, either large or small. They are living the dream and looking cool doing it.

It Might Get Loud 8/10

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photography:
[1] Left to Right: Jack White, Jimmy Page, The Edge Photo taken by Eric Lee, 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
[2] Jack White Photo taken by Alba Tull, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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I shied away from Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses because the Weinsteins had billed it as a romance and all I had read said it was terrible. Now, almost a decade since its release, and the addition of two stellar films based on Cormac McCarthy novels, I had to take a look back. Watching No Country for Old Men and The Road does not give you a feeling that anything written by the guy could be something other than dark and bleak, with the glimmer of hope added in to counteract the rest and, after seeing the film, stored on my DVR for over a year now, I now have one more reason to despise those producing brothers. Cutting down a film to under two hours after the director clocked it at three plus is unconscionable; especially coming from a guy like Thornton who’s previous work, Sling Blade, was critically acclaimed. If this film gets made today, with Matt Damon at the lead and the pedigree of people behind the scenes, the result is much different. The least they can do is release the director’s cut so the world can decide for itself about the quality of the work because, honestly, I really liked the scraps allowed to be seen and can only imagine the masterpiece its full self could be.

John Grady Cole, (Damon), has just lost his grandfather and therefore the farm he has been working on and hoped to run in the future. His father is out of the picture legal-wise and his mother has remarried, looking to relinquish all her father’s possessions now that he is dead. So, it leaves Cole little choice but to find work elsewhere, preferably a ranch where he can work closely with the beasts he loves—horses. Recruiting his best friend Lacey Rawlins, (it’s always a pleasure to see Henry Thomas in films because he is just not used enough compared to his talents), the two set off for Mexico to live a life fit for kings, without any ties to their pasts or restrictions back home. However, a young boy named Jimmy Blevins, riding strong on a horse too good to be his, soon interrupts the journey, starting a chain of events that will weigh heavily on what is to come. Afraid at first to travel with a boy that is obviously being chased for the horse if not himself, the ranch-hands soon let him into their group as they cross country lines, all of them able to start life anew. But there is something about this boy, his horse skills too pure and his shooting too precise, the innocence of youth apparent, yet perhaps hiding something beneath—an unbroken horse himself perhaps? The allusions to the creatures and the disparate freedoms allowed our two species are apparent.

These three men, Lucas Black’s Blevins rounding out the trio, (a Thornton regular I guess, so good that it’s a shame he hasn’t worked more in the past few years since, his best role being in Friday Night Lights), all see the world differently and these perceptions eventually clash and get all in trouble. Rawlins is loyal to a fault, a detriment to his character since sometimes his thoughts are the safest bet. Always quick to point out how letting Blevins in—a loose cannon with an unknown past—could only cause complications, his trust in Cole wins over when his friend, compassionate and unable to abandon another human being, says he’s staying the course to help the boy through his self-inflicted troubles. Whether an omen or just a coincidence to the unluckiness of Blevins, a lightning storm becomes the catalyst for horrors to come. The boy had been struck twice while the bolts had also killed three members of his family. This fear, seemingly the only thing in the world that frightens him, causes him to be careless and allow his horse to run away with his every possession. The three decide to find the horse, upon which Blevins’ temper gets the best of him and soon the entire town wakes up to see them steal the horse and run away. It is in the getaway that they part ways, Cole and Rawlins finding their way onto a renowned ranch, the boy off to who knows where.

And here is where the film, brilliantly orchestrated and acted thus far, starts to pull apart at the seams. What began with a suspenseful edge, leaning into dark territory but never going full force, soon gets turned into a whirlwind romance between Damon and the ranch owner’s daughter Alejandra, played by Penélope Cruz. All troubles seem to melt away as Rawlins enjoys his work and Cole becomes a respected figure in helping Hector de la Rocha breed his horses, while also stealing the heart of his daughter. Whether the original vision goes in more depth with this relationship or not is unknown, but as is, the romance becomes little more than a plot point to use later on when the Americans’ past comes back to bite them. A couple glances and smiles seems to be all that is needed to spawn an everlasting love. For a theme that was used so much in promoting the film, this love vignette is such a small part of the movie, even with all the cuts, as Damon and Thomas soon find themselves arrested and thrown in jail with their old chum Blevins, who naïvely went back to the town where he got back the horse to get his gun as well.

This is where my preconceived notions of a McCarthy story finally show through. Murder becomes a word that is held over the final third of the film, the horrors and fallibilities of man coming to the forefront. Justice throws the truth out the window and retribution becomes the name of the game as the three find themselves in a lot of trouble dealing with violent men in the Mexican police force as well as the local penitentiary. Young Black shows the power of his performance in these moments, stealing every scene—which says something by going against two wonderful turns from Damon and Thomas. Survival now becomes the ability to do whatever is necessary; these Texan boys just wanted a good life without trouble, but all they found was violence and cruelty. It takes all Cole’s energy to try and stay true to his morals while still being able to keep his life as well.

It is so obvious that most edits took place in this portion of the movie. It seems as though every ten-minute interlude is dissolved to black, soon opening onto a new scene that screams how something was missed. Emotions aren’t allowed to breath and we get thrown from thinking all is lost to—BAM—all is looking up. The awkward pacing is felt and that is the biggest shame because it occurs when the story revs up. The shots become a little more abstract with laughing Mexican men and over-exposed scenes of an otherworldly state while the story becomes more rushed every second, trying to jam everything needed in, culminating in its bittersweet conclusion, one that would turn off so many hoping to see the romantic drama they thought they were. Of course it had to be the interesting part of the story that the Weinsteins deemed too much for the film-going public. I know I could love this film; I just hope one day they’ll give me the chance by letting it out in its entirety.

All the Pretty Horses 8/10

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It is sometimes a fine line to cross when handing the reins of a big budget film to a newcomer, but that’s exactly what Sony Pictures did with Zombieland. The foursome in the lead aren’t necessarily A-list big money talent, but they are stalwarts in the industry, (Woody Harrelson and Abigail Breslin—I know she’s 13, but she did get an Oscar nom), and rising stars, (Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone). Steeped in horror clichés and more than enough blood and gore for a Saw film, Ruben Fleischer pretty much hit the jackpot. With a release date in the month of October, (How many films like this get dumped in January/February as failures?), and the bonus of being a comedy with a gigantic media blitz on the airwaves, the film cannot fail. Vying against a list of indies, nothing stands in the way of a number one box office take, and, frankly, it may even deserve it. A witty script, charismatic acting, more than its fair share of sarcasm, and effective make-up work create a fun little joyride through hell on earth.

The world has been taken over by a disease that spread like wildfire from a Mad Cow burger to flesh eating creatures walking dead. Our narrator is Columbus—no names please—looking to find his way back home to see if the family he never fully felt he had was alive. Always a loner, choosing to play World of Warcraft rather than interact with humans, let alone the female sex, he is the perfect candidate to survive the apocalypse. Phobia-filled and overly cautious, I couldn’t think of a better actor to portray his idiosyncrasies than Eisenberg. This is what he does best—gutless paranoia—and it works. Compiling a list of rules to stay alive: Cardio, The Double Tap, Avoid Bathrooms, (poor Mike White), Always Check the Backseat, etc; it becomes very hard for him to change once discovering he is not alone. Wise-cracking badass Tallahassee, riding strong in his Cadillac Escalade, fitted with a snow plow no less, enters the fray and turns the college kid’s world around, even creating a new rule: Enjoy the Little Things. In the second best casting choice, (okay, maybe the best), this man from Florida is brought to life by Harrelson. Surly, short-tempered, and hilarious, the pairing of the two just begs for laughs, making the film more buddy comedy—helping the other cope with loss and see that they have a chance to start over—than the horror spoof it bills itself as. But the zombies definitely help too.

Zombieland is riddled with gimmicks that surprisingly work. In a brilliant introduction, we are given a laundry list of Columbus’s rules with examples of why they have become so important to survival. Complete with the number and name of each superimposed over the scene in question, we are ushered into this world, quickly catching up on where it stands. The rules are followed pretty religiously throughout and whether spoken aloud or just done out of habit, none go without the rule flashing back onscreen, animated in conjunction with what’s physically there, reminding us at home of their effectiveness. Watching Eisenberg run around a gas station parking lot towards his car, only to drop his keys and need to continue running around, getting enough distance between him and his pursuers to retrieve them, shows how important cardio really is. As for #7, Limbering Up, well, let’s just say some rules are a bit overkill. One does have to appreciate the Kill of the Week, however. Listening to these two tell stories of what they’ve seen, one-upping the other at every turn, I was almost saddened that the payoff winner had been revealed in the trailer. It is still funny, though, and the climatic scene at the end definitely gives it a run for its money.

But it isn’t all about the boys; Stone and Breslin arrive soon enough as Wichita and Little Rock—interesting names since both are supposed to be sisters, but then that’s reading a little too far into it. Master con artists, (there’s White again, such a glutton for punishment), the two are trying their best to survive and reach Pacific Playland, an amusement park visited as children and a sort of oasis amongst the carnage surrounding them. Unable to trust another soul, the girls really get under the guys’ skin, stealing their car and running off without remorse. Leave it to a classic cameo by a well-known actor to bring the foursome together, bonding at his 90210 address and letting out aggression by shooting up his china. I won’t divulge the name of the person in question, but you’ll be laughing as soon as you see the Andy Warhol-esque painting on his wall depicting his mug. The jokes fly at a rapid pace from this point on, if not for the entire duration, and while some might not be entirely fresh, (having the 12 year-old girl not know who Bob Marley or Ghandhi is), or easily contemporary, (a shot at Facebook), the atmosphere and tone make it hard not to laugh.

Right from the opening credit sequence—a nicely orchestrated scene of zombie attacks with animated credits being push and shoved by the action occurring around them—you see the care taken to make it as authentic a zombie flick as possible. There are even moments sprinkled about where the undead fall or get ripped apart, blood splattering onto the camera lens. It’s a subtle effect, yet key to instilling some realism and engagement with the audience. As far as caring for the characters, you won’t be so much hoping to find out what happens to them as much as wanting to see what antics and messed up situations they can find on the run. Give Woody Harrelson a bag of automatic weapons, a four-walled caged-in area and watch the body count rise with blood running through the streets. His mother did say that he’d find something he’s good at eventually. Thank the lord the zombie virus took over the nation because while many would weaken at the knees and just give up to die, he shoved his past sorrows down deep and decided to have fun. There is no better catchphrase then the one he uses before running headfirst into a blood bath … you just have to “nut up or shut up”. It has the ring of poetic genius.

Zombieland 7/10

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photography:
[1] Jesse Eisenberg stars in Columbia Pictures’ comedy ZOMBIELAND. Photo By: Glen Wilson
[2] Woody Harrelson (left) and Jesse Eisenberg (center) star in Columbia Pictures’ comedy ZOMBIELAND. Photo By: Glen Wilson

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Every year at the Toronto International Film Festival seems to get better and better. Is that due to the increase in films from six to eleven to fifteen? It very well might be. And I’ll just say now, watching fifteen films in less than four days may not be the healthiest thing in the world. Between the vendor sausage/chicken dogs/nitrates on a bun being easily accessible and a standard meal when going from one film to the next with barely enough time to catch your breath and the sheer fact of sitting down in the dark for ten out of nineteen hours awake, (that was our Friday of five movies), my cohort Chris and I definitely “worked” on this brief reprieve from the office. That said, however, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The excitement, buzz, and joy of being surrounded completely by cinema for four days cannot be beat.

It all started with a quick jaunt down the QEW from Buffalo to Toronto at 9:00am. After about an hour and a half, we checked into the hotel, (the room was actually ready that early), and walked down to Nathan Philips Square to retrieve our lottery pick tickets. Chaos was at risk with the two lines out the door … shouldn’t the people picking up be sent in and the ones buying kept outside waiting? One would think it quicker to just swing by and trade a voucher for a packet, but the obvious is never a reality. We had to utilize both lines anyways as four films were purchased separately and two from the lottery needed to be traded in. With only two blocks of time available to trade for, our choices were limited, but with one we wanted to see, Valhalla Rising, and one that was the only thing left, Like You Know it All, we filled the spots and as a result never needed to worry about tickets again. This is key since the previous two years we bought tickets upon arrival, something that would have resulted in seeing very obscure films this time as opening weekend sells out fast.

Acquired the day before was a chance to see Jennifer’s Body at a press screening and that’s where we headed first. Did we want to experience the hustle and bustle and beauty of Megan Fox on the red carpet at Midnight Madness? For sure we did, but being sold out and locked out from our studio rep, it was daytime viewing with about five other critics or nothing at all. Of course we took the free film and thankfully, both of us being very trepidatious that the camp-fest would fall flat on its face, the Diablo Cody penned teen horror entertained. Is it a great piece of cinema? No. Does it do the job it sets out to do? Yes. And Adam Brody is pretty darn funny in it too.

Next on the slate was a pair so mismatched it is almost strange to think they played back to back at the Ryerson. The Nick Hornby penned An Education screened first—a 60’s period piece about a young girl growing up very fast, living between her very Catholic high school and aspirations to attend Oxford and the older man she falls in love with. This film was fantastic, a strong story fueled by wonderful direction from Lone Scherfig and acting from a talented cast. Scherfig explained how it was a “very contained film … everything belongs in that time bubble—time bub-a-lub” (you need to watch it to understand), and Hornby relayed how after this experience he may never adapt another of his novels again. The process, he says, is “taking out [writing the screenplay] about 3/4 of what you just put in [writing the novel]”. The memoir this film is based on was just ten pages yet included a solid structure and characters. It was as though he was creating a whole new project rather than butchering his baby.

Following this was the controversial and much-talked-about Antichrist from director Lars von Trier. Talk about a juxtaposition between the colorful tale of hope and reaching adulthood to this psychological journey of coping with the death of a young son, an event that occurred while the parents were engaged in sexual intercourse. How does one live that kind of guilt down? Well, if Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe have anything to say about it … you don’t. A masterpiece for sure—I just don’t think I’ll ever want to watch it again. Coming from a very dark and depressing time for von Trier, Dafoe spoke about how they didn’t rehearse, they just went in and did it, always on edge and always unsure. He says the preparation came from “concentrating on something where the whole floor falls away”. It is “Nature created by Satan” and the horrors of the mind when retribution must be made to atone for one’s sins. It’s definitely tough to watch, but brilliant at the same time.

Friday began with two films that we had absolutely no idea about. Number one was a Korean work called Like You Know It All about an indie director and his travels to judge a film festival and speak at a college. Wow was it pretty painful to watch. The beginning started out okay, somewhat tongue-in-cheek and humorous, but then the story started repeating itself, dealing with rape as a joke, and never got around its amateurish acting. After three years, finally we experienced a film we both didn’t like. Yeah, Margot at the Wedding was a disappointment back in 2007, but at least it was well made. Too bad the director wasn’t there to defend the work … he was guest teaching at a school, (something the festival moderator thought would be a humorous fact mirroring the film itself).

Definitely not the start we hoped for, sitting down for film two, Visage (Face), had us a bit on edge hoping to not have two clunkers in a row. Unfortunately, we did. Director Ming-liang Tsai was too ill to attend and it’s a shame because I would have loved to hear what he had to say. The film is definitely an art piece, reminiscent to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series, (even including one of its stars Fanny Ardant), and definitely more visual than anything else. While its two and a half hour runtime was long and arduous, (a woman duct taping a window to shield the light for ten minutes plus is an example), the images were pretty remarkable. I’d love to see a photo exhibit of stills hanging in a gallery, as it could be great. So many frames show real beauty in their construction … just don’t say that to Chris who abhorred the entire work, even shaking his head when I said at least it was pretty, in complete disagreement. You do have to respect an ending scene in a meat locker, metal hooks and chains hanging, and a man in a tub covered with tomato paste, all while three women undress and move their bodies around.

If the completion of our morning two films, (with three still on tap for the day), gave us hope at all, it was that every other film for the festival would be something we had been looking forward to check out. And it all started with Jordan Scott’s Cracks at the Winter Garden Theatre. This quaint venue is actually above the Elgin, something we had never been aware of. Practically the same size as its sibling below, the theatre is decorated with foliage and atmosphere, adding a bit of intrigue—a perfect companion to the traditional English boarding school setting of the film. Scott explained that she was drawn to the material because of experiencing that world herself as a youngster, (without the “Lord of the Flies” aspects I’m sure). Based upon a novel—please festival attendees, have some knowledge of the stuff you see and don’t ask a director why she choose the name when it’s the exact same name as the source material—the story progresses slowly, but holds together with some high class acting from a pretty unknown cast. Besides Eva Green, only three of the other girls had any real acting experience, the rest actually locals or newcomers, three of which actually went to boarding school together. What was the best part of the screening however? Without question, catching a glimpse of the director’s famous father Ridley; that was a treat.

A short break for dinner, oh the Eaton Centre foodcourt, and we were back to Yonge Street, this time to watch Jane Campion’s new Bright Star at the Elgin. Admittedly, I’ve only ever seen The Piano by her, coincidentally a former TIFF release and produced by the same woman as this tale of John Keats and his love Fanny Brawne. Along with a couple lead performances that deliver big from Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, it’s a favorite of mine, Paul Schneider, who steals the show. The best part of many films, (Lars and the Real Girl, Away We Go, Elizabethtown), he overshadows whomever is in frame with him here as friend and poet Charles Armitage Brown, always with a quick quip or sarcastic jab. I truly think this might achieve the success of that 1993 work for Campion, something I’m sure she’d enjoy after the lukewarm reception of her last big release In the Cut.

Well, I’ll throw myself under the bus now and say that fatigue and sleepiness was setting in fast. The only thing to alleviate that was a good ol’ Midnight Madness screening; thankfully we had tickets to the vampire horror Daybreakers at just that setting. Introduced by twin directors the Spierig Brothers, they relayed how good Toronto treated their debut low-budget feature Undead at the festival years before. The one even got the audience to laugh with his comment, “I’m drunk. It’s the best way to watch this movie.” Enthusiastic about sitting down with us, we being the world premiere audience in its first public screening, they next welcomed Willem Dafoe, (with camera, documenting the evening before flying out of the city), and Sam Neill, (who pretty much refused to speak and instead stood in the back smiling). The movie ended up being a lot of fun, calling to mind the action gem Equilibrium in tone, and the fans ate it up. Every single kill, whether decapitated heads flying or an exploding vampire, was followed by rapturous applause. Dafoe’s one-liners had the same effect, helped by the fact he was in attendance, and the only negative was the glaring absence of lead Ethan Hawke. The guy must be busy these days.

So, what do you follow five films in one day with? How about four more the next? With a nice late Saturday morning start of 10:30 and the potential to be a laugh riot comedy, The Informant! looked to be the perfect start, and boy did it live up. Introduced by Steven Soderbergh himself as having “no sex, no videotapes, but enough lies to last another twenty years,” the exact length of time since his debut, the movie was as funny as the trailers and posters made it seem. Matt Damon is pitch-perfect as the bumbling smart man idiot, taking down his company for price fixing because it goes against his beliefs of living an honest life. This fact becomes the biggest joke of all once we realize all the secrets hidden beneath the main plot. It does start to become a little repetitious towards the end and the craziness somewhat obvious, but you’ll still be laughing hard right to the end. I’d love to hear what the real informant thinks—the guy whose book this film is based on—because you have to believe the true story isn’t as zany as this. Credit Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh for turning a straightforward tale into something that’s all but. Love the Damon voiceovers too; his train of thought monologues could satisfy my attention alone.

Left in a good mood, we started walking to the Roy Thompson Theatre for our one big gala screening of the year, the North American Premiere of Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora. The man responsible for a couple powerhouses in The Others and Mar adentro, I couldn’t wait to see what he did with this Egyptian epic starring Rachel Weisz and Max Minghella. Using little computer graphics, Amenábar explains that he wanted this to have a “going back in time” sense of realism. Sets were built and extras hired to create some moments of chaotic beauty as the Christians and Pagans of Alexandria lock horns. His goal was to show how intolerance has ravaged our future, how the safety of this library could have given us documents and an education so vast that we could be on Mars right now. It’s an historical epic to the core and as a result a tad predictable, but it definitely gets his goal across of being a piece of work that’s “against anyone who uses violence to prove ideas.” The fact that we have Jews and Christians battling against each other can’t help but add a little political discourse on how it hasn’t always been the Muslims practicing zealotry.

Capping off the evening, after a wonderful find in The 3 Brewers as a good place to eat, (we returned Sunday for lunch), were too films with a lot of intrigue. First came the new Michael Haneke work The White Ribbon, about a town’s many inhabitants in pre-WWI Austria amidst local tragedy. After a couple accidents—one fatal—and the kidnapping and beating of a child, no one knows what is going on. Could it be the children, could it be the adulterers, the pedophiles, or the hot-tempered adults in every corner? The brilliance of this film comes in its complete disregard for giving answers. A quick two and a half hours, so many questions and hypotheses and accusations occur, yet nothing is resolved or even validated. Every option could be true, whether stated in the film or thought of upon reflection afterwards. You will be thinking of this one for days to come, either to work out what happened or to figure out why you loved it so much.

So, mentally exhausted, what do we do next? We go to a Gaspar Noé film. Yes he of Irreversible fame and the fan-made t-shirt that says “Gaspar Noé is an evil man” came to Toronto for the world premiere of his new bordering on three hours masterpiece Enter the Void. Screened as a workprint at Cannes, this was the first public showing in its completed form and what a trip it was. The soft spoken director introduced it with the words, “It’s weird … it’s supposed to be.” What an understatement there. Saying he thought of “watching Lady in the Lake on mushrooms” and wanting to portray “a near-death experience” Noé takes us on a journey through death and one’s life flashing before your eyes as well as the present occurring under your floating soul. Using Tokyo’s neon lights and maze-like cityscape, the camera is made to look as though a fly on the wall is filming everything. Massive close-ups, extended feelings of a continuous shot, seamless transitions between normal and fisheye lenses, and fields of blinking color that would induce seizures in even the most non-epileptic abound, enveloping you in its beauty, its brutality, and its uncompromising sexuality. Talk about asking for nightmares, double billing Haneke and Noé is not recommended for the faint of heart.

How we managed to wake up, pack, get our car, and park by the Ryerson after the night of intellectual stimulation we had is beyond me … but we did it. The only thing that could get us in the right frame of mind to be able to see a Viking action/drama followed by a post-apocalyptic world of cannibals and gray skyline was a front to back smart and witty comedy. And who better to deliver that elixir than Jason Reitman and Up in the Air? Our friend from 2007, director of our first ever TIFF screening Juno, did not grace us with an appearance, but did share a film with everything you could want. Probably the best all-around work we saw the entire weekend, George Clooney and company have a massive hit on their hands. So funny at times that the next line becomes inaudible, yet still maintaining some dark serious tones to offset the humor, Reitman completes his auspicious trio of comedies, bolstering what has all the potential of being an even greater career than has already been built.

Still reeling from the massive enjoyment at the Elgin just an hour previous, we found our place in line for Valhalla Rising starring a one-eyed, mute Viking played by Mads Mikkelsen. Taking the slot before my most anticipated film, The Road, this thing intrigued in a good way, yet was completely indecipherable to me. All I know is that I liked it, whether or not I could explain the plot one bit. Director Nicolas Winding Refn said that he prepared by blaring heavy metal music while scouting Scotland and Mikkelsen left us with the line, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy that imaginary joint” … I should have known then that what followed would be a trip; a bloody, merciless, and spiritual one at that.

Finally, after being refused the option of staying in the theatre since we were seeing the next film rather than going to the end of the long line formed while inside for a second time, we found our way back for John Hillcoat’s The Road. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, this is a story about a man and his son alone in a world ravaged by humanity’s hubris. Doing what they can to survive, against all odds with a lack of food, medicine, and sun, but an abundance of violent cannibals, these two have only their memories and love for each other to keep them going. The North American premiere lived up to all expectations as I’ve been eagerly awaiting it for about a year. Those darn Weinsteins not only pushed it back, (and back again just the other day to November of this year), but cut a trailer so misleading they either don’t know what they have or don’t trust it. Well they should because if treated right, it could be a huge success. Hillcoat’s grimy and unfiltered vision from The Proposition comes out again here with Viggo Mortensen, along with newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee, bringing it to realistic fruition. But the film wasn’t the only winner as the attendees livened the room as well. Viggo and Robert Duvall, who is great in a small part, were there in support with youngster Smit-McPhee carrying a Montreal Canadiens flag, garnering boos from a Maple Leaf contingent. The crowd-pleaser for Chris and I though—Mr. Gaspar Noé himself in a John Holmes tee. You couldn’t ask for a better wardrobe choice than that.

So, after fifteen films, little sleep, and a lot of walking, the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close for these two Buffalonians. We had it all this year—the decision to go opening weekend the best move we could have made—with clear masterpieces, gorgeous works that not only stay with you but also punch you in the gut, a star-studded menagerie of actors and filmmakers to talk about their work, a couple clunkers proving that festivals do show bad films, and just hours of fun. We may have missed A Serious Man, [Rec] 2, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but we made up for it with some deeply moving and resonating work. A complete success with no regrets, I can’t wait until 2010 because each year has been better than the last. The thought that next year’s experience could beat this one only puts a huge smile on my face.

For those keeping score at home:
Jennifer’s Body 6/10
An Education 9/10
Antichrist 9/10
Jal aljido mothamyeonseo [Like You Know It All] 2/10
Visage [Face] 4/10
Cracks 7/10
Bright Star 9/10
Daybreakers 6/10
The Informant! 8/10
Agora 8/10
Das weiße Band [The White Ribbon] 10/10
Enter the Void 8/10
Up in the Air 9/10
Valhalla Rising 7/10
The Road 9/10

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photography:
[1] Nick Hornby, Carrey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Dominic Cooper, Alfred Molina
[2] Willem Dafoe
[3] Jordan Scott, Eva Green, Juno Temple, María Valverde
[4] Jane Campion, producer, Ben Whishaw
[5] Midnight Madness coordinator, Spierig Brothers, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe
[6] Steven Soderbergh
[7] Homayoun Ershadi, Oscar Isaac, Alejandro Amenábar
[8] Gaspar Noé, Midnight Madness coordinator
[9] Nicolas Winding Refn, Mads Mikkelsen
[10] Kodi Smit-McPhee, Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall

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Why do the Weinsteins continue to do it? They buy and finance great stuff, they have an eye for talent, and yet they squander it so many times. When I first heard that the Cormac McCarthy adapted, John Hillcoat directed The Road was being pushed back from last year’s Oscar contention—yes, last year—I just shook my head wondering how those two brothers could ruin it. Was it post-production that needed extra time to complete or did the volatile big men hate the cut and decide to rape and pillage the footage into mediocre drivel that would make less money than if they just released the director’s vision, something that would make cash based on his previous film, The Proposition, alone? This is a post-apocalyptic tale about the traveling and survival of a man and his son, hiding from the cannibalistic population starving for meat. It screams dark, intense, and intelligent, rides on the coattails of a Best Picture winner the last time a McCarthy novel was given a big screen transformation, and has badass Viggo Mortensen, one of the best actors working today, at the front. I was seriously ready to jump Bob Weinstein four rows in front of me at the North American premiere in Toronto if it turned out bad.

Thankfully, despite a trailer that was cut to bring in disaster film audiences, Bobby was safe from my wrath because it appeared his brother and he let Hillcoat’s vision stick, creating one of the best films of the year thus far. Please do not take the preview as gospel, because it does a terrible job marketing the movie. This is an independent production with very dark tones—one scene with a basement full of people held captive, thin and missing limbs, as food storage for the monsters living above is just one example—as well as a riveting story dealing with life, death, family, and sacrifice. The make of a father is tested when the world is at an end. If it is between putting a bullet into the head of your child rather than allow him to be eaten, one must come to grips with mortality and pride. If the world around you is disappearing, burning, becoming a land of criminals, is it good enough to just survive? When you get away from whatever trouble is in your backyard, is it enough when you just have to continue running with a new test awaiting you? There is no safe haven; no piece of earth hidden from the horrors that have taken over … to live is to run.

Don’t be surprised when the big names you heard were in the film don’t appear until late or show up for very brief stints when they do. Some are seen only in flashbacks, others are blips on the radar as “The Man” and his “Son” journey, day by day, to live for the next. The Road is all about Viggo and young Kodi Smit-McPhee, (who is great—many are hailing him as a revelation, but I think time will tell on that one), as they come across allies as well as their share of villains too. Small roles notwithstanding, both Garret Dillahunt, as a hick trucker looking for red meat of any kind, and Robert Duvall, as an old vagabond trying to mind his own business in the wasteland, are outstanding. Especially Duvall, who I’ll admit has been phoning in some performances of late with too much gravitas. His “Old Man”—can you sense a theme with the character names—is subtle and real, wrinkles and crags making up his face, dirt and grime coating it all. Hillcoat knows how to let an environment consume his viewers, leaving nothing to be pretty for pretty’s sake. Like his Australian western of two years ago, the lack of showers and clean, running water is noticeable throughout.

There aren’t any explosions or big time battles between good and evil; all those shots of news footage used in the trailer as though our central family watched them on television do not exist. One day a husband and his pregnant wife were enjoying their lives when disaster struck. It doesn’t matter what the cause was or where it started, all we need to be aware of is that the destruction was all encompassing, worldwide, and unstoppable. The morality of letting a child be born into a life of fear and death becomes an early theme, the birth of Smit-McPhee’s character a question mark in his first days. Going through so much for that son, Mortensen lives for nothing else, his own life expendable as long as when he goes he knows the boy has a chance. What chance that is, no one knows. The next day could bring the discovery of a hidden bunker full of non-perishables; it could bring a loner vagrant passing by while they sleep to steal all they have accumulated; or it could mean seeing the enemy over the hills, on the verge of discovering them, causing their lives’ worth to be left in favor of a rapid getaway. The real beauty of the film is how it never lulls or takes a shortcut. You will be on the edge of your seat for the duration, waiting to see when the moment will come that they can’t get away.

A story of hope, it is also one of hardship and sacrifice. Some risk everything for another; some risk themselves in order to survive. When the choice becomes finding a man to eat or take from an unsuspecting child, sometimes you have to do the lesser of two evils no matter how much of your soul it takes with it. Mortensen embodies these sentiments, but so do others along the way. I must mention Michael K. Williams as “The Thief”, a man so lost on his own journey of survival that he just can’t help himself. You know that he is a man of honor and kindness that had no choice, but then you must think of the fact that he did, he could have allowed himself to die rather than take from innocents. But that’s the rub, no one is innocent, not even “The Boy” as evidenced when Smit-McPhee yells at his father to say that he also must face what’s going on each day. Viggo isn’t shielding him from the terrors around every corner; just because he is young doesn’t mean he hasn’t grown up quick; it’s all he could do to stay sane and move along with all the pains of his past and knowledge of those still to come. It’s a tough watch, but well worth the time and effort to see a true masterpiece of tone and humanity—the good parts and the bad.

The Road 9/10

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Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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Sometimes a movie comes along that is almost indecipherable, but for reasons unknown, still can’t be shaken from my consciousness. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising is one such example. It concerns a one-eyed, mute Norse warrior’s quest to discover his lot in life and/or death … I really don’t know which. It could have been the fatigue of being the fourteenth movie seen in less than four days at the Toronto International Film Festival, or perhaps it was intentionally vague to utilize its mood and gorgeous environments as the true focal points. Winding Refn said before the screening that he always wanted to shoot in an exotic place, and this was the chance to make that a reality. So, with the lavish hillsides of Scotland, he and co-writer Roy Jacobsen brought a tale of Vikings searching for the Holy Land—or a place to set up a new one—with them, listening to heavy metal in order to get into the mindframe of the hell that would take over. I do think all involved understood that the story would be left up to audience interpretation, making it more a journey rather than a strict plot, because star Mads Mikkelsen left us with a cryptic message himself before the projector started going. He said, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy that imaginary joint.”

It all starts with Mikkelsen’s One-Eye in captivity, being used as a fighter against other Norse tribes’ best—able to take a beating and always shell out more to achieve victory. Helped by a young boy, Are, (played by Maarten Steven), he soon escapes and kills those holding him captive, taking the boy with him as he travels on, visions of red violence coming into his mind, leading him to an inevitable fate. Using the boy as translator to those they cross paths with, a bond is formed between the two, one that holds One-Eye accountable to protect him no matter what. Eventually finding passage with a Viking vessel of Christians, the captain of which sees the use of having a man of his powers as an ally, a fog soon rolls in as they sail to an unknown land. Conditions become dire as food and drink deplete and the water surrounding them becomes salty and undrinkable. Tensions run high and blame is passed to the warrior, calling him a beacon of evil, already having been told by the boy that he came from hell.

The visions become more frequent as we wonder if One-Eye is going insane, is a vessel himself for a higher being, or just supernatural in both strength and mind. Red soaked passages eventually come true in the dull, cold palette used to show reality. Violence runs rampart throughout, allegiances, tenuous at best, and survival playing a large role in everything. Maybe this God of a man is some sort of reaper taking the Vikings on a journey to their destruction or perhaps he has only involved them in the trip to his own, but either way, the graphic nature of combat and battle—dirty and personal, just as you’d think it would be with savages such as these—is prevalent at all times. Right from the start we are exposed to the gruesome fights, seeing two men battle in the mud, feeling each punch connect, a battle ending with the decapitation of the loser by the chain holding the victor in place so as not to escape. Brutal in execution and still beautiful in its hellish visuals, one cannot deny the power of image.

Winding Refn’s Vikings are physical specimens of humanity, not exactly giants, but fierce in their mentalities and demeanors. You would not want to get into a fistfight with any, as they would rip you apart limb from limb. It is this gritty realism that helps in the success of the movie, showing this world as being without rules and governed by strength. The leader will be the general that can keep the rest safe, his hold of power only as strong as the respect given him by those he leads. It only takes one moment of weakness to become expendable, killed and tossed to the side as the next warrior rises up. But then you have One-Eye, a man who could take on anyone or all and be victorious. He is not out for the glory or riches that come in war; he is on a spiritual march to whatever future is coming to him in bits and pieces when he closes his eyes.

Norse mythology is often made into large blonde men wearing horned helmets and furry clothing, weapons at hand to bludgeon and beat. Valhalla Rising doesn’t buy into these clichés or stereotypes, instead digging deeper into the mentalities of these people, the rage and religious fervor that lives inside. The Christians want to find salvation or safety of some form, and they aren’t afraid to spill blood to find it. So it becomes a combination of mythology and Christianity and survival, men without answers on a journey through hell, or into it. I was a little surprised to hear that distribution rights were purchased after it screened in Toronto, not because it doesn’t deserve them—it is a cinematic feat that earns the right to be seen and dissected—but because of its lack of mainstream appeal. So much of the movie is internal, watching actors act without words, making the audience think and decipher what is going on. I just hope the Hollywood machine does not fall into the trap of selling it as a battle royale of Vikings on the sea, a 300 type epic adventure. That would be the greatest disservice of all. The film merits an audience of introspective thinkers and open minds to let the sumptuous nature of all on screen—whether beautiful or disgusting or both—wash over them and grab hold. It isn’t so much a movie to be seen, but one to be experienced.

Valhalla Rising 7/10

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Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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I’ll get it out right now: I have a soft spot for director Jason Reitman. I felt his debut Thank You for Smoking lived up to expectations and his sophomore effort Juno was my first ever screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, allowing me to experience something fresh and unique before becoming a breakout phenomenon. So, on the basis of nostalgia, as well as talent, my friend and I had to see if he could finish out the hat trick with Up in the Air at this year’s festival. And boy did he—not only crafting a film that hits on all cylinders, but one that trumps his previous two, proving that the young Reitman has staying power and the eye to not only find good material, but also to bring it to life for the world to see.

Based on the novel by Walter Kirn, George Clooney stars as corporate downsizing expert Ryan Bingham, who is hired to help ease the transition of long-term employees to the unemployment line across the country. Taking his job very seriously and loving the 290 days away from home—the only problem with that is the 70 days in his empty apartment—his world gets turned upside-down when a young upstart in the company threatens to ground them, firing people via the internet. Not standing for a change in his life, nor the chance for his life goal of total airline miles to end, (“Let’s just say I have a number and I haven’t hit it yet”), he goes on a mission to prove how personal his job is and how key a face to face meeting can be to talk down an emotionally unstable person and really do the victim a service in an otherwise horrible moment in his life. Along the way, he and the recent college grad, of which the boss loves due to her budget slashing game-changing idea, Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick, both find out what has been lacking in their lives and how to become better people, opening up to love, heartbreak, and the need to grow up.

Clooney’s Bingham is the loner businessman whose only relationships exist from random meetings with attractive females at the multiple airports he frequents. His wallet of plastic has become his lifeblood—credit cards from airlines that accumulate his mileage, hotel status perk cards that let him cut the disgruntled travelers and go straight to the front, and numerous room keys that never seem to be thrown out, causing him to always use more than one before finally opening his hotel suite’s door. Detached from his family for years as the brother that exists but cannot be counted on for anything, he contemplates whether he should, or really wants to, attend his sister’s wedding—the little girl of the family and someone he should have been involved with after the passing of their father. A series of style cramping incidents for him begins with a phone call from his other sister and the request to take a cardboard cutout of the happy couple, (Melanie Lynskey and Danny McBride, in a role that might actually show some nuance for a guy that usually goes where the joke is), and photograph it in front of famous places he travels to for work “like that French gnome movie,”—I love the Amélie reference. Then comes the threat of being taken out of the air, his home for decades, in order to impersonally let go of more people more efficiently; the challenge of taking Natalie on his next schedule of jobs to prove to her why the new system won’t work; and the addition of a love interest in Vera Farmiga’s Alex, a woman who describes herself to him with, “just think of me as you with a vagina”—one of many great lines.

There is a lot of subtlety and intricate weaving of plot lines throughout the story, details and sequences that need to be seen fresh to get the full benefit of the film. What you might initially think is a witty comedy about a jerk of a guy who not only thinks he’s better than everyone else, but actually is, that either finds the error of his ways or gets dropped down a peg or two, eventually becomes a tale chock full of heart and emotion. The real success story of the film is a revelatory performance from Clooney who really knocks this one out of the park. He always showed the charisma and chops to play confident and successful, but here is allowed to also branch out and express the pent-up frustration that comes with isolated loneliness, the passion one can have for a job that seems horrible, yet, when treated carefully, is a job to take seriously, and the compassion for humanity on the whole, softening enough to realize that there are people around him that need help besides his laid off strangers, help that only he can provide. The evolution he undertakes is really pretty amazing and I credit Kirn, Reitman, and Clooney for pulling it off with grace and laughter.

Every single actor is unforgettable—even the bit parts like Zach Galifianakis and especially J.K. Simmons as two corporate employees whose jobs have been eliminated. Jason Bateman is hilarious as Clooney’s smug boss, fully embodying the take no crap nonchalance he made famous in “Arrested Development”; Farmiga is gorgeous and competent to be able to go toe-to-toe with Clooney in the detachment and power-hungry attitude of flying in style for half a year or more; and, if George’s reinvention of character is revelatory, then Kendrick’s naïve Natalie is masterful. This girl was top in her class, able to get a job in her field wherever her heart desired, yet settled for this firm specializing in firing people so as to not dirty the workers’ real superior’s hands. Young and confused about life in the big world of adulthood—set on a plan for marriage and children to occur as though set times on a clock—her eyes are opened to the intimacy and fragility with which a person’s mental state can be affected by mere words. When you put them all together, Up in the Air resonates on so many levels; deserving of any praise and accolades to be bestowed upon it. Hilariously funny every second of the way, it is still unafraid to dig into the dark moments of life and treat them with respect and relevancy, going places you wouldn’t think it would have the guts to go. You really can’t say too much about the film, a top ten of the year entry for sure, with Reitman proving to be a force to reckon with and Clooney just getting better with age.

Up in the Air 9/10

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Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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Words can seriously not describe the visually rich and assaulting epic tale of death and its aftermath of memories and spiritual travel that is Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. Self-proclaimed as “weird” by the director himself at it’s World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, (the print screened at Cannes was a work-in-progress), he says his attempt was to create a near death experience on film. So, with stunning imagery; fullscreen frames of solid bright color pulsating at epileptic seizure-inducing rates; extended moments of seamless cutting to make long passages appear to be one take; first person camera-work spliced from straight shots merging into fish-eye lens distortion; extreme close-ups, either computer generated or otherwise, appearing as though a fly filmed the entire thing while in flight; and just the maze-like electricity of downtown Tokyo at night, one must actually sit down and experience it, letting it wash over you, to fully appreciate the work. Noé is a genius of some kind, always on the fringes of the industry, appalling some, disgusting others, and written off by the rest, yet I can’t genuinely say I’d recommend anyone seeing this movie. And therein lies the problem, if words can’t describe it and I couldn’t in good conscience send you to see it due to the extensive drug use, realistic sex scenes, and harrowing moments of graphic brutality, what else is there to do?

It definitely is an important film to the industry, though, just in the technical prowess on display. Noé has an eye for cinema, utilizing who knows what for shots that I’ve never seen before. He said after the screening that a lot of post-production was necessary to craft every moment into the piece of art he finished with. Aerial shots of the cities were recreated with computers, frames were meticulously darkened or lightened when needed, (the auteur is so specific and detail-oriented that when the film ended he came up and said he’d never seen it so dark, the projector must be different than his, but what could he do?), and the giant phallus that is mentioned everywhere when speaking of the movie is an interesting moment because there is no way you could put a camera where it would be needed to capture that shot. There are religious underpinnings laid throughout between a Buddhist book given to our lead Oscar to peruse or the issue of reincarnation and whether the soul traveling after his death was finding itself a new vessel to be reborn in or just a journey back, recalling his own conception. Noé mentioned that he wanted it to feel like the time he watched the Lady in the Lake on mushrooms; I can’t say I’ve ever done hallucinogens, but I can imagine the feeling would be similar to watching this work.

There is so much to absolutely love as a cinephile here. The flashbacks to a time where Oscar and his sister Linda were in each others’ lives, orphans after the horrific death of their parents, are shot with a filter to make them magically fairytale-like; the amount of crap crammed into each frame of the present, whether in Oscar’s apartment, a nightclub bathroom of filth during a supposed drug dropoff, or the dressing room of Linda’s strip club, or even the fictional “Hotel Love” made real in our dying spirit’s vision from an elaborate model city shown to him some time before is immense; and the enhanced close-ups, again, are phenomenal—swooping up from an ashtray with a lit cigarette lying inside, burning and sizzling away … just gorgeous in a messed up way, much like a lot of things here. Speaking of the parents’ death, what a sequence showing the car crash that took their lives. The sound is deafening, the truck’s headlights coming straight for us as we watch it from the backseat, and the visceral, physical feeling of being rocked back yourself from the impact you cannot feel, it is seriously that effective. You become Oscar, transported into the movie to live through the chaos and turmoil. I’m liking the movie more and more as I write this essay, reliving the scenes and remembering how they grabbed me and threw me around … and yet I still don’t know if I’ll ever want to—or have the chance to—see it again. Do not expect this thing hitting a local multiplex any time in the near future; it’s subject matter going way beyond your regular NC-17 flick.

I do not want to nitpick the acting, since it is such a small part of the ride, but you can’t help notice the amateurish quality. Nathaniel Brown plays Oscar—who admittedly isn’t in the film as a person you see very much, more so utilized as voiceover at the start—in a debut role. Listening to him speak, while looking out through his eyes, can be somewhat painful as his line delivery is awkward and not quite realistic. The second lead, Linda, is played by Paz de la Huerta, a friend of Noé who said at the screening that she was surprised when cast, not realizing she was even up for the part. She has an extensive filmography of small roles, but one must wonder whether she earned the spot due to her being okay with nude and sex scenes rather than her acting skill. Again, though, the performances come secondary to any other visual flourish shown as the people really just become pawns to be played with and shot within the atmospheric environments. But there is one riveting turn, by Emily Alyn Lind as young Linda in flashbacks, needing to be mentioned. Wow, is this little girl phenomenal. Her screaming, inside the car at the moment of the crash looking at her bloodied parents, or being taken away by a family from her brother for adoption, sent chills down my spine. So emotionally draining, I worry for the parents who let her act in a film like this, in a role so demanding, but can’t deny the power she adds, literally being the best actor by far.

There really isn’t any more to say. Just know going in that the journey will be difficult to complete but wondrous if you open your mind to its out-of-the-box beauty. Straight from the get-go, with an extended title sequence quickly flashing every single name of anyone who worked on the project in a strobe light effect, you begin to see the job your eyes and mind have before them. I might buy the film on DVD just to pause through this opening to see the myriad of fonts and letter treatments used, each frame different. Even Noé’s name itself, flying by numerous times due to his extensive work as its creator, is changed every instance, sometimes resembling a metal band’s logo, sometimes a video game title, but always going a tad too quick to really know what you’re seeing. And that is a good way to sum it all up; Enter the Void runs through 155 minutes of disturbing and magical imagery, overwhelming you at every turn in its rapid pace. An audience member asked the director if he questioned the inclusion of any scene, to which Noé responded, “If it made the movie, I must have liked it”. No truer words could be said as this two-years-in-the-making opus was crafted from a love only a parent and child can share, and it shows.

Enter the Void 8/10

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Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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Hailed by the TIFF moderator as Michael Haneke’s masterpiece, I found myself expecting something very specific from Das weiße Band [The White Ribbon]. Thinking about the uncomfortable feeling he leaves the audience with during both Funny Games and Caché, I readied myself for a dark and disturbing look into an Austrian town before the First World War. The film is just under two and half hours long, somber in its execution and quietly powerful in its subject matter. At every second I kept waiting for the big reveal, the climactic moment to turn things around and be a game-changer—that’s Haneke’s M.O. right? But that doesn’t happen here, the story’s tone stays consistent with a subtle oppressive feeling lingering just below the surface. You feel that something is just not right, but can’t quite put a finger on it.

Admittedly, I was underwhelmed at its conclusion. I knew it was something great, especially in construction and visual prowess, yet I couldn’t shake that feeling of clouded mediocrity. And then, after talking about it with my friend for an hour or two afterwards, it hit me. Haneke has intentionally filled our minds with detail upon detail, setting up conspiracies and unsolved mysterious, leading us to believe things only to plant clues that refute them. Looking back, I found that each second stuck in my head; I couldn’t shake even the minutest detail because it might hold the key to solving this puzzle. Deaths, tragedies, and accidents are happening every day, possibly connected, but how? Our narrator, the town’s schoolteacher played by Christian Friedel, is relaying the events that occurred before being sent off to fight once the Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated. He believes the strange attitude and mysterious activities all began with a freak accident of the doctor. Riding his horse back home, he is thrown off when its legs trip on a wire spanning two trees, causing a lengthy hospital stay to recover. Next come a death, a kidnapping, and a beating, all unsolved despite hunches and hypotheses going through the town. Something is in the air, but what it is and what will come of it is unknown.

The children are the key to everything. They are the easiest to blame, as it seems they are always there by the tragedies. Definitely hiding something, the kids begin to stare authority in the eye and practice what has been preached. Haneke mentions in an interview attached to the press notes that he wanted to show the sort of “black” education going on at the time, breeding Fascism and terror. Good and evil fall to strict black and white, every action has a reaction, a punishment to set things right. The children are of an age that they are beginning to understand that life is not eternal, there are consequences in their actions and the adults are not afraid to tell them so. When you don’t follow the rules, you will be caned, (a brilliant scene showing the young siblings enter the room, but allowing the audience to only see the closed door during the abuse), and you will have to wear the white ribbon in order to show the world your transgressions and need to earn back the right to be free, (the precursor to the Jewish stars perhaps?).

What about the adults? What about those practicing adultery, or abuse of power, or destruction of property, or sexual abuse with a child? Who has the right to punish them? When, after the second kidnapping and beating of a young boy, a note is found stating intentions, that the children of transgressors will be discipline for four to five generations, you start to see the severity of the actions—as well as allusions to the Holocaust and the mass genocide of an entire people, rooting out the “evils” of the world by excising the entire population, killing the bloodline at the source. But it can’t be the children, right? They are too young and innocent, unknowing of the world set before them. Yet with the upbringing in this town, treated as adults with responsibilities and accountability, anyone would grow up fast. Cause a raucous in class and be chastised; be the leader and stand in the corner. Forgiveness is a liability. When the oldest girl, and leader of the wolves if you believe the children are the monsters, Klara, (wonderfully portrayed by Maria-Victoria Dargus), is ready to accept Communion, her own father, the pastor, (a menacing man of authority realized by Burghart Klaußner), pauses, contemplating whether she deserves it. You know he doesn’t want to give in, family bond means nothing.

Haneke has woven a tapestry of intrigue that will keep you on edge throughout. The anticipation of a solution is palpable, and the fact it is never released makes this film so riveting and unforgettable. The payoff is that these children will grow up into the generation that becomes the Nazi party, making this sleepy rural town a breeding ground for young Fascists that will change the world. Retribution is being taught, atoning for ones sins practiced. World War II is after all an answer to the punishment inflicted on Germany after the first, isn’t it? It’s a cycle of getting back, proving one’s pride, and seeking revenge upon the children of the enemy if the enemy itself is unavailable. God’s will has to be upheld and that intrinsic fact is ingrained in the minds of the youth. When Martin, an effective Leonard Proxauf, is discovered walking along the railing of a high bridge, he responds to the yelling of the man that finds him with the line used to title this review. If what he was doing was wrong—we can only infer on his role in the incidents occurring around him—then God would have let him fall, paying for his sins. But the fact that he gets to the other side unscathed only proves his work is that of the creator of man. Haneke says he had another name for the film, God’s Right Hand, and I think it would have been just as appropriate a title. A powerful film, sharing so much information without any answers; it takes our mind into overdrive, trying so hard to find a reason for it all. But sometimes there are none; sometimes bad things just happen. You can only speculate and hope to prevent them from ever happening again.

Das weiße Band [The White Ribbon] 10/10

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photography:
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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I will not deny the fact that Alejandro Amenábar is one of my favorite directors at the moment. With the eerily creepy The Others and the emotionally wrought Mar adentro, how could he not be? And why have I not seen Abre los ojos yet? Disgraceful I know. Well, you can imagine my immense excitement when finding out his new 4th century Egyptian epic Agora would be playing as a gala presentation in Toronto for TIFF. The trailer made it seem very unlike his past movies, looking to be on a much larger scale in comparison. But it was Amenábar, so I had complete faith that he could pull it off, probably infusing it with the detail and heart the previous movies had in abundance. He spoke before the film that he wanted to make a work that tackled the subject of intolerance, to fight “against anyone who uses violence to prove his ideas”. Using three weeks of preparation before filming began, with minimal computer effects—he wanted a “going back in time” realism, so extras were hired and sets were built—he definitely did the job while also shedding light on a period of history that hasn’t really been done in Hollywood.

Debuting at Cannes, this screening was the North American premiere. The theatre was full of festival attendees and rows of Blackberry, Bell, and AMC sponsorship employees. But once the lights dimmed and the movie began, all that went away and Amenábar encompassed us in the city of Alexandria. A woman, the daughter of the head of the glorious library holding mankind’s history, Hypatia, played nicely by Rachel Weisz, is the voice and teacher for a new generation of Egyptians. It is a mixed group of those still believing in the Gods, (pagans), and the new Christian contingent, being persecuted while also persecuting as well. Hypatia looks past all that, refusing to align herself with a religion, instead utilizing science itself as her philosophy’s backbone. Teaching and comprehending the world as heliocentric, attempting to grasp at the idea of gravity many, many years before its discovery to allow for a geocentric model, it all derails once bigotry prevails. The agora becomes a scene of Christians throwing fruit at the statues of the Gods, an offense that the pagans must meet with retribution. It all turns into a fight that exposes the infinite number of Christians living in the city. All those who hid their beliefs expose themselves for the battle, eventually driving the pagans back into the library to await word from the prefect on what’s to be done for a truce.

The fight is epic in scope and execution—a mass of humanity fighting friends in the streets. Amenábar has no fear in showing the brutality and intimacy of the war. We see overhead shots of people running around like ants, but also close-up views of the men engaging with each other, taking it as personally as possible. When a man’s slave must reconcile his duty to his master and that to his God, the pain and conflict is etched on his face. Screaming, “I’m a Christian!” and then going over to beat the man he served, epitomizes the event completely. You could argue that the fighting scenes overshadow the rest in effectiveness and you would be right. The scenes of government, school, and scientific research do become second fiddle to the hostility brewing underneath the surface, as they are somewhat generic and not too original as far as historical biographies go. They are a necessity, though, to give the audience a jumping off point as to why both factions feel the need to disagree and prove their superiority. Just wait for the second half—after a clumsy transitional time jump—where most pagans have become Christians themselves in order to survive in the new rebuilt Alexandria. It now becomes a war between them and the Jews, fighting for equality in a government ruled by one of Hypatia’s former students, Oscar Isaac’s Orestes, a newly made Christian, yet educated by a woman … blasphemy indeed.

All the fighting does, however, is cause death and destruction, setting mankind back centuries in progress and education. We can’t know for sure if Hypatia was on the verge of such scientific theories that far back, but the point definitely comes across. Amenábar made a statement before the screening that if the Alexandria library had not been destroyed, we might have landed on Mars already. The interesting thought of those words is that they might not be as bold as you’d initially think. So much knowledge was lost in this bickering feud without reason besides needing some form of victory in a pissing contest. It is something to consider especially when you look at history after that point and the countless deaths of visionaries and potentially brilliant minds due to zealotry, genocide, and just plain blind aggression or inferiority complexes. I’m sure the fact that the film shows three religions at war, none of which are Muslim, isn’t lost on the filmmakers and serves as some sort of comment towards political tensions today, but you have to read into the tale to get to that point; I think it works as a historical epic alone without the need of social commentary of the present.

But Agora isn’t only about the fighting in a general sense, it really hones in on some of the players, especially the original classmates in Hypatia’s lessons. You have Orestes, a reformed Christian to advance his political stature; Synesius, (played by Rupert Evans), a young man who admitted his religion but kept allegiance to his teacher and class that would later become a bishop; and Davus, an ex-slave of Hypatia’s family that slowly sees his world falling apart, deciding to leave the woman he has fallen for—an impossible love by being her slave, but also because she herself had just one love, her work—to join a military faction of the Christians, inflicting order and violence on those against them. All the acting is very good, but only Max Minghella’s Davus stands out to warrant specific mention. He has the largest evolution of the bunch and wears his emotions openly on his sleeve. The result of his history with Weisz’s character leads to an admittedly obvious climax, but those shortcomings in the human aspect of the story shouldn’t detract from the success of the historical moments. As a piece of history and as entertaining wartime cinema, I think Agora earns the right to be seen.

Agora 8/10

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photography:
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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