Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Greatest Opening Scenes in Film History

So many of the great albums immediately hit you with their best shot. Classic songs like “Brown Sugar,” “Thunder Road,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Respect,” “Purple Haze,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Seven Nation Army” were chosen to open their albums with a bang instead of slowly draw the audience in and build to a climax. Movies traditionally haven’t operated the same way; the classic Hollywood films typically began with by-the-numbers exposition and set-up—and even that was after three or four minutes of boring title cards.

Luckily, times have changed. The Film School Generation of the 1970s began to successfully switch things up a bit, showing willing audiences that there’s no reason exposition and set-up has to be unengaging. Today, thanks to the ever-present ADD experienced by modern audiences, there’s basically a written-in-stone rule that movies have to be exciting from the first moment (and over the last few years, this practice has even led to the near-extinction of opening credit sequences; many films are starting to delay all credits and titles until the end).

So these are the facts, and they are indisputable: a movie’s beginning is now almost as important as its ending. But what are the opening scenes to which all others should forever be judged against? Well, that’s what I’m here for.

First, a few words on some notable omissions:

Up and Saving Private Ryan often appear on lists like this, but I don’t think they qualify, because the early sequences for which they are justly famous (the marriage montage and D-Day invasion, respectively) are actually the film’s second scenes. Jaws and 2001 also get a lot of credit for the way they open, and while it’s mostly deserved, I don’t think either opening stands up well today. I gave good consideration to The Departed for this list, but it’s a bit difficult to distinguish exactly where the opening scene even ends (the title screen doesn’t appear until more than twenty minutes into the film, in what is probably the third or fourth scene). A Clockwork Orange has one of the greatest-ever opening images, but the entire opening scene isn’t as impressive. And lastly, I remember the opening of Mission: Impossible III being particularly great, but I don’t own the DVD and couldn’t find the clip online to save my life, so without a fresh viewing, I opted not to include it.

Let’s get to the list! (Click on the title of each film to see the clip.)

25. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

24. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

A lot of films open with what can fairly be called a teaser. The audience is shown an event that isn’t really meant to make sense, but is intriguing enough to make us stick around for the explanation. In a sense, a teaser intro is a way of saying “we’re going to spend the next two hours explaining how we got here,” so for an audience to accept that inevitability, the teaser better be pretty damn enticing. Goodfellas probably has the all-time best teaser intro (“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”), but Citizen Kane, with its single word (“Rosebud”), is inarguably the most famous—and influential. Two other great examples are The Hangover (“Things got out of hand, and we lost Doug.”) and Fight Club (Brad Pitt holding a gun in Edward Norton’s mouth).

23. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)

22. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

For some movies, the perfect way to open things is by setting the ground rules. We’re given a scene in which the specific events don’t have a lot of bearing on the plot, but the mentality and attitude established is crucially important. In both Scream and The Dark Knight, we see the villains performing crimes that prove to be unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but the way in which they’re carried out serves as a perfectly ominous message for what’s to come. With Scream’s Ghostface, we learn two simple rules: 1) don’t answer the phone, and 2) at least know your horror movies if you do answer it. And with the Joker, we learn that there simply are no rules. (No Country For Old Men also did this well, with Javier Bardem's villainous Anton Chigurgh memorably killing someone with a cattle stun gun shot to the forehead just a few minutes into the film.)

21. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

At the end of The Social Network’s first scene, the main character is called an “asshole” in a pretty definitive way. But this serves as the film’s way of issuing a challenge to the viewer: This movie is about an asshole, but we DARE you not to find him fascinating. Written by the great Aaron Sorkin, the opening sequence is a hyper-speed conversation that results in a break-up which feels both spontaneous and yet totally justified. But the verbal rhythms of this scene also introduce us to a key element of the characters—their inner rhetoric operates with the speed and efficiency of a microprocessor, and they say what they think. There’s no clip because The Social Network is still in theaters, but anyone that hasn’t seen it yet really should do so. I dare you not to find it fascinating.

20. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

The clip actually omits the first five minutes of the movie, but it still gets the point across: nobody has ever been able to squeeze more drama out of delayed action than Sergio Leone. An incredible amount of time is spent in Leone’s classic Spaghetti Westerns on characters waiting for one another to make the first move. In doing so, Leone draws us into the drama the characters face. As character A waits for character B to draw, and vice versa, the audience starts to experience the same sweat on their brow as the characters, because we’re forced into playing the same waiting game. It’s a daring psychological ploy, because people generally prefer instant gratification, but Leone’s darting camera and extreme close-ups pull it off. It’s not quite fair to say Quentin Tarantino learned everything he knows from Leone, but there’s at least an entire semester’s worth of curriculum in this scene.

19. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

18. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

Not just two of the most famous opening sequences ever, but, in many ways, the two opening sequences that started to draw attention to the art of a great first scene. What both films do so well is subtly draw you into their worlds so thoroughly that you feel like you’ve always been there. This is important to do in films like these, where the backlog of mythology and relationships is incredibly complex. But the great directors are able to reveal detailed sets of information in effortless ways, and that’s never been on display better than in these two films. And if you were to make a list of the greatest opening lines in film history, Star Wars (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…”) and The Godfather (“I believe in America”) might very well rank #s 2 and 3 behind Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud."

17. Batman (Tim Burton, 1989)

Tim Burton’s original Batman films are inferior to Christopher Nolan’s contemporary versions in almost every single way, but Burton wins out in one key area—his Gotham City is far better realized. In fact, an argument could be made that the original Batman is one of the greatest works of art/set direction in film history, on par with classics of the field like Metropolis, Frankenstein, and Blade Runner. Using a bizarre combination of 1930s era Manhattan, 1970s CBGB’s punk, and Blade Runner-like future gothic, Burton and his collaborators created one of the most unique visions of urban horror that’s ever been unleashed, and it is introduced marvelously in Batman’s opening scene. The clip unfortunately picks up after an initial 20 seconds or so of Gotham images, but you can check them out at the end of this video.

16. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)

The intro of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had an unenviable task, because it required success on two levels. On the more obvious front, the Fellowship of the Ring intro had to cover an enormous back-story and mythology in a way that was brief, compelling, interesting, and exciting. But that’s actually the easy part of the equation; the difficult part was pleasing the devoted fans of the novels and meeting the expectations that come along with creating one of the most anticipated and ambitious movies ever attempted. Jackson had taken a gargantuan cast to New Zealand for over a year and spent more than 100 million dollars to film what amounted to a twelve-hour film based on a book trilogy that had an impossible-to-please fan base. The financial well being of an entire studio was riding on these films, and Jackson literally could not afford for the intro to be anything but perfect. Luckily, it was perfect. Using a new style of epic filmmaking that was to be endlessly copied in the years to come, a haunting score from Howard Shore, and regal narration by the great Cate Blanchett, The opening of The Lord of the Rings will give you goose bumps. Mission Accomplished.

15. Lord of War (Andrew Niccol, 2005)

Lord of War has an intro that I like to refer to as “Important Unimportance.” As we watch the journey of a single bullet from being manufactured all the way to blowing a nameless kid’s brains out, we don’t learn anything about the film’s characters, plot, style, or really even the theme (the opener is weighty and topical drama, while the film is more like unsuccessful black comedy). And yet… the movie is inconceivable, as well as a hell of a lot worse, without the intro. While it seems easy to conclude that the opener doesn’t add anything to the film besides a memorable credits sequence, the real reality is that the film doesn’t add anything to the opener. The opener was simply too good, and the movie it introduced had no hope of living up. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) also had an a great intro in the Important Unimportance vein, as the theme of coincidence was memorably introduced through three entirely unrelated, yet unforgettable anecdotes.

14. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)

What City of God’s opening sequence does so well is something nearly unique in film up to that point: it establishes not so much a style of storytelling, but a rhythm. The speed of the cuts intertwined with the music makes the film feel like a carefully choreographed salsa dance—keep up or keep to the sidelines. The entire film operates on this propulsive beat that chugs along so relentlessly the characters end up in a constant reactionary status with their own lives, much like the chicken in this scene. Ending the scene with the 360-degree spin as the main character reverts to his childhood self was an effortless way of establishing where the film is going. In that sense, this intro operates like a teaser that does so much more than tease. In terms of establishing a visual rhythm, the opening sequence of West Side Story (1961) also does a good job, but it’s not in the same league as City of God.

13. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

12. The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)

Occasionally, a movie’s opening sequence will simply dazzle us with its craft, and that’s the case with these two. Both films open with an unbroken tracking shot that looks simply impossible to pull off, and yet there we are watching it. For decades, Touch of Evil had the reputation of having the tracking shot to end all tracking shots, and it was the first shot of the movie! Lately though, as technology and the ambition of great directors continues to exponentially increase, Touch of Evil’s supremacy is constantly being challenged. Just in the last few years, movies like Atonement, Children of Men, and The Secret in Their Eyes have given us shots we never would have thought were possible. But while those films all used their crowning technical achievement as the centerpiece of the movie, The player had the audacity to open with an 8 minute long unbroken shot. The entire film uses meta-fiction quite well, but the theme is introduced in this opening scene. As one character says to another that the opening shot of Touch of Evil could never be topped, that’s exactly what we’re seeing happen. Robert Altman had the balls to not just beat Touch of Evil at its own game, but to tell us while he was doing it. Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) also opens with a tracking shot of similar audacity, but it doesn’t manage to be compelling in the same way.

11. Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

Really, this should have been a mortal lock for the top ten, but I’m not totally sure it qualifies because it’s so long. (The opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds is over 20 minutes, while all but four other entries in this top 25 were under 8 minutes.) I finally opted to include it under the following corollary: my blog, my rules. It could be argued that Basterds has the most ambitious opening of any film on this list, precisely because it doesn’t follow any of the most basic assumptions regarding how to open a movie. It jumps right into an important scene, but proceeds along very slowly; none of the title characters or name actors in the film are featured in a scene that lasts for an extremely long time by today’s standards; and the opening scene may well leave you crying—not exactly something a summer movie is supposed to do twenty minutes into its runtime. And as if that all weren’t enough, Tarantino had the audacity to combine Leone style drama with Hitchcock style suspense… and make us fully aware he was doing it. The result was a scene so memorable and powerful, that it effectively won Christoph Waltz an Oscar. (Sadly there's no clip of the complete scene online, but if you've never seen it before, just rent the movie. It's one of the best films of the last several years.)

10. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)

Herzog’s films have always been about the grey area where extreme dedication collides with pure insanity, and how the lines between the two can easily become blurred. As a result of this undercurrent, Herzog often ends up making movies about the dangerous quests men embark on, and how they turn out. Aguirre, Herzog’s masterpiece, desires to show us that the quest of the Spanish conquistadors to locate the fabled El Dorado in the 16th century was borne out of less than pure rationality, and the film does this rather quickly. Using an ethereal score that seems to be floating out of the mist, and an incredibly orchestrated shot of hundreds of people descending a mountain jungle to the depths of madness in a single file line, Herzog accomplishes a singular cinematic rarity: he achieves the entire goal of a film in its first two minutes. Now that’s an opening scene!

9. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

8. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009)

Since 2005’s Batman Begins, the franchise reboot has become one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers. While the advantage of hindsight enables filmmakers to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, a great reboot is still difficult to pull off. A careful balance has to be found between honoring what has gone before and forging a new identity. While neither of these things is easy, you might have been fooled into thinking so after seeing Casino Royale or Star Trek. Both films open with the never-before-seen origin of their classic characters; we watch James Bond get his first two kills and earn double O status, while we see Captain Kirk’s birth during a catastrophic space battle. James Bond films have long been famous for their pre-credit sequences, but while always entertaining, they are almost never of any consequence. Casino Royale dared to be different. Not only do we watch Bond effectively become Bond, but also the stylish black & white and brutal fistfight clearly signal that the tongue-in-cheek era of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan is gone for good. The sequence serves as a bold statement of purpose for what the new franchise will be, but still has the good sense to end with a nod and a wink to those of us that have been around the block with Bond before, as the classic gunshot framed by the eye is given a dramatic re-creation. Unlike Casino Royale, the opening sequence for Star Trek doesn’t serve as a departure from the norm or homage to it, but it is one of the greatest film-opening action sequences ever created. That may seem less ambitious, but if the ultimate goal of a great opening sequence is to make people salivate for the rest of the film, then Star Trek earns top marks. (Sadly, the only clip of it I could find changes a few crucial parts of the score. Just know that the music is far more dramatic in the real version.)

7. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

The most economical way to use a movie’s intro is to quickly dispense as much background information as possible, so the film can get to the key plot points without wasting a big chunk of running time. Often times, this strategy manifests itself in long text openers (i.e. Star Wars, Gladiator), but isn’t that just the easy way out? The greatest example of the alternative is The Royal Tenenbaums, which we’ll refer to as the “Text Intro After a Cocktail of Speed and LSD” (or TIACSAL, for short). Basically, TIACSAL is a text intro read by a narrator, while the screen imagery dramatizes the text as fast as possible in a medley of bizarrely juxtaposed scenes and events. This had been done before, notably with Jules & Jim (1963) and Raising Arizona (1987), but never this well. The Tenenbaums intro combines the great narrative voice of Alec Baldwin, the strangest family history you’ll ever see outside of a Jerry Springer taping, and the most intricately detailed and idiosyncratic domestic art direction ever captured on film. But the more you watch it, the instrumental version of “Hey Jude” playing in the background becomes the emotional core of the scene; a song about a child in the spotlight needing comforting after his parents’ separation, it provides realistic grounding to the film’s themes… and that timeless “na na na” coda to frame the sequence.

6. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

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5. The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, 1983)

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4. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)

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3. Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)

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2. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

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1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

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Friday, October 29, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Film Trilogy Wraps Up

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Directed by Neils Arden Oplev

The Grade: B+ (on DVD)

The Girl Who Played With Fire – Directed by Daniel Alfredson

The Grade: A- (on DVD)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – Directed by Daniel Alfredson

The Grade: C+ (in theaters)

Trilogy as a whole: B+

The Swedish film versions of the suddenly (and posthumously) popular trilogy of novels by Steig Larsson wrap up today with the theatrical release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, so it’s an ideal time to assess the three films together, the first two of which opened in theaters earlier this year and are now available on DVD. The much Ballyhooed Hollywood versions of the films have just gotten underway with director David Fincher, star Daniel Craig, and newcomer Rooney Mara as the titular Girl, but we won’t be seeing the first of them until Christmas 2011, so the Swedish versions have to tide us over until then—a task they accomplish pretty well… mostly.

The first film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, opened back in April, and introduced us to lead characters Lizbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist as they come together to solve the disappearance of a young girl. While the title might lead one to think otherwise, the first film is really Mikael’s story; as an investigative journalist and publisher of “Millennium” magazine, Blomkvist has come under fire for a libel case in which he may have been set up. Prevented from returning to normal work, Blomkvist is hired by the patriarch of the powerful Vanger family to help solve the mystery of his niece’s disappearance forty years prior. Professional hacker Lizbeth Salander, initially working for Blomkvist’s legal opponents to help frame him, ends up aiding him on his new case.

At 152 minutes, the trilogy’s first film is its longest, but it never seems like it. Even though we realize at the film’s conclusion that it was a fairly standard mystery/thriller, it perpetually feels like something greater and deeper while we’re in its throes. Like The Silence of the Lambs, it’s a film in which the supporting character who aids the protagonist ends up being the most compelling person in the movie. We first meet Lizbeth as a waifish, helpless victim of her controllers, but she seizes control of her own life with a flare for the dramatic, and it’s compelling enough for us to follow her story into two sequels.

The second film, The Girl Who Played with Fire, opened this summer, and features a switch in both focus and director. While the first film was spurred along by an extraneous plot that the characters become involved in, the second film permanently changes the spotlight to Lizbeth Salander, her past, and her attempt to extricate herself from that past. (It’s useful to remember that the first book’s original title was Men Who Hate Women, which implies that two sequels focusing on Lizbeth might not have originally been planned for.) Fire is the best film of the trilogy both because Lizbeth is most directly involved in the action, and the action is most directly centered on Lizbeth; the plot arrives out of her character, instead of just existing to give her character something to do, as in the first film. The climactic scene of the film sees Lizbeth rise out of her own grave (literally) to confront her past with an axe to the head (not a metaphor), and in doing so, she becomes the perfect heroine for the new millennium: her weapon of choice is a laptop, but she’s more than capable of getting her hands dirty the old fashioned way. There’s talk in Hollywood of mounting a campaign to get actress Noomi Rapace an Oscar nomination for playing Lizbeth, and if so, this is the movie it should be for.

Unfortunately, the final film—this week’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—cruelly halts this momentum as efficiently as an opposing coach calling for a timeout. While the first two films effectively created an appetite for seeing what Lizbeth is capable of, the third film (running for a feels-like-it 148 minutes) shackles Lizbeth to a hospital bed and a courtroom chair for well over two hours, giving her nothing more than a cell phone to play with until she finally gets crafty with a nail gun in the last ten minutes of the movie. Say what? While Lizbeth spends the first half of the movie in the hospital, there’s at least the promise that the excitement will ratchet up along with her condition, but once it becomes clear the second half of the movie won’t break free of its legal doldrums, there’s an inescapable feeling that this isn’t what we signed up for.

But here’s what’s worse: on top of Hornet’s Nest killing Lizbeth’s mojo, the plot feels utterly superfluous. The Girl Who Played with Fire was essentially about Lizbeth discovering the truth about her past, confronting the people who wished to control her, and defeating them. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is essentially about… get ready… the exact same thing. All of the revelations and answers were packed into that second film, and it ended with what looked like a resounding victory for Lizbeth. The third film basically tries to tell us “Wait, the fight’s not over! The struggle continues… in the courtroom!” In many ways, Hornet’s Nest provides a valuable lesson for the new practice of filmmaking in which entire series’ are filmed at once: Don’t play your trump card if there’s still another whole film to go.

In spite of all this, the movie could have redeemed itself in the closing bits, but that’s yet another lost opportunity. After winning her freedom and defeating the last of her transgressors, Lizbeth triumphantly goes home and… has a cup of coffee. Roll credits. That would be fine as the ending to an episode of Law & Order, but as the ending of a hotly anticipated film trilogy? It has the audacity to be an anticlimactic conclusion to a movie that was already anticlimactic in its duration, but it gets an “A” for consistency. There was a great shot in the second film of Lizbeth defiantly riding the motorcycle she took from someone who crossed her, looking like quite the badass, and ready to deal with anyone that gets in her way. Would it be too much to ask for the trilogy to have ended with something like that? In many ways, it’s not enough for Lizbeth to simply win; we deserved to see her seize her freedom, but we didn’t get it.

It is, however, useful to remember that these films are adapted from the immensely popular novels, meaning a) any inherent flaws in the plot structure are most likely the fault of the book author and not the filmmaker, and b) if the filmmakers had significantly changed a recently deceased author’s most famous work, there would have been public outrage. So, assuming these adaptations are at least vaguely faithful (I haven’t read the books), I’m mostly complaining about the way Larsson chose to end his trilogy rather than the way Daniel Alfredson chose to film it. Honestly, I sort of feel like the second and third book/movie should have been switched—let the middle part of the trilogy knock around a courtroom while Lizbeth goes crazy with an axe in the finale.

Even still, while not totally placing blame on Alfredson for the lack of ass-kicking in Hornet’s Nest, one can’t help but wonder if a great filmmaker could have found a way to make it more compelling. And this is why I’m suddenly even more intrigued for what David Fincher will do with the Hollywood version of the stories. Fincher, director of the year’s best film inThe Social Network, the modern classics Seven and Fight Club, and the woefully underappreciated Zodiac is a master at slowly building momentum and intensity. Given this, it seems inconceivable that his version of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest will fall prey to the same flaws, but that’s still over a year away. In the meantime, the Swedish version of the trilogy is now complete, and it is overall a very worthwhile movie experience. The first film is little more than a really well done genre film, and the third film, while not boring, does feel a bit useless, but the second film is the true keeper. It is the trilogy’s raison d’etre, and the showcase of a great character who is sure to become a key figure of pop culture.

Note: To see the Detroit Metro Times version of this post, click here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

TIFF Finale: Days 10 & 11 (Saturday-Sunday, 9/18-19)

Note: Click here to see the Metro Times version of this post, which contains video and photos.

Sometime, you just get lucky. Saturday, September 18—the penultimate day of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival—became that day for me. Let me explain…

Over the first week of the festival, word of mouth began to spread on which movies were the favorites, and one name kept popping up over and over again: The King’s Speech. Starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech is about that friendship between King George VI and his speech therapist. In the weeks leading up to the festival, as I was looking over all of the descriptions and trying to decide which films to see, I read that brief plot synopsis, thought it sounded boring as hell, and didn’t put it on my shortlist of films to try and catch. The film only screened twice, both times occurring in the festival’s first few days, so by the time word began to spread about how amazing it was, I had already missed my chance to see it. Or had I?

For my Saturday volunteer shift, I ended up working a private industry screening of The King’s Speech, and I was one of two volunteers stationed inside the theater to help guard against unlawful piracy in the audience. This essentially meant that I could just stand there and watch the whole movie, which I happily did. I also saw two films later that evening, which both sucked, but my day had already been made.

Movie: The King’s Speech

What Is It? In the mid-1930s, King Edward abdicates England’s throne, leaving his stuttering brother, George VI, to become king and lead his nation into war against Germany. With the advent of radio and the looming conflict, it has never been more important for the King to make inspiring speeches to his people, so he hires a speech therapist to help conquer his stammer.

Director: Tom Hooper—Acclaimed for his TV miniseries work, especially USA’s Elizabeth I and HBO’s John Adams, Hooper’s only previous film was last year’s The Damned United.

Notable Cast: Colin Firth stars as George VI, with supporting work by Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist, Helena Bonham Carter as his wife, and Guy Pierce as his brother.

The Grade: A

Thoughts: If I were forced to bet right now on what will win Best Picture for 2010, I’d lay all my money on The King’s Speech. It is truly a flawless film. Despite a plot that sounds painfully boring, the film races by briskly and is never less than vividly entertaining. There’s a dry British humor that permeates the proceedings, as well as plenty of four letter words courtesy of a radical treatment method. And the acting… oh, the acting. Colin Firth is all but assured an Academy Award, and Geoffrey Rush could quite possibly win a second (he won Best Actor for 1996’s Shine). The King’s Speech is also a beautifully inspiring story about a man’s determination to overcome his disability in order to better serve his country. The film opens in wide release on Thanksgiving weekend, and I urge everyone to make time for it between trips to the mall. My only complaint was that I had to watch the whole thing standing up.

Movie: Stone

What Is It? Filmed at a jail in southeast Michigan, a convict up for parole gets his beautiful wife to try and influence his parole officer’s decisions.

Director: John Curran—Most notable for directing 2006’s underwhelming period drama The Painted Veil, which starred Edward Norton and Naomi Watts.

Notable Cast: Edward Norton plays the titular convict, Milla Jovovich (star if the Resident Evil franchise) plays his wife, and Robert DeNiro stars as the retiring parole officer.

Notable Crew: The film was written by Angus MacLachlan, whose previous screenplay was 2005’s wonderful Junebug.

The Grade: D

Thoughts: The only positive thing I can say about Stone is that it’s an ambitious film that tried to be great. But sadly, that’s where the compliments end. Honestly, this movie is just stupid. All three characters fight for who can be most unlikable, and DeNiro’s parole officer is given a prologue set thirty years ago that not only makes us hate him from the get-go, but feels completely superfluous to the film’s narrative. The acting is fairly serviceable, but anyone who’s seen HBO’s The Wire will immediately recognize that Norton is just doing a really good Bubbles impression, and therefore won’t be able to take him seriously. And you know what’s even worse than a movie with a bad plot and bad characters? A movie with a bad plot, bad characters, and no resolution. When the movie ended (or, more accurately, when the credits started running, since I don’t think it’s fair to say the movie had an ending), much of the audience responded with a disappointing “huh?” And unless you’re a former inmate, you won’t see any recognizable Michigan locations to make the movie worth sitting through. Instead of wasting your money on this, just see The King’s Speech twice.

Movie: Passion Play

What Is It? A trumpet player who’s seen better days and now works for the mob encounters a beautiful winged woman at the circus who might just be an angel. But when his mobster boss wants to claim her for his own, the trumpet player is forced into a tough decision.

Director: Mitch Glazer—a three-decade screenwriting veteran (Scrooged, The Recruit), this is Glazer’s directing debut, and he wrote the film as well.

Notable Cast: Mickey Rourke and Megan Fox play the leads, and Bill Murray uses his dry wit to tackle the mob boss.

The Grade: C-

Thoughts: I saw this movie because I’m a fan of both Rourke and Murray, but I found it to be a pretty forgettable experience. It deserves a little leniency because it is Glazer’s first film as a director, and it’s not totally awful, but I certainly don’t recommend it. The plot feels like Glazer took Wim Wenders’ two masterpieces from the 1980s—Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire—stuck them in a blender, and added a jumbo packet of Cheez Whiz. Murray feels out of place and yet still underused, while Megan Fox is at her best when not speaking. The movie does a relatively decent job maintaining interest with brisk pacing, but the ending is so comically bad that I actually wondered if it was supposed to be funny. I laughed quietly and nervously, just to make sure I covered all my bases as a polite audience member.

The 2010 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close on Sunday, September 19, and I managed to catch two more screenings that morning before I had to skip town.

Movie: The Debt

What Is It? Three retired Mossad agents in 1995 have unresolved issues from a thirty year-old case (the one that made their careers) come back to haunt them.

Director: John Madden—Most remembered for directing 1998’s Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love, Madden has mostly kept quite over the ensuing dozen years, only surfacing with a few disappointing movies (Proof, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin).

Notable Cast: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds (Munich, Miami Vice) play the 1995 incarnations of the three agents, while Sam Worthington (Avatar), Marton Csokas (The Bourne Supremacy), and beautiful newcomer Jessica Chastain play their younger counterparts.

Notable Crew: Matthew Vaughn, writer/director of Kick-Ass and Stardust, wrote the screenplay with Jane Goldman (his writing partner) and one other.

The Grade: B+

Thoughts: For most of The Debt’s running time, it doesn’t distinguish itself as much more than a well-done espionage thriller, but about 2/3 of the way through, there’s a twist that dramatically changes the meaning, as well as the film’s resonance. Without giving away too much, The Debt reminded me of the way films like Atonement and The Usual Suspects have devoted huge amounts of screen time to the dramatization of events that turned out to be of questionable veracity. It’s also a film about the way our greatest failures never quite manage to completely vacate our lives, and in this sense, The Debt is a film people should relate to even if they’ve never been secret agents. As you might guess from the cast, this is an extremely well acted film, but Chastain is the real revelation. She has the unenviable task of portraying a woman who will grow up to be Helen Mirren, and Chastain brings the necessary amount of vulnerability, toughness, and regality that are befitting of her older counterpart.

Movie: John Carpenter’s The Ward

What Is It? A beautiful young woman with no memory prior to being found by police at a burned-down house is institutionalized during the 1960s. Once in the asylum, she seemingly becomes the target of a ghost who may be a former patient.

Director: John Carpenter—Arguably the most influential post-Hitchcock horror director, Carpenter created a string of classics in the 70s and 80s that surely ranks as one of the better hot streaks in modern Hollywood history (Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, Starman, and Big Trouble in Little China all came out in an 8-year span). Carpenter also typically handles writing, producing, and soundtrack duties on his films (he wrote the classic Halloween score). Sadly, his idea well mostly dried up in the 90s, and he’s been more or less retired for the last decade or so.

Notable Cast: Amber Heard (Pineapple Express) stars, while Lyndsy Fonseca (the daughter in TV’s How I Met Your Mother) plays one of the other patients.

The Grade: C-

Thoughts: For my final film of TIFF, I had the opportunity to see something of a bit more prestigious flavor, but I hadn’t yet seen any of the Midnight Madness movies, and I wanted to end the whole experience on something fun. So what better than John Carpenter’s long awaited return to the genre that he helped shape? Just about anything, it would turn out. The Ward literally feels like Carpenter went to a screening of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island earlier this year, felt that movie could have just as easily featured a cast of hot chicks, went home and knocked out a screenplay that night, then started shooting a week later. Even at its worst, The Ward is still relatively watchable and entertaining, but it’s undeniably depressing to see a once-great director resort to using genre clichés when he used to be the guy creating them.

And with that anticlimactic note, my great TIFF 2010 experience came to a close. In 11 days, I saw 22 films (though I slept through almost all of one of them), attended one interview and one sneak preview, took part in 7 filmmaker Q & A’s, knocked out nearly 50 hours worth of volunteer work, lost an incalculable amount of sleep, and, at various times, got behind on such luxuries as eating and bathing. By the end of the festival, I was mostly subsisting on Tim Horton’s doughnuts and coffee shop pastries, because my life savings was being so heavily drained on the public transit system. And yet, my first film festival was undoubtedly one of the greatest and most profound experiences of my life, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Really, the only depressing aspect of the week was how many potentially great movies I didn’t get to see. For the record, here are the top ten films that never quite made it off my wish list:

1. Hereafter—New drama about mortality from Clint Eastwood, which should tell you everything you need to know about why I wanted to see it. Starring Matt Damon, this film inexplicably only screened once (most films at TIFF screen three times), which made it one of the most difficult tickets to come by.

2. Biutiful—Starring Javier Bardem and directed by the great Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel), this film won raves at Cannes.

3. Waiting For Superman—Documentary about the failure of the U.S. education system made by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) and funded by Bill Gates.

4. Blue Valentine—The most acclaimed film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this relationship drama stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who are both expected to receive Oscar attention.

5. Another Year—The new film by Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy), several critics have called this his best yet.

6. Of Gods and Men—French drama starring Michael Lonsdale (best known to American audiences as the evil Drax in Moonraker), I talked to a few people who thought this was the single best film at TIFF.

7. Little White Lies—Starring Marion Cotillard, this was the film I had a ticket for, but was forced to trade in for something else when they couldn’t get the subtitles working.

8. The Conspirator—Robert Redford directed film about Lincoln’s assassination, starring Robin Wright and James McAvoy.

9. Barney’s Version—Life reflection dramedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.

10. Machete Maidens Unleashed—A documentary about the huge amount of American B-Movies filmed in the Philippines during the 1970s and the jobs they provided for the indigenous female population. Seriously, just look at that title!

And, lastly, my top ten for the films I did see:

1. The King’s Speech

2. Black Swan

3. 127 Hours

4. Three

5. The Town

6. Inside Job

7. The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

8. Janie Jones

9. It’s Kind of a Funny Story

10. Tamara Drewe

Thanks to everyone that read along for taking part in my journey. I’m already excited for TIFF 2011.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

TIFF: Days 8 & 9 (Thursday-Friday, 9/16-17)

Note: Click here to view the Metro Times version of this post, which contains photos.

There were a good amount of foreign films I was interested in at TIFF, almost all of which were playing today. I had already struck out on the French film Little White Lies earlier in the fest when the subtitles malfunctioned, so I decided Thursday would be foreign film day, and I woke up at 7:00 a.m. to see what the ticket gods had to offer me.

Sadly, not much. Out of my top five choices, I only scored tickets for two of them. But, both films seemed promising, and the lack of a third film on the agenda meant I had some valuable naptime directly following my volunteer shift.

Movie: Three

What Is It? Hanna and Simon are a happy, middle-aged couple in Berlin, but each begins an affair despite their commitment. Unknowingly, they’ve actually both started seeing the same bi-sexual man, Adam, who doesn’t realize that his two partners are also partners with each other.

Director: Tom Tykwer—One of the best European directors of the last fifteen years, Tykwer took the art house world by storm in 1998 with the widely acclaimed Run Lola Run. He began making films in English in 2002, and was responsible for the underappreciated Perfume: The Story of a Murder (2006) and last year’s good but flawed The International, which starred Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. Three is Tykwer’s first film in his native German in a decade.

Notable Cast: The three principle actors will all be unfamiliar to American audiences, but Devid Streisow, who plays Adam, also starred in The Counterfeiters, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2007.

The Grade: A-

Thoughts: Three has the feel of a modern day Jules & Jim (Francois

Truffaut’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest films of the French New Wave), and replicates the ideal that three people can love each other without compromise. All three actors convince us that they each truly love the other two, and that’s the key to the emotional resonance of the film.

Tykwer’s previous films have all been extremely visually inventive—in Perfume he figured out how to convey scents with color and camera technique, and The International had one of last year’s best action set pieces with the shootout in New York’s Guggenheim Museum—but he really outdoes himself here. The opening credit sequence, which uses power lines viewed from the window of a train as a metaphor for the entire spectrum of human relationships and loves, is jaw-droppingly stunning and should be seen by any lover of film. Tykwer also uses split-screens and image fragmentation in a more ambitious way than I’ve ever seen before.

But Three has a very specific flaw: there are three or four moments when the explicit imagery simply goes one degree beyond what is necessary, or even comfortable. For example, at one point we see—with graphic detail—a man having a cancerous testicle removed. Being an owner of testicles myself, it was an image that I felt no desire to ever be exposed to, and it certainly didn’t add anything to the film. There are also a few moments where the sexual explicitness goes to similar territory. This is an easily solvable problem; if just 10-20 seconds here or there could be cut from the film, it would have earned an “A,” it might have been my favorite film of the festival, and I would have considered calling it a masterpiece. Luckily, it’s not too late for this to happen before the film’s theatrical release, and hopefully someone with Tykwer’s ear will suggest that it does.

Movie: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

What Is It? The winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (meaning it was selected by a jury as the best of the festival), Uncle Boonmee is a Thai film which tells the story of a man on his death bed with kidney failure, who is visited by the spirits of his late wife and his estranged son.

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethankul—A highly original Thai director whose films are largely unknown in the U.S. but have made a significant impact on the international festival circuit. 2004’s Tropical Malady is probably the most notable.

Notable Cast: Weereasethakul mostly uses unknowns and non-professional actors in his films.

The Grade: Incomplete—Well, it was destined to happen. After seven days of the festival, fifteen films, almost forty hours of volunteer work, and a severe lack of sleep, I finally conked out at the wrong time. I dozed off about twenty minutes into the film, and woke up during the audience applause that greeted the end credits. So, I certainly can’t speak for whether the film was any good or not, but I can comment on the style. Weerasethakul’s camera approach really reminded me of Yasujiro Ozu, one of the great masters of postwar Japanese cinema. Ozu often set his camera on one side of a room and used it as a stationary observer of events; no panning, no close-ups, no quick edits. It’s reminiscent of a one-camera sitcom, except done for artistic reasons rather than economic. It’s a unique and interesting style, and one which we certainly don’t see very often, but the long takes and minimal camera activity did me no favors in terms of staying conscious. I heard during the fest that Uncle Boonmee was picked up for U.S. theatrical distribution, so hopefully I’ll get another chance to see it in the near future.

Friday started to bring a definite feel that the festival was winding down. Most of the stars had skipped out by now, and all of the press & industry screenings finished Thursday. The next three days basically just amounted to a giant public sneak preview of upcoming films… but that certainly didn’t mean there weren’t good things happening. Friday actually ended up being one of my best days at TIFF, as I spent part of the morning on E Street Radio talking to rock critic and Bruce Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh about the various Bruce events we took part in over the previous few days, and Friday afternoon I had a valuable meeting with a former Toronto film critic named David Gilmour, now a renowned novelist. Friday evening also brought about two of my favorite films of the festival…

Movie: Easy A

What Is It? Olive is a normal high school girl, but her reputation turns sour when her closeted gay friend asks for help in creating the appearance that he’s straight. Soon, all of the school’s unfavorable boys are bribing Olive to create rumors that they hooked up with her, and she becomes the most notorious girl around. Inspired by “The Scarlet Letter,” which her English class is studying, Olive confronts her detractors head-on by brandishing a red “A” on her school outfits… which have themselves become increasingly risqué.

Director: Will Gluck—A successful TV writer making his first major foray into film.

Notable Cast: Emma Stone (Superbad, Zombieland) stars as Olive, Amanda Bynes (Hairspray) plays her Christian nemesis, and Penn Badgley (TV’s Gossip Girl) plays her love interest. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson will slay you as Olive’s parents, while Thomas Hayden Church (Sideways, Spider-Man 3), Lisa Kudrow, and Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) all play staff at Olive’s school.

The Grade: B+

Thoughts: Easy A is incredibly ridiculous, but equally funny and endearing, and it dares to be a sexless teen sex comedy. It suffers from the Juno-like “no seventeen year-old could ever be that witty” problem, and it tries a little too hard to remind us of a John Hughes movie (even name-dropping several of them), but these flaws are easy to look past because the movie is just damn fun to watch.

Emma Stone commands the screen with a sassy performance that should turn her into a star, and there are some truly hilarious lines. Plus, anytime a movie features a foxy chick in lingerie belting out Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” you can sign me up.

Movie: Janie Jones

What Is It? Thirteen year-old Janie Jones has never met her father, and her junkie mother is in dire need of drug rehab. Not seeing any other choice, Janie’s mother takes her to a concert, where she reveals that the down-on-his-luck lead singer, Ethan Brand, is her father. Of course, this is news to Ethan, who never knew he had a daughter, but when Janie’s mother disappears, he and Janie have no choice but to hop onto the tour bus and get to know one another.

Director: David M. Rosenthal—A Canadian director who has made two previous films, along with a couple of shorts and a documentary, but nothing that has made any impact.

Notable Cast: Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) stars as Janie Jones, with Elizabeth Shue (an Oscar nominee in 1995 for Leaving Las Vegas) and Alessandro Nivola (Laurel Canyon) playing her parents. Brittney Snow (Hairspray) plays a band member and Peter Stormare (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Armageddon) plays the manager that can seemingly solve any problem.

The Grade: A-

Thoughts: This is the kind of movie one hopes to find at a film festival. Of course, everyone looks forward to seeing the next big thing; the movies that will get showered with Oscar nominations and box office bucks, and that you can tell everyone you saw first. But if you get really lucky at a film festival, you’ll make a discovery. You’ll see a little film with no buzz, no distribution deal, and just a small hope of finding a substantial audience, and you’ll recognize something special in it. Janie Jones became that film for me at TIFF 2010.

I admit that I saw this film for no other reason than the title— as a film festival reaches its dog days, I found that a great title becomes a perfectly valid reason to see one film over another, and “Janie Jones” is the name of the first song on The Clash’s first album (the main character in High Fidelity called it his all-time favorite “side one, track one”). But I’m truly happy I saw this, and it was one of the highlights of the whole 11-day excursion.

It’s a rock ‘n’ roll road trip movie that has a vague resemblance to Almost Famous, but with the burgeoning relationship between a father and daughter as the core of the movie. Breslin is truly outstanding. Not even old enough to have a learner’s permit, she does all her own singing and guitar playing, and proves that her career will amount to far more than just being the awkward girl from Little Miss Sunshine. And Nivola delivers a performance that’s really touching in its emotional subtlety, as we slowly see him embrace Janie as his own after initially denying her relation.

It will probably be next summer or later before this film shows up in theaters (it’ll almost definitely try to build momentum at Sundance in January before even considering a release date), but if you can keep a file open for it in your mind’s hard drive, you won’t regret it.

On Tap For Tomorrow: TIFF 2010 draws to a close as I see a Michigan-filmed movie that truly sucked, and, by accident, the movie that I’m picking to win 2010’s Oscar for Best Picture.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

TIFF: Days 6 & 7 (Tuesday/Wednesday 9/14-15)

Note: Click here to check out the Metro Times version of this post, which contains photos.

Today began the Great Bruce Springsteen Adventure…

For those of you that don’t know, I’m quite a big fan, and I contacted Backstreets (Springsteen’s fan club/magazine/site), in the weeks prior to TIFF to see if they needed any help covering the gala premiere of his new documentary—The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Luckily, they did, and they arranged with Springsteen’s publicist, a very nice lady named Marilyn Laverty, to get me into everything. It was an unbelievable degree of treatment that I was truly not expecting, but incredibly grateful that I received.

It actually started last night, when I had to trek over to the hotel of the stars, The Four Seasons, to pick up my tickets. I got there at about midnight and figured, what the hell, why not hang out in the hotel bar for a drink and try to stalk the rich and famous? One thirteen-dollar beer and no sightings later, I made a quick exit.

At the volunteer shift on Tuesday morning, I was working again in the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which is where Bruce Springsteen’s 6:00 p.m. interview with Edward Norton would be happening. There was an indescribable buzz about the place all day, and Bruce fervor reached a high enough decibel by early afternoon that the volunteers were actually instructed to tell people he wouldn’t be in the building (a blatant lie). It’s funny that the entire week of TIFF overruns Toronto with a gaggle of Hollywood celebrities, and yet the lone rock star seemed to be a much bigger deal than all the rest.

Just as I was heading out for lunch and a nap before the big evening, a cab pulled up and Jon Landau—Springsteen’s longtime manager/producer, and the man responsible for probably the most famous quote in the history of music criticism (“I saw rock ‘n’ roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”)—and Dave Marsh, Bruce’s biographer, got out right in front of me. I quickly ambushed them and introduced myself, and told them I was looking forward to everything that would be happening that night. “You’ll be blown away,” Landau said to me. This seemed like a good omen.

First up was the interview actor Edward Norton would be conducting with Springsteen (presumably) about the documentary. This was part of TIFF’s Mavericks series, which happens every festival and involves interviews between attendees that might not normally be associated with one another. It turns out this event didn’t even go on sale to the public; all tickets were either press or “know the right person” status, the rush line to get any vacant seats formed the night before, and the rumor of the day was that tickets were being scalped for thousands of dollars. This caused a momentary crisis for me; if I were just willing to ignore my writing obligation and have Springsteen’s publicist potentially send a hit out on me, I could pay off quite a bit of credit card debt. Nah, bad idea.

One of the tenets of the amazing access I was given to the Springsteen camp was that my reviews of the content I became privy to were exclusive for Backstreets, so I can’t actually write about the Mavericks interview on this forum, but you’re welcome to check it out here.

Next up came the movie premiere, where I was seated in a small closed off section with the Springsteen entourage. Landau, Marsh, Marilyn Laverty, Barbara Carr (Springsteen’s co-manager and Marsh’s wife), Thom Zimny (the director of the film), and Patti Scialfa (E Street Band member and Springsteen’s wife) were all present, along with a lot of people from Sony Music. And there I was, seated three rows directly behind the boss himself. Again, I can’t cover the documentary here, but you’re welcome to check out my Backstreets coverage.

After the lengthy standing ovation, Bruce went on the handshake rounds for those of us in his section, and I briefly met the man… though it’s fairly likely he had no idea who I was. Still, it was pretty awesome.

But meeting Bruce wouldn’t even be the best part of the evening. No, that came a few minutes later when Marilyn Laverty and Jon Landau invited me to a special sneak preview of the upcoming six-disc box set being released in November. Taking place at a small theater the next morning, a handful of foreign journalists were being shown never-before-seen video footage and previously unreleased recordings from the late 1970s. Only two Americans were invited—someone from Rolling Stone, and me.

This preview ended up being one of the highlights of the whole TIFF experience (even though it wasn’t associated with TIFF and nobody knew about it except the invited). You can read my Backstreets coverage of the preview here. Bruce and Patti were there, and Bruce even gave a sort of impromptu press conference for us. I also had a good long talk with Dave Marsh, and he invited me on his radio show Friday morning to talk about the preview we were given.

The Bruce Experience ended early afternoon on Wednesday and I spent the bulk of the rest of the day writing my Backstreets coverage, but I did have time to hit up two TIFF screenings…

Movie: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

What Is It? A 3D documentary about Chauvet Cave, which was discovered in southern France in 1994, and contains elaborate cave paintings dating back over thirty thousand years—human kind’s earliest know works of art by a pretty substantial margin. To preserve its pristine condition, the cave has never been opened to the public and images from it have rarely been seen. Director Werner Herzog and his small team were granted access by the French government to fully explore the cave and its evocative imagery.

Director: Werner Herzog—One of World Cinema’s most ambitious and interesting directors over the last forty years, Herzog’s films often involve quests that border on the insane. His greatest films starred Klaus Kinski, and include Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). Recently, Herzog has been on a bit of a tear with the great documentaries Grizzly Man (2005) and Encounters at the End of the World (2008), as well as the Christian Bale starring Rescue Dawn (2007).

The Grade: A-

Thoughts: First thing’s first—this is a two hour documentary about cave paintings. If that doesn’t immediately sound interesting to you, then it probably won’t be.

But warnings aside, this is a great film, and it turned into one of the talks of the festival. Herzog fulfills two purposes here; first, and perhaps most importantly, he shows us the cave. In 3D. This cave is the greatest historical record we have of an entire era of pre-history, and this film is the closest the public will ever get to it. In that sense, we’re simply lucky that Herzog has created this historical document for us. The 3D works extremely well here, and, unlike most 3D films, it feels necessary rather than superfluous.

But beyond just showing us the cave in obsessive detail, Herzog guides our thinking with pointed questions about what it all means. Is this, he asks, “the beginning of humanness?” Is it the origin point of the human soul? The images in this cave predate all evidence we have of any human activity other than simply surviving… so what are we to ascertain from this? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions when you see the movie, but if you’re interested in reading more, check out Roger Ebert’s long journal entry about the film, which contains several images from inside the cave.

Movie: The Bang Bang Club

What Is It? The true story of four ambitious and slightly crazy young photographers, who captured the end of white rule in South Africa from 1990-1994. Their names were Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, and Joao Silva, and they came to be known as The Bang Bang Club. Collectively, their works earned a hefty amount of controversy, as well as two Pulitzer Prizes. But two of them wouldn’t make it out alive.

Director: Steven Silver, who had only worked in TV documentaries prior to this.

Notable Cast: Ryan Phillippe and Taylor Kitsch (TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) star as two of the photographers, while Malin Akerman (Watchmen) plays a newspaper photo editor and love interest.

Notable Crew: Silver wrote the screenplay, while one of Nelson Mandela’s grandchildren, Kwelu, is an executive producer.

The Grade: B

Thoughts: From a directing perspective, this is an extremely well made film, with a plentiful amount of evocative imagery. Silver gives us a lot to think about, and this could be the launching pad to a notable career. But as a screenwriter, Silver leaves a bit to be desired. The movie just feels like it glosses over too many important aspects, and it seems unfair that two of the subjects are given first rate treatment while the other two feel like background characters. The pacing is generally good, but that comes at the expense of developing enough emotional investment in South Africa’s political climate.

The actors do a pretty good job with the accents, though they are by no means perfect. It’s actually Akerman, who had never exhibited any previous evidence that she even could act, who does the best job in that department. But even though his accent wanes in and out a bit, Kitsch is the revelation here. In his first major role outside of TV, he just exudes movie star quality.

On Tap For Tomorrow: My only two foreign films of the Festival, one of which won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.