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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.
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.