Category Archives: TIFF

TIFF 2015: Mustang

Mustang

Each year, it seems like the first film I see at TIFF ends up becoming one of my favourites of the whole festival. (In case you’re curious, my picks from past years that fall under this category are Lore, Tom at the Farm, and Eden.) And after seeing Mustang yesterday on the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival’s opening night, I feel pretty confident that tradition will continue. From first-time director Deniz Gamze Erguven, it’s a beautiful, assured debut that marks the arrival of another name to watch for in Turkish cinema.

Mustang tells the story of five girls living under the oppressive and careful watch of their relatives in the Turkish countryside. Having lost their parents years ago, they’re now at the mercy of an old-fashioned grandmother and tyrannical uncle who both expect them to get married ASAP. However, being modern pre-teen and teenage girls, the sisters have rather different and comparatively rebellious interests that their family fears could compromise the girls’ ever-important chastity.

Mustang is a lot of things at once. From the film’s purposely chaotic, fervent opening to its ultimately poignant conclusion, Erguven reflects the jumble of emotions that come along with growing up. There were moments that had the crowd roaring with laughter and others that respectfully deal with some truly dark and difficult themes. However, despite its emotional highs and lows, I didn’t find Mustang‘s tone inconsistent.

Helping to ground the proceedings in believability is the film’s five stunning lead actresses. If The Virgin Suicides (a film that’s nearly impossible not to compare Mustang to in more ways than one) treated Kirsten Dunst as its centrepiece and the rest of the sisters as beautiful, sad props, Mustang differs wildly on that front. The sisters begin as a sort of wild, indistinguishable unit that are nearly always together. But as fissures in that bond start to form, each actress gets an opportunity to shine as their characters meet various fates. It was highly refreshing to see five distinct and realistic female characters share the screen, and I give a lot of credit to Erguven for writing such rich roles.

As much as I’m raving, I also wouldn’t describe Mustang as a perfect film. Erguven’s inexperience as a director does come across occasionally with a few scenes that feel a tad mishandled, including the film’s climax, which took perhaps too dramatic of a departure from the rest of this fairly low-key film.

Mustang offers a little bit of everything, including the kind of robust and engaging narrative that arty world cinema isn’t always known for. It’s also an all-too-rare film that tells its story from a perspective that is both spunky and unmistakably feminine. Take all of that and combine it with absolutely breathtaking cinematography and a great Warren Ellis and Nick Cave (!) score and you’ve got one of the most exciting directorial debuts of recent memory.

9/10

TIFF 2014: The Face of an Angel

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Last night I checked out the world premiere of Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, The Face of an Angel, at TIFF. Starring Daniel Bruhl, Kate Beckinsale, and model Cara Delevingne, the movie’s description on the TIFF website quickly makes reference to the fact that it’s inspired by the infamous trial of Amanda Knox, the young woman who in 2007 was accused of brutally murdering her roommate as they both studied abroad in Italy and whose trial played out under the glare of the media. However, while a fictionalized version of that case is the backdrop for The Face of an Angel, Winterbottom clearly has greater ambitions than to tell a salacious story of murder, and The Face of an Angel is much more interesting because of it.

Daniel Bruhl plays Thomas, a film director of fading fame who decides to explore this murder in his next movie by telling a fictionalized version of it. That’s where the film becomes a little more difficult to describe, as the narrative becomes quite meta-fictional and becomes far less about the murder and far more about Thomas’ own demons and the way the story of this murder haunts him. It’s a “movie within a movie”, as the film that Thomas is attempting to write is also called The Face of an Angel and many of the concepts and structures that Thomas says he wants to explore in his movie are on full display in Winterbottom’s own film. Structurally, it reminded me a bit of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation; at one point, Thomas explicitly says that he wants his film to follow the story arc of Dante’s Divine Comedy and describes what that would entail. Sure enough – without giving too much away – the Face of an Angel movie that we the audience are watching plays out very closely to Thomas’ vision.

I give The Face of an Angel credit for going in a completely different direction than I was expecting. For the first half hour or so, it seemed like quite a rote crime procedural that didn’t really grab me. Thomas spends a lot of time talking to Simone (Kate Beckinsale), a savvy journalist who fills him in on the ins and outs of the trial and patiently explains all of the discrepancies in the evidence and witness accounts. For anyone even moderately familiar with the Amanda Knox case, all this exposition feels quite redundant; the real story is beyond the facts and the courtroom. Thankfully, Winterbottom and screenwriter Paul Viragh are well aware of this, and as the story unfolds, many new layers of uncertainty reveal themselves. As Thomas states, the “truth” behind the crime is virtually unknowable, so why jump to make your own assumptions? Why not make a movie about the fact that it’s unknowable?

Some viewers will likely be frustrated by the film’s refusal to draw neat conclusions. (Indeed, during the Q&A after the screening I was at, one audience member tried to press Winterbottom and the cast about their own opinions on the Knox trial with no avail.) It’s far more interested in exploring the various ways that the truth can be refracted – through the bias of journalism, through fictionalized retellings, or simply through one’s own worldview – and how perspective is malleable.

For me, this was by far the most interesting element of the movie, which is perhaps both a compliment an insult. Winterbottom is one smart guy, and he sneakily slips in a lot for viewers to ponder with this meta-fictional approach. (This is perhaps not surprising, considering he also made Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which tackles similar ideas in very different ways.) However, the actual story of the film never feels quite as compelling as all of these ideas that Winterbottom is offering up. The characters feel like they’re kept slightly at arm’s length from the audience (which is perhaps the point) and while the narrative is interesting enough, it never quite clicks into gear to work wholly as a piece of entertainment. If you don’t find the structure and self-referential aspects of the film interesting, I could see some viewers becoming rather bored by The Face of an Angel.

For me, this is one of those films that I’m finding myself enjoying more after the fact than when I was actually watching it. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s yet another movie that proves that Winterbottom – while not always entirely successful – always brings a unique and daring eye to his work.

8/10

TIFF 2013: 10 Films to Watch For

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Last week, we got a look at over 70 films that will premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. As always, there are some big names to be found among the list. But while it’s exciting to see recognizable faces and names, movies like Prisoners, Gravity, Rush, and August: Osage County will be widely released in theatres just weeks after playing at TIFF. Sometimes, it can be worthwhile taking a chance on smaller films; you never know how long it might be before you have another chance to see them.

So, after scanning the list of galas and special presentations, here are 10 movies that I’m interested in seeking out that that you may not have heard of and (to the best of my knowledge) have no current plans for immediate major release after TIFF.

1. Devil’s Knot

Atom Egoyan is one of Canada’s most acclaimed directors, so it makes sense that he would choose TIFF for the world premiere of his latest project, Devil’s Knot. The film stars Colin Firth, Reece Witherspoon, and Dane DeHaan and tracks the fallout of the infamous West Memphis Three trial. I haven’t heard much about it for a while, so it’s great to see that it’ll be ready in time for TIFF.

2. Night Moves

Deliberately paced dramas are kind of Kelly Reichardt’s thing (see: Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy), so it’s a bit surprising to hear that she’s directing a film that…well, seems to have a plot. The film stars Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Sarsgaard, and Dakota Fanning as a group of radical environmentalists who plot to blow up a dam.

3. The Past

Asghar Farhadi’s last project, 2011’s A Separation, earned him wide acclaim. Now, he continues to explore themes of divorce with The Past. Starring two of the best young actors working in world cinema, Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) and Berenice Bejo (The Artist), this one is surely a must-see.

4. Starred Up

I hadn’t even heard of this U.K. film until yesterday, but any film starring Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) is bound to catch my attention. Starred Up tells the story of a young man sent to prison, only to find that one of his fellow inmates (Mendelsohn) happens to be his long-estranged father

5. Joe

David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls, George Washington) seems to have gotten his penchant for stoner comedies out of his system (at least, for now). He premiered the critically adored Prince Avalanche on the festival circuit earlier this year, and now he’s back and embracing the Southern gothic tradition again with Joe. It stars Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan (Mud).

6. The Art of the Steal

Homegrown favourite Jay Baruchel stars in this Canadian flick about brotherhood and crime, which also stars Matt Dillon, Kurt Russell, and Terrence Stamp, from director Jonathan Sobol (A Beginner’s Guide to Endings)

7. The Double

Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska star in this comedic update of Dostoevsky’s novella about a man haunted by his doppelganger. Submarine helmer Richard Ayoade writes and directs.

8. Hateship Loveship

Another one that was not on my radar. Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Nick Nolte, and Hailee Steinfeld star in an adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story of the same name. Canada!

9. Ida

How about some international contributions? In Ida, Polish-born Pawel Pawlikowska (My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth) tells a grim tale of a young nun in 1960s Poland who discovers a deep family secret stemming back to the Nazi occupation

10. Tracks

If you like Mia Wasikowska, this is your movie. She stars in this drama based on the true story of a woman who set out on a 2700 km trek across the Australian outback in the 1970s.

TIFF 2013 Lineup Unveiled

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Cumberbatch fans rejoice! The Sherlock star will star in at least three films playing at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, including the fest’s opening night gala, The Fifth Estate.

For Torontonians and anyone else willing to make the trek to Canada, the Toronto International Film Festival is always one of the year’s biggest film events. And at this morning’s press conference, TIFF CEO Piers Handling and artistic director Cameron Bailey kicked off this year’s festivities by announcing TIFF 2013’s opening film selection, as well as the fest’s galas (red-carpet screenings, often boasting big-name actors and directors) and special presentations. Though more films will be added to TIFF’s roster, this morning’s announcement revealed more than 70 titles, giving festival-goers a good idea of what to expect from TIFF 2013, which runs from September 5-15.

The morning began with an early teaser announcement from Bailey via Twitter, where he revealed that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave will have its world premiere at TIFF 2013. McQueen’s previous films, Shame and Hunger, helped put star Michael Fassbender on the map, and he will once again join with McQueen for 12 Years a Slave, alongside an ensemble cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofer, Brad Pitt, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The press conference kicked off by announcing a slew of gala presentations, including early Oscar hopefuls like August: Osage County, Rush, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, as well other high-profile premieres, such as The Railway Man (starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth), Kill Your Darlings (starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg), and Parkland (a retelling of what happened at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital on the day JFK was shot, starring Paul Giamatti and Zac Efron) and a few Canadian choices, like The Art of the Steal (starring Jay Baruchel, Matt Dillon, and Kurt Russell), The Grand Seduction (a comedy starring Brendan Gleeson and Taylor Kitsch) and The Right Kind of Wrong (starring Ryan Kwanten and Catherine O’Hara).

The long list of special presentations includes world premieres of The Dallas Buyer’s Club (which you may remember as the film that Matthew McConaughey lost a drastic amount of weight for), Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot (the West Memphis Three drama starring Colin Firth, Reece Witherspoon, and Dane DeHaan), Jason Reitman’s Labour Day, Prisoners (Hugh Jackman and Jake Jake Gyllenhaal),The Double (a comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska), Paul Haggis’ Third Person (starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, and Liam Neeson), and international/North American premieres of Alfonso Cuaron’s hotly anticipated sci-fi offering, Gravity, as well as Joe (David Gordon Green’s second film release of the year, starring Nicholas Cage), Cannes winner Blue is the Warmest Color, Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Sarsgaard), Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton).

TIFF’s opening and closing night films were also announced. The festival will close with a comedy called A Life of Crime that stars Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, and John Hawkes. More noteworthy, though, is the choice of opening film, which is the new WikiLeaks biopic, Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange. Last year’s choice of Rian Johnson’s Looper as the festival’s opening film marked a shift for the festival, which in the past had always chosen a Canadian film as its opener.

The full list of this morning’s announcements can be found at tiff.net.

TIFF 2012: The Place Beyond the Pines

Just a few days in, and TIFF has already screened a spat of critic and movie fan favourites. From grand blockbusters like Looper and Cloud Atlas to human dramas like Argo and The Master, big stars and big directors are already pleasing crowds at the festival. And you might as well add Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, to that list. Met with generally positive response from critics, the film is likely to connect on a gut level with many viewers.

Pines made its world premiere on Friday night, and I entered the press screening early this morning with the unique experience of knowing virtually nothing about the film. And honestly, it’s best to know as little as possible about this film going into it. As such, I’ll be very vague with the plot description. Ryan Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver. Bradley Cooper plays Avery, a newly minted and overqualified police officer. When Luke gets caught up in some illegal activities, the two inevitably come face to face. Their meeting then sparks a chain reaction of repercussions that affect not only them, but also their family.

At its core, The Place Beyond the Pines is a story about masculinity and the consequences of actions. And Cianfrance evokes the ache of regret beautifully. There is a palpable sense of uncertainty, and like the characters on screen, the audience is held in a constant state of tension. This is not an action-packed movie, yet there is such suspense in every character interaction. A number of figurative threads could be pulled at any time during this film and the lives of the characters would almost instantly unravel.

Cooper perhaps does the best job of conveying this unsettled tone. Much of the latter part of the film deals with Avery’s struggle to come to terms with his past decisions, and Cooper gives an aching, slow-burning performance. His character is wonderfully complex, and Cooper sinks his teeth into every nuance of the role. It’s easily his best performance to date.

Also breaking new ground here is up-and-comer Dane DeHaan. Though DeHaan does not appear until later on in the film, his character quickly becomes a key player, and DeHaan deftly navigates the epic relationship landscape that Cianfrance has constructed by this point. He’s already impressed me this year in Chronicle and Lawless, but now given a meaty dramatic role, DeHaan shines even brighter. He’s given some scenes that easily could have seemed overly laboured or difficult to believe, but DeHaan’s easy naturalness never wavers. He just sinks into the role and inhabits every corner of it.

Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises)gives another fantastic, chameleon-like performance as a man who takes Luke under his wing. His subtle humour is welcome in this heavy film, yet his character also has plenty of demons of his own. Gosling turns in yet another great, emotionally captivating performance, and Eva Mendes is surprisingly good as the woman his character peruses.

One thing that really surprised me about The Place Beyond the Pines was the scope of the film. Cianfrance has experimented with time lapses already in Blue Valentine, but while that film felt suffocating in its intimacy, Pines feels almost grand and epic in its ever-expanding story. And Cianfrance put every minute of the two and a quarter hour runtime to good use. Yes, a couple of story elements feel a bit convenient and/or melodramatic. And yes, I did find the second third of the film to be a little too conventional in its “dirty cop” tropes (though Ray Liotta is great in his very small role). But ultimately, none of that mattered. The Place Beyond the Pines packs an emotional punch the gut. This movie is about the consequences of our actions. And as characters’ past decisions start to affect innocent people, it’s hard not to get engrossed in the injustice and tragedy of it all. Simply put, The Place Beyond the Pines feels poetic without being pretentious. It might not fully satisfy those looking for a bit more violence in their studies in machismo, but the slow-burning drama makes for a far more substantial product.

9/10