Toronto International Film Festival

TIFF 2014: Three more notables, plus a lucky top 13


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the recent 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Previous installment here!

Three films at this year’s Toronto Film Film Festival achieved a consistently exhilarating cinematic aesthetic. 

The first was instant horror classic Goodnight Mommy (Austria), which had critics tripping over each other as they ran out of the theatre. I overheard one woman hailing the psychological terror film as the best movie she had seen at TIFF in five years.

With art-porn filmmaker Ulrich Seidel as producer (see 2012-13’s Paradise Trilogy: Love, Faith, Hope), the eerie film evokes high levels of hypnotic and unspoken terror. DO NOT READ ANY SPOILERS about this fiction debut from Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. There is not a false note in the film and I cannot wait to watch it again and again and again. 

Next up was Joshua and Ben Safdie’s visceral indie Heaven Knows What (US). Anyone who witnessed their previous panic-inducing ditty Daddy Longlegs (2010) should take note. With the determination of an early-1980s Abel Ferrara film combined with Martin Bell’s seminal homeless youth documentary Streetwise (1984), the Safdies give Heaven star Arielle Holmes a chance to reinact her real life story, in all of its abrasive glory. Also worth a mention: the ear-crushing soundtrack, brimming with sludged-out remixes of Tomita and Tangerine Dream as well as “hardstyle” favorite Headhunterz and Norwegian church-burners Burzum. 

Lastly, Peter Strickland’s follow-up to his 1970s-psychedelic Berberian Sound Studio (2012) is another nostalgic throwback, this time reveling in the psychosexual castles of Jean Rollin films. The Duke of Burgundy (UK) follows the sadomasochistic relationship between two mysterious women. Like its predecessor, in this film Strickland pays a never-ending amount of attention to detail along, with multiple layers of style to burn. Along with burgeoning British retro-genre filmmaker Ben Wheatley (A Field in England, 2013), Strickland seems to polarize cinephiles. Make sure to experiment with these little-films-that-could before making any hasty decisions.

Best of the 2014 Toronto Film Fest

1. Lav Diaz’s From What is Before (Philippines)

2. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe (Ukraine)

3. Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York: Uncut Version (France/US) and Pasolini (France/Italy/Belgium) 

4. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (Denmark/Indonesia/Norway/Finland/UK) 

5. Joshua and Ben Safdie’s Heaven Knows What (US) 

6. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy (Austria)

7. Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home (China) 

8. Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan (Ukraine) 

9. Eugène Green’s La Sapienza (France/Italy)

10. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (UK)  

11. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (UK) 

12. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (Turkey/France/Germany) 

13. Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West (Taiwan/France) 

TIFF 2014: American standouts


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the recent 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Previous installment here!

In high school, Hal Hartley was my first cinematic battle. On paper, his existential themes of truth, his French New Wave references, and the stilted dialogue he favored seemed like they would align perfectly with my sensibilities. Like many film students of the era, I gobbled up The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), and Surviving Desire (1993) multiple times. But as Simple Men (1992), Amateur (1994), and Flirt (1995) graced art-house theaters, I found Hartley’s films to be more and more like fingernails shrieking down a neverending chalkboard.

Late-night arguments over Hartley films became full-fledged deal breakers. At least one friendship was destroyed (I apologize, John Powers). And then came the climactic scene in his career-defining opus Henry Fool (1997). I felt like Hartley had finally shed his farcical facade for just one moment, allowing me to feel an overwhelming sense of insecurity.

Unfortunately, he went digital shortly thereafter, and wallowed in a series of “mass-media” rants. But after an interesting return with the Parker Posey vehicle Fay Grim (2008), a sequel to Henry Fool, Hartley has concluded the trilogy with perhaps his most accessible and enjoyable film: Ned Rifle (US). Aubrey Plaza is downright hilarious as a suspicious and obsessive fan of writer Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), perhaps tying all the characters together for one big clusterfuck. What is most refreshing about this return to form is Hartley’s self-effacing humor about his own issues; it’s also elevated by rapid-fire snappy dialogue and enough Robert Bresson references to satisfy his fans. It’s a joy to watch Hartley regulars like Posey, Ryan, James Urbaniak, and Martin Donovan give it one last (?) go in this cinematic universe. In fact, Ned Rifle might even muster up some new Hartley fans … which will hopefully result in a new generation of late-night disagreements.

Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (US) sports Oscar-bait performances from its stellar cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum (yes, that Channing Tatum), and Mark Ruffalo. But it is clearly Miller’s sparse and surprising steady direction that gives this based-on-a-true-story flick its gleam. As its theme of loneliness is hauntingly accentuated across the board, I am curious if repeat viewings will enhance or detract from the film’s purposeful tone?

In my opinion, every year should be the year of exploitation pioneer Abel Ferrara’s comeback. Taking Toronto by storm with two feature films, as he did in 2014, is definitely the way to do it. His long awaited tribute Pasolini (France/Italy/Belgium) showcases Willem Dafoe as infamous Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. While the film is not the epic extravaganza that many were perhaps hoping for (it chronicles the final days of his life), this is most definitely a personal allegory for Ferrara’s own career and should be treated as such. Beautiful cinematography by Stefano Falivene (who shot Ferrara’s overlooked 2005 Mary) gives the film a distinctly classic feel that seemed to baffle some critics. Along with Dafoe’s pitch-perfect Pasolini, Maria De Madeiros fleshes out a wonderfully campy part as Laura Betti, one of the director’s best friends.

At a crisp 86 minutes, Ferrara’s film attempts to communicate with Pasolini’s uncompromising drive and artistic endeavors. There is a stunning scene in which Pasolini, amid an interview with an Italian TV reporter, gives a 10-minute soliloquy about the importance (and difficulty) of holding onto one’s artistic vision; every student of film should watch it on a daily basis.

Ferrara made headlines beyond TIFF with his other 2014 entry: Welcome to New York (France/US), which gives Gérard Depardieu his meatiest role in years. Based on the true story of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, infamously charged with the sexual assault of a hotel maid during a visit to New York City, it contains a monster-like performance from Depardieu (who hasn’t been without his own controversies of late). It’s bound to invite direct comparisons to Harvey Keitel’s balls-to-the-wall role in Bad Lieutenant (1992).

The film has garnered ecstatic write-ups, along with downright repulsed responses. The real Strauss-Kahn has announced he will be taking legal action against the film, but what’s most baffling is that according to an Indiewire report, “IFC Films wants him to deliver an R-rated cut” to American audiences. And Ferrara is livid (see the Indiewire article for his colorful quotes). Luckily, Toronto’s Royal Independent Theatre was screening the uncut, international version; as is, it’s one of the best films of the year. Transgressive cinema with a soul has always been Ferrara’s modus operandi. It’s your duty as a film lover to refuse to watch IFC’s censored version and seek out Ferrara’s original cut.

With While We’re Young (US), Noah Baumbach delivered a more sophisticated take on what is fast becoming an Y2Teen sub-genre: white yuppie 40somethings vs. white hipster 20somethings. What started with surprise PG hit Grown Ups 2 (2013) was reconfigured into an R-rated success with Neighbors. Baumbach’s spin on this story pits Ben Stiller and his iPhone against Adam Driver and his laid-back, vinyl collecting, vlog artist. The film works wonderfully on most levels as the aging couple (Stiller and Naomi Watts) find themselves caught in limbo land between adolescence and would-be parents. But with a surprisingly lackluster final act that discards the younger perspective as easily as an unaware 45-year-old might, it felt for the first time like Baumbach has actually lost a step himself.

Guardian Intelligence: Sept. 24 – 30, 2014



Beck brought his endlessly funky band to the new Masonic Sept. 19 for opening night, where they ran through melancholy new tunes from this year’s Moon Phase before switching gears toward his more upbeat hits for a serious dance party (there was caution tape involved). See a full review and more photos on our Noise blog at PHOTO BY ERIN CONGER


Bay Guardian film festival correspondent Jesse Hawthorne Ficks returned from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, having deployed his usual tactic of seeing as many films as possible — and then writing about them at length on the Pixel Vision blog at Visit the Pixel Vision blog for his series of posts, including takes on the trend toward ultra-long films (FYI, he’s a huge Lav Diaz fan…), Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (pictured), Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, and other buzzed-about titles. PHOTO COURTESY OF TIFF


The Bay Area’s edition on the Sept. 21 Global Climate Convergence was held on the edge of Lake Merritt in Oakland, where some of the best speakers went full-on commie in connecting capitalism to the climate crisis, calling for revolutionary change. Socialist Action’s Jeff Mackler brought the old-school Trotskyite class analysis while up-and-coming Socialist Alternative (the party of Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant) had a strong presence. The Coup’s Boots Riley opened with an a cappella “Love for the Underdog,” followed by some fiery oratory and a couple more strong songs, including the militant anthem “Ghetto Blaster.” Power to the people!


San Francisco pushed the envelope in building cycletracks, bike lanes physically separated from cars, before state law allowed them. But on Sept. 20, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 1193, a bill by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-SF) that inserted cycletrack standards into state transportation codes, they suddenly became a legal, easy option for cities around the state to start building, just like they already do in Europe. So as cyclist safety improves in California, they can have San Francisco to thanks. You’re welcome.


Major kudos to actor and local hero Danny Glover for his recent visit to the San Francisco County Jail Reentry Pod. “With that great smile and laid-back style, Danny connected with inmates about preparing to get out and staying out,” said Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who spent some time with Glover and inmates preparing for release. “Be the example.” The reentry pod stems from a collaboration between the Sheriff’s Department and Adult Probation, to prepare AB109 prisoners from state realignment for their release. PHOTO COURTESY SF SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT


Now you can don condoms against evictions! At Folsom Street Fair, activists handed out condoms adorned by the face of Ellis Act evictor (and leather lover) Jack Halprin. Why are the protesters equating him with an ejaculate receptacle? Halprin purchased a San Francisco property on Guerrero two years ago and filed to evict the tenants under the Ellis Act, one of whom is a San Francisco elementary school teacher with a 2-year-old son. From the condom wrapper: “Jack be simple, Jack’s a dick! Jack’s evictions make us sick!”


This issue of the Guardian is all about delicious travel — here’s something close to home that will have beer lovers gripping their steins. The new Tri-Valley Beer Trail lights up Pleasanton, Livermore, San Ramon, Dublin and Danville with foamy craft goodness — reinstating that area as one of the original homes of California beer (the region formerly contained one of the largest hops farms in the world). Fifteen stops, innumerable beers to try, and warm weather all the way. See for more details.


Art Explosion Studios, the Mission’s largest artist collective, prides itself on supplying affordable studio space to local painters, sculptors, photographers, jewelers, fashion designers, and other creative types. An affordable situation for artists? In the Mission? What is this, 1994? Support this organization and meet the artists (over 100 in total) right where they do their makin’ at the annual Art Explosion Fall Open Studios. Hit up the opening gala Fri/26, 7-11pm, or stop by Sat/27-Sun/28 from noon-5pm. 2425 17th St, SF; 744 Alabama, SF;


A wonky tale of woe just got a happy ending. Developers looking to make big bucks from the construction of the new Transbay Terminal tower, now the SalesForce tower, were looking to skim money off San Francisco by reneging on their required taxes, possibly costing the city $1.4 billion dollars. After the developers hired slick ex-Mayor, lobbyist, and SF Chronicle columnist Willie Brown to smooth the deal, they almost got away with saving hundreds of millions of dollars that would go to Muni, pedestrian safety, and infrastructure. At the last minute, the city changed its tune, and now the SoMa area will get the funding it was promised. The people win, and the fat cats lose.


TIFF 2014: Foreign favorites, part two (Asia and beyond)


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the recent 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Previous installment here!

Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou (1990) was an unofficial remake of the American film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) — and it was also a showcase for the 25-year-old Gong Li. I’ve grown up with each of his films over the past decades, including classics To Live (1994) and The Road Home (1999). His latest, Coming Home (China), is his most gut-wrenching film yet.

Zhang began his studies at the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. He quickly blossomed into the leader of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, and has gone through his fair share of controversy with the Chinese government and later with audiences who felt his films had lost their contrarian political stances. His latest heartbreaker is set during the Cultural Revolution, as it follows a university professor who is sent to labor camps, leaving his own wife and daughter to fend for themselves along with the negative status of being an “intellectual.” 

Zhang was in attendance for the Coming Home screening, and spoke at length about how China’s youth have never heard any of this history and how this film is not just one family’s struggle, but represents stories of millions of people that are being forgotten. Gong’s remarkable turn as a traumatized peasant ranks as one the year’s best performances and shame on the Oscars (in advance) for not recognizing her (yet again). As an aside: this is Zhang’s 18th feature and eighth time working with Gong; someone really needs to be putting together a complete retrospective. Qigang Chen’s Coming Home soundtrack is still haunting me weeks after the screening. This film is more proof that sentimentality should not be considered a dirty word in cinema. In fact, those that fight nostalgic tendencies are often the ones that have the most to hide.

Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom (South Korea) is yet another mini-masterpiece from the filmmaker, and another hilarious take on awkward, drunken relationships between 40-somethings. Hong upends linear storytelling, as usual, and showcases the legendary Korean actress Moon So-ri. (Her most recent Hong film was 2012’s In Another Country, with Isabelle Huppert.) With a running time at only 66 minutes, Hill of Freedom makes for the perfect appetizer on any film festival night.

In Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe (Ukraine), an all deaf-mute cast leads the way to one of the most explosive films of the year, and it does so without a single line of dialogue or subtitling. This otherworldly experience forces audiences to pay attention to every action that these excluded teenagers make. While it ruthlessly emphasizes the violent, transgressive, and explicitly sexual nature of the teens, there is an intense structuralist method being utilized here that multiple viewings will be necessary to further pinpoint. 

Belarusian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s feature debut was the remarkable narrative My Joy (2010), which consisted of (according to the filmmaker) “140 cuts in the whole film.” With his third film, Maidan (Ukraine), he has created a jaw-dropping observational documentary of the Ukrainian people’s uprising in Kiev from December 2013 to February 2014. It is comprised of a series of fixed long shots that will be burned into your skull for the rest of your life, though your patience may be tested during the film’s 133 relentless minutes. 

Each sequence slowly gathers hundreds of faces, historically patriotic songs, and ultimately a unified people before, during, and after the government’s terrifying late night attacks. The film is not just a testament to the present-day political moment, but is a study in uncompromising cinema. This film has to be seen on a large screen. And if any local film festival to you is brave enough to program it, attend it all costs. Warning: A few audience members I spoke to were furious with the film for not “getting to know” any of the film’s inhabitants up close and personal.

Eugène Green is an American-born, naturalized French filmmaker that I had never heard of until his showstopper La Sapienza (France/Italy) screened on my final day at TIFF. With a plot that must be an homage to Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), this eloquent exploration of a lifeless marriage caught me by surprise with its direct approach to the couple’s interactions. It follows Robert Bresson’s philosophy of removing cinema’s “masks,” and I found myself incredibly moved as a middle-aged man shared his genuine love for 17th century architect Francesco Borromini. Kino Lorber has acquired the film for a US release later this year — and with it, hopefully a larger audience for Green.


This was the first year that TIFF put together an international shorts program (“Short Cuts”), and art-house favorite Claire Denis led the pack with Voilà l’enchantement (France), a 30-minute tale involving an interracial couple and no sets. The mesmerizing actor Alex Descas shines in this wonderfully dramatic exercise. Tsai Ming-liang also continued his short film output with Journey to the West (Taiwan/France) — part of his “Walker” series. This time, Tsai brings his hidden camera to France and places both his regular actor Lee Kang-shang and the iconic Denis Lavant in unison on the streets of Marseille. The film runs close to 60 minutes, and there is truly nothing more enjoyable than watching these two performers hypnotizing the unaware locals (as well as the moviegoers around you). Tsai’s previous announcement of retirement will hopefully be soon forgotten.


TIFF 2014: Foreign favorites, part one


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the recent 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Previous installment here!

** Working steadily for over 40 years, achieving more than 20 features, Mike Leigh has stayed true to his “kitchen sink realism” aesthetic. Contemporary audiences could all too easily take him for granted. His latest, Mr. Turner (UK), is a rigorous and immensely rewarding journey that explores the life of British artist J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). 

Spall won the award for Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, not just for emulating Turner’s cartoonish and almost frightening physique, but also inhabiting and truly expressing the ghastly terror one struggles with after the death of a loved one. Recalling Jane Campion’s dazzling An Angel at My Table (1990), Leigh’s film places emphasis on the immense difficulties that an artists put themselves — and the others around them — through, and cinematographer Dick Pope (who has shot ten of Leigh’s films since 1990, and won a special jury award at Cannes for his work on Mr. Turner) gives every frame an almost spiritual look. 

** Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (France/USA) feels like a remake of his Maggie Cheung showpiece Irma Vep (1996), with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart playing out the filmmaker’s latest enchantments. Stewart, who plays the personal assistant to Binoche’s famous-actress character, is an absolute revelation, holding her own during the most fascinating and even erotic scenes of the film.

Clouds is deliciously layered with self-referential mirrorings of its stars’ real-life careers; it also contains ambiguity that left me talking to others about the film for days. The film was shot in 35mm, which is remarkably utilized during the many depth-of-field sequences in its Swiss-mountains setting.

** The Dardenne Brothers have added yet another stunning film to their collective résumé with Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France). The drama follows a woman (Marion Cotillard, in a stunning, panic-driven performance) as she desperately tracks down each of her fellow factory workers in hopes of saving her job, giving the audience an eye-opening look at the state of middle-class Belgian neighborhoods. 

** Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D (France) offers a purposefully playful take on 3D, forcing viewers to constantly readjust their focal points toward not just the images but the subtitles as well. This fast and furious farewell to our language of the past (and present?) is overflowing with so much energy, it should be screened twice in a row. 

** Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (Sweden/Norway/Denmark/France) lived up to its title when took this year’s Cannes Film Festival by storm, winning the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section. This often surprisingly hilarious look at a Swedish bourgeoisie family slowly spills into much darker terrain, creating a minefield of gut-wrenching gender-politics. Similar to Julia Loktev’s gripping The Loneliest Planet (2011), director Östlund does an astounding job weaving through relationship expectations. With this being the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, hopefully someone local will program the filmmaker’s previous three films  — The Guitar Mongoloid (2004), Involuntary (2008), and Play (2011) — which look just as mesmerizing.

** Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden (France), an ode to the 1990s Electronic Dance Music scene, received countless write-ups due to the fact that the film includes the members of Daft Punk in the film. This humorously parallels the movie’s story, as it follows a French DJ who created the “French Touch” but whose legacy — like many in every youth movement — fell short of success. This was definitely one of the hottest cinephile tickets of the festival, and those who were patient with this two-part, 131-minute odyssey were rewarded with quite a poignant punch. 

The director made a splash with her hypnotic The Father of My Children (2009), which won the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, and followed it up with the coming-of-age Goodbye First Love (2011). Eden has a built-in audience of EDM fans who will be educated on quite a number of unsung heroes from 1990s; added to that is the melancholic role played by Greta Gerwig, which should intrigue many non-EDM fans.

Questions of the week: Who is the walrus? And who is Liam Neeson gonna take down next? New movies!


If Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ ongoing Pixel Vision posts about the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival have you longing for your own festival experience, check out the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s one-day “Silent Autumn” series at the Castro Theatre, as well as Cine+Mas’ San Francisco Latino Film Festival, which opens tonight at the Brava Theater and runs through Sept. 27 at various venues.

First-run picks o’ the week include Liam Neeson’s latest lone-wolf action movie, an ensemble movie starring Tina Fey and Jason Bateman, and Kevin Smith’s new joint, in which Justin Long turns into a walrus. Yep, you read that right. Read on for reviews and trailers!

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby Writer-director Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby began as separate films about a failed marriage, told from the points of view of the husband (James McAvoy), and then the wife (Jessica Chastain). Because Americans will happily binge-watch entire TV seasons but still get the shakes when confronted with a two-part film, the segments (titled Him and Her) are getting wide release in the edited-together Them. (Diehards will have a chance to seek out the complete work eventually, but for now, this review concerns only Them.) As the film begins, Chastain’s Eleanor (yep, named after the Beatles song) flings herself off an NYC bridge. She survives physically, but her mental state is still supremely fragile, so she checks out of her Manhattan life and her marriage to Connor (McAvoy), and digs in at the chic suburban saltbox occupied by her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt) and sister (Jess Weixler), a single mother with a young son. Meanwhile, Connor mopes around his failing restaurant with his chef BFF (the suddenly ubiquitous Bill Hader), and pays occasional visits to his own moping father (Ciarán Hinds). The estranged couple circles each other, in flashbacks and occasional run-ins, and the audience is slowly made privy to the tragedy that drove them apart and has them both reeling from grief months later. Even in mash-up form, this is a delicate film, enhanced by Benson’s confidence in his audience’s intelligence; what could have been a manipulative tear-jerker instead feels authentically raw, with characters whose emotional confusion leads them to behave in realistically frustrating ways. The casting is note-perfect, with a special nod to Viola Davis as Eleanor’s world-weary college professor. I’ll be seeking out Her just to catch more of that performance. (2:03) (Cheryl Eddy)

The Iceman A palace guard accused of murder (martial arts star Donnie Yen) and three vengeful brothers are all frozen mid-battle — only to defrost 400 years later and pick up where they left off. (1:46) Four Star.

Los Angeles Plays Itself Remastered and newly cleared for fair use, Thom Andersen’s incisive 2003 film essay on narrative cinema’s many representations and misrepresentations of Los Angeles plays a single night at the Castro. Andersen’s impressively choreographed montage zigzags through a vast litany of film history, submitting erotic thrillers, middlebrow Oscar bait, and avant-garde outliers to the same materialist protocol. Observing Hollywood’s tendency to falsify geography and transform landmarks of modernist geography into villainous hideouts, Andersen’s treatment of mainstream ideology is acidly funny but never condescending. To the contrary: Los Angeles Plays Itself is driven by an unshakeable faith that another kind of film — and with it another kind of world — is possible. In methodically deconstructing countless car chases and phony denouements, the native Angeleno lays groundwork for the fresh appreciation of the diverse neorealisms found in the work of directors like Kent Mackenzie (1961’s The Exiles), Nicholas Ray (1955’s Rebel Without a Cause), Fred Halsted (1972’s LA Plays Itself), Charles Burnett (1979’s Killer of Sheep), and Billy Woodberry (1984’s Bless Their Little Hearts). A true work of termite art and an impassioned argument for “a city of walkers, a cinema of walking,” Los Angeles Plays Itself is the closest thing to a cineaste’s Death and Life of Great American Cities. (2:49) Castro. (Max Goldberg)

The Maze Runner In a post-apocalyptic world, a youth (Dylan O’Brien) finds himself among a group of boys trapped at the center of a mysterious maze. Based on the YA novel by James Dashner. (1:53) 

This Ain’t No Mouse Music! See “Joyous Blues.” (1:32) Elmwood, Roxie, Smith Rafael.

This Is Where I Leave You Jason Bateman plays Judd Altman, the hollow center of a clan of snarky, squabbling siblings — Wendy (Tina Fey), fractiously married with kids and pining for her high school sweetheart (Timothy Olyphant); Paul (Corey Stoll), who runs the family sporting goods store; and Phillip (Adam Driver), a philandering über-fuckup currently dating his former therapist (Connie Britton) — reunited somewhere in eastern seaboard suburbia by the death of their father. This vaguely sketched individual’s last wish, they are informed by their mother (Jane Fonda), a therapist turned author who mined their adolescence for pop psych bestseller gold, was that, his atheism notwithstanding, they conform to Judaic tradition and sit shivah for him. A seven-day respite of quiet reminiscing and clarifying reflection, broken up by periodic babka-and-whitefish-salad binges, could be good for Judd, whose recent misfortunes also include coming home to find his wife (Abigail Spencer) between the sheets with his shock jock boss (Dax Shepard), resulting in a divorce-unemployment double whammy. But there is no peace to be found at the Altman homestead, where fuses blow, siblings brawl, in-laws conduct high-volume international business transactions and reproductive rites, and Wendy’s latchkey toddler wanders the property with his portable potty. Director Shawn Levy (2013’s The Internship, 2010’s Date Night) and writer Jonathan Tropper, who adapted the script from his novel, don’t want any of the siblings, or satellite characters, to feel left out, and the story line is divvied up accordingly. But the results are uneven — lumps of comedy and genuine pathos dropped amid the oppressive exposition, pat resolutions, and swings in pacing from slack to frenetic. (1:43) (Lynn Rapoport)

Tusk Michael Parks has a gift for looking like he’s in a different movie than everyone else, and it’s possible that ineffable skill of his has found its best use to date in Kevin Smith’s new fuck-you horror-comedy Tusk. When jerky podcaster Wally (Justin Long) finds a video that begins like “Star Wars Boy” but ends with dismemberment, Wally flies to Canada to interview the “Kill Bill Boy” (so named for the sword wielding and spurting stump). Wallace reaches his destination and is importuned by the funeral. This is one of a handful of scenes that exists to make us happy when Wally meets magical storyteller Howard Howe, an ex-sailor full of sea tales and an dark plan to turn Wally into a Franken-walrus. The story is based on something Smith hashed out in his sModcasts (excerpted during the credits) and when you look for author surrogate (not that you should) Wally’s impossible to distinguish from Smith. Asshole podcaster? Fights for permission to work freely? Body issues? All Wally needs is a dachshund and a jersey. Tusk isn’t up to the level of Smith’s early output, but it’s right in line with the decline in quality he’s been facing since critics broke his spirit, studios turned cold shoulders, and cynicism naturally set in. I hope whatever soul coughing Tusk represents will provide Smith momentum and license to leave any transformative hardships behind him — there are always beacons of hope (an uncredited Johnny Depp provides a good one here). Despite fundamental frustrations, Tusk has some deep and inky moments. When Howe takes Wally’s leg from him (leveling him to a “Kill Bill Kid”-styled punch line) Wally wails impotently, and Howe laughs — at what, it’s not certain (perhaps it’s really Parks, guffawing at Long’s performance?), but whatever that gloriously complicated motivation was, in the mingling of cries emerges an eerie but profoundly communal squall. (1:42) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)

A Walk Among the Tombstones The latest in Liam Neeson’s string of films in which he plays a tough guy uncannily adept at hissing orders (or threats) through a telephone is as pitch-black as its eerie title suggests. Set conspicuously in 1999, when Y2K and far more sinister threats loomed (see: a poignant shot of the World Trade Center), Tombstones is the grim tale of Matt Scudder, a loner with both an NYPD career and a prodigious drinking habit wedged 10 years in the past. He maintains his bare-bones lifestyle by doing off-the-books PI work, but none of his dirty-deeds experience can prepare him for his next case, a nightmarish pile-up of missing women sliced to pieces by a van-driving maniacs. Working from Lawrence Block’s novel, writer-director Scott Frank (2007’s The Lookout) emerges with surprisingly layered characters that extend beyond the archetypes they initially seem to be at first; besides Neeson’s Scudder, there’s a street-smart youth who becomes his sorta-helpful sidekick (Brian “Astro” Bradley), and a vengeful drug dealer (Dan Stevens) with a junkie brother (Boyd Holbrook). Even the murderers behave in unexpected ways. And if its story hews a bit too closely to Urban Noir 101, it’s bleak as hell, and has the guts to make relentlessness one of its primary objectives. (1:53) (Cheryl Eddy)

Wetlands It begins, like many a classic coming-of-age tale, with an unbridled case of hemorrhoids, followed by a barefoot meander through possible sewage to the vilest public restroom captured on film since 1996’s Trainspotting. None of this seems to faze Wetlands’ outspoken heroine and narrator, 18-year-old Helen (Carla Juri), a skateboarding, sexually adventurous young maniac who admits to having a markedly lax attitude toward personal hygiene. Viewers of director-cowriter David Wnendt’s film, however, may want to refrain from visiting the concession stand just this once — chewing on Milk Duds is likely to become negatively evocative as Helen embarks on a round of tactile explorations involving a tasting menu of bodily excretions. The biotic high jinks continue when she winds up in the hospital in the wake of a viscerally enacted shaving incident, from which vantage point, occasionally under general anesthesia, she revisits scenes from both her fraught childhood and her teenage exploits, wandering between the homes of her divorced parents: an anxious, uptight germophobe mother (Meret Becker) and a checked-out, self-indulgent father (Axel Milberg), whose inadvisable rapprochement she hopes to engineer from her hospital bed. Impressively, amid the advancing waves of gross-out, a poignant story line emerges, and, like Helen’s handsome, bemused nurse Robin (Christoph Letkowski), the object of her wildly inappropriate advances, we find ourselves rolling with the shock and revulsion, increasingly solicitous and bizarrely charmed. (1:49) (Lynn Rapoport)

The Zero Theorem See “Waltz Work.” (1:46) 

TIFF 2014: Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Look of Silence’


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the recent 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Previous installment here!

News broke earlier this week that Joshua Oppenheimer — the Texas-born, Copenhagen-based filmmaker who scored an Oscar nomination for 2012’s harrowing The Act of Killing — received a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Not a bad follow-up to the Toronto screening of his latest Indonesia-set doc, The Look of Silence (Denmark/Indonesia/Norway/Finland/UK), which is both a direct sequel to Killing and a complete stand-alone work. Either way, it’s one of the most powerful documentaries I have ever experienced. (It’s due in theaters in summer 2015.)

In this film, Oppenheimer teams up with Adi — an optometrist whose older brother died in the mid-1960s Indonesian genocide — and tracks down former officials to confront them about their horrific actions. Each interview pits Adi against his darkest demon and it only goes deeper from there. The theater echoed with sobbing throughout the entire 98 minutes and reports say that all three screenings concluded in standing ovations (though everyone on my row needed time to recover emotionally before they could even move). 

As in Killing, Oppenheimer’s co-director and countless crewmembers are credited as “Anonymous,” due to the risks they take by still living in Indonesia. Hailed (and executive produced) by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, Silence is poised to earn Oppenheimer another Oscar nomination — and probably a win this time, too. But more importantly, it has the power to give a therapeutic experience to the many victims around the world of irresolvable atrocities.

Hockey! Drums! Pianos! And TRASHY MOVIES! Passions ruled TIFF 2014


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from an epic Toronto International Film Festival. Read his first installment here.

Despite notable entries like George Roy Hill’s defining Slap Shot (1977) and Michael Dowse’s remarkable Goon (2011), hockey films have always been a little more overlooked in the US than they should be. Gabe Polsky’s blood-pumping Red Army (US/Russia) is begging to be adapted into a rip-roaring narrative, à la Catherine Hardwick’s Lords of Dogtown (2005) take on Stacy Peralta’s skateboarding doc Dogtown & Z-Boys (2001).

Red Army takes a look at the Soviet Union’s famous Red Army Team of the 1970s and ’80s; it’s a powerful account of the personal and political plights endured by the team’s five stars. Outrageous human-interest story interlaced with gripping flashback sports footage, and all compacted into 85 minutes? Puck yeah!

When Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (US) won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, critics began the inevitable debate: Is it really that good? (Catch it at the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival, or wait until Oct. 17, when it gets its Bay Area theatrical release.) But for anyone who has questioned their own education methods, whether they be student or mentor, child or parent, artist or technician, writer-director Chazelle’s deeply personal story will hit close to home.

Star Miles Teller has steadily built a cult following with memorable performances in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole (2010), Craig Brewer’s underrated remake of Footloose (2011), and a slew of Hangover knockoffs (including this year’s That Awkward Moment.) But it was his role in James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (2013) — speaking of Sundance accolades, that film won a Special Jury Award for Acting for Teller and costar Shailene Woodley — that cemented his status as a next-generation one to watch. His turn as a young drummer in Whiplash should continue the trend, alongside another memorable performance by J.K. Simmons as his explosive music teacher.

Whiplash wanders into darker terrain than even film festival audiences were prepared for. Like free jazz, the structure of the film may feel faulty at times, but perhaps that is exactly what this audacious little number was aiming for.

More for music fans: Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction (US) is a wonderful documentary celebrating Seymour Bernstein, who is not just an unsung pianist who withdrew from performing publicly, but also an artist who devoted his life to teaching and mentoring generations of students. Beautifully shot, this fascinating and strongly inspirational film is a perfect dose of medicine for middle-aged moodiness. 

 And Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (Australia/US/Israel/UK) is the third film that director Mark Hartley has made about off-the-beaten-path genre films. His Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008) and Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) fleshed out an overwhelming onslaught of low-budget gems made in Australia and the Philippines. This latest is aimed squarely at fans of low-budget 1980s legends Cannon Films, which produced countless action films starring Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris. 

Cannon’s overseers — Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — often boldly knocked off whatever genre was hot at the box office, as quickly and cheaply as possible. While Electric Boogaloo is packed with tons of wonderful clips from many of the studio’s best films (Andrey Konchalovskiy’s 1985 Runaway Train, anyone?!), the real punch line of the documentary is something that doesn’t even happen in the film: when Golan (who passed away last month) and Globus were told about about Hartley’s film, they refused to be in his movie and immediately started making their own. The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films (2014) premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, three months before Electric Boogaloo. Because there’s no such thing as too much Cannon love — and since Go-Go Boys supposedly contains a monumental interview with Jean Claude Van Damme — here’s to one last Golan-Globus masterpiece!

Toronto International Film Festival report: in defense of the long, long movie


The unstoppable Jesse Hawthorne Ficks keeps his eyes open 24/7 through another Toronto International Film Festival, and lives to tell the tale (but shares no spoilers!) Read on for the first in several reports back from the 39th TIFF.

Starting on a high note: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (Turkey/France/Germany) won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, so it arrived in Toronto with its share of hype. I can report Sleep is the director’s funniest and most satisfying film to date. That said, it does run 196 minutes, and more than a few critics walked out early, which poses an ever-important question about the current trend toward slow-moving, observational, and meditative narratives: Who’s actually watching ’em? 

With characters that come together through long sequences in which intense emotions are slowly drawn out through passive aggressive actions, this immersive class study — similar to Akira Kurosawa’s High & Low (1963) — clearly polarized audiences’ immediate interests. My own interests lead me to wonder what long-term effects that this type of cinema will have on contemporary audiences. Has it always been this divided? If TIFF critics don’t have the energy or enough time to experience this masterpiece, how will it come up in conversation when Oscar fans are debating which film had the best acting? What about those more mainstream moviegoers who went to see Guardians of the Galaxy more than once? 

Looking back 40 years, Milos Forman swept the Oscars with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) was luring in audiences for second and third helpings. Meanwhile, an Algerian master named Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina won the Palme d’Or at Cannes with his 177 minute Chronicle of the Years of Fire, an exploration of the Algerian War of Independence as seen through the eyes of a peasant. I guess there has always been a cultural gap between Oscar-bait, popcorn entertainment, and political art cinema … and there probably always will be.

Also relevent to any discussion of very, very long films: Lav Diaz’s follow-up to last year’s 250-minute Norte, the End of History is yet another long-form master work — and in my opinion, the best film at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. The Filipino director made a surprise appearance to introduce his 338-minute From What Is Before. TIFF programmer Andréa Picard seemed even more surprised than the audience when Diaz’s humble introduction consisted of  “I hope you brought a pillow and some blankets.” 

Committing to a Diaz film is comparable to joining a motion picture religion. Not just due to the length of his films, but because of his conviction in delivering something truly profound. Like some of his own characters, Diaz has the power to astral project the viewer into another world. From What Is Before takes place in 1972, just before President Ferdinand Marcos’ announcement that he was putting the entire country under martial law. A forgotten farming community in the provinces must immediately shift its focus to survival. 

As the story unfolds much like the chapters of a novel, each character (and the dilemmas he or she faces) slowly comes into focus, sequence by sequence. Many of the film’s most devastating scenes featured Itang (Hazel Orencio), a young woman taking care of her mentally challenged sister. At the Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, Orencio rightfully won Best Actress, and From What is Before took home the top award, the Golden Leopard. 

For TIFF audiences and beyond, the biggest question is: Will you take the time to learn Diaz’s artistic language? His films blend the convoluted past of the Philippines with the mysterious depths of human beings. Yeah, 338 minutes is long. But like Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Claire Denis, Lav Diaz is speaking a cinematic vocabulary unique to the world. Don’t let your laziness get in the way.

New direction


SFIFF First things first: Brand-new San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan’s two favorite movies are 1942 Preston Sturges screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story and 1974 disaster drama The Towering Inferno. Appropriately, our first meeting takes place in downtown San Francisco, where that fictional world’s tallest building (containing Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, and O.J. Simpson, among others) went up in flames.

Cowan is very freshly transplanted from his native Toronto, where he worked for years in various roles at the Toronto International Film Festival; his career highlights also include co-founding Cowboy Pictures and the Global Film Initiative. He’s so new in town that his 12-year-old greyhound, Ruckus, has yet to make the move (“He’s gonna come down in the fall, because it’s been so busy, and I’m traveling a lot this summer”); he’s barely had time to find an apartment (home is now the Inner Sunset) and get his bearings.

But the San Francisco International Film Festival, now in its 57th year, waits for no man — not even this man, SFFS’ fourth executive director after the deaths of Graham Leggat in 2011 and Bingham Ray in 2012, and the brief tenure of Ted Hope, who began a new job at Fandor earlier this year. As the fest ramps up to its opening this week, the energetic Cowan — a huge San Francisco fan — gives the impression of someone who plans on going the distance.

SF Bay Guardian So, you started in early March, and the festival begins April 24. You’re plunging right into it!

Noah Cowan Yeah! But I think it’s better that way, because I’m experiencing the key event of the organization. I was able to help out at the very last minute on a few of the bigger films, but [starting right before SFIFF] allowed me to see the tail end of the programming process, and start thinking about ways we want to move things in the future.

SFBG How does this job differ from what you were doing previously?

NC My role in Toronto was really as an artistic leader, as opposed to an executive leader. Obviously there’s artistic-leadership aspects of my current job, but I have the benefit here of three really capable artistic heads: [director of programming] Rachel Rosen, who runs the festival and our other film screening programs; [Filmmaker360 director] Michelle Turnure-Salleo, who runs the filmmaker services and filmmaking area; and Joanne Parsont, who is a gifted director of education. I’m more strategic guidance and day-to-day administration, really learning how to run and expand and change the business.

In my career, I’ve gone back and forth between these two tendencies. I really feel now that I want to be back in the executive director’s seat. I was co-president of my own business for almost 10 years, and I’ve really missed that — the ability to mentor staff and to shape the overall tone of an institution. San Francisco provides unusually interesting opportunities for making a new kind of institution. It’s just a place that loves invention, and the people, including our board, have a real can-do attitude about change. For me, it’s a dream come true! I just need to get through the festival [laughs] to get a breath.

There are certain holdovers from my role in Toronto, where we built a crazy big building, [the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which opened in 2010]. There’s nothing else like it in the world of film, and I had the great honor and privilege of being able to oversee the artistic life of that building. Maybe some things that we did there aren’t going to translate here, but some of them will. We engaged in a lot of pilots in education and film-community outreach that taught me some valuable lessons about how those can and can’t work, and what’s changed about education now that we’re in the digital world.

In addition, I’ve learned the pros and cons of having your own theater space. While I’m highly optimistic that we’ll have alliances in the future where we’ll be able to have a year-round screening presence, I’m going to be pretty cautious about how we go about that from a business perspective.

SFBG SFFS already has several special presentations and mini-festivals throughout the year (Taiwan Film Days, French Cinema Now, etc.) When you say “year-round,” do you mean an increase in programming? Weekly screenings?

NC What would exactly happen in that theater is still a question. Maybe it’s just these small festivals that we have. I think there’s something about being associated with a permanent space, even if you don’t own it, that is really important for a film institution — to really be anchored. Film is kind of a retail business in a funny way, and while festivals are the Black Friday of film going, you need to have a sustainable relationship with your audience to be able to grow it, and to have them trust you to follow different pathways.

SFBG Fortunately, like Toronto, San Francisco has a built-in audience of film fanatics.

NC It’s interesting here — it’s more diffuse environment. While there are a lot of film festivals in Toronto, there are a million in San Francisco and in the Bay Area in general, and there’s positives and negatives about that. When I have a second, after our festival, I’m looking forward to reaching out and understanding the needs of other film organizations in the city, and how we might be able to help. So far, this has felt like a city that really welcomes collaboration, so I hope we’ll be able to have some really exciting conversations.

SFBG What are you most excited about at this year’s SFIFF?

NC I really like this festival. There are a number of terrific films. I really like Rachel Rosen’s taste! Very much like the Toronto festival, the San Francisco festival is really focused on audiences: what kind of audiences are going to be interested in what kinds of films, and in general, an eye to audience enjoyment in the selections, even for films that are on the difficult side. There’s a thoughtfulness to the kinds of responses that the programmers would like to elicit, which really fits in with my own philosophies of why film festivals and film organizations are generally on the planet.

In terms of individual films, there are some films that I’ve championed before that are here, like Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart, or James Franco’s Child of God, which I was the programmer of this past year in Toronto. I’m happy to see them again! And then there’s some new work, particularly in the documentary area, that really impresses me — films like Art and Craft and Burt’s Buzz, which are really strong and really accessible.

And then, of the many elements that drew me to San Francisco, probably the biggest one was the incredible work that we’re doing in making films. So I’ll be paying very special attention to the San Francisco Film Society-supported films — we have seven films that we’ve supported, strictly church and state in terms of being selected for the festival, that are going to be here because they’re just the best films of the year, particularly from an American independent perspective. I’m just so delighted that we can have these deep, family associations with films like Hellion, Little Accidents, and Manos Sucias. These are all films of really high caliber that are going to be among the most talked-about films of the year. *


The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 24-May 8. Screening venues include the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF. For tickets (most shows $15) and complete schedule, visit

Brawl opera


FILM There are action films. And then there’s The Raid 2. One need not have seen 2011’s The Raid: Redemption to appreciate this latest collaboration between Welsh director Gareth Evans and Indonesian actor, martial artist, and fight choreographer Iko Uwais — it’s recommended, of course, but the sequel stands alone on its own merits.

Overstuffed with gloriously brutal, cleverly staged fight scenes, The Raid 2 — sometimes written with the subtitle “Berendal,” which means “thugs” — picks up immediately after the events of the first film. Quick recap of part one: a special-forces team invades an apartment tower controlled by gangsters. Among the cops is idealistic Rama (Uwais). Seemingly bulletproof and fleet of fists and feet, Rama battles his way floor-by-floor, encountering machete-toting heavies and a wild-eyed maniac appropriately named Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), as well as his own older brother, who’s a high-up in the organized crime world. Rama also realizes he’s been unwittingly working for a corrupt police lieutenant, who’s got a personal beef with the bad guys. The Raid‘s gritty, unadorned approach (streamlined location and cast, gasp-inducing fights) resonated with thrill seeking audiences weary of CG overload.

“Before we’d screened the first movie anywhere, we watched it to do a tech check on it. After we finished, we thought, ‘Ok. We have … something,'” Evans recalled on a recent visit to San Francisco with Uwais. “But we just kept kind of focusing on, ‘There’s pixellation here, the picture’s not great there.’ We were looking at all the problems that you do when you’re deep into production on something. Then, when [the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival] happened, it was like, ‘Holy shit!’ We had no idea it was going to get received like that. And it kept growing! For us, it was this weird experience where something that we’d made within our own little creative vacuum was suddenly being accepted by people.”

A second Raid film was inevitable, especially since Evans — who became interested in Indonesian martial arts, or pencak silat, while working on 2007 doc The Mystic Art of Indonesia — already had its story in mind: Rama goes undercover in the underworld, a ploy that necessitates he do a prison stint to gain the trust of a local kingpin. Naturally, not much goes according to plan, and blood is shed along the way, as multiple power-crazed villains set their sinister plans into motion. Evans originally wanted to film it after making 2009’s Merantau, his first action film with Uwais, but it proved too costly for the then-unproven team.

“For two years, we were looking for financing, but were not able to get it. So we did the first Raid because it was lower budget. It was like a plan B,” Evans said. “After that, our investor was willing to help finance the second one. It bought us better equipment, more time to shoot, better sets. All of that stuff that we spent extra money on went up on the screen.”

With a fan base established by the first film, Evans — himself a lifelong action movie lover — knew expectations were high. Somehow, he’d have to top The Raid. “It couldn’t be The Raid 2, except now it’s a bigger building,” he joked. “So, what can we do differently? Expand the universe, and expand the characters. Explore different territory and be able to try different action beats: Car chase! Prison riot! And using weapons that we hadn’t introduced before, like the curved blades. It’s one of the weapons in silat. So it’s like, ‘Ok, this thing exists. Why haven’t we used it yet?’ We kind of hinted at it in Merantau — but we never really used it. Indonesian fans of that movie complained, but I was like, ‘Hold tight. We will use it.’ It’s such a violent, aggressive weapon that it wouldn’t have felt right in Merantau. But in The Raid 2, it felt right.”

Evans was also concerned that the “element of surprise” would be lost for audiences who had seen the first film. When asked to elaborate — because Uwais’ character is a mild-mannered nice guy who, surprise, is also an explosive killing machine? — he broke it down.

“[In the first film, audiences] got a taste for our choreography. We try to differentiate ourselves from other martial artists and filmmakers that do this type of stuff. Not in a way of like, ‘What we do is better.’ It’s more a case of, everyone packages their films differently,” he said. “We’re big fans of what Tony Jaa has done, and Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, and Jackie Chan. But we have certain rules that we just don’t break. We never do a replay of anything when it comes to a stunt or an action sequence. It’s all one flow, and it never breaks rhythm — it keeps going until the thing is finished. In terms of slo-mo, we only ever use it to tell something dramatically within a fight sequence. We never use it to show off a movement. Which segues into, no acrobatics. Because as soon as you do that, you’ve got a stunt guy waiting to get hit. And that takes you out of the scene straightaway.”

Presenting the fight scenes as realistically benefits more than just the audience. “On TV in Indonesia, silat is represented in the most bullshit way possible: people jump into the sky and fly, and turn into jaguars, and shoot fireballs out of their eyes. I’m not exaggerating! When we first went to gather money for Merantau, we’d say, ‘We’re gonna make a silat film!’ and people would be like, ‘Aw, silat? That’s that stupid thing on TV,'” Evans recalled. “But I’d met Iko, and his gurus and teachers, and silat is such an integral part of their lives. [It was important to me that] if we made films about this martial art, we had to do it in a way that reclaims it from what had been done before. We wanted it to be real, and true to what they study.”

Though the actual fighting is realistic, the settings were carefully chosen for cinematic impact. Both of those ante-upping “action beats” Evans mentioned — the car chase, in which Uwais’ character batters his opponents inside of a moving vehicle, and the prison riot, which is muddy, bloody mayhem — are standouts.

“A lot of people responded to the idea of claustrophobia in the first one, because of all the enclosed spaces,” Evans said. “I wanted to find a way to still have these tight moments in the second one, even though the scope was much wider. Even within a car chase, we could dive right inside and have this super claustrophobic fight in the back seat.”

Uwais estimated that each fight scene required three or four months of practice — and even more for the car stunt. “Standing and fighting is very different than sitting and fighting,” he pointed out.

The collaborators, who have an easygoing rapport, have conflicting memories when it comes to filming the sloppy prison brawl — though they agree it was far and away the least fun scene to shoot. (Evans: “We shot that for eight days straight.” Uwais: “Eight days? It was 10 days.” Evans: “The guys were caked in mud all day.” Uwais: “From 6am to 5pm.” Evans: “More like, 4pm.” Uwais: “5pm!” Evans: “Ok, 5pm!”)

As The Raid 2 prepares to open wide, Evans is ramping up plans for the third film in the trilogy. “Whereas The Raid 2 starts like two hours after The Raid finishes, The Raid 3 starts three hours before The Raid 2 finishes,” he revealed. “So there’s a scene toward the end where a certain group makes a decision on something, and part three’s gonna follow the consequences of those actions. The Raid 3 is going to be way more streamlined than part two [which runs 148 minutes], and it’s going to be an homage to certain styles of cinema that I love that I really want to try and play with.”

And yes, there’s an American Raid remake in the works. When asked “Whyyyy?”, Evans was ready with an answer. “I’ve been a huge fan of Asian cinema ever since I was a kid, and I used to have that same feeling: ‘Oh my god, they can’t remake that!’ But in this case, nothing takes the original away. If anything, people who see the remake might get introduced to the original now, because they didn’t know it existed before.”

THE RAID 2 opened Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters.

Exile on Main St. USA


FILM Escape From Tomorrow acquired cachet at Sundance this year as a movie you ought to see because it probably wouldn’t surface again — not because it was that bad, but because any regular release seemed sure to be legally blocked. The reason was its setting, which composites two of the most photographed (and “happiest”) places on Earth. They’re also among the most heavily guarded from any commercial usage not of their own choosing.

That would be Disney World and Disneyland, where Escape was surreptitiously shot — ingeniously so, since you would hardly expect any movie filmed on the sly like this to be so highly polished, or for its actors to get so little apparent attention from the unwitting background players around them. (Let alone from security personnel, since as anyone who’s ever tried to do anything “against the rules” at a Disney park can tell you, those folks are as omnipresently watchful as Big Brother.)

Disney does not have a history of taking perceived affronts to its brand lightly. One movie that never did never make it past its festival bow was 2002’s The Sweatbox, an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the animated feature that eventually emerged as 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove. That was a fun movie, but completely different from the far more ambitious narrative its first round of creators envisioned, only to have years of work curtly dismissed with a “start over from scratch” memo from top executives mid process. Though green-lit by the studio itself, its directors given full warts-and-all access, The Sweatbox turned out so heartbreakingly revealing (and so unflattering toward the aforementioned execs) that the studio shelved the finished product after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere. It hasn’t been seen since … at least not legally.

So there seemed little hope for Escape, which is anything but “authorized.” You don’t have to be a Disney lawyer to imagine how it could be seen as copyright infringement, a slander of sorts, or outright theft. That nobody has pulled the fire alarm, however, suggests Disney realized this movie isn’t going to do it any real harm. And perhaps more importantly, that a lawsuit would provide a publicity gold mine for the naughty filmmakers while hardly keeping viewers away in the long run. (Todd Haynes’ infamous, Barbie-enacted 1988 biopic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story has been “banned” since 1990, thanks to unamused sibling Richard Carpenter. Surely by now he’s aware his actions helped make it perhaps the most widely seen “unseeable” movie in history; as of this writing, there are 10 copies on YouTube alone.)

Anyway, Escape From Tomorrow is here, in improved form even. Nearly 15 minutes cut since Sundance have made all the difference between a clever, albeit slightly overstuffed, stunt and something uncategorizable yet fully realized. While its illicit setting remains near-indispensable (another big family theme park probably would have worked, too), what writer-director Randy Moore has pulled off goes beyond great gimmickry. His movie’s commingled satire, nightmare Americana, cartooniness, pathos, and surrealism recalls a few cult-fabled others — Eraserhead (1977), Parents (1989), even Superstar — mostly alike only in going so far out on their very own twisted limb.

We’re introduced to average, 40-ish Jim (Roy Abramsohn) the morning of the last day of his family vacation. He’s on their hotel room balcony, taking a phone call from his boss — who cheerfully fires him sans explanation. As Jim sputters in disbelief, approximately seven-year-old son Elliot (Jack Dalton) mischievously — or malevolently — locks the sliding door from the inside, then crawls back into bed beside still-sleeping mommy Emily (Elena Schuber), leaving dad stuck outside in his skivvies. Thus the film’s two major paths for interpretation are introduced right away: What follows might either be hallucinated by shell-shocked Jim, or really be a grand, bizarre conspiracy (usurping son included).

This final day is to be spent doing, well, what you do with kids at places like this. Elliot wants to go on certain rides; little sister Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) often wants to do different things. Their parents, when separated by conflicting child demands, stay in touch via cellphone — or don’t, to Emily’s exasperation. Jim has a tendency to get distracted by … things, like whimsical park characters that suddenly grow menacing fangs (thanks to the wonders of digital post-production) only he notices, or the two barely-legal French girls frolicking in short shorts (Danielle Safady, Annet Mahendru) who seem to be deliberately exciting his lascivious interest at every turn.

Then there are the disquieting rumors of a “cat flu” epidemic; the wife’s rebuffing all physical affection; a very weird interlude with a fellow park guest (Alison Lee-Taylor) whom Jim abruptly finds atop his bound, naked self, barking “Fuck me! Feel my vagina!;” and assorted other occurrences either imaginary, or apocalyptic, or both. Emily’s irritated accusation “Did you black out again?” is as intriguing and baffling as the full-blown sci fi-horror plot Jim finds himself the center of — or at least thinks he does.

Lucas Lee Graham’s crisp B&W photography finds the natural noir-slash-Carnival of Souls (1962) grotesquerie lurking in the shadows of parkland imagery. Abel Korzeniowski’s amazing score apes and parodies vintage orchestral Muzak, cloying kiddie themes, and briefly even John Williams at his most Spielbergian. All the actors do fine work, slipping fluidly if not always explicably from grounded real-world behavior to strangeness — clearly they were given the explanatory motivational road map that the audience is denied. But then the real achievement of Escape From Tomorrow, more than its sheer novelty of concept and aesthetic, is that while this paranoid fantasy really makes no immediate sense, Moore’s cockeyed vision is so assured that we assume it must, on some level. He’s created a movie some people will hate but others will watch over and over again, trying to connect its almost subliminal dots. *


ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW opens Fri/11 at the Roxie.

TIFF diary #9: this is ‘The End’


Every time I told people that Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History (Philippines) was my favorite film of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I would watch their eyes glaze over and their body start shifting as if to say, “Yesbut what else?”
Perhaps the title suggests something long, slow-moving, and attempting to end their history? Perhaps they had only heard about its four-hour running time? While all of the previous statements are probably true, what I want to stress is that this film about a group of existentialist 20-somethings encapsulates why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

There are no movie stars in the cast, and no way to quickly sum up the plot. Due to the film’s running time, the viewer physically experiences what the film’s conflicted main character Fabian is struggling with. While many TIFF audiences seemed to complain and make snarky one-liners after pretty much all of the star-studded premieres that I attended, that wasn’t the case here; Norte mesmerizes with its inventiveness and harrowing character arcs.

And yet it seems people are refusing to make the time to experience it. Neil Young of the Hollywood Reporter wrote “Diaz is apparently incapable of conveying the passage of time, instead [he] must simply inflict it.”

Personally, I learned volumes from this film, about the state of present-day rural Philippines; about Dostoevsky, Diaz’s favorite writer; about the 1890s Philippine Revolution against the Spanish. I tend to become emotionally wrecked when I watch a Diaz film; in Norte, Sid Lucero’s portrayal of a law school drop-out brought up some very deep, dark personal feelings.

But most importantly, Lav Diaz creates cinema that gets me up early in the morning. So please, Mr. Diaz: keep “inflicting” me.

Ficks’ Picks: Top 12 of TIFF 2013

1. Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History (Philippines)
2. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland)
3. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (UK)
4. Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius (South Korea)
5. Stephanie Pray/Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (USA/Nepal)
6. Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs (Taiwan)
7. John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo (USA).
8. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son (Japan)
9. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (USA)
10. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (France)
11. Claire Denis’ Bastards (France)
12. Ben Rivers/Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Estonia/France)

TIFF diary #8: Rivers and Russell, ‘Blue,’ and a likely Oscar contender


More from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with Jesse Hawthorne Ficks.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Estonia/France) is the first collaboration between experimental filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell — and man oh man, was it music to my eyes. Structured into three segments (comparisons to Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 Old Joy are inevitable), this experimental documentary is uniquely personal, to the point of leaving many audience members at a loss for words, for better or worse.

Showcasing Robert A.A. Lowe (also known as experimental musician Lichens) adds a curious ingredient to the mix, making this film a must-see for modern music aficionados. A big-screen viewing is essential, for the soundtrack and sound design alone.

It seems that the controversy behind the making of Cannes sensation Blue is the Warmest Color (France) has, thus far, overshadowed the film itself. There is a level of audacity coming from cinephiles these days that upsets me to no end. Case in point: while standing in line for Abdellatif Kechiche’s three hour-plus epic, two middle-aged women spoke in detail not only about the film’s improvised sex scenes, but specific controversial moments that they already knew were going to “make the film feel contrived.” (Apparently, overhearing spoilers from people who haven’t actually seen the film they’re spoiling is the new making-up-your-mind-about-a-film-before-you’ve-even-seen-it.)

Blue is the Warmest Color
will viscerally remind audiences of their own relationships — specifically if there’s been one they went “all in” on. The film’s two leads, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, who were awarded the Palme d’Or along with director Kechiche (a first for Cannes) for their daring and relentless performances. Like Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010), the feelings achieved during the film are much more important than any discussion about what happens in the film. These rare treats are about more than explicit sex — and watching them may help you with bigger questions like “where life has taken you” vs. “where you want to be.”

Speaking of spoilers: just because Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (UK) has been anointed an early Oscar favorite doesn’t mean you need to bust out your reactionary backlash grumblings just yet. In fact, I recommend you go see it as soon as possible to avoid learning too much about it in advance (it’s out locally Nov. 1 — same day as Blue is the Warmest Color, as it turns out).

Comparisons to other recent, similarly themed Oscar winners will understandably be made, but this is Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s film. I was so engrossed in it that I didn’t even realize until later that the film’s composer — Hans Zimmer — was one of my favorites of all time. Go see it, wipe away the tears, start talking about it. And then go see it again.

TIFF diary #7: Southern gothics


Intrepid filmgoer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ reports from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival continue this week. Stay tuned for more posts, including Jesse’s upcoming list of his top 12 films from the fest!

From director David Gordon Green, gothic Texan tale Joe gives Nicolas Cage a showy role, in the manner of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans (2009). Luckily Joe turns out to be a rambling bundle of fun,  thanks in no small part to Cage’s typically uneven (yet always hypnotic) performance. That said, the film earned some glaringly obvious comparisons to Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2012), including the casting of teen actor Tye Sheridan, who plays a similar role in both films.

Another gothic tale, this time from Virginia: it’s very important to keep your eyes glued to the screen throughout Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin. This modern-day Western captures the genre’s grittiest glory by way of contemporary conflicts, with a cast led by Macon Blair. His physical and emotional transformation is one that few performances this year will rival.

Director Saulnier now has two gritty little ditties to his name this year, following up his cinematography credit on I Used to Be Darker, which screened at Sundance in the NEXT category. Blue Ruin reminds me of what John Carpenter was doing 35 years ago with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). His characters live and breathe and their driving motivations are the stuff that genre audiences can really dig their fingers into. Let’s hope Saulnier is able to make a few more low-budget films before Hollywood snatches him up to make a superhero blockbuster. (And I bet he’ll do a smash-up job if he does.)

TIFF diary #6: For music lovers


Swedish auteur Lukas Moodysson is back and he may have just created one of the most riotous punk rock extravaganzas ever. We Are the Best! (Sweden/Denmark) played to packed houses throughout the entire Toronto International Film Festival, creating an astounding word of mouth buzz.

While the film takes place in the early 1980s,  I never felt like the movie was attempting to represent the entire era. In fact, Moodysson’s film (which is based on wife Coco Moodysson’s graphic novel) allows the all-grrrl band to blossom into real-life punk rockers. Evoking passionate punk portrayals like Times Square (1980) and Ladies & Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains (1981), which he was unaware of until I interviewed him, this coming of age drama seems to capture Stockholm circa 1982 in perfect detail.

The soundtrack was a major part of discussion during the Q&A, becoming the perfect entry point for those of us desiring an history lesson on the Swedish punk scene. But what I found most exciting about We Are the Best! is its approach to gender roles, as its young female characters attempt to cast aside pressures to look pretty. Either way, Moodysson has created a film just as enjoyable as his debut feature, 1998’s Show Me Love. It has the potential to become a worldwide hit in the same vein as Trainspotting (1996) and Run Lola Run (1999).

Elsewhere, Maneesh Sharma’s latest romantic comedy A Random Desi Romance (India) is cause for quite a celebration! This Hindi musical, which runs two and a half hours, feels like a major shift in the mainstream Bollywood system.

Not only are there no classic “hunk” characters, but stars Parineeti Chopra and Vaani Kapoor have quite progressive attitudes toward love and life that typically I have only seen in Indian films made outside the country. The leading male is no slouch either, played purposefully awkwardly by Sushant Singh Rajput. The characters are wrapped up in a surprisingly consistent story that critic Danny Bowes called “the best romantic comedy made anywhere in the world for 2013.”

TIFF diary #5: Reichardt, Turturro, and Pawlikowski


The surprise crowd-pleaser of TIFF 2013 was John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo (US). Showcasing Woody Allen in a rare acting-only role, this surprisingly romantic tale about a man in his mid-50s (played by writer-director Turturro) is as charmingly hilarious as it is deftly dramatic.

The inspired casting choice gives the 78-year-old director (whose own classic works were clearly an influence on Turturro) one of the funniest roles of the year. Amid a notable supporting cast (Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, and Liev Schreiber), it’s Vanessa Paradis (Patrice Leconte’s 1999 The Girl on the Bridge) who will truly make your heart skip a beat. Turturro’s refreshing blend of classical romance, modern art, and Jewish culture feels completely out-of-step with most movies being made these days — making it a film I could have easily watched again as soon as it was over.   

Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (US) starts out wonderfully strong, with an intense plot-driven premise led by the always hypnotic Peter Sarsgaard. Note I said “plot-driven.” Visually-oriented dramas like Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), and Meek’s Cutoff (2010) are Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond’s signature, and with those films they’ve set the bar sky-high. Night Moves‘ more traditional structure may mean it has mainstream potential; the film has already drawn comparisons to Zal Batmanglij’s recent The East.

Though I tried to set any reservations aside (is Jesse Eisenberg really ready to carry a film like this?), I found myself wishing that Reichardt hadn’t deviated from the style of her previous films. Fortunately, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland) filled the void. The film picked up TIFF’s International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) award for Special Presentations, and rightfully so.

The director of the memorable My Summer of Love (2004) roots his latest in a formalistic aesthetic, complete with a 1.37 aspect ratio and a profoundly striking black and white palette. While dreary in its location, this character study of a woman in search of her own identity is anything but colorless. As I’ve warned with other films in my TIFF diary — stay away from plot overviews of this film. Just know that Ida has the power to affect you. If you see it playing at a film festival near you, buy your tickets in advance. This is the quiet jewel of 2013.

TIFF diary #4: never sleep again


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks returns, and this time he’s got the genre goods! Check back for more of his 2013 Toronto International Film Festival coverage, coming soon!

Mike Flanagan’s evilmirror flick Oculus (US) received first runner-up for “Best Midnight Movie,” which now seems appropriate since James Wan’s recent Insidious: Chapter 2 basically uses the same flashback structure (to much stronger effect.) Still, Flanagan (2011’s Absentia) is a young director worth keeping an eye on.

Eli Roth’s latest direct-to-streaming effort The Green Inferno (US) pays homage to Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) with some of the most deliciously disgusting violence seen onscreen in quite some time. Like Nicolás López’s Aftershock (2012), which Roth wrote, produced, and starred in, Inferno has a wonderful B-movie quality that will probably prevent it from achieving mainstream success. (Splatter fiends, however, are in for a treat.)

But it was Kim Ki-duk’s jaw-dropping, toe-squinching, stomach-churning Moebius (South Korea) that had me gasping for air throughout its entire 89 minutes. The film combines everything that you have learned to love about Kim Ki-duk’s style — ranging from his initial splash The Isle (2000) to Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) and 3 Iron (2004) — and then doubles it. Whatever you do, DO NOT READ ANY SPOILING REVIEWS of this film. Know that if you are into transgressive art-horror films, this is the kind of movie to stay up late for.

Elsewhere, Koyaanisqatsi (1982) director Godfrey Reggio presented the world premiere of his newest experimental documentary Visitors (USA) — complete with a new score performed live by Philip Glass and the Toronto Symphony, and a Q&A mediated by Steven Soderbergh (who supposedly has watched Visitors six times already).

However, the similarly bold Under the Skin (UK), from director Jonathan Glazer, baffled TIFF-goers so much that I heard close to half a dozen audience members complaining at how obtuse and confusing it was. One such remark (“The most expensive student film ever made!”) made me ponder the ever-widening gap between abstract visual filmmaking and mainstream “art” cinema.

Glazer’s previous works, the scrumptious Sexy Beast (2000) and the underrated Birth (2004), both seemed to satisfy even the most finicky film snob. So what is it about Under the Skin that is so intangible? (The fact that it’s been compared to Shane Carruth’s most recent visual poem Upstream Color could help designate which side of the argument you stand on.)

Even haters can’t argue with the stellar performance by star Scarlett Johansson. That said, while Johansson shared how difficult it was for her to overcome her anxiety about the film’s nude scenes, I was most intrigued by Glazer’s nervous behavior in the moments before the screening. He even felt it necessary to “help us,” and explained that the film aims to probe our world from a distant perspective.

I wonder if Yoko Ono’s 25-minute short Fly (1970) — which involves a naked woman and a very curious fly — seems even more relevant now, for it too attempted to expand the consciousness of its viewers. I will be very curious to see how Under the Skin fares commercially. If it connects with the right audience, it has the power to truly affect moviegoers, especially those looking for alternative types of moving images.

TIFF diary #3: Claire Denis, Jia Zhangke, and Wang Bing


Jesse Hawthorne Ficks watched 33 films at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and we’ll be sharing his impressions chunk by chunk. Stay tuned for more!

A Touch of Sin (China/Japan) is the latest thoughtful triumph for Jia Zhangke, the king of China’s sixth-generation filmmaking. This time around, his suffering, disaffected characters are entangled in an even more violent environment than in previous outings Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004), and Still Life (2006).

The film’s cyclical themes only become apparent as the viewer falls deeper and deeper into each character’s predicaments. This is a filmmaker at the top of his game. Thankfully, Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano continues to produce his modern masterpieces.

With ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Hong Kong/France/Japan), Wang Bing has produced yet another psychological tour de force that manages to slowly creep under your skin and attack your central nervous system. It’s a direct-cinema doc that places the viewer on one floor of an overcrowded asylum.

The film is oddly constructed, with purposeful editing that inspired some audience walkouts. The monotony of the patients’ lives becomes so recognizable that it might make you lose track of your own mind and body. While Madness is quite a bit shorter than Wang’s 2003 magnum opus West of the Tracks (which clocks in at nine hours), Madness’ nearly four-hour running time only amplifies the intentionally uncomfortable viewing experience. See this on a big screen at all costs.

Claire Denis is back with yet another stunning work of art. Bastards (France) finds Denis yet again exploring the conflict of isolation versus intimacy, enhanced by Agnès Godard’s scintillating cinematography and brooding tracks by Stuart A. Staples’ Tindersticks.

What makes Denis’ films so exciting is her steadfast storytelling. As with Beau Travail (1999) and The Intruder (2004), my interpretations of Bastards‘ events were redesigned at every turn, forcing me to become an even more active participant then when the film began. Vincent Lindon (of Emmanuel Carrère’s haunting 2005 La moustache) gives a memorably desperate performance as he dashes from one self-destructive disaster to the next, similar to Isabelle Huppert in White Material (2009). Underground filmmakers of the early 1960s may have called it “Baudelairean cinema,” but this just happens to be the way Claire Denis sees the world. And thank the film gods for that.

TIFF diary #2: dead cheerleaders + Tsai, Hong, and Breillat


Check out the first entry in Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ Toronto International Film Festival diary here, and stay tuned for more tomorrow!

All Cheerleaders Die (USA) is the follow up to Lucky McKee’s attention-grabbing The Woman (2011), which stunned Sundance audiences with both its subversive take on gender issues and its violent brutality.

Taking a much lighter tone with co-director Chris Sivertson, Cheerleaders (an expanded remake of his 2001 short by the same name) nicely echoes the ironic horror-comedy vibe of Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods (2012) while still managing to deliver a genre entry for text-crazed teenyboppers. Goths, jocks, some faux feminism, and a bevy of ass and crotch shots should make fans of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers quite satisfied.

In the 1990s, Tsai Ming-liang’s films were often mentioned alongside works by Hirokazu Kore-eda and Hou Hsiao-hsien. But two decades later, only Tsai has stayed the determined course of creating pure, contemplative cinema. Presenting his tenth feature (and showcasing yet again his alter ego, actor Lee Kang-sheng), Stray Dogs (Taiwan) is a breathtaking meditation on a homeless Taiwanese family, who are quietly doing what they can to get by.

With this film, Tsai has almost abandoned story completely, instead favoring long, drawn-out, surreal, one-shot sequences — next-level abstractness that will either send you running for the hills or leave you unblinkingly glued to the screen. Someone should program Stray Dogs with his 2012 short Sleepwalk, which followed a monk as he slowly walked through city streets. (Whether that would equal absolute transcendence or absolute boredom depends on the viewer, of course.)

While Hong Sang-soo’s Our Sunhi (South Korea) is not as monumentally enjoyable as last year’s In Another Country (2012), his new film does represent another solid entry for the director. I admire Hong’s ability to stay consistent with his philosophy on life: give a small group of people a lot of alcohol and let them share their innermost uncouth and irresponsible feelings. Of course, you could argue that he is just making the same film over and over. But if you take the time to notice the structural differences — as well as wonderful choices with his actors (Jung Yu-mi is quite enjoyable in this) — you’ll realize why critics love to favorably compare Hong to Woody Allen.

Watching director Catherine Breillat take the stage at TIFF to present her latest, Abuse of Weakness (France), was as powerful and moving as watching the film itself. After her 2004 stroke (and subsequent personal issues), Breillat decided to make an autobiographical narrative, casting the great Isabelle Huppert to interpret Breillat’s own confused choices.

Abuse of Weakness is perhaps one of the most interesting films about the life of an artist I have ever seen. As the Q&A was concluding, Breillat dropped a bottle of water that was given to her and explained “Even after all these years, you forget that you can’t feel anything in your arm.” And suddenly it was if you were right back in the film again.

TIFF diary: standouts from France, Nepal, and Japan


After 33 feature films at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, I can safely say that I am ecstatic about where cinema is heading this decade.

While many of the following films might not receive major releases, I have compiled a spoiler-free overview of films — presented here as a series of blog posts — to keep your eyes and ears out for in the coming months (and perhaps years) at your local theaters and online resources.  

Stephanie Pray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (USA/Nepal) is produced by the team who delivered last year’s Leviathan and 2009’s Sweetgrass. So right away, you should know that you are watching a documentary that utilizes “direct cinema” (aka shot fly-on-the-wall style) to its fullest extent. This exquisite exercise, which follows 11 cable car rides (each an unedited 11 minutes long) through the mountains to a small village in Nepal, is easily one of the most breathtaking films of the year.

Manakamana‘s structure allows audience members to either watch the intricacies of each rider, or to let their attention wander to the passing environment beyond. Like Sharon Lockhart’s Pine Flat (2006), the combination of both the personal and the external perspectives left me emotionally stunned. See this on a big screen at all costs.

Yet again, François Ozon has created a haunting thriller that should not be dismissed easily. Young and Beautiful (France) follows a 17-year-old girl in what sounds like an Eric Rohmer-esque portrait: four seasons, four songs. But while the rampant sexual excursions may get overlooked due to another French film this year (more on that in a later post), this tense tingler is much more diabolical than I was prepared for. It’s darkly reminiscent of Brian De Palma and David Lynch — so, in other words, don’t make any assumptions until the last frame is finished. Newcomer Marine Vacth delivers a fearless performance, but veteran Charlotte Rampling may have stolen the show with a role that calls to mind Under the Sand (2000) and Swimming Pool (2003).

Hirokazu Kore-eda deservedly won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his heartbreaking Like Father, Like Son (Japan). Its exploration of how two sets of parents teach and motivate their offspring brought me to tears in Toronto. Director Kore-eda continues his streak of masterful, intimate, occasionally brutal studies of families: see also Nobody Knows (2004) and Still Walking (2008). Avoid any plot overviews — Like Father‘s dramatic shifts are best experienced without any prior knowledge of them. J-Pop star Masaharu Fukuyama leads an outstanding cast.

Check back soon for more from Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ TIFF diary.

TIFF happens, part three! Plus top films of the fest


Read Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ first and second reports from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

Dial M For Murder 3D Remastered (Alfred Hitchcock, US) The digitally remastered re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s only 3D production was introduced by none other than film historian David Bordwell, whose introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994) have shaped countless film students. After an insightful Hitchcock introduction that left me feeling as if I had downloaded an entire book to my central nervous system in only 12 minutes, the 4K, 3D digital restoration began.

What was most exciting about this often-dismissed Hitchcock flick (aside from the highly effective 3D itself) was recognizing how incorrect critics in 1954 had been when they complained about how pathetic the 3D was utilized. Re-evaluating Dial M For Murder in the present 3D age, it is overwhelmingly clear that Hitchcock understood the complexity of his technique; instead of overusing the “in your face” gimmick he directed his attention toward utilizing the depth of the sets and perfectly placed props near the camera. Fifty-eight years later, even one of Hitchcock’s “lesser” films (even according to himself) is still paving the road for future films and filmmakers.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, US) The adorably awkward Greta Gerwig has been this generation’s “It Girl” since arriving on the indie scene in 2006 by way of director Joe Swanberg’s LOL. Frances Ha has given her what should prove to be her defining role in Noah Baumbach’s equally effervescent effort.
Baumbach’s mumblecore-anticipating, French New Wave-inspired films — Kicking and Screaming (1995), Mr. Jealousy (1997), The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot at the Wedding (2007), and Greenberg (2010) — showcase flawed characters who some find so intolerable that watching a Baumbach film feels like getting stuck at an upper-class dinner party with the most unlikable people on the planet. But as in a Coen Brothers or Woody Allen film, these characters’ ugly truths are the key to what makes them so memorable.

In fact, it’s why all of Baumbach’s films have struck such a chord with me for 15-plus years. I keep seeing my own personality pitfalls in these Gen X-ers’ self-destructive decisions (I will literally say out loud, “I just pulled a Greenberg.”) And Frances Ha‘s hilarious train-of-thought odyssey is as profound as it is whimsical. With a cast pulled straight out of Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls and added to the glorious black and white cinematography by Sam Levy (2008’s Wendy and Lucy), this ode to Allen’s Manhattan (1979) most definitely will make it to the top of a ton of critic’s lists. But more importantly you’ll find yourself thinking about the film as it relates to the most embarrassing moments of your own life.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark) Easily one of the most horrific and disturbing films ever made, and what’s even more frightening is that it’s a documentary. I have tried to explain this film to numerous people since being utterly transfixed and totally destroyed by it and often I see an odd glaze creep across the listener’s eyes. Filmed over a six-year period in Indonesia by filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing plays out like a misanthropic satire, where the characters are so honest about their pure apathy towards other human lives that you as a viewer become unaware of what psychological quicksand lies ahead.

Again, this is a documentary and as it painstakingly introduces you to a group of elders in a small Indonesian village, self-revered war heroes from the military coup of the Communist government in 1965. Their leader, Anwar, and his friends decide they don’t want to just tell their war stories for a documentary, they want to re-enact each type of their actual killings in all the flair and glory of the movies that they grew up watching — John Wayne Westerns, extravagant musicals, and gangster epics like Scarface (1983). What ensues feels like Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930) or even the third act of Hamlet and could leave you absolutely accosted, obliterated, and feeling an unwanted amount of affectionate understanding. Either way, you will never be the same after watching this movie.

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK) My favorite film of the festival takes place on the post-production set of a Dario Argento-esque, Italian horror film in the late 1970s-early 80s. This hypnotic, nostalgic, and ultimately transcendental experimental exercise will test the patience of just about every audience member. But anyone who has worked at a job (much less on the production of a film) where the possibility of losing the concept of time, as well as one’s grasp on reality, is a possibility may be able to conquer this monotonous, mind-bending ode to Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981). (Actual quote from a fellow press member leaving the screening: “Are you kidding me?!”)

Another quote — this one by filmmaker Paul Schrader, in his life-altering book Transcendental Style In Film (1972)  — says it best: “I would rather do something really small of some value than do what Marty Scorsese’s doing. I don’t see the fun in that.”

Top films of the 32 films I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival:

1. Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (UK)
2. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (Denmark)
3. Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways (Canada)
4. Michael Haneke’s Amour (Austria)
5. Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem (US)
6. Jun Lana’s Bwakaw (Philippines)
7. Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (Portugal)
8. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (US)
9. Brian De Palma’s Passion (Germany/France)
10. Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths (UK)
11. Bahman Ghobadi’s Rhino Season (Iran/Turkey)
12. Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (India)

(Buzzed-about fest favorites that I was sadly unable to screen: David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Ben Affleck’s Argo, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy).

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and hosts Midnites for Maniacs, a film series devoted to underrated, overlooked, and dismissed cinema.

TIFF happens, part two!


Read Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ first report from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival here.

In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) This highly enjoyable Éric Rohmer-esque vehicle for Isabelle Huppert continues Hong’s tradition as being the Korean Woody Allen by making a highly personal comedies. Huppert is masterful bouncing in and out of each random-yet-interconnected sequence, but Yu Jun-sang steals the show as the local lifeguard who hilariously channels Roberto Benigni (circa Jim Jarmusch’s 1986 Down By Law). It’s one of the funniest comic performances of 2012.

Passion (Brian De Palma, Germany/France) Brian De Palma is back, and primed for those of us who love the way he remixes his favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies (see: 1976’s Obsession, 1980’s Dressed To Kill, 1984’s Body Double, and 2002’s Femme Fatale). This time, though, De Palma remakes a French thriller: Alain Corneau’s 2010 Love Crime. It begins with a whiter-than-Wonder Bread color scheme and structurally devolves into something much more sinister combined with a crisp HD cinematography by Jose Luis Alcain (of Pedro Almodovar fame.)

De Palma said in the press that he really wanted someone who “understood how to make a woman look beautiful” — and by gawd, leads Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace not only look flawless but deliver deliciously diabolical performances. Passion also boasts what has to be one of De Palma’s most exciting conclusions. As soon as it was over, I wanted to watch it again! Who says De Palma peaked with Scarface (1983)?!

Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap, India) Only 10 critics (yes, I counted) at the festival completed both parts of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, which runs five hours and 15 minutes long. But I feel those of us who did are bonded together forever.

This historical Hindi gang epic, which begins in 1941 ends in the present day, is massive film that transcends generations and should make Ram Gopal Varma (of Sarkar films fame, clearly an inspiration here) proud. Director Anurag Kashyap pays attention to the details: wonderfully changing fashion and hair styles, ever-evolving movie posters on the alley walls. Not only is Gangs a tribute to the history of Hindi cinema, it establishs quite brilliantly where and what time period the characters are in — and during a five and half hour movie, you need all the help you can get.

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US) This extremely hyped Harmony Korine dream project does exactly what you could ever fantasize about by delivering a T&A-filled exploitation film, led by James Franco as a grimy, gold-grilled-grinning, dreadlocked drug dealer who lives to prey on bikini-clad young girls (which is perfectly punctuated by the brilliant casting of Disney darling Selena Gomez.)

Spring Breakers is poised to become Korine’s most popular film to date, but its commercial appeal will likely overshadow perhaps his greatest film: Lotus Community Workshop, which played the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year and features a legendary performance by the almighty Val Kilmer! Don’t miss either of these soon-to-be contemporary cult classics.

Aftershock (Eli Roth and Nicolas Lopez, US) Eli Roth and Nicolas Lopez’s earthquake horror flick Aftershock is a gleefully mean-spirited grindhouse thriller that sends a group of annoying American tourists (led by Roth himself, as the dorkiest douchebag of the year) into earthquake-ridden Santiago, Chile. Throw in every tried and true obstacle from 70s genre flicks such as Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974) and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) and you’ve got either one helluva hilarious tongue-in-cheek horror roughie, or, as some critics leaving the press screening were saying: “One of the worst films of the year. It definitely should go straight-to-streaming.”

Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada) Winner of the Best Canadian Feature at this year’s fest, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways is yet another OCD, gorgeously-designed love story; it fits perfectly alongside his extremely personal I Killed My Mother (2009) and his devastatingly spot-on hipster classic Heartbeats (2010).

Once again, Dolan’s characters are allowed to feel obsessive about one another while encased in jaw-dropping mises en scène. Some critics seem to take issue with this 24-year-old’s influences (Wong Kar-wai, Pedro Almodovar), which led many reviews suggesting that Dolan needs to hire an editor (Laurence Anyways clocks in at two hours and 41 minutes).

But I would argue that this epic, gender-bending love story needs to take its time to do what no other film has ever done right. By humanizing not only Laurence, the transgendered lead character (epically performed by Raúl Ruiz’s ingenue, Melvil Poupaud), but also his life-long lover Fred, performed with an Elizabeth Taylor-esque guttural passion by Suzanne Clément, who won the Best Actress prize in this year’s Cannes Film Festival’s sidebar competition, Un Certain Regard.

For those willing to give in to a decade’s worth (1989-1999) of hypnotic set and costume designs, cryptic character development, a crew of campy castaways, and a killer soundtrack ranging from Visage to Celine Dion, Laurence Anyways should elevate Dolan from Canada’s best kept-secret to being an integral leader of a post-gender film movement that is just about to explode.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and hosts Midnites for Maniacs, a film series devoted to underrated, overlooked, and dismissed cinema.

TIFF happens! Toronto fest picks, part one


This year’s Toronto International Film Festival showcased 289 films. I attended 32. Mark down any titles that sound interesting, because this upcoming year is gonna be one to remember.

Outrage Beyond (Takeshi Kitano, Japan) The sequel to Takeshi Kitano’s return-to-gangster-form Outrage (2010) sports the same no-nonsense editing that matches extreme violence with perfectly primed pauses. Kitano’s knack for offbeat crime films began almost 25 years ago with his nasty neo-noir classic Violent Cop (1989). Since then, he’s found a perfect blend of humor and artistry over the years, with such masterpieces as Sonatine (1993) and Hana-Bi (1997). Even his more eccentric deliveries, such as the sentimental Kikujiro (1999) and Brother (2000) —  his American crossover, co-starring Omar Epps — have the power to make fans out of first-time Takeshi viewers. Outrage Beyond methodically introduces (then destroys) main characters, creates tons of twists and turns that mangle the melodrama, and will either hypnotize you to all its inverted genre glory or leave you completely cold, confused, and unaffected. Either way, Takeshi is his own boss and I will watch everything he touches.

Rhino Season (Bahman Ghobadi, Iraq/Kurdistan/Turkey) This beautifully political narrative is a terrifying tribute to outspoken Iranian artists who find themselves threatened with decades of prison if they dare to question the contradictions around them. Ghobadi himself had to leave Iran a few years ago just so this film could actually be made; fellow film festival fave Jafar Panahi, director of The White Balloon (1995), Crimson Gold (2003), and Offside (2007), is still incarcerated under house arrest and is banned from writing and directing for what looks like 20 more years.

Panahi’s situation brings an extra importance to Ghobadi’s Rhino Season. The casting of Italian superstar Monica Bellucci and Behrouz Vossoughi (one of Iran’s most popular and prolific actors) could make this Ghobadi’s most accessible film since his 2004 Turtles Can Fly. This is cinema of the now — and combined with Ghobadi’s lyrical images, it solidifies him as a leading cinematic voice.

Dredd 3D (Pete Travis, US/UK) The new and improved Judge Dredd adaptation (which was presented in the Midnight Madness category, and opens in Bay Area theaters Fri/21) takes a much different approach than the uneven (yet under appreciated) 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle by making the obvious choice to darken the mood (and not to take Dredd’s helmet off.) By bringing in the screenwriter of 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007), Alex Garland, the story kicks into absolute overdrive, saving an origin script for the already much-anticipated sequel.

While the special effects are spectacular and the deadpan one-liners are delivered with an enjoyable amount of irony, Dredd’s voice (which is quite reminiscent of a certain superhero in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster franchise) reminds you that every decade has its own dated elements. Perhaps Danny Cannon’s 1995 Judge Dredd is just as representational of its own era as this rambunctious Escape from New York-meets-The Raid homage.

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, US) For those who were wishing Terrence Malick would explore relationships sans dinosaurs and throbbing solar systems, look no further. Utilizing recognizable techniques like a glorious Steadicam shot gliding through golden fields at dusk, To the Wonder is in fact much more spiritual and even overtly religious than anything else at TIFF.

Especially after 2011’s polarizing The Tree of Life, Malick has become a loaded name for haters and lovers alike — bringing unfair expectations to a filmmaker who is clearly attempting to create ethereal art. To the Wonder features a stunning performance by Rachel McAdams and a curiously perfect, Robert Bresson-esque role for Ben Affleck. This film has to been seen in an actual movie theater.

The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, US) When Rob Zombie took the stage for the world premiere of his fifth feature film (also a Midnight Madness selection), audience members greeted him with a standing ovation. “Are you guys ready to see a bunch of sexy dancing naked witches?” Zombie yelled. When the audience erupted with “YES!” he replied, “Well … this movie doesn’t have any of that!” and humorously walked off the stage.

What followed was hands-down the most terrifying opening sequence of Toronto (much less 2012). It literally left the entire audience dumbfounded. And when the title The Lords of Salem appeared, you could feel the subconscious collective bracing themselves for what going to be yet another disturbingly brilliant Zombie horror classic.

Let’s take a step back to remember Zombie’s debut House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and sequel The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Both films caught both horror critics and music fans by surprise with how powerful his filmmaking aesthetics are. He arrived on the horror scene smack dab in the middle of the “torture porn” craze; in my opinion, Zombie was tops in the “Splat Pack” (amid Eli Roth, James Wan, Alexandre Aja, etc.) due to his Tarantino-style cinephilia (casting horror icons of the past in major roles; paying homage to genre classics like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre series), but more importantly his contemporary understanding of music. With his remakes of the Halloween series (2007 and 2009), which many horror fans may need to revisit, Zombie further proved himself a filmmaker who has a lot to say to his audiences.

Which brings us to The Lords of Salem, a contemporary witch tale influenced by Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). Showcasing serious suspense, a psychotic soundtrack, and purposeful pacing, the film also boasts one of the most deliciously diabolical denouements in years. Avoid all spoilers and add this creepfest to your must-see list. All hail Salem!

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and hosts Midnites for Maniacs, a film series devoted to underrated, overlooked, and dismissed cinema.