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Beginning on January 9th, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will be opening Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism —about the relations between a film director (Bogdan Dumitrache) and his actress (Diana Avramut), as well as his producer (Mihaela Sirbu), in the periods between shooting —for a one-week, exclusive engagement.
By the early 1990s, three relatively marginal world cinemas— those of Iran, Taiwan and China’s Fifth Generation — had begun to generate a sustained enthusiasm in programmers, critics and cinephiles, followed several years later by a similar renaissance in South Korea, Thailand, and now the Philippines. Partly concurrent with these these developments has been the emergence of especially three filmmakers — Porumboiu himself, Cristi Puiu, and Cristian Munguiu — whose work has heralded a resurgence of the Romanian cinema within the past several years, commanding international attention, whilst the intrinsic interest of this efflorescence is further confirmed by this new, captivating film.
When Evening Falls on Bucharest is elegantly shot in a series of long-takes, with no cutting within scenes — a trademark of advanced cinema worldwide, also employed by Puiu and Mungiu. (It is interesting to consider the arguably non-Bazinian impetus behind this practice in contemporary filmmakers like Bela Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, or Hou Hsiao-Hsien, as contrasted with the new realism of pioneers of a similar technique such as Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, Carl Dreyer and Luchino Visconti.) The behavioral details of quotidian interaction are here meticulously realized, one of the many pleasures of this remarkable work.
If Porumboiu’s achievement here is less startling and consequential than that of his earlier, gripping Police, Adjective —which had its local premiere in the New York Film Festival as did several other works of this Romanian new wave — with this new film he is nonetheless profitably mining a a rich naturalistic stream that has its roots in the practice of such magisterial forebears as Jean-Luc Godard and John Cassavetes, amongst others. Also, like many features of this past year, When Evening Falls on Bucharestis evidence of an increasing mastery of the digital format, which one hopes will no longer be the mere “bastard-child” of celluloid, something it has taken most significant cinematographers and directors several years to develop.
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has shrank not so much in the number of movies, but in the area it covers. The Cineplex Scotiabank "google-plex" (259 Richmond Street West) is only two blocks away from the TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West), and with nothing but restaurants surrounding these two venues, you really can’t go anywhere except circle the same few blocks over and over again.
The Chapters Bookstore that was next to the Cineplex is gone, which is a bummer. It was a great place to hang out between screenings. With Worlds Biggest Books gone as well (which I found out last July, so this adds insult on top of injury), that means there’s nowhere cheap to hang out besides waiting on line for screenings.
Across the street from the theater, there was a place that served really great tuna melts, and I savored one before going to see John Stewart’s Rosewater which, despite the director’s reputation, is a physiological drama (i.e. lots of smacking around and depravation) as much as it is a political one.
A guy was giving out free tickets to see James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, a film that seemed to perfectly suit TIFF especially since medical conditions appeared to be the theme of this year’s festival. Horrible diseases. The movie's about famed British physicist Stephen Hawking who's has Lou Gerhig’s disease (ALS). The hero’s sister in the Kazakhstani film, The Owners, has a fatal disease as well. And another film, Still Alice, is about a woman with early onset Alzheimer's disease. And then there Cake about a woman in endless pain from a horrible auto accident.
So with nowhere to go and nothing to do but go to movies, that’s what I did. A block away was Princess of Wales Theater (on 300 King Street West), where one can see the rush line from the Lightbox. And that’s where I started.
The Theory of EverythingDirected by James Marsh
This filmic biography of physicist Stephen Hawking wasn’t bad as a biopic. It starts at Cambridge University in England when Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) was still healthy. He meets Jane (Felicity Jones) and, despite the fact that she’s gorgeous and he’s geeky, they fall madly in love. Then he develops ALS, a motor neuron disease in which the muscles essentially waste away until one can't move, talk or breathe. Despite this calamity, they marry and there’s the usual melodrama as married Jane meets choirmaster Jonathan (Charlie Cox), and is smitten. Surprisingly, so is Hawking (platonically except with his nurse), and things get complicated. Then he gets famous and things get even more convoluted. The acting is terrific, even though it feels little like a movie-of-the-week, this is Toronto, where Oscar-bait gets introduced.
The OwnersDirected by Adilkhan Yerzhanov
I went up to the Scotiabank cineplex to see the press and industry schedule. Since I didn’t find anything to my liking, I walked into the first screening room I found. Inside, a film from Kazakhstan called The Owners was on the screen. The acting was okay, but the editing was terrible -- the star had bruises which kept popping in and out of the lead’s face, appearing then not. It was distracting to ay the least. It's not a musical, yet people start dancing for no reason at all. Director Yerzhanov is an amateur in every bad sense of the word. It was so atrocious, I almost walked out and it takes a lot for me to do that.
The next day’s goal was to recreate the glory days of the film festival by going to as many as five or six movies. I managed to actually do it. After hitting a couple of panels and scarfing down some lunch, I landed back in the theaters.
Still AliceDirected by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
In the first film of the day, the title character cognitive psychologist Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is afflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s. To make things worse, she’s married to Alec Baldwin, who plays her husband John. The filmmakers foreshadow a brilliant ending, but do they use it? Nooooo… It just shows how her deterioration brings her to a useless ending so they pretend to be happy as it happens. I'm not sure why the directors decided to do this thing -- it's neither interesting nor entertaining -- and the climax is one of the most disappointing I've seen in awhile. Let's just say, the ending sucks. It's a rare film that makes you hope for a suicide, but there you go.
CakeDirected by Daniel Barnz
Barnz’s Cake describes how Claire Simmons (Jennifer Aniston) is coping a year after her horrific car wreck. She’s become such a total bitch that only her saintly maid Silvana (Adriana Barraza) can put up with her. This is one of those movies which is mostly a vanity piece. Another bummer, there's nothing much to say because Schadenfreude isn't really that entertaining unless it's at the end of fairy tale and the villain gets his/her well-deserved comeuppance. This never happens here. What we get is angst, anger and attempts at humor that fail. I find Cake mediocre with uninteresting characters, a routine plot, and, except for a occasional flings of fantasy ,it makes you WORK. Only if a film's really excellent, what's the point of working so hard? Movies are for entertainment, and unless you find downers fun, what's the point? Unless you want to see everything Anniston has done in her career, there's no reason to sit through this.
RosewaterDirected by John Stewart
As this film opens our hero is being taken away by the secret police. This is followed by a fascinating flashback part: Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) is an Iranian journalist living in London who gets sent back home to cover Iran's controversial 2009 presidential election. He hires a driver named Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) who shows him around Teheran, especially where the opposition hangs out. By the time we get back to the start, we understand the crimes of the government and why Maziar was arrested. Why is the movie named Rosewater? Well, that’s the nickname that Bahari gives his interrogator played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia. The final half of the film is mostly the verbal jousting between the prisoner and his abuser. Bernal and Bodina are destined to be nominated for awards this winter and spring.
Itsi BitsiDirected by Ole Christian Madsen
Sometime around 1970, retired rock star Eik Skaløe killed himself in Pakistan. So who cares besides his family and close friends? Well, he was the Danish equivalent of Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison. The film starts with him dropping dead in the desert and then flashes back to 1962. There were hippies in Europe long before they were in North America and "peace activist" Eik Skaløe (Joachim Fjelstrup) meets Iben (Marie Tourell Søderberg) and falls head over heels in love, but Iben who's a free spirit, sex fiend and drug addict, refuses to commit. Desperate, Eik follows her on a journey through France, Spain, North Africa and Greece, in the process transforming from poet to writer, nomad, junkie and eventually lead singer in the destined-to-be-legendary band (in Denmark only) Steppeulvene. There are no nice people in this film. There are however, a bunch of fascinating assholes, all villains except for the poor schnook dragooned by the lead into helping him start his band. A hit in Copenhagen for sure, it will probably never be seen elsewhere on the left side of the Atlantic other than at TIFF. The title isn’t really explained in the film, so why bother here?
May Allah Bless FranceDirected by Abd Al Malik
I was steered accidentally to Malik’s May Allah Bless France. I only saw about the last half hour so I am reacting to basic impressions of this fictionalized autobiography of the filmmaker, who, in this telling is Regis (Marc Zingam). As a young kid, he dreams of success as a rapper but becomes a drug dealer instead. Discovering Islam and love, he ultimately becomes a major artist on the French music scene. We’ve seen this all before in North American cinema, and that's usually pretty bad too. Even based on a limited perception, be grateful you are unlikely to get a chance to see this.
TuskDirected by Kevin Smith
Noted director Smith’s Tusk has been called “Human Centipede meets Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" and that’s an apt description. As horror comedies go, it’s rather lame, but the performances are terrific. Justin Long plays Wallace Bryton, an extraordinarily obnoxious Los Angeles-based podcaster whose show, “The Not-See Party,” consists of Wallace and sidekick Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) showing America’s dumbest home videos and making fun of them. Wallace flies up to Manitoba (that’s why this movie got into the TIFF -- for its Canadian content) to interview a moron who accidentally sliced his leg off with a ninja sword, but when he gets there he learns that the moron sliced off something more important and is now dead.
Ticked off, he goes to a local bar where he finds a flyer in the bathroom by Howard Howe (Michael Parks) who wants someone to do light housework and listen to his stories of the sea. Intrigued, he goes to see him. But Howe is a serial killer who wants to turn poor Wallace into a walrus named Mr. Tusk. Then it goes into flashback mode where Wallace and his girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) argue as to whether or not his being a podcaster has turned him into an asshole or not. Smith goes back and forth between Howe's charnel house and the outside world, where Wallace's girlfriend and Teddy enlist the help of disgraced Quebecois detective Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp) to find him. Depp is terrible. What was really strange about this film is that the Oscar nominees were far worse actors than the ones who haven’t been nominated for anything.
The EqualizerDirected by Antoine Fuqua
In this a superhero movie without the costumes, Denzel Washington plays McCall, clearly a man on the lam, who has put his mysterious past behind him and dedicated himself to beginning a new, quiet life.Then he meets Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a prostitute with a heart of gold under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters who beat her up. McCall can't stand idly by — he has to help her. Armed with hidden skills that would make Batman jealous, this avenger comes out of his self-imposed retirement to get her out of their clutches. But when things go wrong, the evil Russian mob sends its meanest villain, Teddy (Marton Csokas) to clean up the resulting mess. It’s very well done, but predictable, which is why it’s not going get Fuqua any new awards after he won them for his earlier work with Denzel on 2001's award-garnering Training Day.
David Fincher was already a filmmaker with a significant body of work by the time he made Zodiac, but with that work, and the subsequent The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he established himself as one of the best directors in Hollywood. (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, though highly accomplished in many respects, was too flawed to be more than resolutely minor.) His newest opus, the satirical mystery Gone Girl, the opening night selection of the New York Film Festival, adapted from a brilliant, disturbing screenplay by Gillian Flynn, is of comparable stature with his most recent efforts and cements his reputation as one of the most remarkable of contemporary artists of the motion picture.
The ingenious if self-consciously preposterous plot of this movie is best left as a surprise; however, one can say that Fincher elicits enthralling work from his terrific cast, including Ben Affleck, in one of his best performances, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, and the impossibly glamorous Rosamund Pike. (The presence of Emily Ratajkowski — the luscious object who acquired fame upon her appearance in Robin Thicke's celebrated "Blurred Lines" video — in a small role, is another bonus, while Sela Ward has a glorious cameo.)
Mesmerizingly shot in widescreen and seamlessly edited, Gone Girl displays a consistent visual mastery, although I have some doubts that at the screening I attended the projector bulb was bright enough for the dark vision of the director and his cinematographer, the astonishing Jeff Cronenweth — it will be necessary to see this under better conditions to be sure that this film confirms Fincher's status as one of the greatest practitioners of shooting in digital. (Gone Girl also features an excellent score by the filmmaker's regular collaborator, Trent Reznor.) All in all, this is one of the strongest works in this festival.
Also of interest, if not of quite the same level of eminence, is this year's Festival Centerpiece, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, an adaptation of a recent novella by the celebrated author, Thomas Pynchon, a paranoid, comic yarn about a hippie private eye — brilliantly played by the extraordinary Joaquin Phoenix, who also excelled in the filmmaker’s previous feature, The Master — in southern California in the 1970s. The director is one of the most distinguished stylists in contemporary Hollywood but, here, his mise-en-scène is not quite as dazzling as in The Master. (Anderson has also not yet mastered the digital format — in both this film and his last, he has elected to shoot in sunlight with many images unable to sustain the extremes in contrast.) Inherent Vice is most remarkable for its eccentric, sometimes hilarious, humor and for its star-studded cast, including Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Jeannie Berlin, Jefferson Mays, and Joanna Newsom. The effective score is by Johnny Greenwood, Anderson’s regular collaborator.
The terrific closing night film, which screened on October 11th, was Alejandro Gonzalez-Iñárritu's brilliant Birdman, about a washed-up Hollywood action star — played, in a bravura performance, by Michael Keaton — who attempts to stage a comeback by appearing in a Broadway play. The director is a favorite of the festival, having been featured here with his debut, Amores Perros, as well as the excellent 21 Grams. Shot in complexly choreographed long takes with a liberal employment of special effects and magical realist elements, the new film is a tour de force of Emmanuel Lubezki's extraordinary cinematography, a body of work that has attracted the attention of cinephiles especially for an astonishing recent collaboration with the great Terence Malick. Birdman effectively deploys several masterpieces of Western classical music in its soundtrack and also boasts a superb supporting cast, including Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Jeremy Shamos.
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