TIFF REVIEWS: Day 0

So over the past few months, I’ve been *coughs* downloading *coughs* films I’ve somewhat been anticipating and watching them – having that they weren’t going to be released near me any time soon, I felt that it was no harm, no foul. Well, four of the films I’ve seen as of late will be playing at TIFF this year, so I feel that its in my TIFFing duty to inform festival goers of these five (surprisingly) high profile features that will be playing at this years festivities. I suppose I’ll go in alphabetical order.

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First up is Pedro Almodovar’s latest effort Broken Embraces starring constant collaborator Penelope Cruz and Lluis Homar. I am both gleeful and surprised to say that I really took to this film and can pridefully say that this is the first time I’ve seen the director make a serious movie seriously. Here, there is little to no awkward or spiritual humor that most fans of Almodovar are used to – the one embedded constant that I never took to in films such as Volver and All About My Mother.

A sort of thrilling, sort of marvelous tale, Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) has a few storylines going on but none more significant than Mateo Blanco’s. The film opens on blind screenwriter Mateo Blanco, now called Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) bouncing a new idea off of his manager/long time friend Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo). In this opening scene, we learn so much about the protagonist that I was left thinking “if the rest of the film is this studiously wise, it’ll be a favourite of mine”. Of course, the scene ends and it doesn’t maintain its humanistic majesty throughout the two hours, but that’s to be expected.

After getting a brief glimpse of Caine’s typical routine – having intercourse with a beautiful young lady after seducing her with his wisdom and conversing with friends – the viewer witnesses Mr. Caine fall apart at the seems. When a mysterious young man proposes an idea for a film that sounds ‘too personal’ for Harry’s tastes, Harry and Judit begin to get harassed by the young man. Harry has a suspicion at who it may be, but because he cannot see anymore, he asks Judit’s son Diego (Tamar Novas) to look through old photographs to see if he can match the stranger’s face with any photograph taken. There is a match and a few days later, Harry begins to tell the story of the love that got away and the forces that ruined his romantic purpose.

In the past, we learn that Harry was named Mateo Blanco and we also learn that he had an affair with a powerful man’s girlfriend. I use the term girlfriend loosely because its made adamantly clear that she’s only with him out of debt to him trying his best to save her father from dying two years prior. The woman’s name is Lena (Penelope Cruz) – she’s beautiful, brash, direct and loves to act. She finds herself in a part in an upcoming Mateo Blanco feature, a comedy entitled Women and Suitcases. Here is where the love affair arises and where all the tension begins. Lena’s boyfriend, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) becomes increasingly jealous as he doesn’t know what’s going on and often sends his son, Ernesto Martel Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano) to follow Lena to try and capture her being unfaithful on camera.

Lots of events take place and there’s lots of love found and lost in the feature. It generally indulges into its characters and their stories well – all but Ernesto Martel Jr. who is played off as a plotting antagonist but only came off misunderstood to me. He does nothing dirty or wretched and is stomped on as a young man (17 in the ’94 segment) from everyone around him. Almodovar plays him off as the primary reason for chaos, but it came off as either too weak a characterization or too strong a bad one. Either way, he missed the mark with Ernesto Jr.

The final act also teeters off a tiny bit with several revelations that seemed too gimmicky for even lovers of coincidence. They’re nothing insufferable, but there isn’t enough story behind them to cause for a viewer to be impressed or fulfilled with them. A minor annoyance in an attempt to cram too much in and nothing more.

A very sobered and mature effort from one of Spain’s most acclaimed directors since Luis Bunuel. It still has the occasional Spanish flare; a flare now used to enhance the story at hand as opposed to being it. The performances really shine in contrast as the variety does wonders as opposed to the similar feel all the performers give in other Almodovar efforts – especially Cruz who delivers her most impressive turn to date. With beautiful photography, lighting and a great set-design, I wouldn’t hesitate to call this a revival of old Hollywood – the stories that were slightly tragic, embraced story-telling and seemed more theatrical than realistic. A great cinematic effort – I hope Pedro stays on this track from here on out. Divinely poignant, embracing Almodovar’s latest wasn’t a task in the slightest. [8/10]

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Next is getting its North American premiere at TIFF – tomorrow night, actually. The film is City of Life and Death (aka: Nanking! Nanking!), and it is a Chinese production about the Nanjing massacre that took place in China’s capital circa 1937 during WWII. This film takes on the multistory form – telling the perspectives of three main men and various other tertiary characters.

In it, we see the views of the cause of the harm in the Japanese soldiers. This story is headed by Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a young soldier who is conflicted between fighting for his country and obliterating another. In this case, the latter is being pressed upon him by his sergeant Ida (Ryu Kohata), a remorseless, violent Japanese man that borders a wartime caricature (see: any propagandist American film in the 30’s and 40’s).

In the second story – they’re told in scattered fashion, not unlike Crash – is a Chinese soldier’s struggle for survival; or as I like to call it, the harmed. Jianxiong (Ye Liu) is a captured Chinese man who does his best to stay stoic and not allow the insane Japanese mentality scare him into a sniveling weak captive. This story isn’t particularly divulged into and can be taken at face value for the entirety. An endearing tale that tries to be much more depressing than it actually is – a sad misfire considering Ye Liu is what drove me to see this so hastily.

In the third story – and the last divulged into of the three – is about John Rabe (John Paisley) and his servants in Mr. and Mrs. Tang (Wei Fan and Lan Qin, respectively); the aid. If you don’t know about John Rabe, he was the leading cause in assisting the Chinese during the Nanjing conflict and providing the ‘safe zone’ for Chinese civilians before the power of the Japanese got too out of hand. Although it is the least important of the three stories, it is more captivating than the Chinese plot – not a good thing.

In watching this film, you expect to become learned about Nanjing – a story seldom told and never told with depth. This becomes of the same as it drudges through a ‘here and now’ story as opposed to a brief history of the struggle. The perspectives vary from single-faceted to intricate but the monotone telling of the story keeps the viewer at bay emotionally and never truly works by connecting to the soul of the viewer. There are scattered, hair-brained attempts at manufactured sincerity – overblown score, super zoom-ins, all-for-one/one-for-all mentality – just as the story begins to become passionate and satisfying, so they aren’t quite as foolishly placed as most of these cliched scenes, but aren’t as effective as director Chuan Lu would like to believe.

A mixed bag of a film – Lu’s intentions are clearly in trying to sensationalize the mentality of oppressed Chinese soldiers and sober the viewer about war, while highlighting the infantile thought-process of the malicious Japanese. What will hit home or annoy viewers the most is the sentimentality this concept is held with. As mentioned above, the entire film maintains this feel. There are sordid moments that alleviate the suffocation that such care causes.

The film also misleads the viewer with its grandiose opening that displays the deprivation of war. A 40 minute segment that aptly provides the viewer with perspectives on the Japanese and Chinese – all told through wartime violence. It’s unfortunate that the following hour and a half discards the blunt storytelling to fall back on comfortable convention.

I must say, this review seems very negative, but the movie isn’t half as bad as this reads. There are plenty of legitimately sad moments, desolate landscapes that blend beautifully with the humanist performances. It’s more agitating looking back on the film and thinking about the missteps that accumulate over the 2+ hours. It’s unbiased enough to not seem inebriated with an anti-Japanese sentiment – Kadokawa’s view of the horror his people cause is done expertly well – and is filled with enough perspective to not seem too wasteful, so it is a solid effort despite my issues with the production. (really, I believe I’m bias towards the first ‘real’ film about Nanjing not being as deprived as the events themselves as I care deeply about the story and have for years, so I feel a bit cheated)

In the end, you get a semi-poetic, attentively shot, wonderfully cast feature that hits more marks than it misses – but misses more endearing marks than it intended to hit hard. Like hitting your thumb while nailing something too many times, it gets as agitating as it does painful. If you’re a fan of the Hollywood mentality when it comes to sincerity (ie. exploiting it at times) you’ll fall in love with this feature. If you get annoyed easily by the same antics, avoid this. The most impressive aspect of this movie? Ryu Kohata as the antagonistic Japanese sergeant. Simple amazing – even more so considering its his first performance to date.  [7/10]

Next up is The Damned United – the latest collaboration between screenwriter Peter Morgan and top British actor Michael Sheen. Like their two previous collaborations (Frost/Nixon & The Queen) both are semi-fictionalized stories that document moments in British history. However, unlike the two Best Picture nominees this doesn’t chronicle a big political scandal, but rather a well known tale of Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) and his short lived career as the manager for Leeds United – the top football club at the time.

Because this movie isn’t very deep and a lot like Public Enemies in that its a film you can take entirely at face value and be as rewarded as someone who spends hours on end trying to connect a back story using metaphoric scenes and symbols, I’ll be brief with this review. As a minor-biography about one of the UK’s biggest sport stories in Brian Clough, it does well in giving the viewer something to champion about the man. However, a lot like Public Enemies, it doesn’t tell much about the main character other than the here and now. In this case, the “here and now” takes place over a few years, but more specifically focused in the month and a half of ego that Clough had with a club he resented from the beginning.

The story goes as follows. Brian Clough and his long time friend/scout for Derby in Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) – his right hand man and one of the reasons for his personal success both on and off the field. Derby was a team in third tier play (so not in the major leagues with ManU and Leeds). What could’ve been a tired underdog story is scrapped for a flashback and forth to Clough’s time on Leeds and story with Derby. With smart editing, you see the flaws the Brian acquires over the few years and more specifically during his time managing the United. It becomes a more interesting character study this way and I commend the film for that choice. It also keeps the film on the go all the time, so if you dislike a certain segment you can be assured the next will be more exciting.

Off the field, Brian’s relationships develop, if only slightly. His chumminess with Peter Taylor becomes more clear, accumulating sincerity where the film tends to lack it. His family life is jokingly shown – the views of Clough being a good, patient father while on Derby cutting to Clough being an irritable, snappy chap while on Leeds is comical in unoriginality and obviousness – but other than that the stories off the field are enjoyable, but basically paltry in importance.

More is developed in Derby where we learn about what sparks Brian’s issue with Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) that goes beyond Mr. Revie’s tactless managing of a team oozing with talent. This provides the major portion of conflict and allows for a genuine knock-back of a confrontation at the end.

The story is pretty neat, the cast is a little treat to those that enjoy the likes of Sheen and Spall – Graham, Meaney and Broadbent are given underwritten roles that, while fine, aren’t the stuff of previous success. Spall does well at giving his characters more depth than the script administers and certainly doesn’t disappoint here.

The basis issue that The Damned United has is the writing. The dialogue is fine, the characters are fine… but that’s it; it’s all just “fine”. Peter Morgan always chooses to write facile stories – ones that people can witness and not think much afterward. Ones that will please viewers, but not ones that enjoy pondering what the film has to say. His themes are executed professionally, but none of his themes are refreshing to watch play out. Yet another fine, but nominal job by Morgan. [6/10]

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Next is the surprisingly Gala’s Norwegian wartime biopic Max Manus chronicling the life of Max Manus during war. Undoubtedly set to be Norway’s 2009 submission to the Oscars, I’ve been excited for this film for months now.

The story is of course about Mr. Manus (Aksel Hennie) – a young Norwegian man who feels indebted to his country, so he becomes apart of a guerrilla squad set on taking down German forces in WWII. Along with his buddy Gregers (Nicolai Cleve Broch) and a few other comrades, they set out on doing what they couldn’t do on the field of battle – a scenario each of them participated in before joining up here. Each has a story to tell about their time on the wintery plains of Scandinavia, but none more horrific and heroic than our titular character.

The story takes plenty of predictable turns and enough typical war dialogue to please all fans. Because of this, it isn’t nearly as courageous as the main character it touts and borders tedium in scene that could have been completely removed without discourse. Although I did appreciate something the dialogue provided for – emotional strain. Even the most mundane of discussions allow the viewer to pry into the psyche of the character beheld. Max is especially struggling with his emotions behind the single-minded chit-chat – a spectacular road taken to keep this from becoming How to Make a Typical War Film 101.

In a ritual decision, the story originates a romantic subplot between Max and a young Norwegian named Nikoline ‘Tikken’ Lindebrække (Agnes Kittelsen). The story is nice enough to not cause detriment from the story and really allows for a bit of knowledge on Max that would’ve otherwise gone unexplored. Considering its more a character study than war movie, this addition was pretty good, if a bit too prevalent.

In other stories, Max’s seldom seen antagonist is Siegfried Fehmer (Ken Duken), a German lieutenant who encounters Max a few coincidental times. Darkly humorous conversations brew, serious consequences follow, typical Nazi vs. the world jest and peril ensues. You basically know the drill, but it’s still a delightful story. Plus Ken Duken annihilates the role – one of the most underrated performances I’ll see all year, I’m sure.

Considering the budget of the film was a mere 8 million, I’m impressed from a production perspective. With great costumes, an intelligible cast (headed by the expressive Aksel Hennie), wonderful photography and fine effects, Hollywood could — nay, should — take a page out of this European handbook. The story relies a bit too much on coincidence, but the story is allegedly entirely true – which just makes the tale that much more engrossing and inspiring. It isn’t near a flawless film, nor will it be considered the best war film of the year, but its undeniably a solid feature worth at least a once over. [7/10]

Victoria

The final film I’m reviewing is Toronto’s closing night Gala. Starring the always enjoyable Emily Blunt, the decadent Rupert Friend and the vastly underrated Paul Bettany (among other top rate, under utlized thespians), The Young Victoria is as wasteful with its time consuming as it is with its cast.

The story revolves around Young Victoria (Emily Blunt) and her beginnings before becoming Queen. The film opens on the crown being placed atop her head, so already all the tension that wants to be mustered later on in the story holds no weight, as in stories like these there are seldom scandalous revelations. When we first encounter Victoria, she seems very displeased with her life – an obvious downside of being rich and beautiful. She’s angsty and resents the crown; “she doesn’t want to become more royal” basically.

Soon after she bumps into an offbeat young man in Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), one of the more unconventional characters you’ll see in films like these. This is where the story lies, with Victoria instantly repelling but slowly falling for Albert, all while her family and current society question her less than financial intentions.

The story is typical and every antagonist in Victoria’s way come off gimmicky and underdeveloped. Whereas in last years The Duchess, the writing provided a few nuances for the main antagonist for Ralph Fiennes to sink his teeth into; developing a character from little. Here there’s bland characterization outside Victoria and Albert and the script is handicapped because of this.

It isn’t all bad though. Despite the lackluster material given to the more impressive actors (Broadbent, Bettany), Blunt does exceedingly well in her well developed character arc. The majority of her character is explained – sometimes her actions don’t correlate 100% with what we expect from the character, but Blunt handles these slights maturely. In addition, the production design is divine – the majority of the budget undoubtedly went into making this period piece a decorous marvel.

By the film’s conclusion, you’ll feel somewhat satisfied about what just transpired. It isn’t original, nor is it devoutly typical thanks to the third act. The romantic tension is built just well enough to make you forget about where the film will wind up to make any viewer gasp post-climax. A trifle bit too bland to be a positive installment into the period piece subgenre, but not bland enough to repel me from seeing future additions. [6/10]

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