The essence of the Toronto International Film Festival is debated by the vivacity of its films and the late nights of its parties. Like many festivals of its ilk, the Midnight selection seems to shine by knowing a balance between art and commerce. Of course, celebrating in the right way doesn’t hurt. while a limited amount was screened because of an influx of other pressing commitments, an interesting cross section was discovered, as always comes about.
Hardcore Anything that has Russian director Timor Bekmambetov’s name on it always deserves a second chance. He is very much behind trying to help establish a new Russian voice in action cinema. The thing with something like “Black Lightning” which I saw at Fantasia Film Festival a couple years back is that it was mostly in Russian. Unfortunately you need to have at least a balance of English to allow it to play worldwide or at least keep the dialogue to a minimum. Here different aspects up the ante. This is basically a live action, first person shooter…pretty much “Grand Theft Auto”. But here you never see our protagonist’s face except once…usually only his hands. It is non stop but sitting in the third row, the motion sickness of it all has possibility. That said, you couldn’t have made this film a few years ago but, using Go Pro technology, it has become an interactive possibility. The director Ilya Naishuller mentioned at the Q&A that they couldn’t shoot at 48fps because at the standard they needed the extra frames to add in CG. The acting though is interesting because it offers an interesting section of possibility. Sharlto Copley has started to distinctify taking chances on certain genre possibilities with first time directors which can go either way. He was part of the very interesting “Europa Report” and here he plays a mixture of characters that only become clear towards the final third of the film. At times it is a tour de force because it is very fluid and yet specifically on take. Tim Roth is credited in the film but unless he is the villain I can’t see him and, if that is true, his craft is only getting better. He was unbelievable in “Planet OF The Apes”. People talk about Andy Serkis and Serkis is great but he had CG. Roth only had prosthetics. Different processes and both brilliant. In terms of style, the use of some humor and music including a Queen song is placed well well but not to ultimate effect. That is a very small critique because this movie takes aspects of RPGs, “City Of Lost Children”, “Blade Runner” and anime to create a very visceral uninterrupted barrage of precise yet loose genre filmmaking. It took 147 days to film but looks like it took place in 2 hours…and that is the ultimate trick.
Office Director Johnnie To tries to find back doors of convention and usually it functions within the crime or action genre. Turning the view on the corporate structure of China per se in an interesting exercise. Now the actual space in the film is not really specified but the characters keep referring to the Mainland China. The actual structure and construct here as the basis is what is interesting. Akin to someone like Peter Greenaway, To does something different in creating a setting that is all an illusion and transparent literally in that function. The arrival to work on a train, the elevators, the offices, the roof…almost all of it is in a transparent, almost architectural baseline construct. Everything should be obvious but like many of To’s films, it is about power and betrayal. What is interesting even more so here is that it is built as a musical but one, despite having some pop sensibilities, that more has the identity of an understated rock opera. What works well is the level of relationships which only becomes clear now by reflection. The first is one of the older couple which is the CEO (played by Chow Yun Fat) and his first in charge (Sylvia Chang) who is also his mistress. The CEO’s wife is in a coma…possibility because of the shame of his infidelity. The betrayal is the game and they understand it. The couple at the end other end of the spectrum is two new brand new recruits in the office looking to make their bones. One is secretly the CEO’s daughter and he wants her to learn. The other is a bright fresh protege who loves his work but eventually loves her more. They don’t have the foresight to see what will entice and ultimately destroy them later in life. The middle couple is the most volatile. So obsessed with work. So obsessed with money. But unable to recognize what is important right in front of them. Not all of these metaphors and characterizations work all the time but it is an interesting experiment not just in acting approach but just in sheer staging. Ultimately it all comes undone in the aspect of Shakespeare. Plus add the fact that he shot it in 3D. “Office” is interesting on all counts but you must be open to the experience and interpret it in your own way.
Born To Dance Like “Step Up”, each country has the right to see their dance identity in their own way. This film does not take that structure any further but, in many ways, outdoes its predecessors on significantly smaller budget. The basis of the story is a worker who has his own local dance crew but after posting one of his videos on You Tube attracts the attention of a big time money crew with endorsement deals. Normal West Side Story set up without the violence, just stealing of creativity. There are some good dances and, of course, a morality play at stake but that is accepted and expected. However there are some points that the dance scenes just pop and show that adrenalin rush that some of these movies miss. One specifically is staged at this down and dirty club with eight female dancers led by a big boned blond haired African girl that is kinetic. They writhe their bodies but with a power and strength that is undeniable. I could watch a music based dance action movie with them as assassins all day. This is what Tarantino meant when he described Fox Force Force through Uma Thurman’s lips in “Pulp Fiction”. These are the girls he would have had in mind. Ultimately, the film turns in the end into a competition like “Glee’ or “Pitch Perfect”. It is expected but no less commercial. It just was an interesting selection for the festival but even independents want to make crowd pleasing movies. It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.
The Girl In The Photograph This Midnight Madness selection uses the serial killer basis of a psychopath obsessed with his muse. What it tries to balance itself with is the narcissism of modern life. The metaphor here is the capture or diluting of self. A pretentious celebrated photographer played with annoying relevance by Kal Penn returns to his home town when a serial killer starts matching up his killings to photographs of modelsb that Penn’s character creates. So this photographer returns to his hometown in South Dakota where the killings are happening. He brings along his assistant, his model girlfriend and two other models to this nowhere town to discover creativity again and try to outdo the serial killer with his “vision”. Of course, it kicks them all in the ass and the slasher mayhem begins. It just ultimately feels like an exercise. This is all done for effect and, of course, the local sharp blonde, bushy tailed female lead who is the muse for the killers is the one we are supposed to identify with. The problem is that there lack of consequence and, by extension, sensibility that seems to be lost in the proceedings. The ode to John Carpenter in the music is distinctly noticeable and welcome. Wes Craven was an executive producer on the picture before he died so his touch is definitely on the film as well. But the movie is neither classic horror nor has a truly modern twist. The ending actually ends too late as one scene earlier would have effectively done the possibilities justice without spelling it out. That said, it is a perfectly interesting if not gothically gory approach to the genre but there is nothing really character wise to sustain it.
Toronto International Film Festival again allows your humble narrator a brief interaction of film aside from the general elements of press commitments and scheduling mayhem. But what this small selection of films shows is both the standard and experimental approach inherent n the current marketplace but the key is finding the one that exists in the middle for the greatest success, both creatively and monetarily.
By Tim Wassberg
CinemaCon, like its namesake Showest before it, has always been about exciting the theater owners with new technology and product meant to get them pumped for their direct connection to the customer. While the textures of this year from “Life Of Pi” to “Skyfall” provided some interesting visions, none was more discussed or contested like the footage that Peter Jackson showed of “The Hobbit”, shot at 48fps, which only a year or so after the acceptance of 3D and the near conversion to full digital, takes the string up one more notch. It is all about what you show.
Paramount Heading into summer, Paramount opened the con by honoring Dwayne Johnson with the “Action Star Of The Decade Award” with studio head Rob Moore calling him “franchise viagra”. Johnson, with his textbook charm along with director John Chu, best known for the”Step Up” films, introduced a dexterous element of scenes from the film which both showed humor and drama. Next, Tom Cruise, in a taped greeting from the set of “Oblivion” [directed by Joe Kosinski] in Baton Rouge, spoke before showing scenes from “Jack Reacher” directed by Christopher McQuarrie whose last helming outing was “Way Of The Gun”. Two scenes adapted from the graphic novel distinctified “tone” which Cruise mentioned in his opening remarks. Rob Moore then turned the stage over to Jeffrey Katzenberg who, after a great year with “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Puss In Boots”, brought “Madagascar 3” and “The Guardians”. The third entry into the “Madagascar” franchise showed almost 15 minutes of the opening optimizing new animation techniques since the last one in the series with Chris Rock coming on stage saying that it was the best so far adding that some parts were “trippy” which reflected in a circus montage. “The Guardians” based on a children’s book is a completely different animal using “myth” and “belief” to approach its subject matter with an edge and texture. Chris Pine who leads the cast as the voice of “Jack Frost” spoke about the key in the character to finding “the center”. Interestingly, the whole time he was speaking, all of his remarks also applies everything he sees in this character to James Kirk for which he is currently shooting the sequel to “Star Trek” as. The ending of the presentation did not disappoint with Sascha Baron Cohen making his second public appearance as “The Dictator” complete with girls and soldiers in tow and walking through the crowd. After throwing some zingers on stage as is his MO, Cohen as the character angled out Katzenberg as the other “dictator” in the room before announcing (which most thought as a joke) that the film would be screening at 11pm up the Strip and that it was not a threat before he exited with great fanfare as Katzenberg kissed his ring.
Warner Brothers The texture of Warner Brothers relies in being able to follow up the powerhouse of Harry Potter. While the arrival of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to introduce an extended trailer of “Dark Shadows”, it was Christopher Nolan talking about shooting almost a 1/3 of his “Dark Knight Rises” in IMAX that offered a stemming view of a brooding dark conclusion so much so that Adam Shankman who showed an extended trailer of “Rock Of Ages” including the first bit of Tom Cruise singing threw a “you fucker” line at Nolan because of how unbelievable bad ass it was. Director Jay Roach then talked about the balance of political “broo-haha” in regards to his new film:”The Campaign” starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. However it was moving into fall that offered the most interesting view with the first glimpse of footage from Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” in 3D which Luhrmann explained in a taped message from Australia allows you to see the actors shine without any visual effects. Lastly, Peter Jackson introduced in 3D from New Zealand, the first footage of 48 frames per second from “The Hobbit”. Like seeing “Avatar” for the first time, it takes some getting used to because it is a completely different movie experience in terms of perception with Jackson showing distribs around 10 minutes of footage. One piece in particular showing Gollum’s face very close to camera shows the distinctiveness of this frame rate as do flying shots (like those seen in the original trilogy). Another one very specific to the changing viewpoint of the immersion of the technology is when Gandalf is alone in the catacombs. The depth of the shot makes you think you are actually there though the process does retain an almost HD camera quality in terms of perspective which is rather hard to describe.
Disney Balancing out with the texture of brand specifications from Warner, the Mouse House used the cross structure promotion with Marvel, Pixar and Dreamworks to fuel the fire. Marvel presented a short clip from “The Avengers” intermixing Iron Man, Thor and Captain America with bone-crunching sound followed directly with the announcement of Thor II and Captain America II before Marvel President Kevin Feige showed a small clip leading to the production of Iron Man III which begins production in North Carolina later in the month. Progressing into Dreamworks, the aspect of “People Like Us” starring Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks (and directed by Alex Kurtzman of “Star Trek” and “Fringe” frame) capitalizes on the studio’s penchant for more novel based forms. “Lincoln” which makes its distribution stateside through Fox, was also mentioned, without texture of a trailer likely to be seen at Fox’s Presentation two days later. Disney Pictures itself started quietly with sleeper quality textures of the stop motion film “Frankenweenie” directed by Tim Burton which does contain odes to Brad Bird’s “Family Dog” episode of “Amazing Stories” and definitely suburban angles of “Edward Scissorhands”. “The Odd Life Of Timothy Green” starring Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton seems more reminiscent of Disney fantasy/morality films of the 70s like “Pete’s Dragon” depending on the tone of the eventual picture. “The Wonderful World Of Oz”, which just completed filming just a couple weeks ago, boasts a great pedigree in director Sam Raimi re-teaming with his “Spiderman” villain James Franco as the titular character here. The story details unearthed by the director speak to an interesting betrayal in the story of sorts centering around Mila Kunis’ character which fuels the intentions of what happens in the world. The footage shown dictates a mixture of sets, which producer Joe Roth identified as Detroit, as well as some interestingly created background CG mattes which might or might not be the final textures. Conversely, Jerry Bruckheimer was brought out by current live action film prexy Sean Bailey after a short live stage bit about Kermit wanting to be the Lone Ranger and Miss Piggy wanting to be the Good Witch in Oz. Entertaining for sure. Bruckheimer spoke of them shooting in Arizona with Johnny Depp coming out and speaking as well. Depp made reference to that fact that “I just saw a frog and pig out here. Did anybody else see that?” When asked about Tonto, Depp deferred in a show of modesty saying, kindly, that he wants the theater owners to see it when it is done. With no footage to speak of for the title with the exception of a photo, details are still scarce. John Lasseter, head of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, came out next to discuss his slate. “Wreck It Ralph” is a non-Pixar film which is interesting in its own right following a bad guy in an 8-bit video game stuck in an arcade. Lasseter spent a good ten minutes setting up the premise and characters before showing the first ten minutes of the film. John C. Reilly, who spoke about trying to improvise during the recordings with sometimes co-star Sarah Silverman, gives a definite heart to the character. A specific “bad guys anonymous” scene represents this with a dexterity and tongue-in-cheek element replete with visual gag cues. Representing beyond and speaking into the Pixar mode, the announcements in terms of new structures (beyond “Monster University”) border on more esoteric which might be undeniably groundbreaking with one being “The Last Dinosaur” with only a silhouette of a brachiosaurus present and another one that can be encapsulated as “Journey Into The Mind” but probably not in the “Fantastic Voyage” way. Finally, as a perspective of a film which has been interestingly placed without any real knowledge of it, Lasseter unspooled nearly a half-hour of “Brave” which follows the exploits of a tomboyish princess in the highlands of Scotland. While interesting echoes of Robin Hood play through especially when the heroes take disguise, what does seem to ring through. which was not prevalent before as much in the other Pixar movies (because this is inherently a human world), is the reactions of the animals and others in a more realistic way which was a hallmark of say “Beauty & The Beast”. It shows how the feature animation side of Disney is being impacted by Lasseter. While not at the full potential of Disney because of responsibility to the shareholders, he is pushing the bar in subtle ways as he can.
Filmmaker Forum: Martin Scorsese & Ang Lee Whenever you get Martin Scorsese in the room, the perspective becomes one of a film class which is interesting when he is speaking to a roomful of theater owners. The impact of “The Hobbit” footage at 48fps had been ringing for about 24 hours and everybody had an opinion on it, both good and bad. This forum was more about 3D with Scorsese’s “Hugo” pushing the barrier last year in terms of serious filmmakers from a dramatic point of view. Ang Lee, mostly known for his more direct non-genre dramas (but Oscar-winning fare) recently immersed himself in 3D for his Christmas release “Life Of Pi” which many said to be “unfilmable” (and for good perspective reason). While it is interesting to see these men discuss the virtues of this medium, it almost feels like they are behind the ball because the technology is moving so fast. Before the discussion began, a sample of 120fps technology was shown. The eye cannot see, for what is being said, beyond 60fps. The footage here was more smooth gliding elements but the separation dictates the depth. This is one thing that did interact in terms of the Scorsese/Lee discussion because lighting becomes even more of an important structure which Lee said drove him mad in certain respects on “Pi”. Scorsese reflects that the I/O, which determines depth in 3D, was something he and his cinematographer Robert Richardson constantly toiled with on “Hugo”. He however said it was one shot when Sascha Baron Cohen is staring down into the camera with his dog in forced perspective that gave him chills because it showed what the technology was capable of doing. Lee, still in the midst of figuring everything out on his movie, spoke on the essence of using water since a lot of his movie takes place in the ocean. The Taiwanese government ended up building him a massive tank but the camera was the first to use a housing to shoot 3D actually underwater. Neither had seen “The Hobbit” footage so they could not comment though Scorsese seemed visibly intrigued at everyone’s reaction. He compared it to a movie he showed to his daughter, her school friends and some of their mothers at his home in New York recently. It was from back in the 30s where the aspect ratio and the color changes during the film (much like “Wizard Of Oz” in some respects). People, he said, spoke the same way about color. It is just something that will eventually, after growth spurts, become a mainstay. 3D took a little longer but eventually is having its day.
Sony While franchises seem to pile on with respect to the Sony brand, the intention seems to reflect that bigger is better quality. While “MIB 3” and “Total Recall” showed extended structures in 2D, it is interesting to perceive their eventual release.The time travel perspective of Men In Black does not quite have its plot direction set in the footage shown but the humor, as always, plays dry and loose with Josh Brolin doing a spot on impression that you would almost think that Tommy Lee Jones is doing the voice over. “Total Recall” oddly enough recreates an almost deja-vu situation because the set ups in terms of plot device to the original are eerily similar with a swig of “The Fifth Element” thrown into the mix. The world is intense and Kate Beckinsale, melding a character that mixes Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside from the original, is bad-ass especially in an extended foot chase sequence that just screamed with adrenalin yet felt wholly original. The intention of what Douglas Quaid is being accused of here is played a little more than conjecture. “That’s My Boy” looks to bring Adam Sandler back to full resolution after the misfire that was “Jack & Jill” but the man experiments with comedy (albeit more low brow) much like Will Ferrell but with more success on an ongoing basis. This is an R-rated romp that has textures of “Little Nicky” but with more curse words and breasts. Sort of like Billy Madison grown up. It looks hilarious because Sandler’s character can go nuts because Andy Sandberg takes on Adam’s usual role with aplomb. It should kill for sure. And as the announcements proved, “Grown Ups 2” is around the corner a summer from now. “The Amazing Spiderman” also seems to be trying to find its footing. The hardest thing in rebooting the franchise is selecting the right tone and space within which to set it. The humor and action shown here is seeking a balance for sure and the scale surely feels much bigger than the last franchise. Andrew Garfield’s approach is more aloof at times though Emma Stone stabilizes the structure. Denis Leary as the police captain who sees Spiderman as a threat will bring some added tension and the more comprehensive view of Lizard Man promises interesting feelings but it all contains relevance in heart depending on the end product. “Resident Evil: Retribution” shows Paul W.S. Anderson pushing the 3D ideals but the mythology is getting extremely deep. However as long as Milla Jovovich can wield a sword and guns with fire blazing behind her (with extended I/O mind you) people will flock. The final perception allowed was a first look at the Bond film “Skyfall” directed by Sam Mendes. The teaser is dark with overcast skies and dark rooms. It seems almost built like a brainwash sequence. The music is rumbling and has tendencies of foreboding much like “Road To Perdition” which gave chills. Granted it gives no perspective of overall story but the tone indicated feels much like “The Dark Knight Rises”: a dark humor that mixes with tragedy.
20th Century Fox With two summer films that hang on the precipice with different elements at stake, the ideas are humming. With “Prometheus” and a bang up viral campaign, director Ridley Scott seems to know what he is doing. The extended trailer showing the landing sequence onto the planet in its full glory has a dexterity and industrial feeling that only Scott can do. “Alien” DNA plays heavily into the trailer from the ship to the Space Jockey. The blood letting definitely paints it well. It looks phenomenal on the big screen. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” I have been interacting with over the past couple months. It is a near idea that is perched between real life and genre which is always a hard sell. Director Timor Bekmambetov has the chops to make it happen and the new footage plays to more the historical basis and less of the acrobatics which may be a conscious decision. “Neighborhood Watch” is another interesting amalgamation with Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill moving into an alien invasion hybrid comedy where they become defenders of their community, swilling beer and taking no bullshit. It is interesting but the line being walked is a tightrope. The final perception to be mentioned on Fox’s upcoming slate is “Life Of Pi”, Ang Lee’s 3D epic to be released at Christmas. Lee showed one sequence and one scene from the film to show what he is trying to do. What comes across for sure is a necessity to use 3D as a storytelling mechanism of immersion. The sequence involves the marooning of the lead character on the ocean and the sinking of the freighter he is traveling on. At first it seems almost simple but the single long takes show a deeper thought at work. Like “Titanic” in a way but more intimate, Lee’s camera follows the actor (picked from a worldwide casting search) underwater trying to save his family who is trapped in the water below deck. The 3D camera picks up the bubbles which gives a much more real feel. Pi, the lead character, ends up on a life raft which a zebra (there are a lot of animals on the ship) jumps onto. The perspective of that and then a Bengal tiger (an integral part of the story) jumping on as well while rain is pouring down, makes on realize that there is a lot of stuff going on technically here. One of the most beautiful shots comes around this point where you can see the sinking ship lingering below Pi in an overhead shot with its lights still on. He disappears below the surface and you get a sense of scale. When 3D starts to be used for this kind of thing (which Cameron embraces as well) is when you will get some killer stuff. The other scene Lee showed is very reminiscent of “Old Man & The Sea”. You can tell at a point it is in a studio stage while Pi and The Tiger fight over their food of flying fish along with tuna that sail into the boat. It has that aspect of Anthony Quinn and the primal fight. The tiger (which is probably CG but it is so seamless as not to be believed) blows Aslan from “Narnia” out of the water with its reality.
CinemaCon, showing new advances, continues to challenge theater owners and, by extension, audiences by trying to keep up with changing technology and rights conversion which, while exciting, always seems to come with a bit of apprehension but ultimately interest.