Two TIFF Reviews

The Keyhole world premiere at TIFF went over quite well (see here for more). I had the opportunity to catch two other films over the same weekend:

360: Fernando Meirelles’ latest film is a continent-spanning, Wim Wenders-esque meditation on fidelity and perseverance in a world whose inhabitants’ stories are increasingly inter-threaded. The cinematography is beautiful, with exquisite long shots which accentuate each locale intimately, while the characters sort out their broken hearts and wandering eyes. The cast is solid: Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Rachel Weisz, and many others, with yet another gritty, soul-churning performance by Ben Foster. It is a movie with a clear moral conscience at its core, which may disappoint some who are looking for a string of happy endings, and others who alternately want the world to conform to a cynical philosophy. One to elicit discussion, for sure.Jude Law and Rachel Weisz, in a scene from "360"Jude Law & Rachel Weisz in "360"

Anonymous: It’s weird to see a movie at TIFF which you know will be rolled out into movie theatres soon. Weirder still to stand in line and see a massive-sized poster for the movie you are about to see across the street from you, telling you that it will premiere in a month’s time. The tickets were comps, so I didn’t let this hang me up. Sam Reid as the Earl of Essex, in "Anonymous"

Anonymous isn’t a great film, I will say that now. In an effort to dramatize its thesis – that our notion of Shakespeare is based on a ruse, and that The Bard’s works were actually written by a nobleman, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) – it crams in so many plot points to justify its theory (and it is a leading Shakespeare-alternate theory, for what that’s worth) that I felt separated from the characters (and eventually the story) on the screen. And this is a shame, because it’s a gorgeous-looking film and the filmmakers obviously spent a dear load of time making everything look authentic. The performances as well are quite strong, with a cast which also includes Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I and David Thewlis, who all but lives beneath the skin of the calculating William Cecil. The great tragedy, if you will pardon the pun, is that Rhys Ifans’ affecting lead performance, an actor who for so long has held films together in often comic-serving supporting roles, seems sacrificed to some degree – scattered across a time-spanning storyline – so that we only see him intermittently. Pity. Still, for those who love movies with codpieces and horse hooves clop-clop-clopping on cobblestone, you could do worse.

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Chaos Cinema

I posted this for my Humber College students on their blog. I posted this on Facebook and Twitter. As such, I should probably post it here.

If you are a film lover who feels increasingly unable to understand or orientate yourself watching action movies made in the last decade, I implore you to watch this video essay about what the author calls chaos cinema.

Bad Boys 2It describes quite succinctly what has frustrated me as a film viewer: action sequences (or entire films) are becoming little more than jagged-edged stimulation devices and not the shared experiences that they should be (see: chase scene in Batman: The Dark Knight)

Essential viewing.

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TIFF a-hoy!

Looks like the film I worked on earlier this year, Keyhole, will have its world premiere in Toronto this September @ TIFF. Some press here.

For those new to this site, I have had a parallel journal chronicling the film, called Guy Maddin’s Keyhole: A Post Production Diary, which I wrote in tandem with my work on the project.

Needless to say that I’m very happy to have another film premiering at TIFF, and I hope that it is well-received. Keyhole is a challenging film, even for fans of Guy Maddin’s work, yet I think it’s perhaps his most personal and – in that regard – bravest work to date.

 

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Guy Maddin’s Keyhole

Good news #1: I’m supervising the post production on the new film by Guy Maddin, Keyhole.

Good news #2: I’ve been asked to do a blog/diary of its progress. Sweet!

Here’s the link to my Keyhole post production blog. Don’t be surprised if it takes my attention away from here for the next while. I will endeavour to keep Imaginary Magnitude updated.

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Brief Reviews: The Town vs. Animal Kingdom

When Ben Affleck’s The Town came out, many praised it as a powerful crime drama/action film. And yet, the shine seems to have come off of that project, probably as a result of people chasing the hype and actually watching it.

First, let’s discuss its poster. In recent years, I’ve become sensitive to bad marketing. A good example of this is the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall: the ad campaign (in Toronto at least) consisted of anonymous black and white bus and streetcar ads, with hand-scrawled “I HATE YOU SARAH MARSHALL!” (and the like) written on them*. In short, the campaign was cheap-looking, lame, and soured any potential expectation I had for the film – it wasn’t until much later, at my wife’s urging, that I caught it on DVD and found it to be one of the highlights of the year.

Similarly, the poster for The Town (displayed here) is a marketing mystery to me: it looks like a horror movie. It’s directed by and stars Ben Affleck, yet the poster is covered in evil nuns with automatic weapons. In short, I don’t get it: sure, it’s a “serious movie” but what were they thinking? Was it reverse psychology? Who knows. If it were me, it would be a close-up photo of John Hamm licking Ben Affleck’s unshaven face, with the caption: “Holy shit! It’s the guy from MadMen with Ben Affleck! And they  shoot weapons!”

Then there’s the film itself. Technically, it’s very impressive. Affleck’s direction is solid. The performances are gritty and engaging. It’s free of stunt-casting. Camerawork, editing, sound: great. But when the credits rolled, I realized what was wrong. The story’s been done a hundred fucking times before – twice by Michael Mann. So, for me, there was nothing being risked as a viewer because, having watched more than one crime drama in my life, there were no surprises in the script. Believe me when I say that I wanted this film to be as good as it promised – and, in fact, it is good. Just not as good as it clearly could’ve been when you take into account all that it has going for it.

So what did I want The Town to be? I wasn’t sure…until I saw the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom on DVD. It has all the grit, tension, and complexity of The Town, with less overt style and more substance, and no actors recognizable to most North American audiences (outside of Memento‘s Guy Pearce). Its poster? Have a look:

It reminds me of a Jeff Wall photograph. And in the middle of it all is the crafty look on the face of actor Jacki Weaver (nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 2011 Oscars).

Animal Kingdom is a film fluent in the crime drama language – it even shares some of the tropes of The Town (the nervous druggie robber, the dutiful police detective) yet never once feels as if you are watching a re-treaded story. It is unpredictable and the performances are naturalistic and subtle.Its lack of artifice keeps us watching, whereas with The Town, each successive car chase weighed it down with Hollywood cliché. Where one carries broader tension, the other is quietly disturbing and takes a more nihilistic view of the cops and robbers game.

The good news is that both are available for your perusal on DVD, and both are extremely watchable. Neither, ultimately, will disappoint: it depends on where your expectations are set. I feel that Animal Kingdom is the film The Town wanted to be.

* I admit I’m particularly sensitive to ads which don’t make it clear that they are ads, especially if they look like actual public messages of hatred.

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Movies & A Book: Some of The Best Things I’ve Witnessed in 2010

Here’s the best of what I’ve seen this year. I haven’t seen everything. You may disagree with what I have seen. This is life.

FILM:

Inception

Go ahead. Try. Try disagreeing that this is one of the most technically (and perhaps conceptually) elaborate mainstream Hollywood productions released in years which also happens to work as a “movie” that a wide variety of audiences would enjoy watching.

There has been a backlash against Inception. I don’t know how or why this is – perhaps it was over-sold as a deep “puzzle-solver” film, which it is not. And yes, the NYT’s A.O. Scott has a point in his comment that the film’s literal depiction of dreams are lacking psychological heft (outside of Marion Cotillard’s performance as DiCaprio’s wife). In any case, something has caused a revolt against this film and I say this revolt is missing the point.

Inception is, generally speaking, the most watchable, the most fascinating film of 2010. You are allowed to hate it.

A Prophet

I am a huge fan of Jacques Audiard, a French director who has always rewarded the viewer with films (Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped) that balance passion with style. With A Prophet, Audiard expands his canvas, creating a gritty, novelistic masterpiece on-par with The Godfather (yes). The story concerns a young incarcerated Muslim who slowly rebuilds himself from within the treachery of prison life, rising from under the thumb of a vicious mob leader to become his own person and create his own empire. Epic, patient, and in places extremely violent. People will be referring to this film for years to come even if it has not really made a mark in North America. Again, a masterpiece.


The Eclipse

I realize this Irish film was released in 2009, but it didn’t get here until now. A compelling ghost story which eschews the two-dimensionality of ghost story films. It was around the twenty-minute mark that I realized it was a film which was going to confound my expectations (expectations based upon years and hundreds of similar plot lines): it wasn’t going to squander what it was and fall prey to hackneyed cliché. A gorgeous, touching, ultimately humanistic film with a stand-out performance by Ciarán Hinds as a grieving father of two children who must swallow his pride to escort a loud-mouthed Aidan Quinn through the motions of a book tour of the small coastal city of Cobh, in County Cork. A sublime achievement by director Conor McPherson.

Notable: Winter’s Bone – see it. It’s on DVD now. Like A Simple Plan, it’s a self-contained “rural thriller” (ugh) with a chilling undertone of barren hopelessness. Unlike A Simple Plan, it’s uncomplicated which is what gives it more of an honest strength. Exit Through The Gift Shop is the perhaps best film made about art and the art world that I have seen – like Inception, it’s not trying to be deep, just smart. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World blew me away because I expected it to be weak (perhaps because all the publicity photos inexplicably used a static image of Michael Cera standing against a fucking wall…imagine if you will, trying to sell Star Wars with a picture of Mark Hamill sitting cross-legged in the desert – sounds awesome, eh?). Not only was it not weak, it was the strangest case of “I don’t know why I love this movie but I really do”. Painstakingly, sublimely Toronto-centric (which, unlike the inexplicable promo photos of Michael Cera, shouldn’t be factored into explaining why it didn’t fare well at the box office) and wildly imaginative – those two things have never met before…oh but wait, I forgot the perfect companion piece: Kick Ass – also shot in TO, and also exceedingly expectation-defying (although the climax is kinda drawn-out). As far as performances go, Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) stand out, along with Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence, and Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit (who, at 14-years, shows huge promise as an actor).

BOOK:

I would have said “BOOKS”, but due to work and school I haven’t read anything published this year (that I can remember), with the exception of John Vaillant’s The Tiger. Lucky for me, since it is without doubt one of the best non-fiction titles I’ve read in years.

The Tiger is a meaty real-life tale of vengeance by the titular beast, in the winter hinterland of the Russian Far East (which the author calls, paradoxically, “the boreal forest”). Vaillant describes an environment historically, politically, and biologically unique, inhabited by hardened outcasts. The shadow of a predator male tiger, known never before to attack without cause, creates a wave of dread throughout the land, with only a small band of volunteers to figure out the mystery. Vaillant provides wave after wave of fascinating detail – examples of how man and beast have evolved throughout time, how human and animal behaviour have worked in similar paths – that by the end of the book you feel as if you should have a credit in Ethology. This is truly a page-turner and I cannot recommend it enough.

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Book Review: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Sometimes things just line up in such a way that you can’t help feeling they were put there on purpose. Early this month, as part of a course I’m taking, I went to a weekend retreat, held at a secluded compound by the Credit River. It was a bit eerie, because many of my dreams take place in expansive compounds: wherever I go, even if it seems I’m outside, I just have to look up to see that there is a roof, or some sort of enclosure to remind me that I am not free. So, what book from our library did I take with me at the last minute? Why, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, of course. What I didn’t realize is that much of it takes place on a compound…but I’ll get back to this.

I’ve not read any books by Ishiguro – I haven’t even seen the movie adaptation of Remains of the Day. That said, I did work on Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music In The World, an adaptation of one of his short stories. I’d heard good things about Never Let Me Go, and had always meant to read it. With it being released as a film recently (I don’t think it did that well, despite the critical praise), and since I needed something to read during my time away, I thought it would be a good pick.

Never Let Me Go concerns the story of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. It’s told from Kathy’s perspective in the present. She is a carer, who drives from centre to centre, visiting those she looks after. Very soon we are introduced to their beginnings, as children, in a place called Hailsham. It’s an isolated educational enclave, somewhere in England, where the students live, go to school, and grow up. But there’s something a little odd about it all. Perhaps it’s the isolation from the rest of the world. Something in the way some of their guardians regard them. All too soon, their sun-dappled childhood in Hailsham becomes something which haunts them as they grow into young adults. It’s practically all Kathy can use to mark the passing of her time.

Within these reminiscences, we are introduced to Tommy and Ruth, who become the foundational friendships Kathy clings to through adolescence, regardless that Ruth oscillates from friend to enemy – a colourful rather than careful individual who becomes a voice of danger in the fog of their relationship.

The magic of this book is the skill with which Kathy’s perspective is written. There is a purpose for Hailsham, for their being there. There is a reason she is a carer. Never Let Me Go is a capital-H haunting novel, inhabited by people who are slightly cold but reaching out, never quite managing to touch a meaning they hope is there. I can’t say much more without spoiling things, not that it’s a book laden with surprises, so much as layered with subtle, sad observations. A beautiful book for a rainy day.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (ISBN: 978-0-676-97711-0) is available at an independent bookstore near you, or at various online retailers.

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I Don’t Want To Know

As a writer, even though I am not part of any sort of literati, I am still plugged into the lit scene. You need to be if you want to understand the general to-and-fro of any industry you are interested in becoming a part of (same goes for TV, music, theatre, etc..). That said, I must make an admission. I am making this admission because I think there are a lot of people like me out there who feel the same but are reticent to admit it.

Here goes: I don’t take any particular interest in the life of the artist outside of his or her art.

When I read a book, I don’t care if an author comes from the East Coast and studied journalism, had a drug problem and now lives in a shed with a mastiff. It’s not that I don’t care about this author personally, it’s that these facts shouldn’t have anything to do with the book that I am about to read. I should be able to pick up the book, knowing nothing about said author, and be able to read it, enjoy it, be fully affected by it, without substantially missing something due to a lack of familiarity with the author’s biography.

And yet, when you are culturally plugged-in (and by this I mean, you check out industry blogs, trade mags, etc.) there is so much white noise about the artists themselves that it seems divergent from what it is they are supposed to be doing: their work. We can talk about Picasso’s passions, but 100 years from now there will probably only be discussion of his work – your work is the only thing left after you and everyone who knew you has died. And if people are still talking more about you than your work after this point, then I would think the quality of your work was overstated.

Would knowing that Stephen King battled drug addiction offer an insight into some of his writing? Yes. But, my point is that if that insight is necessary in order to fully appreciate a piece of work then there is a problem. The work doesn’t work if you need a biographical cheat sheet to inject context into the material.

I think Bryan Ferry is an fantastic vocalist – and I don’t want to know anything more than that. Nor the details outside a director’s films, nor what inspired the playwright to write her play. I’ve got my own shit going on, thanks very much.

Ephemera is for journalists, fanzines, and those working on their Ph.D. The general public should not feel inadequate if they pick a DVD or book off a shelf, sit down in a theatre, or load a song without being prepared with supplemental information not contained within the medium which contains the work. The work inevitably has to stand up for itself. I write this for two reasons: first, with the likes of the AV Club and traditional print/TV media clamouring to add as much web-based context as possible to every article, there’s a growing sense that – for the everyman – if you aren’t savvy to the smallest details of each artist’s passings and goings, you are nothing but a tourist. Secondly, embracing social media to a claustrophobic degree, we can now read endless commentating on authors reading their work for a live audience!…something no one really asked for outside the publishing companies themselves and perhaps the authors’ parents. Let’s face it: most authors can’t read aloud to save their lives – it’s not their specialty.

There are reasons for digging deeper, but that’s up to the individual. It was interesting to learn more about HP Lovecraft when I reviewed Michel Houellebecq’s quasi-biography of him and his work. What’s funny, however – using that same example – is that when I proceeded to read the two works by Lovecraft contained in that same book, I don’t recall thinking to myself “Ahh – this is where his uncomfortable relationship with women takes shape!”. That’s because the stories were two of his masterpieces, and when you witness a masterpiece, peripheral biographical information is going to gunk-up your enjoyment.

The medium may be the message, but the work contains the words. Outside of this we are left with cultural “bonus features”. Nice to have, but not necessary.

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Swirl

I am trying (desperately) to avoid a “boy, it’s been a wacky ride these last few months!” post. It certainly isn’t for lack of things to talk about, news to update you with, opinions to confess/shout.

Thing is, I don’t know who you are. Sure, I know there are some of you who are semi-regular visitors. There are others who happen upon this place by accident (via Blogger or StumbleUpon). There are also those who come here via Google searches, either via my name or – most likely – a book review (which admittedly I haven’t done in, oh, a year or so *). And no, this isn’t going to be a “Matt wittily evading accusations of being a lazy bastard by turning the camera on the reader” post.

I’ve been posting artsy stuff, writerly stuff, industry opinion stuff. I don’t mind the randomness, so long as there’s no fluff. I do mind the lack of output. I wish, for one, that I could post more photographs (which is to say, I wish I had a better selection of photos to post **).

It comes down to the fact that I’ve been working like a dog since May (note: this happens every year that I’m working on a SAW film). When I come out of these periods, I feel like Rip van Winkle: a little dazed, slow on the up-take. Whereas last year this time I started teaching, this time this year I am a student (part-time) †. I have a small (but good) feature and a small (but good and potentially controversial) TV show on my plate from now till February. If funds allow, I also hope to have an editor working with me on my novel, with an eye to approaching a publisher or self-publishing if that doesn’t seem feasible ††. I’m collaborating on a musical.

My plate is full.

– – – 

* which isn’t to say that I’m not reading or that I don’t want to do any more book reviews. I’m reading a lot of non-fiction, thank you. Much of it either out of professional or academic interest. However, if only to improve my Google ranking, here’s a quick book review of Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño: What the fuck was that? (ISBN-13: 978-0811217170)

** another casualty of working so much is my photography. I still have the same roll of film in my camera that I’d loaded in June. I think I’ve only taken 4 exposures since then. Of course, my cellphone camera gets all the fun these days, unfortunately.

† I will be continuing teaching, but for only two terms this year as opposed to three (which was exhausting and… exhausting)

†† It needs a new name, for one thing. And I know this is going to drive me up the wall more than any changes to the actual content of the book.

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