MovieMaker’s latest dispatch from the Toronto International Film Festival 2013, courtesy of Jeff Meyers. On Day Three, our intrepid correspondent discusses critical ennui, the micro-budget reality, early Oscar instincts, and the films Unforgiven, Dallas Buyers Club, Enough Said, and The Double.
As I round the bases into my third day at TIFF the response from many of my critic peers has been the same – a lot of solid films that have fatal flaws, and no clear must-see winners. That attitude may change, however, after Dallas Buyers Club and Philomena screen later today and tomorrow.
For those overhearing our conversations I’m sure it’s just another indication of how jaded critics have become … complaining that ‘good’ isn’t good enough. However, I know that what they really mean. They’re lamenting the fact that they haven’t found that one film that flat out knocks them on their ass, a movie that’s flying under the radar and they get to spread the gospel of its existence. I’m with them on this… but the week is still young.
From the movies I’ve caught at the fest so far I feel pretty confident about some early Oscar nomination predictions:
Director: Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave), Stephen Frears (Philomena), Alfonso Curon (Gravity)
Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Actress: Judi Dench (Philomena), Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Supporting Actress: Lupita N’Yongo (12 Years A Slave)
Though it came a bit later in the day, I attended an interesting panel discussion on “Micro-budget Realities.” Representing Canada, Spain, England, France, Israel, and New Zealand, producers (Michel Pradier, John Christou, Chris Collins, Enrique López-Lavigne, Graeme Mason, Katriel Schory) weighed in on the state of micro-budget filmmaking – the challenges of navigating unions, finding funding, understanding what to pitch, and the hurdle all of them struggle with – finding financially solid distributions channels.
England and Canada in particular find the union question vexing. On the one hand they acknowledge that micro-budgeted films provide junior talent and new directors an opportunity to establish themselves and advance their vision and craft. On the other hand, the potential profit incentives for making something very low cost and reaping a big pay day for producers is a potential set up for exploitation. Not everyone agreed as to what the right balance was.
Distribution remains the biggest question. All had experience with various schemes and strategies but all were in search of the magic bullet. The channels are limited and the signal to noise ratio is difficult to overcome. Social media became the catch-phrase answer but most admitted that it wasn’t really an answer at all.
The best anecdote came courtesy of Katriel Schory, the Executive Director of the Israel Film Fund, who gave an example of a micro-budget film he immediately agreed to help finance based on the pitch. The basic premise is that a twenty-something Israeli goes out to a local bar and meets a young woman. The two hit it off and the woman says, “Let’s cut the BS. Your place or mine?” They agree to go to her apartment and then spend the next 82 minutes of the film searching for a parking space. Of course, this conceit allows them to get to each other in a way they wouldn’t have had it been a simple one night stand. Schory used it as an example of the kind of scale and scope filmmakers should be thinking about when they say they want to shoot a micro-budget flick.
News from the festival front:
1. DreamWorks intends to make a U.S. version of Like Father, Like Son. Bah, I say. See Kore-Eda’s version first if you can. It’s hard to imagine Hollywood handling it with the restraint, grace and nuance of this master director. So far it’s been one of the two most affecting films I’ve seen at the fest (the other being Philomena). #herecomesthehokum
2. Jason Bateman’s comedy Bad Words not only got big buzz but was snatched up for $7 million. The actor both directed and starred in this Black List screenplay that’s best described as Bad Santa meets Spellbound – a black comedy set in the world of kids’ spelling bee competitions. Supposedly Bateman’s hyper-literate insults and profanity really hit the target. I had hoped to slip it into my schedule but the sole remaining screening is at the same time I’m supposed to roll out of town.
Given how much Hollywood has pillaged Japanese cinema it’s about time the land of the rising sun returned the favor. And given that Yojimbo became A Fistful Of Dollars Lee Sang-il’s take on Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven seems particularly appropriate. A beat-for-beat remake, Ken Watanabe steps into Eastwood’s growly shoes and does a serviceable job… but has none of Estwood’s iconic status in the genre. This is important because the original Unforgiven is as much a commentary on westerns as it was a morality play. Set on the northern island of Hokkaido a decade after the Emperor defeated the Shogun, this serviceable samurai story brings small changes to its American influence but mostly feels like Japanese cover version of the original.
Dallas Buyers Club
Right from the beginning you can’t help but notice how incredibly gaunt Matthew McConaughey looks. Entering into Christian Bale circa The Mechanic territory, his physical transformation from muscled hunk to cadaverous trailer trash is unsettling, to say the least. But what I feared would be an Oscar-baiting stunt performance reveals itself to be one of the most riveting films of the year. For those who don’t already know, McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a homophobic Texan electrician and rodeo clown who drinks, smokes, whores, and gets high way way too much. An accident lands Woodruff in the hospital where he discovers that not only does he have full-blown AIDS, he’s not expected to live more the a month. Denial quickly gives way to fear as Ron gives himself a crash-course in disease. What he discovers is that the FDA has not and is no rush to approve potentially life-saving drugs. Instead, AZT and the big pharma company that’s pushing it become the only game in town. Unfortunately, the drug doesn’t really work. This sends Woodruff first to Mexico then around the world where he procures drugs with better results. Long story short, he starts smuggling in treatment drugs to Dallas. Along the way he teams up with Rayon (Jared Leto who is amazing), a larger-than-life transvestite who becomes his emissary (and business partner) to the infected gay community. Emotionally gripping, funny, and poignant, Dallas Buyers Club never panders, treating its characters, subject and issues with grace and care. It’s got Oscar written all over it .
For people who lament that Woody Allen no longer makes funny, smart character-based movies any more, why not give the films of Nicole Holofcener a try. The writer-director of Friends With Money and Please Give once again shows her flair for writing intelligent women, well-timed one-liners, adult relationships and farcical story-lines. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a brash LA masseuse who’s apprehensive about her daughter’s impending departure for college and still bruised from her divorce. After a chance encounter at a party, she starts dating James Gandolfini, a sweet bear of a man. He, too, is a divorcee dreading his daughter’s move to New York for school. I won’t give away the plot complication that threatens to poison their relationship before it finds its feet, but suffice to say it’s on par with many a sitcom. Miraculously, Holofcener’s sharp, funny, and compassionate writing and first-rate cast (which includes Toni Collette, Catherine Keener and Ben Falcone) keep things fresh and engaging. Beyond the great punch-lines and sly subplots, there’s a warm examination of how two mature people burned by past relationships struggle to find the trust, affection and understanding they really need. And as Gandolfini’s final on-screen performance, it’s a wonderfully nuanced and sweetly funny turn. Enough Said is a sad reminder of how much more this terrific actor had to offer.
Gorgeous art direction on a shoe-string budget. Perfectly-timed laughs in a Kafka-esque farce. Committed performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska. So why isn’t it better? Richard Ayoade, whose first feature was Submarine, is obviously smart and inventive and both those attributes show through here clearly. But there’s no getting around the fact that the movie is very very slight, struggling to validate its existence. If movies like Brazil (without Gilliam’s amazing imagination or Tom Stoppard’s incredible scripting) or the first 30 minutes of Joe Versus The Volcano float your boat, then there might be something here for you.
What made the screening well worth the price of admission, however, was the brilliantly droll and self-deprecating talk-back that followed with Ayoade (and the nearly silent Eisenberg and Wasikowska). Claiming that he “can’t recommend it but I’m glad it’s out there,” Ayoade chatted a bit about his process then chastised an audience member who claimed that he was the fan’s favorite director. “Have you ever watched any movies?” he asked. “Because you’re wrong. You’re just wrong.”
Festival Buzz: Tracks, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Words And Pictures, Bad Words, Dom Hemingway, The Lunchbox
Festival Bummers: The Armstrong Lie, Green Inferno, Made In America, Third Person MM
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