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Revisiting John Hughes; the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival

Hello everyone, Yazdi here. If you are based in Canada, and specifically a Toronto denizen, you are in for a treat.

Starting this Friday, February 15th, the good people at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) have organized the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival. And the theme for the fest is young movie lovers. It includes an enviably well curated selection of movies about the young in cinema.  The full schedule for the films can be found at http://tiff.net/nextwave. All films will be playing February 15-17th at the festival flagship venue, the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

In addition to the film screenings, there is even a 24-hour film. According to the website, “TIFF Next Wave challenges teams of high-school-aged youth to make an original short film in just 24 hours, from 6pm on Thursday, February 14 to 6pm on Friday, February 15, just in time for Battle of the Scores. All films that meet the competition criteria will be screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox on the closing day of the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival, Sunday, February 17.” 

No festival of films about the young can be complete without screenings from the John Hughes pantheon. And the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival has one-upped the stakes by a full on John Hughes Film Marathon as part of the fest. Even better, high school students can attend the Hughes marathon free! It does not get better than this.

One of the films I viewed at the 2012 TIFF was the Spanish language movie Promocion Fantasma (Ghost Graduation).  A half-hour into the movie, I stopped analyzing the film and surrendered to its silly, giddy charms. Clearly an homage to the John Hughes films from the 80s, Ghost Graduation is one of the featured films at TIFF Next Wave Film Festival and worth exploring.Here is what I wrote about Ghost Graduation in my 2012 TIFF write-up:
“If your list of comfort-food movies invariably includes films from the eighties, you will be sure to love Ghost Graduation (Promocion Fantasma). This is a light-hearted piffle of a film that only exists to get as many laughs as possible as it (re)visits the John Hughes universe. The director of this Spanish-language film, Javier Ruiz Caldera, mentioned in the Q and A after the film that the plot emerged from the premise of what might have happened if the characters from The Breakfast Club never got out of detention but died and were stuck as ghosts in their high school for the next twenty years. In this film, a school teacher who can see the dead has to help these ghosts resolve unfinished business so they can move on and stop haunting the school. The reason why Joss Whedon was the apt choice to make The Avengers is because he is a geek about the universe of these comic books and he gets these characters. A filmmaker who taps into his own outsized love for a particular story or genre will always do a better job than another who does not have that love, no matter how technically accomplished the latter may be. Well, here is a filmmaker who gets those seminal films from the eighties and he nails that sensibility in his own directorial debut. At the TIFF screening, he got a long round of applause at the end of the film. Sometimes all you need to do is make a film about something you love, and the rest takes care of itself. Incidentally, I wonder if John Hughes will be someone whose cache will continue to grow in the coming decades. He is not typically invoked during mention of the cinema greats. We will find out, but I suspect time will be kind to the legacy of John Hughes films”.

I am glad to see that the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival is already doing its part to keep the Hughes legacy relevant to a new generation of film lovers.

2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) – Update Five

Hello everyone, Yazdi here. Here’s my final update from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. You arrive eagerly in Toronto one Friday night, you watch three to four films a day, and before you know it, the last movie on your list is rolling its end credits. And its time to say goodbye to the festival, and get on a plane and head back home. There could have been a hundred other combination of films I could have picked to watch during my time in Toronto (there are more than 400 films screening this year at TIFF). But by all accounts, the ones I chose left me fully sated and then some.

There are three TIFF offerings to discuss in this final update. One greatly anticipated film that did not live up to expectations. One relatively unknown film that knocked my socks (and my shoes, and my shirt, and my pants…) off. And a program of short films whose quality covered the spectrum of everything in between.

2012 TIFF still, ‘7 Boxes’

Almost every year, a movie comes out of nowhere, and becomes part of the popular consciousness. If there is justice in the world, 7 Boxes will be that film this year. TIFF prides itself on discovering what it calls ‘the next big film’, citing Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech as examples. The kind of movie that gains traction through word of mouth, opens in arthouse cinemas, and then rapidly expands to mainstream theaters. 7 Boxes more than deserves this fate.

Here is the premise of 7 Boxes (directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori): in a teeming shanty market in Paraguay, seventeen year old Victor is one of many people making a living by carting merchandise on wheelbarrows through the maze of busy streets. One evening he is asked to deliver 7 wooden boxes to a location he will be informed of at a later time. Hoping to finally be able to afford the used cell-phone he has been lusting after, he accepts the task. And thus begins what will be the breathless remainder of the film as Victor realizes that there are many who will go to any extreme to get their hands on the 7 boxes. If this film sounds like a Premium Rush knock-off, let me assure you this is a far smarter, grittier, layered movie that is as close to the ground unpolished and hard-scrabble as they get. The more relevant comparison would be with Run Lola Run which also featured a protagonist persistently on the run against time. 7 Boxes features an ingenious plot (wait till you find out what’s in the boxes) that expertly weaves together more than a dozen characters who interact in unexpected ways in a story that is as labyrinthine as the market streets through which Victor dashes with the seven wooden crates tethered to his wheelbarrow. Every actor here achieves a reality to their character that makes it impossible to imagine them in other roles.

2012 TIFF still, “7 Boxes”

We have seen movies like this before, but ultimately what elevates this film is the notes of cleverness that are liberally scattered throughout; this is the work of unquestionable talent. To give an example, there is a scene in the film where in the middle of his running, running, running, Victor stops outside an electronics shop to catch a breath. There are multiple televisions in the storewindow, each fitted to a camera. He sees his face projected through multiple perspectives and can’t help but stare, probably seeing his face from so many angles for the first time in his life. Something terrible has happened immediately before this scene, but Victor stops for a moment to stare. To be a kid. To be a human being, suddenly fascinated by something simple. It is touches such as this which demonstrate that this is the work of a particularly gifted filmmaker. All of the pieces of the plot ultimately snap together with a pleasing click, and the movie has a final scene so perfectly rendered it had me cheering at the screen. To discover a movie like this is the reason why most people go to film festivals. Unpredictable, frenetic and utterly entertaining, this folks, is how you do it.

2012 TIFF still, ‘Arthur Newman’

If the idea of a film with Colin Firth and Emily Blunt excites you (and it should) then it may be best to skip to the next paragraph in this post, because there is no way to talk about the film Arthur Newman without giving away key plot elements. Okay, consider yourself warned with the requisite Spoiler Alert. Arthur Newman is a film about two disaffected souls who bond. With the hazy, occult, undefinable connection between two strangers as its main focus, Arthur Newman evokes Lost In Translation set in small town southern america. But this film has an even more melancholic tone, if that’s possible. In A Ladder Of Years, an Anne Tyler novel, one day, a woman leaves her family, drives to a new town, and sets up a completely new life there. The movie starts with the Colin Firth character, a one-time accomplished professional golf player, doing something similar, i.e., he devises a plan that would lead the world to believe that he may have taken his life and drives off to another town after taking on a new name: Arthur J. Newman. We find out as the film progresses as to what might lead a person to abandon their existing identity and willfully take on a new one. Blunt plays a woman coming undone; she has a car crash while drunk, is arrested and then needs to be hospitalized to be revived. She joins the Firth character on a road trip to Texas where he is headed to set up a new life. We will find more details about their lives as the film progresses. I thought I would never see the day but Emily Blunt is miscast in this role. I realize that she cannot always play the adorable ingénue in film after film and her risky, brittle, broken performance here is commendable, but the deliberate dimming of the considerable charms of this actor somehow seems wrong. This is a fairly dark film, and even its moments of levity are tinged with bitterness. I admired the meditative, despondent feel of much of the movie but the pervasive grimness of tone may make the film a hard sell. I was also disconcerted by the fact that even the most basic information about the lead characters is withheld through much of the first half of the film. The deliberate choice to only slowly reveal more information about them, may come at the cost of the audience’s patience. Overall I realize this is a brave film with a unique voice and resolute tone but it came across as a slight disappointment.

2012 TIFF still, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’, short film

Planning to attend the Short Films program at a film festival is always a smart choice because you get the buffet experience: one gets to taste a little bit of everything. The short film compilation program I attended (Short Cuts Canada Programme #2) included seven short films. Hmong Sisters (13 minutes) focuses on an American tourist visiting rural Vietnam and comments on the adaptation and abuse of cross-cultural interactions. Struggle (Faillir, 24 minutes) brings honesty, an admirable lack of judgment, and clear-mindedness to a difficult subject matter: the sexual tension between two siblings. I was impressed by the naturalness of the performances, and the maturity in dealing with a topic that is frequently treated as untouchable. Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (14 minutes) about the coming of age of a young girl who lives at home with her grandfather (played by the invaluable Gordon Pinsent) is effortlessly heartfelt, and was hands down the best short in the collection. The difficulty of doing a lesson-of-life type of film without coming off trite or obvious or fake or sentimental cannot be overstated. There are two moments in the film that pack a powerful emotional punch and the fact that this is achieved with remarkable economy of time speaks to everything that this short gets right. Asian Gangs (9 minutes) is a faux-documentary that hits every one of its funny marks. It works wonderfully (the audience was doubled over with laughter) because of the disarming sincerity of the lead actor (and co-director). The premise, to be seen to be believed, must have seemed so slight, so silly on paper, but what is captured on film comes out a winner. Tuesday (14 minutes) is a cute short about a young girl who is getting gypped in life at every corner, but her love of dogs will ultimately save her. Vive La Canadienne (3 minutes) is wordless and frothy and delightful in its simplicity. I have great fondness for films that play like the silents, and do not need dialog or cultural context to make their point and this film of barely a few minutes achieves that. Nostradamos (9 minutes), about a small Canadian town believed to potentially survive the end of the world, uses the same faux-documentary tone as Asian Gangs, but with a far more straight-faced tone.

And so comes an end to the films I watched at TIFF 2012, and I am already counting the days until next year.

Words of Witness | Review

How many of you exercise your right to vote?  How would you feel if this right were taken away; perhaps you would be relieved because you always thought that there weren’t really any great candidates anyway? You may be devastated that you now no longer have a choice to make even though you didn’t necessarily choose to do anything about it? You may even possibly think that a single voice, your voice doesn’t make a difference?  One thing is for sure however, in the free world, we DO have a right to vote for those who we wish to be governed by and watching Mai Iskander’s latest and first-rate documentary “Words of Witness” will certainly make you feel this way.

Not so long ago, people in Egypt had no choice except to vote for one candidate and for all intents and purposes they were ruled by a dictator.  For decades, people neither had the right to free elections nor were allowed to vote for any other candidates other than Hosni Mubarak.  Inspired by the uprising in Tunisia in the spring of 2011, protests in Egypt began on 25 January and ran for 18 days.  Despite the government’s best efforts to curtail these protests, the people prevailed and finally on 10 February, Mubarak ceded all presidential power to Vice President Omar Suleiman.

Overthrowing a dictator took Egyptians from all walks of life—many of them in their twenties and thirties to come together and social media such as Facebook and Twitter were powerful tools in allowing them to gather to call for universal human rights such as dignity and freedom.  “Words of Witness” tells the powerful and touching story of 22 year old Heba Afify, a newly minted passionate and driven journalist at the English edition of Almasry Alyoum, Egypt’s leading independent newspaper.

Iskander manages to expertly merge Heba negotiating the boundaries of her life with her sympathetic – yet overprotective – mother whilst all around her the boundaries of her country are shifting both societally and politically.  “I know you are a journalist, but you’re still a girl!” Heba’s mother reminds her every time she leaves the house.  We watch Heba take to the streets to report on an Egypt in turmoil, using tweets, texts and Facebook posts. “During the Revolution, all the rules were broken,” Heba exclaims.  “My mother needs to understand that the rules that were broken during the Revolution will remain broken”.

This is an effective documentary that takes us right into the heart of the action where change is occurring and shows us the heart of this amazing young and inspiring journalist who wants to make a change not only for her country but more importantly to the life that is expected of her by her family.  In speaking with the director, it is also clear that this story is not a million miles from her own, I think this is why the viewer is left with such a powerful and inspiring message of being the change you want to be

“Words of Witness” is currently playing in Los Angeles Laemmle Noho 7 week of 27 August 2012 but check local listings for other screenings.

Words of Witness Trailer

Kumare – a Film by Vikram Gandhi | Review

One could be forgiven for thinking that you are watching yet another Sacha Baron Cohen stunt on celluloid but, dare I say it, this is much better.  As part of a social experiment, filmmaker Vikram Gandhi dons an orange robe, grows a beard, and transforms himself from a Jersey boy into a wise Indian guru by the name of Kumare.  As Kumare, he then sets out to convince and indoctrinate a group of followers in the west that he is the real deal.  The aim? To challenge one of the most widely accepted taboos: that only a tiny “1%” can connect the rest of the world to a higher power. Concealing his true identity from everyone he meets, Kumare forges profound and spiritual connections with people from all walks of life.  At the same time, in the absurdity of living as an entirely different person, Vikram is forced to confront difficult questions about his own identity.

Gandhi manages to create an engaging documentary that holds a mirror up to his own questions about religion and beliefs and shines the reflection on the unenlightened.  This starts off comical and cliché making us laugh at the directionless new agers but quickly transforms into something deeper as he takes us on a journey of transformation, his own, the people he touches and us the audience.

The story unfolds admirably rather like the message Kumare the great guru is developing as he goes along and has you sweating towards the end when at the height of his popularity he contemplates revealing his true identity to a core group of disciples who are knee-deep in personal transformation. Will they accept his final teaching? Will he be able to prove that no one really needs anyone else to make them feel better about themselves?

Kumare delivers on all counts.  It is educational, informative, funny and entertaining.

Kumare” opens in Los Angeles at The Cinefamily on Friday, July 26th and will have a full week run from August 3rd through August 9th.  In addition, it was voted the AUDIENCE AWARD WINNER – Documentary Feature: SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2011

Rent-a-Cat / Rentaneko (レンタネコ) | Review

I am sure that not many of us look forward to flying these days (me included), the endless security, fluid confiscation shenanigans, shoes off, laptops out, strip-searches etc. can become all too tiresome especially when it feels like you spend less time in the air than at the airport.

In recent times, and especially on long haul flights, one of my favorite pastimes has become trying to seek out movies that I would not normally get a chance to watch or foreign language movies that have not (and may never) get a US release.

Fellow movie lovers, there are some hidden treasures buried in the back of the seat in front of you (and I am not just talking about what has fallen out of the pocket of the supersized passenger).  On a recent flight from Tokyo, I was lucky enough to catch just such a gem. “Rentaneko” or “Rent-a-cat” (written and directed by USC film school alumni Naoko Ogigami) is a beautiful movie about a young lady called Sayoko who rents out cats to help lonely people fill the emptiness in their hearts. She walks along the banks of the river with a megaphone promoting her service and her animals in a handcart.   This stars Mikako Ichikawa as Sayoko with support from Reiko Kusamura, Ken Mitsuishi, Maho Yamada and Kei Tanaka.

Japanese cinema can often be about extremes, yet in this gentle sweet dramedy, we are delighted, moved and often tickled in the same scene.  Much of this is down to some careful direction and elegant cinematography, and many of the scenes are so beautifully composed that they could be frozen to create photographs.

All of this beauty is augmented by a touching and genuine performance from Ichikawa.  Her human portrayal of a single thirty-something coming to terms with the death of her grandmother (whom she considered to be ‘her rock’) is poignant.  Added to this is her biggest goal in life – to get married.  On the surface there is an air of light heartedness and comedy throughout the movie and yet, when this is scratched, belies a depth that touches your heart and warms you to your central core.  The story meanders a little towards the end, but at those times, the kitty-cat action is more than enough to keep you glued to your screen.

This is a quirky engaging movie that will amuse and enchant everyone – and if you are a cat lover, this movie is a special treat.  Of course being the crazy cat lady that I am, the scenes or outtakes with all of the well-trained moggies were like icing on this near perfect cake.

Rentaneko has been shown at a number of international film festivals through 2012 including Sundance and Edinburgh.  Unfortunately it seems that your best chance of catching it right now is to fly ANA between Los Angeles and Tokyo.  My only hope is that enough people hear about this movie and it get the chance of at least a limited US release.

Official Home Page (Japanese only) – http://rentaneko.com

Patang (The Kite) – A Film by Prashant Bhargarva | Review

Prashant Bhargava is clearly a talented director and writer to be able to bring together both actors and non-actors in this mockumentary style movie which very cleverly blends old Indian outlooks with a fresh non Bollywood storyline

Like its namesake, the movie is light at heart and mostly about the thrill and joy of flying kites during India’s largest kite festival where every year a million kites fill the skies above Ahmedabad-dueling, soaring, tumbling and flying high.  Look a little further however and it makes you realize that this is not only a brilliant narrative about general attitudes in India but also about families, relationships and what we hold important in our lives.  My heart soared during the highs and beat with anxiety during the lows when much tension is created through great direction, good storytelling and a moving and powerful score

PATANG weaves together the stories of six people transformed by the energy of the festival but centers mainly around a successful Delhi businessman (Jayesh) who takes his daughter (Priya) on a surprise trip back to his childhood home for the festival.  Despite the fact that he is an expert kite flyer, he does not count on his visit causing the entire family to confront its own fractured past and fragile dreams.  Jayesh and Priya are definitely “city mice” who discover the pleasures and difficulties faced by their “country mice” family.  Indeed Priya quickly learns that a mild flirtation can quickly lead to something undesirable when she spots an expert kite flyer in a young local hero called Bobby

Clearly one of the stars of this film is the amazing child star who is as adorable and captivating to watch as the children in “Slumdog Millionaire”.  It is hard to believe then that this and the other children in the film are untrained actors who are improvising.  It is very easy to watch the beautiful relationship between a young boy Hamid and his older man- friend Chakku a loser who seems to be unable to relate to anyone else especially his adorable and god fearing mother Sudha who only sees the good in every situation

It is difficult to think that a film about kites can really be this exciting and enthralling to watch.  Stick with the sometimes difficult to watch patchwork quilt of the storyline and I promise you will not be disappointed.

PATANG (THE KITE) will open Los Angeles exclusively at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills on July 20, 2012

In New York, PATANG THE KITE garnered a NY Times Critic Pick and is still playing in New York and Chicago – held over for another week.

The film will continue opening in approximately 18 cities across the US and Canada this summer.

Envious About the King’s Speech? – Julia Roberts is Crowned Queen

The ultimate “Pretty woman” now has a new title; “Wicked step mother” or “Queen” even.  Relativity Media has closed a deal with Oscar®-winner Julia Roberts to play the Queen in its upcoming untitled Snow White feature, based on the Brothers Grimm story which will be directed by Tarsem Singh (Immortals, The Cell).  The studio stated Pre-production has begun and principal photography will start in April. The theatrical release date is set for June 2012.

Julia Roberts

Relativity’s Snow White a retelling of one of the most beloved fables of all-time, will eschew the traditional story in favor of a more modern tale full of comedy and adventure. After her evil stepmother kills her father and destroys the kingdom, Snow White bands together with a gang of seven quarrelsome dwarfs to reclaim what is rightly hers. The script was written by Melissa Wallack (Meet Bill) and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher).

The film’s producers are Ryan Kavanaugh (The Fighter), Bernie Goldmann (300) and Brett Ratner (Rush Hour franchise). The executive producers are Tucker Tooley (The Fighter), Jeff Waxman (Immortals), Tommy Turtle (Immortals), Jamie Marshall (Immortals), Josh Pate (Friday Night Lights) and John Cheng (Horrible Bosses).

Relativity’s CEO Ryan Kavanaugh commented, “Julia was our first and only choice to play the Queen. She is an icon, and we know that she will make this role her own in a way that no one else could.”

I don’t know about you, but I love me a good fairy tale and can’t wait to see who will be Prince Charming

Snow White