Thursday, August 25, 2011

A TIFF wish list

I've wanted to attend the Toronto International Film Festival for some time, but doing so wasn't feasible until this year. Since the event overlaps with the start of the academic year at work and I'm attending on my own dime, I won't be able to stay for all eleven days. (On the off chance that someone reading this would like to pay me for coverage, please get in touch.)

Upon flipping through the program guide, I discovered that making choices is like experiencing death by a thousand cuts. I really want to see this and this and this and this...and they're all playing at the same time! The easiest way to do it is to resign oneself to the fact that it simply isn't possible to fit in everything and then marvel at the number of prioritized titles still available.

Without a doubt, I'm extremely disappointed that DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, Whit Stillman's first film in thirteen years, debuts the day I'm leaving Toronto. There is no other film in the lineup that I want to see more. That it supposedly won't open commercially until spring adds insult to injury. But I suppose if I've waited since 1998, what another six months or so. Still...

The number of premium screenings, which aren't included in the package I purchased, are another source of frustration, although I'm planning to suck it up for a couple. Probably my next most anticipated title, Lars von Trier's MELANCHOLIA, only screens at a pricier level while I'm in town. Fin. You win TIFF. I'm telling myself that going to one or two premium screenings will give me the full festival experience.

If I get all of my first choices--and who knows what the chance of that is--I'll be pretty pleased with the schedule I've assembled. (Actually, it should be pretty good even if some second choices slide in.) Sure, I'm missing the Stillman, but a new film from Hirokazu Kore-Eda, one of my favorite contemporary directors, isn't a bad consolation. Here's my schedule if all goes as planned:

Thursday, September 8

*6:30 p.m.-8:13 p.m. PINA (Wim Wenders, 2011) (Germany/France) TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

*11:59 p.m.-1:39 p.m. THE RAID (Gareth Huw Evans, 2011) (Indonesia) Ryerson Theatre

Friday, September 9

*1:00-2:33 p.m. LE HAVRE (Aki Kaurismäki, 2011) (Finland) Jackman Hall (AGO)

*6:45-8:35 p.m. GOODBYE FIRST LOVE (UN AMOUR DE JEUNESSE) (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011) (France/Germany) Scotiabank 3

*10:00-11:57 p.m. TRISHNA (Michael Winterbottom, 2011) (United Kingdom) Princess of Wales

Saturday, September 10

*9:45-11:21 a.m. OSLO, AUGUST 31ST (Joachim Trier, 2011) (Norway) AMC 1

*12:30-2:25 p.m. 360 (Fernando Meirelles, 2011) (United Kingdom/Austria/France/Brazil) Winter Garden Theatre

*6:00-8:15 p.m. MELANCHOLIA (Lars von Trier, 2011) (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany) Ryerson Theatre

*9:45-11:54 p.m. I WISH (KISEKI) (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, 2011) (Japan) TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Sunday, September 11

*9:30-10:52 a.m. TWIGGY (LA BRINDILLE) (Emmanuelle Millet, 2011) (France) AMC 4

*12:00-1:56 p.m. TAKE THIS WALTZ (Sarah Polley, 2011) (Canada) Ryerson Theatre

*3:15-4:54 p.m. SAMSARA (Ron Fricke, 2011) (USA) TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

*6:15-8:29 p.m. CRAZY HORSE (Frederick Wiseman, 2011) (France/USA) AMC 3

*9:45-11:59 p.m. FAUST (Alexander Sokurov, 2011) (Russia) Scotiabank 3

Monday, September 12

*11:00 a.m.-12:45 p.m. RAMPART (Oren Moverman, 2011) (USA) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

*2:00-3:30 p.m. TWIXT (Francis Ford Coppola, 2011) (USA) Scotiabank 13

*4:45-6:18 p.m. A DANGEROUS METHOD (David Cronenberg, 2011) (France/Ireland/United Kingdom/Germany/Canada) TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

*9:00-11:00 p.m. LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE (DUO MING JIN) (Johnnie To, 2011) (Hong Kong) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

Of course, there's no guarantee that I get everything I've requested, so here are the titles I filled in as my second choices:

-CARRÉ BLANC (Jean-Baptiste Léonetti, 2011) (France/Luxembourg/Belgium/Switzerland)

-CHICKEN WITH PLUMS (POULET AUX PRUNES) (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, 2011) (France/Germany/Belgium)

-ELLES (Malgoska Szumowska, 2011) (France/Poland/Germany)

-EXTRATERRESTRIAL (EXTRATERRESTRE) (Nacho Vigalondo, 2011) (Spain)

-FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (KOKURIKO-ZAKA KARA) (Goro Miyazaki, 2011) (Japan)

-HEADHUNTERS (HODEJEGERNE) (Morten Tyldum, 2011) (Norway)

-INTO THE ABYSS (Werner Herzog, 2011) (USA)

-J'AIME REGARDER LES FILLES (Frédéric Louf, 2011) (France)

-KEYHOLE (Guy Maddin, 2011) (Canada)


-OUTSIDE SATAN (HORS SATAN) (Bruno Dumont, 2011) (France)

-THE SWORD IDENTITY (WO KOU DE ZONG JI) (Xu Haofeng, 2011) (China)

Monday, August 08, 2011

Adventures in Babysitting


High school senior Chris Parker (Elisabeth Shue) is all set to go on a big anniversary date to a French restaurant with her boyfriend Mike (Bradley Whitford) when he drops by at the last minute to cancel. Although she’d prefer to stay home and spend the Friday night moping, Chris ends up accepting a late request to babysit for the Andersons.

In ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING what should be a quiet evening in Oak Park watching over the Andersons’ young,Thor-obsessed daughter Sara (Maia Brewton) becomes one crazy night protecting three kids in downtown Chicago. A panicked call to Chris from her friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) sets the series of wild events in motion. Brenda decided to run away from home but unwisely spent all her money taking a cab into the city. Now that she’s having second thoughts and is frightened by the eccentrics at the bus station, she needs Chris to come get her.

Chris wants to leave Sara in the care of her 15-year-old brother Brad (Keith Coogan), but the main thing he is capable of nurturing is his crush on the pretty upperclassman. The two siblings coerce the babysitter into taking them with her. Also tagging along is Brad’s friend Daryl (Anthony Rapp), who is convinced Chris is the centerfold in the current issue of Playboy.

The station wagon Chris is driving blows a tire while on the expressway into Chicago. Complicating matters further, she forgot her purse in the rush to get downtown, which leaves them stranded with no transportation and money. A kindly one-handed tow truck driver offers assistance, but rather than take them straight to the garage, he is diverted to his home where he finds his wife in flagrante delicto with another man. Once shots are fired in the domestic dispute, Chris and the kids run off, only to be deposited in the chop shop headquarters for a national car theft ring and being pursued by the crime syndicate’s bosses.

Released by Walt Disney production label Touchstone Pictures, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING combines the parent company’s family film qualities with some of the racier elements in John Hughes’ teen movies. A judicious amount of strong language and a Playboy magazine’s pivotal role in the plot provide the off-color window dressing (and PG-13 rating) for what is otherwise a squeaky clean story of three teenagers and a pre-teen getting into some pickles.

Although a fear of urban life runs through the film, the exaggerated vision of danger lurking around every corner reads more like a child’s imagining of the bad parts of the big city or an early 1960s movie’s sanitized portrayal of seedy sections of town and characters. ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is set in then-present day suburban Chicago, but the light tone, classical style, and Shue as Sandra Dee stand-in are more indicative of a cinematic mindset from approximately 25 years earlier. Use of vintage R&B and The Crystals’ 1963 single “Then He Kissed Me”, which appears over the opening and closing scenes, also suggest a throwback perspective. The world of ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is one where the bad men are cartoon villains, not rough and tumble types capable of any serious harm, and the scary but nice ones have hearts of gold.

The innocence found in Chris Columbus’ directorial debut ranks among its most appealing attributes and explains why it has aged relatively gracefully in the years since its 1987 premiere. For instance, the scene in which Chris and the kids stumble into a blues club and have Albert Collins insist they sing a song to earn the ability to leave shouldn’t work. Nevertheless, the corny bemoaning of babysitting blues charms by force of spirit and unironic effort.

Central to ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING’s wholesomeness is Shue’s sincere performance. She displays why Chris would be in demand on the babysitting circuit, popular with other girls her age, and the object of affection for underclassmen and college guys. She’s responsible and conscientious but not overbearing, which would endear her to parents and her young charges. Chris is also friendly, aware of her attractiveness, and vulnerable without being vain or cruel. The adventures Chris must survive are over the top, but Shue grounds the film by playing the role with the courage and just below the surface desperation that feels true to how a real teen might handle the predicaments she’s thrust into. Beyond her character, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING possesses a knowingness about how kids and teenagers react under adverse circumstances and when they’re trying to impress.

In a sense, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is a template for the slicker PG-13 fare that Disney now produces to keep its brand from being associated solely with entertainment for young kids. It’s rougher around the edges--the swearing in it is less likely to make the cut these days--and it feels less like it’s been focus group tested for maximum box office revenues. ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is an outlandish teen comedy, but in keeping with the John Hughes influence, it doesn’t take the easy way out at the end. That in itself is worth a good tip for a job well done.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


WARGAMES (John Badham, 1983)

Underachieving Seattle high school student David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) wants to get a sneak peek at a computer company’s revolutionary upcoming games in WARGAMES. Using a slow but methodical automated dialing program he finds what he believes is their system, but the log-on command proves unpassable for the time being.

Eventually David hacks into the other computer and pulls up a list of games. He ignores standbys like chess and poker for the more tantalizing option labelled Global Thermonuclear War. Along with his friend Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy), they elect to play the game as the Soviet Union and pick Las Vegas and their hometown as targets.

Little do they know that David has accessed the War Operation Plan Response (WOPR) supercomputer at NORAD Combat Operations Center at Cheyenne Mountain. With 22 percent of missile commanders failing to launch ICBMs during simulation tests, WOPR has recently taken over the job of carrying out such orders if they are transmitted. What David thinks is a game may be putting the world on the brink of mutually assured destruction.

As a Cold War message movie and cinematic descendent of FAIL-SAFE, WARGAMES examines the inherent danger in favoring technology’s cool logic and situational calculations over mankind’s potential second guessing when called upon to press buttons and flip switches that will result in killing millions. Even the best designed systems are susceptible to unexpected weaknesses. A clever member of the general public can infiltrate WOPR. The computer can’t be overridden when running scenarios. Powering down the machine at such a time tells it that the opponent’s attack has been successful and thus initiates a counterstrike.

Director John Badham and screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes sprinkle other examples of imperfect systems throughout WARGAMES. David’s father would seem to have come upon the most efficient way to butter bread and corn on the cob: rub the buttered bread on the vegetable. Yet he doesn’t achieve the desired result if, as occurs here, the corn has not been cooked. David escapes custody at NORAD because of human and technical vulnerabilities. David uses forceps and a miniature cassette recorder to defeat an electronic lock, but even that wouldn’t matter if the solider on guard didn’t lose focus when flirting with a nurse in the infirmary. David also employs an aluminum can’s pull tab to make a free call from a pay phone. From the unimportant system to the critical, somewhere there is a hole to be exploited, try as the designers might to eliminate them.

While WARGAMES worries that the human race may foolishly bring about its own extinction, the film also demonstrates warmth toward people and their flaws. In the prototypical role for his screen personality, Broderick displays intelligence and good-natured roguishness that can have adverse consequences despite his intentions. David may be too smart for his own good, but his infectious enthusiasm and drive to fix the mess he’s made are innately human and make him all the more endearing.

The same applies to Sheedy, who shares an easy chemistry with Broderick. Her character often misses the larger picture for smaller observations. When David tells her about the computer programmer, she’s most attuned to the scientist’s physical attractiveness. Jennifer is understandably concerned when TV news reports on the computer breach, yet she also asks David if she can share the story with a friend. In a funny bit that reflects the capacity to mistake everything about oneself, she meets David in Colorado after he begs for her to buy him a plane ticket and wonders if his dilemma is related to changing grades on the school server.

Setting aside the moral warning WARGAMES issues about the nuclear arms race, it functions as a terrific thriller. The tense opening scene in the nuclear silo with two missile commanders communicates what is at stake on micro and macro levels. The pressure on David to bring the game to a non-disastrous conclusion and on NORAD officials to act appropriately with limited but alarming information is felt for nearly every moment. The climax, with the blossoming of missiles on the command center’s maps, serves as a chilling reminder of what could be if the wrong chain of events are triggered.

As a member of a generation that grew up worrying about nuclear war, WARGAMES still makes quite an impact nearly thirty years after its release because it taps into those fears so well. At some point in the 1980s I remember the Dayton Daily News printing a map with concentric circles, probably centered on likely target Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, that showed the effects a nuclear attack would have on the area. Understandably this freaked me out as a kid. Does WARGAMES have the same effect on those whose formative years have come after the fall of the Soviet Union? Obviously I can’t say unequivocally, but the film holds up as a nail-biting thriller and a lesson on entrusting too much faith to technology.

Grade: A