It happened. Every ounce of luck/karma/goodwill I used up yesterday in getting tickets to five major premieres came back to haunt me. This morning, I went to the box office at 7:00am armed with a list of 4 first choices, 4 second choices, and 4 third choices, figuring that one way or another, I would get 4 tickets on the day. Wrong. Very, very wrong. I got one second choice. And that’s it. One movie, on probably the most loaded day of the whole festival. Was it The Master? Not even close. Cloud Atlas? Struck out. Anna Karenina? Try again. Ryan Gosling’s new drama The Place Beyond the Pines? Nope. Sarah Polley’s new documentary Stories We Tell? Nein. Cannes Palme d’Or winner Amour? Non.
All I got was a German drama called Shores of Hope, which happened to star three different actors that played Nazis in Inglourious Basterds and was by a first-time director who had previously won the student Academy Award when he was in film school. It sounded promising, and it was definitely a film I was looking forward to, but that didn’t exactly ease the pain of going 1 for 12 on the biggest day of the fest. So, in the interests of making this a readable entry, I’ve combined days 3 & 4. And day 4 was very, very good. Luckily, I now have tickets in hand already for most of the rest of the fest. There are a few remaining time slots that I’ll be trying the 7:00am magic for, but I’m pretty well set from here on out. And good thing, because if I ever had to repeat what happened on the morning of day 3, I might lose my shit.
Shores of Hope
Despite being Toke Constantin Hebbeln’s first film, Shores of Hope looked promising for several reasons: Hebbeln won a student Academy Award while in film school, the cast included three different actors from Inglourious Basterds, and the plot—about two friends in 1980’s East Germany dreaming of escaping the iron curtain and traveling the world as sailors—seemed pretty interesting. And, to be fair, all of those aspects of the film were quite good. The problem was in the execution of the script. While the general conceits of the story were compelling, the story beats and plot devices that the character arcs rely on were contrived and kind of boring.
Things started off well, with the two friends, Cornelis and Andreas (how appropriately German!), faced with the dilemma of whether to sell out a friend for their two tickets to paradise freedom. And for that opening arc, the film was quite good. But once things get rolling, and the two friends split apart, it’s like they join separate films. Cornelis, ending up in jail, is forced to recreate no less than three exact scenes from The Shawshank Redemption, while Andreas, now with the Stasi, ends up stuck in an unauthorized remake of The Lives of Others. The best part of the film is Alexander Fehling (playing Cornelis), who you may remember as the Nazi celebrating the birth of his child in Inglourious Basterds. In his first starring role, he really proves he has the goods. But when the film isn’t concentrated on his performance, there just isn’t enough to hold our attention. And you know what? Sometimes that’s what you get with first-time filmmakers. It’s a risk you take in the opportunity to watch creative people find their voices. And I think Hebbeln will find his voice, because he ably demonstrates here that he’s a good storyteller. I just hope next time he finds a better story to tell.
The Grade: C+
Silver Linings Playbook
(Click here for the trailer)
I was a bit tempered with my expectations here, because director David O. Russell has only made two great films in his twenty-year career, but my reservations quickly proved unnecessary. Playbook has just about everything you’d want out of a crowd-pleasing dramedy, but to its credit, it never feels like it’s following a recipe. It’s very funny, it goes in unexpected directions (without ever going too far off course), and the cast brings their A-game. Bradley Cooper proves he can be a dramatic lead of real depth, Robert De Niro proves that he can still summon a great performance when the material deserves it, and Jennifer Lawrence proves she’s worthy of every good thing anyone’s written about her these last few years.
And that’s the real takeaway from the film, Lawrence’s performance. There’s a scene where De Niro is yelling at her, and she absolutely turns the tables and puts him in his place. When was the last time someone stole a scene from Robert De Niro? Has it ever even happened before? And I’m not talking about Meeting the Parents De Niro, I’m talking about De Niro when he’s trying. I’ve been trying to avoid hyperbole when talking about Tiff films this year, but here I can’t avoid it. Lawrence is dynamite, and she gives the kind of performance that wins people Oscars. It’s too early to say what she’ll be up against, but I struggle to imagine seeing a better lead actress performance this year.
The Grade: B+
(Click here for the trailer)
Of course right as I say I’m trying to avoid hyperbole, along comes a movie like The Sessions to make a fool out of me. I can’t overstate how wonderful The Sessions is. The film tells a chapter in the life of Mark O’Brien, a polio survivor who beat the odds to become a respected poet in the 1980’s despite living in an iron lung and having no control of any muscle below his neck. And the chapter of his life we’re concerned with here? His mission to lose his virginity with the help of a sex surrogate. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt play O’Brien and Cheryl, his sex surrogate who, over the course of several sessions, helps Mark “know a woman in the biblical sense,” as he puts it in the film to his priest (played by the always great William H. Macy).
Written and directed by Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, The Sessions does just about everything right. First off, it’s damn funny. And it’s very touching without ever being overly sentimental. Hawkes (a 2010 Oscar nominee for Winter’s Bone) absolutely knocks it out of the park, and he never draws attention to Mark’s misfortunes, but rather concentrates on his sense of humor, his caring and gentleness, and his positive outlook. The film earns our sympathy precisely because we never feel like it’s being grasped for. And Hunt, who spends most of the film nude, never creates the feeling of gratuitousness or exploitation. The film has a frank and unflinching honesty about sex. As Hawkes said in the Q & A, filming the graphic sex scenes was a bit awkward, but that worked in their favor, because it was supposed to look awkward on screen. Hawkes and Hunt should both be assured of Oscar nominations, and at this early stage, Hawkes has to be the guy to beat. His performance is the anchor to a wonderful movie that will touch you deeply even as it makes you laugh hysterically.
The Grade: A
L to R: Director Ben Lewin, Helen Hunt, John Hawkes, and William H. Macy
American Masters: Inventing David Geffen
(Click here for the trailer)
I didn’t know too much about David Geffen going into this, beyond the fact that he was an influential music/entertainment executive, but I’m always a sucker for a good rock and roll documentary. And I’m glad I checked it out, because Geffen is one hell of a fascinating guy. The film opens with several legendary music and film figures talking about how the best thing about Geffen is his honesty—Warren Beatty even says his best quality is that he’s “giftedly un-diplomatic.” And we see how true this is over the next two hours, as the story of a career unfolds that was notable not just for its massive success, but how unconventional it was.
Geffen started in the mailroom of a record company in 1964, and within ten years he owned his own label, despite never going to college (he lied on his initial application and said he went to UCLA, then he intercepted the letter that would have proven otherwise). Over the next forty years, Geffen built a multi-billion dollar entertainment empire purely on the back of his integrity. He played the game in a way no one ever had before (or probably since)—by telling the truth, whether people wanted to hear it or not. He consistently gambled on his taste, and was rewarded because his taste was exemplary. (He was even responsible for Tom Cruise getting cast in Risky Business; that role “better go to someone I’d wanna fuck,” he said at the time.) He worked with people he trusted, and gave them the power to make decisions they believed in. And even as he’s taken a step back from the entertainment industry, he remains one of the world’s largest donors for AIDS research. When Geffen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said in his speech that it surprised him because he has no talent. “I’m only good at recognizing talent in others,” he said. And in the Q & A following the film, Geffen said he always saw himself as a baby doctor, “helping others people deliver their babies.” We have Geffen to thank for the successful delivery of a lot of great children, and this documentary tells the whole story in a consistently engaging and insightful way.
The Grade: A
L to R: Tiff Documentary Programmer Thom Powers, David Geffen, and director Susan Lacy
(Click here for the trailer)
Each Tiff, I try to see at least one low budget, independently made debut film, and what could be more up my alley than a movie called Detroit Unleaded? Directed by local filmmaker Rola Nashef, Detroit Unleaded tells the story of a handsome young Middle Eastern immigrant struggling to run his late father’s gas station in downtown Detroit, while also forging a life of his own. There are major themes at work here, but Detroit Unleaded is consistently a pretty light-hearted film, and that works to its favor. EJ Assi, a dead-ringer for a Lebanese John Stamos, plays Sami, who runs the station with his cousin Mike, while meanwhile chasing after the affections of the beautiful young Naj. The film ends a little too abruptly and neatly, but until then, the portrait and characters it creates are fully formed and compelling. As there always are in first films, some flaws are apparent (the character of a parking lot attendant should have been cut out), and a few of the jokes and set pieces fall flat. But Detroit Unleaded is made with such charisma and zeal that it’s easy to overlook any underwhelming aspects. The film has a similar feel to Clerks, but instead of only chronicling the malaise of the main characters, it lets us fully into their world and shows us around. Hopefully a local release will be forthcoming so people can see this first work from an exciting new filmmaker.
The Grade: B
Tomorrow: Two major premieres, plus what turned out to be my single favorite film of the festival.
Daniel Joyaux is a film and pop culture critic living in Ann Arbor. You can read more of his work at thirdmanmovies.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @thirdmanmovies.
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