Sunday, September 14, 2008

TIFF Watch 2008 - A Year Ago In Winter, Easy Virtue, A Woman in Berlin, Synecdoche, New York - Reviews

I got to hit a few more films at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival on top of the 4 that I saw earlier in the week before it finished yesterday (with Slumdog Millionaires unsurprisingly winning the People's Choice Awards).

But seriously, enough with the depressing art house films. I think I'm going to kill myself now. Between seeing Blindness before, and then now two sad German films A Year Ago in Winter and A Woman in Berlin, I think I might consider offing myself. That or offing all of humanity for being so despicable.

I did manage to catch the slightly lighter Easy Virtue with Kristen Scott-Thomas, Colin Firth and Jessica Biel in one of those English costume drama's from the early 20th century (as opposed to the 18th century costume drama of The Duchess).

I also got to see Charlie Kaufmann's (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation) highly anticipated Synecdoche, New York, which got very split reviews at Cannes, and got a very split review from myself. ("It was brilliant!", "It was boring.")

A Year Ago In Winter (Im Winter ein Jahr)
Directed by Caroline Link
Starring Karoline Herfurth, Josef Bierbichler, Corinna Harfouch, Hanns Zischler, Mišel Maticevic
Opens in Germany on Nov. 13th 2008

A young man dies and we skip ahead a few months to see a family that seems to have been coping well, until real issues slowly begin to unravel, especially for sister Lilli, who builds a relationship with a painter hired by the grieving mom to paint a portrait of the sister and the dead brother. Heavy stuff that we've seen before and while the family drama can be fascinating, the movie starts focussing much of the time solely with Lilli and the painter Max, who himself gets pulled out from his reclusive life with Lilli's help. Lots of interesting stuff but in the end, the movie feels unbalanced with an ending that tries to cram in the parents storyline that was forgotten throughout and that stretches the film way past its natural timeline. Some affecting performances but the art house cliches are too much to overcome some of the more poignant and naturalistic moments, with the sum of the movie resulting in less than its more stellar moments.

Grade: B-

Easy Virtue
Directed by Stephan Elliott
Starring Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes, Kimberly Nixon, Katherine Parkinson
Opens in the UK on Nov. 7th 2008
When did Jessica Biel become a movie star? Here she is playing an American race car driver during the jazz age who quickly marries a young Brit (Ben Barnes) which pisses off the proper folks back home in England, especially when they come back to visit/live.

Based on the Noel Coward play, it's a light a frothy English movie that isn't quite light and frothy enough. Everyone turns on individually decent performances (especially Scott Thomas, and surprisingly a not-as-bad-as-I-thought-she'd-be Biel) but none of the characters seemed to connect (or maybe that's the point) and Colin Firth wasn't given much to do except look scruffy and act indignant to everyone around him who wasn't American. There wasn't enough passion and fiery tempers and the "twist" ending was a bit obvious and again, like A Year Ago in Winter, I found the movie as a series of wonderful scenes that somehow didn't cobble together into a great whole movie.

Grade: B-

A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin)
Directed by Max Färberböck
Starring Nina Hoss, Evgeny Sidikhin, Irm Hermann, Ruediger Vogler, Ulrike Krumbiegel
Opens in Germany on Oct. 23rd 2008

If Blindness didn't make me want to kill myself, this is the movie that almost put me to that point.

Relentless and nauseatingly painful in subject matter that was both fascinating (particularly because it is based on the true stories published in an anonymous memoir from WWII) and unbearable to watch, as the horrors of this anonymous woman's life gets worse and worse, at least until there was a small hope when she begins a relationship with an enemy commander giving herself and her friends a slight bit of status (at least temporarily).

The movie and the story are probably better than the grade I'm about to give it but by the time I watched it, I couldn't deal with all the atrocities committed by the Russian "saviours" and the rape and control they had on the surviving Berliners and simply counted down until the end of the movie.

Grade: B-

Synechdoche, New York
Directed by Charlie Kaufmann
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan
Opens in North America on Oct. 24th 2008

Either this was one of the beter films of the year or the worst. I'm still undecided. So I'm probably going to give it the average of the two. I can probably justify an A grade, but I can also justify a D.

Hoffman is a theatre director whose life is going down the tubes, and at the same time, sets up the biggest challenge of his career, producing a play about his life with actors playing the people in his own life, and then the whole thing gets surreal.

The surreal part is the best part of the movie, and once we finally get to the point where Hoffman's Caden finds a giant (and I mean GIANT) warehouse to house his work-in-progress-theatrical performance (where hundreds of actors act out life in New York, completely rebuilt to full scale within the warehouse), the movie sparks with energy and brilliance.

Too bad it takes the first 2/3rds of the film to get to that point, which starts off as another guy-in-a-mundane-life-and-a-mundane-marriage trying to figure out his plain and boring life. The surreal things sneak in slowly, peppered throughout, but too slow in my opinion to keep things interesting and less metaphorically obvious (like a metaphorical hammer if you will, in keeping with the movie's surealism).

The cast is terrific but the ones that stood out for me the most had the least screen time (Wiest, as a late addition actress to Caden's project, Williams as one of Caden's first actresses, Watson, as the woman hired to play Morton's role, and Morton herself, as Caden's soulmate). I have NO idea what Leigh's character was for. Keener (who I usually love) does more of the same mean-spirited wife role she's perfected and it's starting to look tired.

Grade: C+ (averaged from an A- and a D-)

So that's it. I had to turn down a few other tickets just because of other commitments or the fact that I couldn't deal with another depressing film in one week and I think I need to cleanse myself with something like The House Bunny or something but there were still a ton of films at TIFF that I would have loved to see, just preferably a bit more spaced out.


Unknown said...

The book that "A Woman in Berlin" is based on is a brutal account of the compromises and unfathomable choices one is faced with during war. It was a difficult read and I'm really surprised it got turned into a movie at all...

Vance said...

And the movie is a difficult watch, even though the story is fascinating. Still, I just wanted to end. It was too painful.