TCFF 2015 Opening Night Recap: A New High doc + Lenny Abrahamson’s ROOM (2015)

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Oh what a night! As they do year after year, TCFF 15 opened with a bang… this time with an inspiring, and beautifully-shot documentary A New High! The theater was packed and it’s always nice to find snacks waiting on each of our seats at Showplace ICON Theater (thank you KIND Snacks & Chipotle!)

I was going to skip the after party Mixer but I didn’t as I got to hang out with my friend & fellow TCFF staff Kristen G. and meet Mike Johnson, the director at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission featured in the documentary!


It’s always such a treat to meet the real people involved in the film you have just seen, but in the case of A New High, it’s especially a blessing given how much what Mike’s done inspired me. Nice to see a film that’s so uplifting despite the heavy subject matter, we need more film that celebrate light instead of darkness.

More pics from the night’s festivities, thanks to TCFF photographer Dallas Smith & Jake Hinkley!

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A NEW HIGH Documentary

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I have been blessed that in my life I haven’t had any experience with the struggles the people in this film went through. Residents of a Seattle homeless shelter it’s homelessness, addiction, abuse, and at times, it wasn’t by their own choice as their family did horrible things to them. But really, one does not have to have been addicted to drugs or alcohol to relate with their stories. As the tagline of the film says… everyone defines their mountain. Some of us can be *addicted* to seemingly harmless things, but if that takes over our life and take our focus away of the important things in life, that is something we have to deal with as well.

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A New High focuses on a diverse group of men and women who underwent an unorthodox recovery program that uses mountain climbing as a means of rehabilitation. After one year of intense physical and mental conditioning, the team will attempt to summit one of the most dangerous mountains in the country, the 14,400 ft Mt. Rainier. The project was spearheaded by former Army Ranger Mike Johnson, a director at the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Seattle. Right away we saw how much Mike believed in each and every single member of the shelter and he constantly encouraged them to succeed.

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The film asked the question, ‘will their personal mountains be too steep to overcome?’ Even though they had to train hard for this arduous mission, Mike emphasized that it does not replace the most important thing about overcoming their addiction. It’s not so much about reaching the summit of Mt. Rainier, but reaching the recovery goal they have set for themselves. I love the vast splendor of the mountain, beautifully-shot and skillfully-directed by Samuel Miron & Stephen Scott Scarpulla. It looks stunning visually, but it’s also an intimate and personal film that makes the audience care about them.

The journey to the summit amidst unpredictable weather is an arduous challenge for even the most experienced climbers. So it’s riveting to see how each recovering addict face their demons head on, mentally and physically. Not everyone reached the top but I think each has come farther than they imagine possible and that alone is so uplifting. If you are looking for adventure, drama, action, and encouragement in a film (and really, who doesn’t?) I highly recommend this one when it plays in your city. And see it in as big a screen as possible for those panoramic shots atop the mountain.

In the Q&A after the film, Scarpulla revealed that he & his co-director also had to train for mount climbing as well in order to make this film, and in a way they have to work much harder to be ahead of the other climbers to film them! Talk about dedication and their labor of love definitely paid off on screen.


ROOM

What a stellar pick for the first gala screening of TCFF this year! I actually have seen it two weeks ago at a press screening and so I can’t be more thrilled to see this as part of 2015 lineup. It’s likely going to end up in my top 10 of the year… it’s the most well-acted piece, from a female lead no less, and one of the most emotional experience I’ve had all year. I knew going in that I’d be shedding tears as I cry a lot watching movies, but this film is emotionally heartbreaking in the best possible way.

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This film isn’t so much about the suspense about a mother (only known as Ma) & her 5-year-old boy Jack escaping captivity. Even if you skipped the trailer (which I did), it’s clearly spelled out on IMDb what the premise is about. But knowing that fact doesn’t spoil the film in any way. There’s still plenty of suspense and heart-rending moments leading up to that… but more importantly, what happens after. It’s hard not to be affected by the plight of these two, as most people simply can’t imagine or even relate the trauma they’ve been through. The film certainly made you think about the little things in life we take for granted and make us appreciate them a lot more.

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I read that Brie Larson isolated herself for a month and followed a strict diet in order to get a sense of what Ma and Jack were going through. This is the first time I saw her in a prominent role and I was blown away. There’s a moment where she just stares into the ceiling in silence, all her anguish and desperation in full display, it takes skills to be able to convey such deep emotion with no dialog.

Her dedication and immersion in the role clearly showed and she had a believable chemistry with Jacob Tremblay who played the boy. Tremblay was equally fantastic, definitely one of the most promising young actors I’ve seen in a while. Joan Allen and William H. Macy provide excellent supporting roles as Larson’s parents, especially Allen as she had far more screen time. I also have to mention Tom McCamus as Allen’s new spouse who has some wonderful scenes with Jacob.

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This is the second film from Lenny Abrahamson I saw, the first one being Frank. He’s certainly no stranger to filming bizarre, unusual situations and dealing with character experiencing great emotional distress. I haven’t read the novel it’s based on by Emma Donoghue, so I can’t comment on how faithful it is to the novel, but I think the story translates well on screen thanks to Abrahamson’s intimate and astute direction.

ROOM is not the flashiest Fall release, but though it may appear understated, it sure packs an emotional punch. I’m glad I got to see it and I sure hope it will gain traction during award season and I for one would love to see Larson (and Abrahamson for directing) get a nomination. In a similar way as A New High, even though the film deals with a dark, even dreadful subject matter, it’s not at all depressing. In fact the opposite is true as it celebrates the triumph of love and the power of humanity.


So that’s my Day 1 recap folks! What’s coming up for Day 2?


Stay tuned for more TCFF 2015 daily journal in the next two weeks! Let me know your thoughts about either one of these films!

FlixChatter Review: FRANK (2014)

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Jon, a young wanna-be musician, discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins an eccentric pop band led by the mysterious and enigmatic Frank.

I have heard so many great things about this film and the quirky aspect of the story appeals to me. I have to say that Michael Fassbender‘s casting intrigues me most as he spends 99% of the movie wearing a giant papier-mâché head. Thankfully, that part wasn’t just a silly gimmick, but there’s an intriguing story behind it.

The film took its time in revealing what the story is with Frank (Fassbender) and why he refuses to reveal his face. Yep he even sleeps and shower with it, which drives Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) bonkers with curiosity. In fact, since the story is told from his perspective, we identify with Jon in how he feels about suddenly being thrown into this quirky mix of people. Frank is an enigmatic figure to be sure, but he’s actually the most likable personality of the entire band who pretty much treats Jon like dirt. I get that he had to earn his place in the band, but still, the contempt was quite uncalled for.

FRANKmoviestillsIn the first two acts, we pretty much spend time with the band as we witness their creative process in a remote cabin in Ireland. It’s full of quirky moments, some works and some don’t, and plenty that leaves me scratching my head. But it’s the third act where things sort of goes off the rails. As it turns out, Jon has been posting their recording sessions online and been tweeting about it constantly. Somehow that got them an invite to South by Southwest and it’s here that we learn just what’s really going on with Frank. The third act at SXSW is where I felt that the film went off the rails a few times, though the finale did reveal more about the main character in a way that still surprised me.

I have to admit that my initial response to this movie by Lenny Abrahamson was not overly positive. I was left irritated and frustrated by the pacing, the mostly unlikable characters and how sometimes the weirdness seems more gimmicky. I’m a big fan of Maggie Gyllenhaal, but here her character seems to go out of her way to be utterly unlikable. That sex scene is absolutely mental and I have to admit, it’s a bit revolting. But the more I think about this movie and read some articles on it, I appreciate it a bit more. Props to Fassbender for giving such a nuanced performance without the use of an actor’s main asset – his facial expression. Aside from Gleeson, who’s got a natural charm about him, Fassbender is truly the star here.

FRANKmoviestillThe story’s so much more than just about music, but more of the creative process, as well as a commentary about true art vs commercialism. The use of social media here is interesting too in how that could give people a false sense of fame and notoriety. I wish I had been as invested in the story however, the only time I found most emotionally involving was the finale. There are intriguing and memorable moments throughout, but I’d say that the movie itself is less than the sum of its parts. If you’ve been curious about this one though, I’d say give it a shot.

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Have you seen FRANK? Well, what did you think?

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