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!

David Mamet Double Feature – Part 2: Spartan (2004)

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Greetings all and sundry!

DavidMametThis is the second part of the David Mamet Double Bill. If you missed it, check out the review for The Spanish Prisoner (1997) from last month.

Spartan begins without fanfare in the hills and forests of what could be Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Bragg, North Carolina or Benning, in Georgia. As a group of elite multi service elite “candidates” endure day long, often changing exercises for selection into Delta Force. Overseen by a quietly confident Val Kilmer in.

SPARTAN (2004)

SPARTAN2004PosterMr. Kilmer’s “Been There. Done That” pedigree as Master Gunnery Sergeant, Robert Scott seems to be something of a lower tier celebrity at the event. And is sought out by Ranger candidate, Curtis (Derek Luke). And Marine Recon candidate, Jackie Black (Tia Texada), whose specialty is knife fighting. Might keep them in mind. Should the need arise.

That need arrives soon after a telephone call to Scott to be at a certain back road intersection to await a helicopter. To who knows where? Which turns out to be Boston. For a meeting with the Presidential Secret Service detail. A few nameless. faceless political fixers and the President’s Press Secretary, Burch (Ed O’Neil). Who is not long on details as to the current snafu of the men assigned to protect the President’s step daughter, Laura (Kristen Bell) screwed up their shift change. And created a window of opportunity for the Harvard student and wild child a chance to slip away to taste some of Boston’s night life.

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The responsible agent is interrogated and left alone for a moment. Time enough to dig out his his back up piece and take his own life. A major scale altercation ensues with lots of finger pointing and arguments, As Scott is taken aside by Burch and basically given Carte Blanche to track down, find and return the errant daughter.

Scott agrees and slips into a Secret Service uniform jacket and tracks down the few leads available. An older professor. And a rather flaky boyfriend. The boyfriend is braced trying to break into Laura’s mailbox and reveals little. Except that Laura had bleached her signature red hair and headed solo to the seamier, less friendly clubs in town. Scott returns to brief Burch as Curtis shows for backup. Burch gives Scott and Curtis forty eight hours to perform this minor miracle before Laura is noticed missing from classes Monday morning. And a press conference will be required.

The two head off to one club to talk to the bartender. Then the owner, Jerry. Who has better things to do past closing time. Scott exits. Waits and confronts Jerry. Bounces him off a chain link fence. Then a Dumpster, before breaking his arm to get the proper response to Scott’s monotone, “Where’s the girl, Jerry?”

It seems Laura left with some other girls to a down low brothel with connection to human trafficking. Burch tightens up the timeline. Should Laura’s bleach job start revealing red roots. And the bad guys finally figure who and what scale political leverage wedge has been delivered unto them.

Scott, Curtis and a detachment of agents raid the joint. Separate the girls. Corner the madam and gets more leads to follow. A call from a pay phone is traced to an unlikely location. To a beach house in the Hamptons used as a way station for selected chattel. Scott and Curtis arrive down beach from their objective. Scouting ahead of a larger contingent. Curtis takes a sniping position as Scott finds an entrance to the tumbled down shack. Scott finds three armed bad guys. Two Russian. One Middle Easterner. Curtis takes out one through a window. Scott wounds the others and another twist is added. The girl is missing, but left evidence of her being there. Has either been sent, or is en route to who knows where?

Further investigation reveals a name as well. A Lebanese national name Tariq Asani. Who’s in federal custody on kidnapping and sex trafficking charges. And is due for re location along with a felon facing lethal injection. Some heavy duty sleight of hand in the form of a faked gas station robbery allows Scott to off the annoying and useless con facing the needle. Worm himself into Tariq’s confidence in exchange for the prisoner’s sudden freedom. And come up with a final location. Dubai.

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Burch and company are briefed in on Scott’s progress. And Scott heads off to the Hamptons to ask some questions of family staff and house keepers. Finding pay dirt with divorced, older wife and Laura’s mother (Deborah Bartlett) and her Secret Service protector, (Anne Morgan). Who reveal that her husband used Laura’s being at Harvard as a cover for his sexual proclivities. And pulled the protective detail off his step daughter!

Armed with this ammunition. Which could easily upset an upcoming election. Scott is dissuaded by continuous news reports of The First Daughter and professor drowned while sailing off Martha’s Vineyard. Submerges deep off the grid. Wisely spends a large cash advance to recruit Sgt. Jackie Black. Arrange for their transit to Dubai. And the delivery of a large shipping container as a Base of Operations. Plus a chartered flight out to Paris. Before making a final attempt to bring his principal back.

I’ll leave it right here to retain the integrity of spoiler territory.

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

Certainly one of Mr. Mamet’s “busiest” projects. With changes in location too many to mention. Though with a core cadre of character actors doing more than holding their own. As they talk around the problem(s) and objective(s) at hand with some, but not an excessive amount of the writer’s trademark profanity. Chief amongst them, Ed O’Neil and Mr. Kilmer. With the former adding dry gravity to his words. While the latter adds occasional humor to offset by his matter of fact, intimated, sometimes intimidating use of force.

It’s also intriguing to see the ingenuity, coordination and wherewithal of the invisible alphabet soup of the military’s vast covert operations capability. Which can dialed up and brought to the fore. With very few being any the wiser.

Cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia shows a flair for medium range and occasionally shadowy close ups. Taking advantage of Boston’s grimy offerings, And tight, claustrophobic and forgotten back rooms. Then flipping the script with tight and crowded, dusty, sweaty sand stone California sets substituting for Dubai. Solidly backed up by lighting, electrical, sound and stunt crews too numerous to mention.

What Makes This Film Great?

A solid and well detailed look and feel (With the aid of former Arny Command Sergeant Major and Delta operator, Eric L. Haney) at what would later evolve into CBS’s and Mr. Mamet’s television series, ‘The Unit’. With Val Kilmer leading the charge admirably before basically falling off the map. Basically playing someone who is not a “thinker” or “arranger”. But a “shooter”. The guy those in charge send out to negate obstructions and fix things. Hopefully, without accumulating too many arrows in his back!

And in this arena. Mr. Kilmer excels. With a straightforward attitude. Sometimes offset with a dash of charm when required. Backed up by a solid percussion. brass and synthesized soundtrack led by Mark Isham to twist tension through the tale’s compact 107 minutes.

Spartan2004_BillMacyVery high marks also for Mamet stalwart, William H. Macy. Who excels as political Presidential protector, Stoddard. Who doesn’t make his presence known until the film’s final moments. But the wait is well worth the effort!

Author’s Note: Spartan is available in its entirety on YouTube. As well as associated clips and interviews.


Check out Jack’s other posts and reviews


Agree or Disagree? The Floor Is Open For Discussion.

TCFF Day 5: ‘The Sessions’ Review

The fun fest continues for MN film lovers. I love the eclectic schedule of TCFF, mixing tiny-budgeted MN films with studio-backed films of various genres. Today we’ve got a regional premiere of a character-driven drama that’s been getting some Oscar buzz, and so far it has won the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize at Sundance.

The Sessions

In one of the scenes in the film, the paraplegic Mark O’Brien called a university to inquire for someone in a Sex and the Disabled department, only to be told that the said department has closed down. That seems to be the general attitude of people—and Hollywood for that matter—on such topic, so it’s quite intriguing to see a film that tackles that subject head on but with care and wit.

Based on the autobiographical writings of Berkeley-based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, the protagonist played by John Hawkes has spent most of his entire life in an iron lung, a form of medical ventilator that enables him to breathe as his muscle control has been lost due to polio. One day he expresses his wishes to a priest of his local parish that he wants to ‘know a woman in the Biblical sense.’ The reaction of Father Brendan (William H. Macy) is quite hysterical, mostly because as a priest, he’s clearly not equipped to advise anyone on such matters, which makes for a hilarious yet heartfelt interaction between the two. With the priest’s blessings, the next thing Mark sets out to do is find a sex surrogate, a form of sexual therapy in which the therapist actually has sex with the patient in their ‘sessions.’

That’s when Cheryl (Helen Hunt) comes into the picture. After an awkward introduction where Mark sort of treats her like a prostitute, Cheryl firmly informs him that there’s a major distinction between that and her profession. ‘A prostitute wants repeat business, Mark, we don’t,’ she asserts, ‘and the maximum number of sessions we could have is six.’

The Sessions is a dramedy as there’s a good amount of both drama and comedy, but fortunately director Ben Lewin handles the delicate subject with care, and perhaps him being a polio survivor himself helps him present an insider perspective on someone dealing with that condition. Now, even though the sexual scenes are not vulgar or uncouth, they’re presented in a matter-of-fact manner, which means there’s an ample amount of nudity, perhaps more than what I’m usually comfortable with. I realize that the explicit sex and nudity scenes are meant to illustrate someone who’s comfortable with her sexuality and doesn’t see sex as a shameful act, but I feel that perhaps a little of that would still go a long way.

Despite all the sexual activity in the film, the film is more about Mark’s emotional journey as much as his physical one. What Cheryl did is more than just help him lose his virginity, she also helps Mark experience the emotional intimacy that he’s longed for all his life. I love how she values him as a beautiful human being, instead of just a patient, which in turns helps with his self image. There’s a scene where they both are having coffee and she has no qualms about pretending that Mark was her husband. Mark’s reaction is heart-wrenching. It’s just one of the many testaments of the resilience of the human soul shown in the film.

John Hawkes should get an Oscar nomination for his physically-challenging role, being confined to a bed/stretcher the entire film. He could only act with his facial expressions and boy did he pull it off beautifully. Every little tick and facial muscle communicates so much, plus he has such a charming and sweet presence on screen, Mark is never devoid of wit, thanks to the sharp script, also written by Lewin.

Helen Hunt gave a fearless performance as Cheryl, she effortlessly strips down not only physically but mentally as well, as the therapist became just as affected by the sessions as the patient. For someone nearing 50, she still has an amazing figure, though like many actresses in Hollywood, she seems to have become the victim of the Botox fiasco as her face just looks like it’s been pulled back way too tightly.

I LOVE William H. Macy in his droll comedic role as Father Brendan, his deadpan expressions as he listens intently and patiently to Mark’s graphic retelling of his um, sexual escapades is wickedly funny. In fact, every time he shows up on screen, the theater practically erupts in laughter. I’m also impressed by Moon Bloodgood (doesn’t she have the best name in Hollywood or what?), who plays against type as Mark’s assistant. I remember her in Terminator Salvation as a sexy, bad ass girl fighter who falls for the cyborg Marcus, but this understated but sympathetic role shows that she definitely can act.

Like I’ve alluded to before, I do feel that the nudity aspect is perhaps a bit overdone, it just seems over-indulgent to me. Fortunately, despite some uncomfortable scenes, I find this film emotionally engaging and wonderfully-acted. Kudos to Ben Lewin for crafting this touching story about a seldom-discussed subject and injects it with equal humor and poignancy. There is a clear message about living life to the fullest despite one’s physical limitations, but there’s also an underlying theme the transformative power of love and acceptance that a sex act alone cannot achieve.

4 out of 5 reels


Thoughts on this film and/or any of the actors? Well, let’s hear it!

DVD Pick: Maiden Heist

Maiden Heist DVDMy friends and I saw this movie on Halloween night. Since nobody’s keen on watching a horror flick, we stumbled upon this one as we’re browsing the Redbox site. The biggest draws were the main actors: Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman and William H. Macy. You’d think that with names like those it’d be a dark drama or intense thriller, but the fact that it was billed as a comedy was even more of a draw.

Here’s the gist: Walken (Roger), Freeman (Charles) and Macy (George) play three Boston art museum security guards who, over the years, have become attached (or obsessed to be more accurate) to the artwork they protect. Upon learning that their beloved pieces are being transferred to a Denmark museum, they concoct a plan to “steal” them so they don’t have to part with them.

Macy, Freeman & Walken the trio of museum thieves
Macy, Freeman & Walken – the trio of museum thieves

With not much going on in their lives, they spend their days staring into their beloved paintings, or in the case of ex-military George, it involves saluting a nude ‘bronze warrior’ statue in the exact same pose. So yes, Mr. Macy is definitely very, very proud of his athletic physique as we get more than our fair share of seeing him in the buff. The caper mission undoubtedly give the three new-found friends something to live for. It’s a crazy and ludicrous idea, and we’re on for a ride to see how — or if — they can pull this off.

The Die-Hard-ish opening sequence made me think this was going to be an action-packed film, but after that sequence ends, the movie moves along at a rather sluggish pace, save for the last 15-20 minute of the ending. But despite that foible, the movie is still comical and entertaining because of the excellent cast. They’re all in top form, even if the script is far from perfect. In fact, they make the most of the thinly-written characters they’re given into something well worth-watching.

It’s such a hoot to see Walken plays an average, low-profile husband who loves & even submits to his demanding, high maintenance wife (Marcia Gay Harden in a rather over-the-top performance). He usually plays such an eccentric or even freaky kind of roles, so it’s nice to see him play a ‘real’ guy, though still not without his quirks. It’s such a pleasant surprise to see Freeman’s goofy side as the skittish and somewhat effeminate Charles. Gone is the respectable and judicious wise man we’re accustomed to see him play, and the actor seems to be having fun relishing in his comedic flair. Bill Macy also delivers a terrifically wacky performance — a lot of the time sans clothes — that deliver the funniest bits in the movie (no pun intended).

The scenes of the three of them together are the most fun to watch. There’s the hilarious scene involving a physically-demanding military-like practice led by George, which makes their plan look even more dubious. I also love the part where the three of them sit on a bench in a park with Charles holding a big cotton candy whilst the paranoid & delirious George gets all jumpy about someone finding out about their secret plan. The heist itself is quite fun and genuinely suspenseful. The moment when George almost gets discovered by a security guard in the warehouse that sends the already fidgety Charles into a state of frenzy is downright funny.

Charles & George in a top-secret rendezvous

But these great moments are underscored by how uneven the whole movie is. And the biggest problem for me is that the whole thing lacks momentum to build the audience’s excitement throughout. There are times when it dragged on and on with not much pay-off to justify it. Nonetheless, the performances of these three actors made it a worthwhile flix for me, especially if you enjoy caper-type comedies.

On a side note, I learned that this movie went straight to dvd with no theatrical release. LA Times pondered how three Oscar winners equals to one straight-to-video movie. “It’s why I always end up wondering each year what happened to some of the delightful little movies I saw at the Toronto Film Festival that never ended up seeing the light of day.” Which reminds me to another Chris Walken flix, a musical, I happen to catch at TIFF that also never made it to theaters: Romance & Cigarettes. Directed by John Turturro who introduced the film — apologizing for showing such a raunchy film at 11 o’clock in the morning — it boasts an even more impressive cast: James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Mandy Moore, Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken. The MGM/Sony studios legal mess was reportedly the culprit, which goes to show that not only is it challenging to make a movie, but to get it in front of the audience can be an even trickier battle.