Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sean Penn On Directing, On Directors, On Actors Trying to Direct

Into the Wild opens Friday, September 28, at the Ritz Five and Showcase At the Ritz Center in Voorhees, NJ. It's beautiful, sad, funny -- an elegaic open-road odyssey about a college kid, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who takes off on a vagabond journey across America, winding up in the Alaskan outback.

Here's director Sean Penn talking about a few of the directors he's worked with, directors who have influenced his approach to filmmaking:

"Terry Malick, Clint Eastwood and Alejandro González Iñárritu probably all were influential in terms of the process. You know, Terry Malick’s movies, from a young age, reminded me of how I see life, and so I would say that in the visual scheme of things that we resonated … in the family of Terry, of course, that would for me be quite a nice family to be a part of. Or aspire to be part of.... Terry might have shown me that it was legal in film to tie the fabric of the story together in a way that I had responed to in his movies. [His movies] represented the way that I dreamed, in a sense."

Here's Penn on the stigma of being a movie star who wants to direct (doesn't everybody?), after acknowledging that Into the Wild is on a scale, and scope, that his first three films never got near.

"Some of that represents the way the business works. The very first film I tried to get done as a director had a huge scope to it. But you’re viewed as an actor who wants to direct movies, and then you’re a kid, with a leather jacket on and a cigatette in your mouth, and they can’t quite conceive that you may know how to tell a story….

"And then, after that, you kind of self-limit, you approach projects that are on a scope of something you might be able to get done. Finally you say `F--- that. It’s not their fault that they don’t trust you. Why don’t you commit to this f---ing thing and tell the story that you want to tell, the way you want to tell it?' And what happens then is that you get more support."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

TIFF07, Day 5.

Monday, September 10. Not sure how folks stick it out for the whole run of the festival. After just four days of non-stop movies – about war, heartbreak, the ugly things people do to one another, about love, about movies themselves – I’m beginning to feel a little psychic bruising. Not to mention physical bruising – jostling crowds, long lines, feet stepped on by folks whispering apologetically as they make for the restroom midway through a film…. well, never mind.

But then you see something like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and none of those petty complaints matter. In fact, you feel shameful even thinking of such minor discomfort and inconvenience. An adapatation, in French, from the Brooklyn-born artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, of the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, this film is revelatory, crushingly sad and also a testament to the will and infinite possibility of the human mind. Bauby, the gadabout editor of the fashion mag Elle, suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed head to toe – the only thing he could move was one eye, one eyelid. With the help of a devoted team of physical and speech therapists, Bauby learned how to “speak” through that eye, blinking when someone called out the letter he needed to spell a word, then the next letter, and then stringing one word after another, in order to communicate – and in order to write. Schnabel shoots, in turns, from Bauby’s POV (with his perfectly lucid, cynical, desperate thoughts and unheeded retorts to the queries of nurses, doctors, lovers, friends) and from the perspective of those working with, or visiting him. Mathieu Amalric plays “Bobo” – seen in flashbacks as the successful Parisian publishing exec flanked by fashion models, a father of three, a devoted son to an infirm old man (Max Von Sydow) – providing the voice-over narrative and, for much of the movie, the lumpen form of a quadripelegic. If all this sounds unendurably hard to watch, it’s not: visually it’s dazzling, playful, full of sublime collages of images, color and light. And some of it is very funny. Dark funny, but funny. The sound of weeping was audible in the theater as Diving Bell moved along…. And if there are gripes about the fact that all the women in the film – the nurses, the mistresses, the therapists – are too beautiful to be real, well, remember, Bauby’s whole world was about beauty, and so too Schnabel’s (have you seen pictures of his wife, Olatz?) Cut the guys some slack.

Next: Margot At the Wedding, from writer/director Noah Baumbach, of The Squid and the Whale. Nicole Kidman is a screwed-up, passive-aggressive, somewhat well-known New York (and New Yorker-published) fiction writer who brings her young teenage son along to attend the backyard marriage of her sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at the ramshackle beachfront family home. Full of cutting comedy, bitter sniping, absurd tragedy, dysfunctional relationships, and boasting a performance from Jack Black that ISN’T annoying and full of shtick (a first!), Margot doesn't hang together like Squid, but Kidman and Leigh are amazing together. And so’s the kid who play’s Margot’s son – Zane Pais. Like Baumbach’s first picture, this one shows a real affinity for the painful plight of adolescents dealing with the follies and cruelties of adults. And did I say it was funny? Dark funny, but funny.

Interview James McAvoy, who plays the star-crossed Robbie Turner in the Oscar-bound adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 1930s and 1940s period piece, Atonement. He’s in a room at the Park Hyatt, guarded by the Focus Features publicists, and he’s got boxes of cold-medicine and pitchers of orange juice laid out on the coffee table. (Uh-oh, remember to wash hands as soon as interview’s over.) McAvoy, who went from playing a traitorous fawn in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to a young doc who befriends Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and had Starter for 10 out earlier this year, is a Glaswegian, and his accent is thick and burry. He talks about his pre-acting jobs as a teenager (one: at a confectionary baker’s, putting icing on cakes); he talks about having tested opposite Keira Knightley way-back for another role which he didn’t get (he won’t say which film) and then testing opposite her again for Atonement. He talks about the amazing 5-minute-long uncut steadicam shot, set on the beaches of Dunkirk during World War II, that comes midway through the Joe Wright-directed film. Since Atonement, McAvoy's done an action film in Chicago and Prague with the madman Russian director of Nightwatch and Daywatch , Timur Bekmambetov. It's called Wanted, with Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman.

Then it’s down to what’s now called the Scotiabank Theater, but used to be the Paramount, a block-long, sky-high megaplex in the middle of Toronto’s entertainment district….. Extremely odd to see a French film – a Catherine Breillat French film, Une Vielle Maitresse, full of unclothed, copulating bodies – on a screen that’s bigger than anything in the Philadelphia market, in a theater that’s absolutely packed. Think Transformers at the King of Prussia 'plex and then some: that's about the scale this pic, which will be coming to the Ritzes, is being experienced on. This is a public screening: festivalgoers munching on popcorn before Asia Argento, playing a nutjob Spanish sexpot in 19th century Paris, strips down to seduce the young Brando-looking rake in this peculiar study of jealousy, desire and fussy manners. Breillat suffered a stroke before she shot Maitresse, and she needs assistance to walk to the stage, and to hold "le micro” as she introduces the film to the appreciative crowd. Not everyone's so appreciative by the time it’s over, but that’s another story.

Monday, September 10, 2007

TIFF07, Day 4

Sunday, Sepember 9. Have to see Elizabeth: The Golden Age for a scheduled interview with Geoffrey Rush (Sir Francis Walsingham), and after waiting on a long, winding, wholly unnecessary line (the new TIFF “Priority Press” system blows – especially if you’re NOT priority press), get in and get to see this grand-looking sequel to the Cate Blanchett Oscar hit. Grand-looking, but full of kerplunkingly lame speeches and dopey lovemaking montages. The love is being made by Clive Owen (Sir Walter Raleigh) and Abbie Cornish (the Queen’s first lady in waiting), as Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, aches inside, longing to love the dashing plunderer of the New World but not being able to do so. Something about a war with Spain and having to decapitate Mary, Queen of Scots. (That’s Samantha Morton, not looking anything like Ian Curtis’ wife in the Joy Division movie, Control.)

Catch the first 15 minutes of an Austrian-German futuristic existential thing that I’ll never have to review because it will never get U.S. distribution so I don’t feel guilty about cutting out on it. Silent Resident it’s called, and it’s set in a self-contained, Big Brother-maintained housing complex where the drone-like residents are prone to jumping off their balconies in fits of umlauts and angst.

Down Bay Street to the Sutton Place, where TIFF has a splendid Internet room for press and industry, with about 40 flat-screen Macs and folks taking a break from deal-making and film watching to check their respective German, French, Japanese and Swedish G-mail accounts. I go up the stairs 5 flights (forget the elevators here) and talk to Amir Bar-Lev, the director of My Kid Could Paint That, about (then-) 4-year-old Marla Olmstead, a preschooler whose abstract canvases started selling in the five-figure price range. The subject of a brief media hoopla, and a 60 Minutes debunking, Marla and her folks remain something of a mystery – intentionally, and intelligently so -- in Bar-Lev’s fascinating doc. The Sony Pictures Classics’ release isn’t simply an investigation into the authenticity of Marla’s work (did her dad actually do them, or coach her?), but a thought-provoking look at the world of abstract art, the relationship between a reporter and his/her subject, and, just for the heck of it, the nature of truth.

Really good film from Man Push Cart’s Ramin Bahrani. This one’s called Chop Shop and is likewise set in New York: in Queens, in the shadow of Shea Stadium, in a squalid block or two of dubious auto body repair businesses. It’s about an enterprising 12-year-old kid (Alejandro Polanco), parentless and homeless, and his 16-year-old sister (Isamar Gonzales) and how they get by, working, thieving, dreaming of owning their own food truck. The press and industry crowd stays throughout, and offers much-deserved applause as the credits roll.

Then it’s Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, a psychedelicized musical with a Beatles songbook and a colorful, choreographed cartwheel flashback to the tumultuous late 1960s, when Vietnam and the Martin Luther King killing and hippie kids dropping acid and cops beating on protestors – when all that happened. And when Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr gave us Sergeant Pepper. I have to write the review pretty much as soon as I get back to Philly on Wednesday. Won’t be easy. I am not the walrus.

Then it’s dinner with some NY and Philadelphia folks. And then it’s decision time: Lars and the Real Girl, or Atonement?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

TIFF07, Day 3

Saturday, September 8 Weird not getting up, getting coffee, and going straight to the Varsity or Cumberland for an 8:30am first screening of the day, but I have back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back interviews from 10:30 to 5pm or so, so no movies for me, just movie stars. First up, Juliette Binoche, talking about Disengagement and Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge, and about the other 20 movies she seems to have made in the last year. Well, a few less than that, but impressive number, including new Eric Zonca(The Dreamlife of Angels guy) and the Steve Carell/Peter Hedges studio filck, Dan In Real Life.

From the Sutton Place Hotel to the Four Seasons, where, on the sidewalk, a crowd of celeb-gawkers stand well-behaved behind barricades, hoping to spot stars (Clooney! Pitt! Affleck! Charlize!) as they de-limo into the lobby. The lesser-known Affleck, Casey, is first up: he’s Robert Ford, the assassin, in Andrew Dominick’s Days of Heaven-ish The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Brad Pitt is the legendary outlaw, and it’s a slow-moving, poetic, beautifully shot affair. Affleck is easygoing, smart, and the conversation is OK, considering he’s been at this for days, and that the army of studio publicists managing print and TV media for three pictures (Assassination, The Brave One and Michael Clayton), come and go, speaking into their walkies, thumbing their Blackberries. Two whole floors of press junket ridiculousness.

Time for quick lunch, then back to the same hotel where I ride up in the elevator with tall, chiseled-mug French actor Vincent Cassel, recently the villain in a couple of Hollywood thrillers, and here for David Cronenberg’s super, bloody, Russian mobsters in London pic, Eastern Promises. The doors open onto a floor of Warner Bros. flackery, with Ben Affleck standing idly in the hall (waiting for his brother, I guess). (Ben’s Mrs., Jennifer Garner, is in town too, with the much-buzzed teen pregnancy comedy comedy, Juno) Tilda Swinton, who plays a coldblooded coporate lawyer in Tony Gilroy’s jaw-droppingly good Michael Clayton, welcomes me into her suite, drolly saying adieu to her little coterie of bright-eyed, brainy-looking pals – a troop of fellow Brits dressed in chic hippie garb, a kind of Incredible String Band-look, by way of Fashion Week. Swinton, tall and regal, is dauntingly smart, articulate, amusing. I ask her if she could tell that Michael Clayton was something special as she was doing it. She could, and she cites a few others where she had a similar feeling (Orlando, The Deep End). She happily announces that she’s skipping out on Film Festival business tonight to catch Bjork, in concert on some nearby Lake Ontario island.

Next: Sean Penn, kicked back at the Park Hyatt, sporting sharp black shoes, a sharp black suit, open-collared white shirt, a muss of hair, a pencil mustache – and an air of satisfaction (but not smugness) at having produced a pretty great movie: Into the Wild, Penn’s scripted and directed adaptation of the Jon Krakauer non-fiction bestseller. Emile Hirsch stars as Chris McCandless, the college kid who quits town, cuts himself off from family and friends, and hoboes it across America, ending up alone, living in an abandoned school bus in the Alaskan outback. It’s an epic road movie, an odyssey of self-discovery and spiritual and earthly musings, and it’s heartbreaking, beautiful and full of rich performances (Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener, Kristen Stewart). I ask Penn, who’s made three smaller pics since he took up directing in the early 90s, if he showed Into the Wild to directors he knows, and has worked with, to get feedback as he was editing. He had: here’s his list of mentors and pals: Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Paul Thomas Anderson, Clint Eastwood.

Then it’s downstairs and upstairs to another floor for a talk with Hirsch, who Penn discovered in the L.A. skateboarding thing Lords of Dogtown, and who is friendly and funny and chomping on granola bars as he discusses losing 40 pounds over the course of the project, kayaking river rapids, and clambering up big hills with 80-something Holbrook and throwing up from the hike and the heights of it – not Holbrook throwing up, he was fine. Hirsch did the vomiting. The 22-year-old California kid segued from Penn’s old-school Into the Wild to the Wachowski Brothers new-fangled Speed Racer, which Hirsch says is “all green screen” – just him and a car and a Christina Ricci and a few other folks walking around a Berlin studio, with super-cool digital landscapes to be filled in later. Total contrast is style and substance and movie-making philosophy. Hirsch couldn’t be happier.

Finally get to see a movie: Takeski “Beat" Kitano’s Glory to the Filmmaker,a totally goofy meditation on moviemaking and movie genres by the deadpan Japanese director/star. Spoofing his own work in gangster pics, and his countrymen’s fondness for sappy love stories and Ninja action pieces, Kitano wanders from genre spoof to genre spoof accompanied by a life-size papier-mache likeness of himself. By the time this strange and funny thing is over, there have been totally surreal space movie sequences, pop-eyed animation, rock and rollers with huge prosthetic phalluses, cosmic explosions, Japanese Jerry Lewis-like slapstick, and a girl and her mother journeying through time, space and a Sumo wrestling restaurant brawl in the company of goose and giraffe hand-puppets.

Lets call it a night.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

TIFF07, Day 2

Friday, September 7.It’s 6:30am, and the barrista at Starbucks, a nice Torontonian in her 50s, sees my TIFF press pass and wants to know what I thought of The Brave One. She was at the opening night gala premiere, and says Jodie Foster’s a sure thing for another Oscar. Later, on line for the public screening of Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge, two women chat about their plans for the weekend, pull out a stack of tickets for the coming week’s selections and exchange views on the work of Im Kwon-tack, the Korean director. Then they’re on to Edward Norton, who’s shooting The Hulk around Dundas, nearby. Torontonians know movies the way Philadelphians know sports – no wonder actors and filmmakers love coming here.

First up is Caramel, which had some people wowed at Cannes and which is a very pretty, light-infused study of female longing and friendship -- written, directed by and starring the light-infused Lebanese beauty Nadine Labaki. It’s set in a hair salon, where the owner and her coworkers fluff and curl and shampoo, sharing secrets about their love lives and supporting each other when things get rough. An old, solitary woman in the neighborhood has a nutty obsession with paper, picking up scraps and documents everywhere she goes. Is this the future that awaits them?

Then it’s the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Phew! Set in 1980 Texas (and a key bit in a Mexican border town), this tale of drugs, money and killing with Tommy Lee Jones as a third generation Lone Star state sheriff and Javier Bardem as a creepily twisted, lethal sociopath, is gorgeous, spare, haunting. Best thing I’ve seen so far, far-and-away. Josh Brolin is taciturn and terrific as a kind of modern-day western loner, out for himself (but also looking out for his wife, played by Kelly Macdonald), who stumbles on a suitcase full of $100 bills – and tumbles into a mess o’ trouble. The jolting, graphic, wide-eyed violence is hard to take, but it means something – it’s not the Looney Tunes bloodshed of Shoot ‘Em Up. A return to form and then some for siblings Joel and Ethan.

No time for lunch, just a quick ride down Bay Street to the Ryerson Theater, on the city campus of Ryerson College, where the queue winds around the block for the aforementioned Ballon Rouge. Luckily, promo-people with bags full of free O Henry Pro’s walk by handing out the chocolate nut bars. (Now if somebody would just come along with free BLTs, chips and soda!) This is my last chance to see the film before talking to Juliette Binoche tomorrow. It’s Hou Hsiao-hsien’s homage to the French children’s classic about a boy and his balloon, and likewise it’s set in Paris. Binoche plays a harried actress who lends her vocal talents to a master Chinese puppeteer while her son walks around with his new nanny (a young Chinese woman studying moviemaking), and now and then a big red balloon hovers nearby. Long, improvisatory and full of sweet humor and mystery. Binoche trots out before the screening to take a bow and tell the audience how making Ballon Rouge was a "life changing" experience. It’s midafternoon and she’s wearing a ghastly black and white gown (there, my couture criticism), but manages to be charming and funny and Binoche-y nonetheless.

Pick up a ticket for the 6pm public showing of Disengagement, this one back at the Varsity – the indoor multi-level shopping/screenplex where most of the press and industry screenings take place. Juliette Binoche is in this one too (last year she had three films at the festival), playing a messed-up French gal whose father has passed away, an event which brings her Israeli French half-brother (Liron Levo) back to town, and sets off a trip to Gaza, in search of Binoche’s long-abandoned daughter, now a teacher on a kibbutz. This is an Amos Gatai movie, and it’s full of musings about borders, national identity and the confusion and dangers of religious and ethnic branding. It’s overstuffed, digress-y, art-y, but full of powerful moments, and a brutal, chaotic final-act sequence involving the forced removal of Israeli settlers from a Gaza homestead.

Friday, September 07, 2007


Thursday, September 6.

Arrive midafternoon. They’ve moved the Film Festival headquarters a few blocks down busy Bay Street from where it’s been located the last 3 or 4 years, so a lot foot traffic in a new direction. The city has always embraced the fest wholeheartedly, and this year’s no exception: Shops sport banners and window displays with TIFF tie-ins, restaurants and cafes have special signs; my favorite, though, is the table of books at the front entrance of Indigo (a Canadian Borders-like chain). The sign says “Option Me,” inviting producers and directors (and independently wealthy spec script-writers?) to nab such presumably unaquired literary properties as William Boyd’s Restless (the WW2 spy thriller/mother-daughter portrait could actually be a great film), Dinaw Mengetsu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bars, Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, by the great graphic novelist Chester Brown and Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, among about 30 titles.

First film: Slingshot, or Tirador, part of the Contemporary World Cinema program. And jeez, this is part of the contemporary world I don’t really want to see (why didn’t I go to that French guilt-trip pic about the war in Algiers?), but I stick it out: Shot with a jumpy, hand-held digital camera and set in the grim squalor of a Manila shantytown (open sewers, open sex, open shooting-up, open thievery, babies lying unattended on the ground), the film offers a verite ramble among the squatter set: a young woman scamming money for new false teeth; a trio of robbers; a bicycle cabbie in arrears on paying for his machine, and, of course, slimeball local politicians. Philippines filmmaker Brillante Mendoza knows how to move through the crowds (he should try his mini-cam at the corner of Bay and Bloor), but Slingshot suffers from a lack of narrative tension, basic storytelling, and acting (the cast is pretty much all off the street). It’s hard stuff.

The short that preceded Slingshot, called “The Shock Doctrine,” is hard stuff, too: Naomi Klein and brothers Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron equate 1950s emergence of electroshock therapy for patients with schizophrenia to global mega-crises like war, natural disasters and 9/11. The seismic economic and political changes that emerge after such events are never an accident, posit the filmmakers.

Next up: Control, a biopic of Ian Curtis, the young, brilliant, Bowie-influenced singer/songwriter/frontman of the short-lived late 70s Manchester band, Joy Division. A beautiful first feature by the Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn (he photographed Curtis and his mates back in the 70s), it’s a sad tale (Curtis hung himself at 23), but smart, funny and powerful, too. Sam Riley, who plays Curtis, is dead-on and scary, and he and the three actors who make up the band are musicians: they perform for all the movie’s club, concert and recording session scenes. Add Bowie, Iggy Pop, real Joy Division and the Killers to the soundtrack, and, well – where do I get me a CD? There’s also a Joy Division doc at the fest, and a Lou Reed concert film – a picture of Reed is on the wall of the bedroom where the teenage Curtis writes his poetry and song lyrics, smoking cigarettes and miming Ziggy Stardust in the mirror. Samantha Morton, looking like Carol White in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, plays Debbie Curtis, Ian’s widow, and author of the memoir on which Corbijn’s film is based.

That’s it for (half-) Day 1.