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La La Land

This is a beautiful film about love and dreams, and how the two impact each other.

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Jackie

There are two movies in "Jackie." One of these movies is just OK. The other is exceptional. The first one keeps undermining the second.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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CIFF 2009: The winners! And our reviews

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Tina Mabry's "Mississippi Damned," an independent American production, won the Gold Hugo as the best film in the 2009 Chicago International Film Festival, and added Gold Plaques for best supporting actress (Jossie Thacker) and best screenplay (Mabry). It tells the harrowing story of three black children growing up in rural Mississippi in circumstances of violence and addiction. The film's trailer and an interview with Mabry are linked at the bottom.

Kylee Russell in "Mississippi Damned"

The winner of the Audience Award, announced Friday, was "Precious" (see below). The wins came over a crowed field of competitors from all over the world, many of them with much larger budgets. The other big winner at the Pump Room of the Ambassador East awards ceremony Saturday evening was by veteran master Marco Bellocchio of Italy, who won the Silver Hugo as best director for "Vincere," the story of Mussolini's younger brother. Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Filippo Timi won Silver Hugos as best actress and actor, and Daniele Cipri won a Gold Plaque for best cinematography.

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VIFF: Chinese motorcycle tattoo mob story

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The tong hackman is a little orange-blonde tattooed biker, most often dressed in a pair of black shorts, sandals that match his hair, and nothing else. He picks up a girl who has split with her motorcycle-riding boyfriend and becomes the Poutiest Girl in the World. They shack up on his father's land in a one-bed structure covered with a clear plastic tarp. She throws tantrums and torments him. There is a lot of drinking, smoking, fishing and cell phoning. He attacks his business with methodical professionalism, hacking and beating those who can't pay their debts to his boss. A gang of others arrive with machetes to take their revenge. Things get hot, and the boss tells him to get out of town to Guangzhou and hide out for a while. But what about the girl?

That's a basically accurate plot description of Yang Heng's "Sun Spots," a striking Chinese film that received its world premiere here at the Vancouver International Film Festival. But now let me come at it from another direction entirely....

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TIFF #1: Darwin, Herzog, the Coens and the Antichrist

I've just finished combing through the list of films in this year's Toronto Film Festival, and I have it narrowed down to 49. I look at the list and sigh. How can I see six films a day, write a blog, see people and sleep? Nor do I believe the list includes all the films I should see, and it's certainly missing films I will see. How it happens is, you're standing in line and hear buzz about something. Or a trusted friend provides a title you must see. Or you go to a movie you haven't heard much about, just on a hunch, and it turns out to be "Juno."

Nicolas Cage in "Bad Lieutenant"

I can't wait to dive in. Knowing something of my enthusiasms, faithful reader, let me tell you that TIFF 2009's opening night is a film about the life of Charles Darwin. The festival includes the film of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." And new films by the Coen brothers, Todd Solondz, Michael Moore, Atom Egoyan, Pedro Almodovar, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Alain Resnais and Guy Maddin--and not one but two new films by Werner Herzog. Plus separate new films by the three key talents involved in Juno: The actress Ellen Page, the director Jason Reitman, and the writer Diablo Cody.

Okay, I've already seen two of those. They were screened here in Chicago (Page as a teenage Roller Derby in "Whip It," Cody's script for "Jennifer's Body," starring Megan Fox as a high school man-eater, and that's not a metaphor). I already saw more than ten of this year's entries at Cannes, including Lars on Trier's controversial "Antichrist," Jane Campion's "Bright Star," Gasper Noe's "Enter the Void," Almodovar's "Broken Embraces," Bong Joon-Ho's "Mother," Lee Daniels' "Precious," Mia Hansen-Løve's "The Father of My Children," and Resnais's "Wild Grass." A lot of good films there. Not all of them, but a lot.

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A precious American girl, a Japanese love doll, Iranian rockers, and a Korean vampire

May 15, 2009--The most gutsy, powerful film I've seen here so far is without doubt "Precious" by African-American director Lee Daniels. "Precious" already had its world premiere at Sundance in February, where it was greatly acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. If the comments I've heard today are any indication, it promises to be an even bigger success in Cannes.

Based on the novel Push, by Sapphire, "Precious" is the story of a Harlem teenager who is severely abused by her mother, habitually raped and twice impregnated by her father, and treated like garbage by just about everyone in her life. The one thing Precious's abusers don't succeed in killing is her imagination, and for instance, while being raped, in her mind's eye she sees herself making a grand entrance at a film premiere. The pictures in her photo album talk to her, and this large, awkward girl looks in the mirror and sees a beauty queen with cascading blonde hair. This is not a preachy film, but one that grabs you from beginning to end as Precious comes back from the edge of desolation to discover the immovable force of her own willpower.

After seeing "Precious" last night at an invitational press screening, this afternoon I attended the press roundtable interview event with director Lee Daniels, screenwriter Damien Paul, and actors Gabourey Sidibe, Mariah Carrey, Lenny Kravitz, and Paula Patton. It was held at the outdoor restaurant Beach VitaminWater, which I can't say without laughing. Typical of these events, a lavish lunch is served, and the talent is brought in.

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Bordwell Does Vancouver

Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell at the 2006 Overlooked Film Festival. (photo by Jim Emerson)

The Vancouver International Film Festival is now underway: 300+ films in 16 days (September 28 - October 13). Be sure to check out dispatches from the fest from David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson on their new blog!

From David's initial VIFF entry: The festival is particularly strong in Asian cinema, programmed by the indefatigible Tony Rayns; the festival also gives the “Dragons and Tigers��? prize to young Asian filmmakers. It was while serving on that jury last year that I came to fall in love with this festival. There are over 40 Asian programs this time, including Ann Hui’s "My Postmodern Aunt" (starring Chow Yun-fat), Tsai Ming-liang’s "I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone," and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s "Hana" (his last film was the very touching "Nobody Knows"). A special treat is Bong Joon-ho’s "The Host," already a cult monster movie that has Hollywood studios fighting for the remake rights.

Vancouver is also very strong in Canadian cinema, as well as documentary, experimental, and international work. Like all great festivals, it’s actually several festivals in one: No way you could see everything you want to see. It was so exciting last year that I determined to return and try to see even more new films.

Festivals are important to us film lovers, because you want to keep up with creative work being done all over the world. Living in the US makes it hard, because so many wonderful films–sometimes masterpieces–don’t get released theatrically. Marketing a film in a country as large as the US requires massive amounts of money, and many interesting films just won’t attract a big enough audience to pay back costs. Also, I’m afraid that some Americans are narrowing their tastes in movies, so that they won’t give a “foreign film��? or a “little movie��? a chance. Festivals exist to do just that.

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The business of controversy

CANNES, France -- Quentin Tarantino, Charlize Theron, Tom Hanks, Michael Moore, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Shrek are converging on this balmy Riviera resort town today, and there may be trainloads of striking French show-biz workers to picket them. The 57th Cannes Film Festival is open for business.

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Giants return to Cannes

CANNES, France-- Forty-one years after his "Breathless" swept in the French New Wave and helped herald the modern era of filmmaking, Jean-Luc Godard is back at the Cannes Film Festival with a new movie. The onetime enfant terrible is now 71, and the 1960s "film generation" that marched under his banner is old and gray, but his very presence inspires a certain trembling in the air as the 54th Cannes festival opens. The giants are back in town.

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A place in the Sun

PARK CITY, Utah How long has it been since I saw a film that was really scary, instead of just going through the motions of scary? Most horror films are merely exercises in ritualized surprise, but a low-budget film titled "The Blair Witch Project" shook up Sundance Film Festival audiences with its gathering sense of menace.

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Toronto film fest entry gets even grosser

TORONTO, Canada -- One week after the gross-out comedy "There's Something About Mary" reached No. 1 at the box office, here's Cameron Diaz back again in an even grosser movie - one that makes "Mary" look positively tasteful by comparison."Very Bad Things," which had its world premiere this weekend at the Toronto Film Festival, tests the limits of what a general-audience picture can contain. Although my review will wait until the movie opens, word will be quickly spreading from a capacity crowd that was urged by writer-director Peter Berg to shout at the screen: "Hit it back! It can take it!"Diaz has a supporting role, as a 27-year-old who is focusing obsessively on her upcoming marriage. Most of the movie involves a Las Vegas bachelor party and its aftermath, as her fiancee (Jon Favreau) is joined by his buddies (Christian Slater, Jeremy Piven, Daniel Stern and Leland Orser) in a wild booze-and-drugs orgy that ends with them burying bodies in the desert. And that's only the start of the very bad things.It's not the story that's startling, really, but the gruesome, violent tone. The events in "Very Bad Things" could occur in lots of different kinds of movies, but Berg seems intent not only on pushing the envelope but slashing and burning it.The question occurs: Is Hollywood going to get involved in a race to outgross itself? There were those who were offended by "There's Something About Mary," but at heart it was a romantic screwball comedy, and it got away with murder because it was really, truly funny. A movie doesn't climb to the top of the box-office charts in its eighth week unless the word of mouth is extraordinary: Moviegoers are obviously telling their friends about it, and taking them to see it at theaters that shake with laughter.If laughter can redeem borderline subject matter, one wonders how much laughter it will take to redeem "Very Bad Things," which involves mayhem so gruesome it upstages the previous record-holder, "Shallow Grave," especially in the vivisection and burial department. There are racial themes sure to make audiences uncomfortable (two of the victims are black and Asian; several of the heroes talk much of their Jewishness). And although the later stages of the movie relax into somewhat more conventional slapstick, the Vegas scenes seem inspired by gore and slasher movies more than by comedy.Will this mixture work at the box office? I heard a lot of laughter and some applause at theToronto premiere. But, less obviously to be sure, I sensed that many audience members were watching in thoughtful silence.What a contrast was "After Life," the new film by Japan's Hirokazu Kore-Eda, whose "Maborosi" was one of the best films of last year. The new film has a premise that sounds simplistic, but the film reaches surprising emotional insights.It's about a way-station between this world and the next, where the newly deceased are asked to choose one memory that they wish to preserve. The memory is then re-enacted and filmed by the way-station staff, and after viewing it the visitors move on to the next level of the afterlife, with only that one memory left to them.What will the newcomers choose? What will it mean? How will their choices affect the staff members? The movie takes its seemingly sentimental premise and uses it to examine how memory works selectively to interpret our loves to ourselves."I expect the total transformation of their lives the moment they get on the bus," declares a Manhattan tour bus guide named Timothy (Speed) Levitch, in a weirdly infectious new documentary by Bennett Miller named "The Cruise." Levitch clears about $200 a week improvising into the microphone as he conducts tours, or "cruises," informing and amazing his Gray Line passengers with such information as, "You are five blocks from where Dorothy Parker died of alcoholism and despair."Levitch is a cast-iron original, with his adenoidal voice, blinding sports coats, unruly mane of curly hair and flat-footed gait. He seems utterly confident about who he is and what he does, but an oddness creeps in, and we suspect there's more to the story. He seems to be projecting his entire psyche onto the city and the tour.Here he is on architecture: "I identify with the anger and inferiority that some of the smaller buildings feel." Louis Sullivan's terra cotta Manhattan skyscraper is, he feels, orgasmic, and he describes its sex life in detail. Of the Brooklyn Bridge, he says, "Eleven people have jumped off this bridge and survived. One of my cruising dreams would be to get those people together on a cruise."He became a tour guide, he explains, "to meet and seduce women." That's why he rebels at the requirement that he wear the Gray Line's official uniform, a red shirt: "You are not ever gonna get lucky in a red shirt."

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