TIFF 2014: The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness

11 Sep, 2014 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion, Review, Toronto

Michael Leader catches the highly-anticipated behind-the-scenes documentary The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness, which charts an integral year in the life of Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli…


At Venice last year, one of my highlights was seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, the inspiring, animated engineering epic The Wind Rises, with the festival crowd. This past week, TIFF topped Venice by offering a Ghibli double bill on its very first day of press screenings. How could I resist?

First, I played catch-up with Catherine Bray, who caught The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya at Cannes earlier this year, but the second film was easily my most-anticipated of the festival: The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness, a fly-on-the-wall documentary shot within Ghibli’s walls as both The Wind Rises and Princess Kaguya neared completion.

With unprecedented access and insight, director Mami Sunada was present as both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata put the finishing touches to their final masterworks – essentially the most invigorating, impressive mic drop in animation history – while plagued by looming deadlines, production pressures and their own existential entanglements.

The resulting film is delicate but illuminating, a gift for Studio Ghibli fans to treasure but also a rare document of one of the few studios in contemporary cinema history that have attained the profile and reputation to require such observation. From in-depth interviews with Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki to scenes charting the brainstorming, auditioning and recording of Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno’s lead voice role in The Wind Rises, The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness has much to offer. But it’s in little asides such as charming scenes following around the studio cat, which mimic Miyazaki’s own fondness for finding wonder from different perspectives, that Sunada goes beyond simple behind-the-scenes concerns and creates a documentary that stands on its own.

Frankly, double billing Princess Kaguya and The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness was an emotionally exhausting experience, not least because the documentary manages to capture the Ghibli magic that is jeopardised by the imminent retirement of both Takahata and Miyazaki. A final scene, with Miyazaki staring out of an office window and imagining a chase sequence over the local rooftops – cut to scenes from every Miyazaki film from The Castle Of Cagliostoro onwards – represents a career of making the mundane fantastical in microcosm. Keep an eye out for this one, it’s essential viewing – and not just for Ghibli die-hards.

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TIFF 2014: Love & Mercy

09 Sep, 2014 Posted in: Opinion, Review, Toronto Site Editor Michael Leader indulges his inner music geek with Bill Pohlad’s biopic of Brian Wilson, starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as the influential Beach Boy…


I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little allergic to biopics, especially those focusing on musicians, but something dragged me to Love & Mercy, a biographical drama that homes in on two episodes in the life of influential songwriter and pop soundsmith Brian Wilson.

Both Paul Dano and John Cusack star as Wilson in scenes set two decades apart. In 1966, the younger Wilson challenges the boundaries of popular music and the industry expectations of his group, surf-pop band of brothers (and one cousin) The Beach Boys, with the ambitious Pet Sounds long-player and follow-up single ‘Good Vibrations’. Meanwhile, in the late 1980s, an older, visibly frazzled Wilson is held hostage by his therapist, manager, producer and legal guardian Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, sporting a ludicrous hairpiece), until a car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) takes it upon herself to break Brian free and reunite him with his estranged family.

As pop mythology goes, there’s nothing quite like Brian Wilson’s story. What sets it apart from similar chapters in rock ‘n roll history is not only the drastic decline from inspired genius to broken recluse, but also its uniquely happy ending, which saw Wilson return to the spotlight in the 1990s and 2000s, both as a solo artist (finally perfecting the ‘lost masterpiece’ that was sunk by successive nervous breakdowns, Smile) and with The Beach Boys.

Love & Mercy doesn’t quite do the story justice, but for every clunky sequence of dialogue that sounds copied-and-pasted from a VH1 Behind The Music voiceover (‘I’d like to propose a toast to the highest-selling single by The Beach Boys, ever!’) or pilfered with a wink from Wikipedia footnotes (‘Have you heard the new Beatles?’ ‘You mean Rubber Soul?’), there are qualities that save it from the daytime TV biopic doldrums.

Indeed, the 1960s scenes may include some of writer Oren Moverman‘s worst work, but for what is essentially a dramatic restaging of recording sessions there’s a lot of joy to be had seeing Dano flesh out (literally – with a bit of bulk he more than looks the part) Wilson’s winning way with session musicians and unconventional song arrangements. Director Bill Pohlad really revels in these scenes, revealing Wilson’s process as he incorporated odd sounds into his pocket symphonies and conceptual suites, and the enthusiasm is infectious as you see pop landmarks materialise before your eyes and ears. John Cusack, on the other hand, aims high with a performance that stretches him further than in years, but his mannered, distant Wilson has something of a Rain Man parody about him.

This is by no means a classic, and I still can’t shake the familiar feeling that you’re better off listening to a run of Beach Boys records and reading up on the history than sitting through 2 hours of biopic slush, but Love & Mercy isn’t a bad film. And while Oren Moverman, who co-wrote Todd Haynes’ brilliant myth-drenched Dylan flick I’m Not There, chooses to root this biopic in historical moments, transcendent music and easy sentimentalism, there’s something quite appropriate about that, given the subject.


Five Film4-backed films confirmed for London Film Festival 2014

09 Sep, 2014 Productions Posted in: Festivals, London Film Festival

Film4 is delighted that five of its titles have been confirmed for the 58th BFI London Film Festival, including three UK Premieres.

Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy and Debbie Tucker Green’s Second Coming both receive their European Premieres. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, Yann Demange’s ’71 and Daniel Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy all receive their UK Premieres at the festival.

Sameena Jabeen Ahmed (Actor, Catch Me Daddy) and Daniel Wolfe & Matthew Wolfe (Writers/Directors, Catch Me Daddy) are nominated for the Best British Newcomer Award.

Yann Demange (’71), Daniel Wolfe and Matthew Wolfe (Catch Me Daddy) and Debbie Tucker Green (Second Coming) are included in the First Feature Competition for The Sutherland Award. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy features in Official Competition. Mr Turner will receive a Gala Screening.

Tessa Ross, Channel 4 Controller of Film and Drama, said: “It’s wonderful for filmmakers to be invited to the London Film Festival and we’re thrilled that Clare and her team have selected these great films. The festival has a tradition for backing visionary filmmaking, and this line-up reflects that, once again. We can’t wait for LFF audiences to discover them.”

This year’s London Film Festival runs 8-19th October.

The titles:

The Duke Of Burgundy

The Duke Of Burgundy

Peter Strickland’s eagerly anticipated follow up to Berberian Sound Studio and Katalin Varga explores the intense relationship between two women. The Duke of Burgundy is a dark melodrama about an amateur butterfly expert whose wayward desires test her lover’s tolerance. Stars Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara d’Anna. (Buy tickets)

Second Coming

Second Coming

Debbie Tucker Green’s Second Coming follows a tight family unit navigating their way through family life as it breaks down in the aftermath of an unexplained pregnancy. Stars Nadine Marshall and Idris Elba. (Buy tickets)

Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner, written and directed by Mike Leigh, explores the last quarter century of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner, played by Timothy Spall who won the Best Actor award for the role at the Cannes International Film Festival 2014. Profoundly affected by the death of his father, he forms a close relationship with a seaside landlady. Throughout, he travels, paints, stays with the country aristocracy, visits brothels, is a popular if anarchic member of the Royal Academy of Arts, has himself strapped to the mast of a ship, and is both celebrated and reviled by the public and by royalty. (Buy tickets)



A young British soldier, played by Jack O’Connell, is accidentally abandoned by his unit following a terrifying riot on the streets of Belfast in 1971 in Yann Demange’s ‘71. Unable to tell friend from foe, the raw recruit must survive the night alone and find his way to safety through a disorienting, alien and deadly landscape. (Buy tickets)

Catch Me Daddy

Catch Me Daddy

Daniel Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy follows Laila, a girl on the run from her family who is hiding out in West Yorkshire with her drifter boyfriend Aaron. When her brother arrives in town with a gang of thugs in tow, she is forced to flee for her life and faces her darkest night. (Buy tickets)

TIFF 2014: The Drop

09 Sep, 2014 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion, Review, Toronto Editor Michael Leader reviews The Drop, a new thriller starring Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini…


The pressure at film festivals is to be among the authoritative few who are first to pass judgement on a chosen film, tweeting and reviewing from inside the festival bubble – but sometimes it pays to be patient. This is not only because, in TIFF’s case, you could be seeing upwards of seven features a day, but snap opinions don’t quite cut it with certain films.

So, when it came to The Drop, the English-language debut of Belgian director Michael R Roskam (Bullhead), I decided to let it rattle around in my head a little – or, at least, as much as possible when you’re mainlining cinema all day long.

That it’s still rattling should suggest something of the film’s quality. Adapted from a short story by modern crime scribe Dennis Lehane, The Drop has been shaped for the screen by Roskam as a low-key thriller that builds on Bullhead’s twin focal points of masculinity and the lingering trauma of the past.

This is a delicate, bruised film, set in a Brooklyn neighbourhood that has seen better days. The same can be said about the entire world that Roskam builds, from the worn-out post-financial crisis poverty of the regulars to the bar’s manager, Marv (James Gandolfini), who was once a local big-shot, before the Chechen mafia encroached on his turf and turned him into their stooge, and his joint into a ‘drop’ location for dirty money. The bartender, Bob (Tom Hardy), plays his cards close to his chest and dedicates himself to the daily routine – until he stumbles across a puppy in a trash can and everything changes, bringing into his life a young woman called Nadia (Noomi Rapace) and the looming presence of her ex-boyfriend, Eric (Bullhead’s Matthias Schoenaerts).

The Drop is as understated as its short story origins would suggest, with character detail and dramatic texture taking the place of car chases and action-packed skirmishes, and Roskam has the patience to give both Lehane’s script, which is as warm and funny as it is riddled with unspoken emotional history and foreboding, and the cast, from Gandolfini’s compromised tough guy to Hardy’s subdued introvert, the space to develop into something wholly original.

A somewhat misguided early poster, spotted at TIFF, depicts the famous silhouette of the Brooklyn Bridge with the shape of a 9mm pistol superimposed over its central suspension; they’d be much better off putting their goods up front, and placing Tom Hardy cradling a puppy front and centre.

TIFF 2014: Men, Women & Children

07 Sep, 2014 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion, Review, Toronto Editor Michael Leader reports on Jason Reitman’s ensemble drama Men, Women & Children from Toronto…


Watching Jason Reitman’s latest, the interconnected, internet-themed ensemble drama Men, Women & Children, put me in mind of a video essay created by Tony Zhou, called ‘A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film’. In the video, Zhou looks at how recent films and TV series have started to use a more economical method of expressing typed conversations – think Sherlock’s text-message pop-ups – rather than cutting from fingers on a keyboard to words on a screen. It’s a new frontier for film language, and one that will help incorporate modern technology into the works we see on the big or small screen.

Some of Men, Women & Children’s opening sequences are Sherlock to the max – with perhaps a dash of recent video game hit Watch Dogs for good measure. In a scene at a packed shopping mall, all and sundry are staring into their phones, and the screen is littered with overlays of text messages, app alerts and news feeds. And Reitman doesn’t stop there: this omnipresent digital world affects the way dialogue works, with multiple threads of conversation working across speech and text, sometimes revealing contradictions as school friends idly chat while bitching about each other via SMS.

In another scene, a teenager (Ansel Elgort) spots a notification on Facebook from his estranged mother: a new photo gallery of her on vacation with her new beau. As he flicks through the album, he lands upon more and more images of the grinning couple, until the final image reveals the boyfriend on bended knee, ring in hand. Wordlessly, the boy alt-tabs into popular MMORPG (massively multiplayer roleplaying game) Guild Wars, and types into all-chat that his mom is getting remarried. It’s a small moment, but nevertheless is indicative of the ways that new media has changed the ways we communicate, how we form friendship groups and where these exchanges occur. As a moment, it’s minor, but it is presented without comment or judgement, something rarely afforded to video games (or those who play them) on film.

This new society as Reitman sees it can be exhilarating to watch, but the well-pitched observation goes out the window as the film looks to contrived ensemble drama tropes in its second half. The characters soon become defined by the specifics of their individual plot threads, which in this case all relate to their digital lives: a middle-aged couple (Adam Sandler & Rosemarie DeWitt, both a joy to watch) escape their boring sex life by hooking up with lovers online; a boy finds it impossible to be turned on by his new girlfriend after years of aggressive porn consumption; a mother (Jennifer Garner, tasked with playing the pantomime villain) is so paranoid about her daughter’s safety that she denies her any privacy, going so far as tracking her location and reading (and in some cases deleting) her private messages on Facebook.

These are new expressions of familiar generation-gap stories, and Reitman and co-screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson’s overview approach builds to a grander, melodramatic point, that instantaneous, always-online communication doesn’t change much: people still hurt each other, thoughtlessly and needlessly. An ongoing narration, delivered with delicious enunciation by Emma Thompson, finally pulls back to an existential point, based on Carl Sagan’s comment about the Earth being a Pale Blue Dot, small and insignificant within the galaxy. It’s a zoom out from micro to macro scale that can’t help but feel like a cop-out – making Men, Women & Children seem more like a brief look at texting and the internet in our lives, than a real statement of how they’ve changed the way we live.