September 12, 2014
New Movie-O-Meter: Love is Strange, The Drop, & More | Ticket

September 12, 2014
TIFF14: Toronto fest scans year's best

September 10, 2014
TIFF 14: Day 7

Number of Films: 1
General Vibe: A Grand Conclusion

While We’re Young: I close the festival this year with Noah Baumbach’s ode to generational synergies, which is very funny, keenly observed (as they say) and wonderfully constructed. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as a relatively content married couple in their 40’s, who come to befriend a pair of Brooklyn hipsters (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), and begin to emulate the wild, unrepressed freedom the younger couple represent. Baumbach, who is fully capable of crafting superior films about quite loathsome characters, here keeps things mostly light and (only slightly bitter) sweet. The film is essentially about the captivating essence of youthful frivolity, and the ways we’re all better off as adults not heeding its siren song too recklessly.

And with that, I bid a fond adieu to another TIFF experience. Toronto, we had some differences over the past seven days — why can’t you figure out how to cook anything properly?! —but on the whole, it’s been a marvelous time. Until we meet again, mon frère. 

September 10, 2014
TIFF14: Day 6

Number of Films: 3
General Vibe: Middling to Spectacular

Cake: Jennifer Anniston gets her Charlize Theron on in this wry drama from Daniel Barnz. She plays a car crash survivor named Claire, who is having to live with the chronic pain (of various kinds) as a result of the wreck. Helping her through her troubles are her devoted housekeeper (Adrianna Barraza, in a wonderful performance), and the hot Aussie husband (Sam Worthington) of her fellow-support group friend (Anna Kendrick) who recently killed herself, but haunts Claire in her pain pill hallucinations. The film takes a few very risky narrative and tonal maneuvers, not all of which work, but it’s a good vehicle for Anniston.

99 Homes: The foreclosure crisis in Florida comes front and center in the latest flick from Ramin Bahrani (whose last film, At Any Price, was a major disappointment). It stars Andrew Garfield as a hard-working contractor, whose home gets foreclosed on by a villainous real estate mogul played by Michael Shannon. Garfield turns in another winning performance, and it’s great to see Shannon get to play a verbose firecracker for a change, but the film’s plodding sermonic dogma gets in the way of their performances.

Two Days, One Night: The best film I’ve seen at this year’s festival, and it’s not terribly close. It comes from the brilliant Belgian Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre & Luc), whose work always shimmers with plainspoken elemental human truths, and this film is a brilliant addition to their oeuvre. It stars the mesmerizing Marion Cotillard as a working-class mother, just returning to work after a bout with depression, only to find her boss has held a vote with her co-workers to keep their bonuses at the expense of her job. She is given one weekend to change their minds or be laid off. Deceptively simple in its execution, but positively stunning in its effect: It’s as honest and true about the human condition as Bicycle Thieves.

On the eve of this most glorious film festival in the year of our Lord, two-thousand-and-fourteen, I am once again poised to plunge into a madcap seven-day binge of films, long lines, occasional star sightings (and a few interviews) and the avoidance of anything resembling a burrito in this town. 

September 8, 2014
TIFF 14: Day 5

Number of Films: 3
General Vibe: In strong; out whimpering

Foxcatcher: A shoo-in come Oscar-time, and it might just win more than a couple. Based on the true (incredibly peculiar) story of billionaire scion Jon Du Pont’s brief and ultimately completely psychotic obsession with becoming the “coach” of an Olympic gold-medal-winning wrestler. It stars a much prosthetized Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Olympic gold winning brothers Mark and Dave Schultz; and a stunning turn by none other than Steve Carell, who turns Du Pont into the scariest kind of creep, one that feels fully entitled to their psychosis. It’s a fine piece of work from director Bennett Miller.

Cub: Boiling hot premise in this Belgian horror flick, but only tepid execution dooms this bit of gory silliness to a life of VOD in the U.S. The set-up has a group of Belgian cubscouts on an overnight camping trip in some very spooky woods, populated by a strange, dirt covered wild-child in a wooden mask, and his fully sadistic handler, who loves building deadly booby traps and watching their inevitable result. With a bit more of an effort, this could have been a lot of fun, but some weak writing, and a tendency towards fulfilling the expected needs of the genre keep it pretty toothless.

Eden: Mia Hansen-Løve’s film follows the career trajectory of the French DJ considered most responsible for creating his country’s take on garage/house music, a style that first became wildly popular in the mid-to-late ’90s. While the film has earned some serious plaudits from other critics here in Toronto, I found it long, inexpressive, and ultimately pretty tedious. Essentially, an excuse for a really killer soundtrack — if you’re into that French garage kind of thing. Admittedly, I would not be the target demo for such a picture, but I happened to be sitting next to a group of twentysomething French women, and half their group got up and left during the film, so there’s that.

On the eve of this most glorious film festival in the year of our Lord, two-thousand-and-fourteen, I am once again poised to plunge into a madcap seven-day binge of films, long lines, occasional star sightings (and a few interviews) and the avoidance of anything resembling a burrito in this town. 

September 8, 2014
TIFF 14: Day 4

Number of Films: 2 (but one was 5.5 hours, so cut me some slack)
General Vibe: High Contrast

The Reach: Easily, the stupidest and most clumsy would-be thriller I’ve seen all year. It stars Michael Douglas in one of his singular rich, smarmy asshole roles, and someone named Jeremy Irvine, who is meant to lead M.D.’s character on an illegal big-horn hunting expedition in the desert, but instead gets turned into, um, the prey. Maybe you’re thinking that sounds like an okay premise, maybe I’m just getting on my high-horse and being a snooty critic and maybe I just hate action movies (thank you, Ray Liotta!). You’ll just have to take my word on it: It’s bloody awful.

From What Is Before: Another epic lament about his country by Filipino auteur Lav Diaz (in attendance tonight, but said only he hoped we brought blankets and pillows for the screening). It stands as a walloping 338 minutes, but what’s more remarkable, he needs every single one of them for the story he’s telling — essentially the end of Filipino culture as existed before President Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law decree in 1972. Elliptical and slow-paced, the film carries with it the full weight of a country’s faded history.

On the eve of this most glorious film festival in the year of our Lord, two-thousand-and-fourteen, I am once again poised to plunge into a madcap seven-day binge of films, long lines, occasional star sightings (and a few interviews) and the avoidance of anything resembling a burrito in this town. 

September 6, 2014
TIFF: Day 3

Number of Films: 3
General Vibe: Noir Elation

The Drop: A watchable Dennis Lehane vehicle! Color me stunned. Though actually, to be more accurate, you are there to see another spectacular performance from Tom Hardy — who plays a kid so Brooklyn, he’s practically got Coney Island mustard pumping in his veins — and, maybe, to see the late, great James Gandolfini in one of his last ever performances (certainly one of the last times you’ll get to hear him say “fuck” a bunch of times). The film itself is one of the gritty, urban dramas that Lehane always pens, but because it’s from a short story and not a movie, the plot actually hangs together reasonably well. Is that enough cheap Lehane shots for one night? I think so.

Nightcrawler: As dark and dank as The Drop might get, it doesn’t hold a candle to Dan Gilroy’s relentlessly pungent, faintly satiric, acid-wash thriller. Featuring a Jake Gyllenhaal so gaunt and creepy, you might never see him the same way again: He’s like a rabid, sociopathic raccoon. The film revolves around his character’s attempt to break it big in the overnight TV news gauntlet, racing to the scene of accidents, murders, and other bloody tragedies to grab footage to sell to the local network affiliates. But what it’s really doing is presenting a character study of a perfectly hateful, wholly unsympathetic man finding his perfect career destiny.

The Theory of Everything: As this film has been embargoed until later this week, all I’m allowed to say here is that it’s based on the memoir by Dr. Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife, which covers their quite remarkable romance and time together as he slowly became more and more incapacitated. It stars Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, and Charlie Cox and was directed by James Marsh. Um, I’m glad I saw it…?

On the eve of this most glorious film festival in the year of our Lord, two-thousand-and-fourteen, I am once again poised to plunge into a madcap seven-day binge of films, long lines, occasional star sightings (and a few interviews) and the avoidance of anything resembling a burrito in this town. 

September 5, 2014
TIFF 14: Day 2

Number of Films: 2
General Vibe: Dirge-like

Force Majeure: A drama with the faintest elements of sardonic humor thrown in the mix, Ruben Östlund’s film concerns a family’s eventful ski trip to a hotel high in the French Alps, where a near avalanche leads the husband to ditch his family and run to safety, revealing the deep divide between both the patriarch’s real and reported self and the married couple themselves. A shade long, but gorgeous and deeply affecting.

Leviathan: A Russian drama from Andrei Zvyagintsev, which took home the best screenplay award at this past spring’s Cannes festival, the film is dark, moody and impressively impenetrable, much as its doomed characters and blustery ocean countryside. Not an uplifting film by any means, but beautifully shot, impeccably acted and philosophically challenging.

(Note: Had every intention of seeing Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice, which features Liev Screiber and Tobey Maguire as Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer respectively, detailing their epic chess show-down of the early ’70s, but TIFF decreed this particular screening an industry affair, with very limited tickets available to the critical faction. I will attempt to go next week, instead.)

On the eve of this most glorious film festival in the year of our Lord, two-thousand-and-fourteen, I am once again poised to plunge into a madcap seven-day binge of films, long lines, occasional star sightings (and a few interviews) and the avoidance of anything resembling a burrito in this town. 

September 5, 2014
TIFF14: Day 1

Number of Films: 3
General Vibe: Unsettled

Mr. Turner: Mike Leigh’s film, about the landscape and marine British painter J.M.W Turner, doesn’t try to take the man’s life and reduce it to hoary cinematic poignancies, rather, it goes for something a good deal more complex and affecting: By bringing us snippets of his last twenty or so years — long after he’d been established as a great painter, and long after he deserted his aggrieved family — and keeping them firmly in their own context, we get a sense of the man just as his considerable powers are on the dwindle. Superior filmmaking.

Clouds of Sils Maria: Speaking of fine filmmaking, Olivier Assayas’ new film is a wondrous mix of philosophic drama, meditation on aging, and the grand sweep of the Swiss Alps. It stars Juliette Binoche as an aging-but-still powerful actress, who spars with her affable assistant (Kristen Stewart, whom I swear you will learn to love again), and another hot, young movie actress (played, unsurprisingly, by Chloë Grace Moretz), even as she starts to comes to understand her slackening hold on the world’s zeitgeist.

It Follows (pictured): Lo-fi creeps from David Robert Mitchell, who takes sexual paranoia to a whole other level. The film follows the saga of Jay (Maika Monroe), a sweetly pretty 19-year-old who has a fateful sexual encounter that leaves her being pursued by horrific phantoms, visible only to her. The only escape? Passing this horror on to another unsuspecting soul by sleeping with them. With echoes of ’70s masterworks (it is not just coincidence, we imagine that Mitchell shot his film on suburban streets so reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween) and a strong sense of pacing, the film is both immediately jumpy and lastingly eerie.

On the eve of this most glorious film festival in the year of our Lord, two-thousand-and-fourteen, I am once again poised to plunge into a madcap seven-day binge of films, long lines, occasional star sightings (and a few interviews) and the avoidance of anything resembling a burrito in this town. 

September 4, 2014
TIFF 14: Day 0

On the eve of this most glorious film festival in the year of our Lord, two-thousand-and-fourteen, I am once again poised to plunge into a madcap seven-day binge of films, long lines, occasional star sightings (and a few interviews) and the avoidance of anything resembling a burrito in this town.

This year, my TIFF preview piece will run tomorrow on arkansasonline.com (I’ll post it here then), but I assure you its chock-filled with another batch of superb-sounding films — both foreign and domestic — and some palace intrigue with respect to TIFF’s new tough-sounding laws and mandates regarding the world premiere of some of their films. This year, while the NYFF has stolen some of TIFF’s thunder with three of the most anticipated films of the fall premiering (those would be David Fincher’s Gone Girl, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, and P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, for those keeping score at home), there’s still plenty to take in here — and hopefully admire.

Speaking of said line-up, I need to make one last whining rant on this subject, and I promise I will forevermore keep quiet going forward: TIFF always tends to front-load their screenings towards the first four days of the festival’s opening weekend — it’s when all the stars are in town, with their resultant glitter, and the entire city seems alive with the promise of celluloid and stardom — but this year, in particular, it’s ludicrous. For various work-related reasons, I’m contractually obligated to see certain flicks and certain times, but whatever screening you choose, there are a batch of movies you won’t be able to see as the times all overlap and conflict with each other. Thus it is, that on this one Thursday alone, I will be missing the Cannes Palm d’Or winner (Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s Winter Sleep), one of the more anticipated films of the festival (The Dardennes bros.’ Two Days, One Night), another highly celebrated Cannes favorite (Pascale Ferron’s Bird People), and new films by such varied auteurs as Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), Lav Diaz (From What Is Before), and Marjane Satrapi (The Voices).

Mind you, I’m not looking for sobbing sympathy on this score, I’ll still get to see some wonderful (sounding) films, but it does sort of kill me that I’m going to have to miss so many films I was hotly anticipating. It’s the trade-off you have to live with at such festivals, but it’s still painful.

In any event, much like last year, I will be posting daily updates each evening as I drag myself back to my hotel room, recapping the films I’ve seen along with a quick thumbnail sketch impression of each one. Unlike last year, I’ll be simultaneously posting these over on Philip Martin’s excellent arts blog, Blood, Dirt & Angels, so if you feel like a change of decor, please feel free to check them out over there. Avanti.

(photo courtesy societatesicultura.ro)

August 30, 2014
Movie Meter: Eric Rohmer's 'A Summer's Tale' | Ticket

August 30, 2014
Yet Another One Bites the Dust: 'The Calling'

August 29, 2014
Textbook spy intrigue makes November Man an easy mark

http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2014/aug/29/like-shooting-spies-in-a-barrel-2014082/?f=entertainment-movies

August 22, 2014
Film Review: Are You Here

Dir. Matthew Weiner
Score: 2.0

In a time where Indie directors are looking for ever more elusive sources of financing (hello, Kickstarter!) and studios seem reluctant to write checks for anything that isn’t a) from a graphic novel, or b) from a YA book, the fact that Matthew Weiner, the creator and show-runner for “Mad Men,” must have cashed in his considerable cache as the visionary for one of TV’s great dramas of the last decade.

Consider that cache thoroughly spent: His new film, a flimsy comedy of sorts concerning a pair of stoner buddies and a large family inheritance, might well go down as one of the worst films of 2014.

To begin with, despite Weiner’s extensive TV writing and show-running background, it’s shocking how illiterate and clumsy even the most basic details of his film can be. It’s one thing to pull off the delicate balances and nuances of a given scene between actors, but Weiner can’t even seem to do the most basic tasks — blocking, say, or framing a scene — remotely competently. It lends an aura of amateurism to the whole affair, and not the good kind, like you might find in student films and ultra low-budget numbers. It’s so bad it brings to question whether Weiner was actually at the helm or trying to set up scenes while simultaneously on his phone, story-boarding the final season of his TV show.

The story is equally weak and contrived. There’s Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), this charmingly vapid weatherman on a local news station, you see, who loves seducing ladies, spending money he doesn’t have, and getting righteously stoned with his best (only?) friend, Ben (Zach Galifianakis), a misbegotten, half-crazed introvert, who lives in a hovel and writes furious notes for some insane book concerning the Rwandan genocide being a call to arms for vegetarianism (and if you think that joke sounds in poor taste, you haven’t even begun to suffer the film’s brutal witlessness). When Ben’s wealthy father suddenly dies, he bequeaths a small amount of money for Ben’s sister, Terri (Amy Poehler), a money-grubbing churl; everything else of the considerable estate to a stunned Ben; and, by request, nothing for his ridiculously young and beautiful wife, Angelina (Laura Ramsey), at roughly 32 years old, some 45 years younger than her late husband.

Somehow this state of affairs boils down to a power struggle by Terri to claim pitiful Ben — whose first idea for the money and the farm in Lancaster, PA is to start a sort of anti-technological center in order to re-educate the world — as mentally incompetent and to take over the family market in town in order to turn it into some sort of super-sized grocery store. Gradually, Ben comes to realize that he is, in fact, pretty far over the edge, and he dutifully starts taking mood stabilizers prescribed by his shrink in order to normalize himself.

Steve, meanwhile, busies himself with convincing his friend to stay stoned at all time, seducing women wherever he wanders, and trying to establish a sexual relationship with his best friend’s stepmother. And this is where Weiner really loses the thread of whatever it was he had in mind: Not only does Angelina develop “feelings” for Steve, even though the smarmy stink of opportunist oozes from his pores like swamp gas, she also develops a curious thing for poor Ben, who goes through a dizzying number of metamorphoses before finally settling on becoming an unenlightened schlub, well on his way to a dull, loveless marriage and a life of rudimentary pointlessness.

About the time Steve rushes back to the farm to embrace Angelina during a sudden, flash thunderstorm, you start to question Weiner’s own sanity: Is he trying to make a satire of such romantic comedy notions? There’s nothing overt in the script to confirm it, but the sheer idiocy of all the characters and their bedraggled motivations (seriously, this script wouldn’t have even made it through a first-year screenwriting workshop without being eviscerated) suggest he simply must have had something else in mind.

Even giving him the vast benefit of the doubt on this one — and, frankly, the skill and verbal dexterity he’s shown on seven seasons of Don Draper, seems as far away as Finland from here — there’s still the matter of his inept filmmaking that leaves his movie struggling to make a simple lick of sense.

In the end, Ben is reformed — and seemingly on his way to complete obsolescence with a bland, middle-aged mother (Jenna Fischer); while his best friend is living on his farmland with his stepmother in perpetual love, an outcome that neither one of them even remotely deserves. Whether Weiner agrees with that assessment might never be known for certain, but Don Draper had been this poorly drawn a character, his show would never have seen the light of day.  

August 22, 2014
Film Review: Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

Dir. Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
Score: 4.3

You’ve got to give the Sin City franchise this much at least: It plays like a souped-up brand machine for its various well-known actors. Both films lean heavily on casting known stars in what might be considered their most obvious signature roles for its dark, dank protagonists and twisted villains, thus Mickey Rourke plays a giant brute with a soft spot for the underdog named Marv; Josh Brolin plays a tough-guy everyman, smitten by the wrong black widow at the wrong time; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a slick kid with a smarmy smile and a luck streak a mile long; Eva Green plays a femme fatale par excellence, toying with the various men under her considerable lusty power; Powers Boothe plays a smirking senator, evil to the core, and abusive of his considerable power; and Jessica Alba plays an ungodly beautiful stripper, whose lithe sexuality barely hides a fully broken heart.

Part of the success of the first film — equally dark and violent but a good deal more effective — was watching those few actors (Elijah Wood, Clive Owen) who spun out from their noir syllogisms and actually had something resembling fun playing against their type. This sequel, coming nine long years since the first title, feels a good deal more harsh and surface — something of a problem when the film’s mise-en-scene relies so heavily on the work of graphic artist (and co-director/writer) Frank Miller.

It’s a similar effect to what Zack Snyder has almost exclusively relied upon: Actors working mostly in front of a green screen, so all the dark, seedy streets, towering festering buildings and comic-like raining backdrops can be added in post. Done well, and it can closely resemble the comic its so desperately trying to emulate; done poorly (Mr. Snyder), and it’s like a wildly overdone photoshop job of a family portrait, with every face glistening too perfectly and the shadows melting none-too-believably into a scrim of visual hyperbole.

Much like the first film, Rodriguez and Miller attempt to weave several of Miller’s pithy short stories together, but unlike the first, which had a unifying thread or two to help unspool your possible objections, this film feels far more scattershot and unsatisfying. Marv takes out a group of college frat boys who get their kicks lighting winos on fire; Hot-shot Johnny (Levitt) blows into town in a vintage car, looking to score big at a local poker game run by the evil Senator Roark (Boothe), and runs afoul of the man after cleaning him out; the hapless Dwight (Brolin) gets played for a fool by the evil temptress Ava (Eva Green), and plots a singular revenge; while lovely Nancy (Alba) schemes to have equally rabid revenge on Roarke for her own reasons, finally enlisting the aid of quite literally her biggest fan.

There is a lot of hyper-stylized violence — the blood shots tend to be of the CGI splatter variety — with many balletic decapitations and gruesome bullet entry wounds, and plenty of smoldering sexuality (there might not be 30 consecutive seconds of screentime for Green before she’s either fully nude or draped in a see-through nightgown), but none of it has any kind of emotional impact. It’s too nihilistic and downright silly to be taken as anything more than a particularly bloody comic strip in what must be the most depressing daily newspaper ever sold on a newsstand. You can understand why actors of this caliber would flock to the production — the films are practically a calling card for them — but, at least in this case, the association isn’t really doing them any favors. 

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